Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Closets, by Jess Glenny

Last year I was diagnosed with autism by a ground-breaking psychologist who is also a foremost advocate for and supporter of autistic women and girls. In parting, she warned me that many people harbour misapprehensions about those of us with autism. She suggested that rather than use the A-word, I could explain, ‘I’m the kind of person who … gets overwhelmed in social situations / functions poorly in bright lights and noisy places / needs a lot of time to process their experiences …’

Well, I’m the kind of person who likes to call a spade a spade, so I went straight to facebook to publish my new status. I also updated my professional website, identifying myself as autistic and welcoming other people on the spectrum to the different opportunities I offer to move, feel and witness. I’m the kind of person who occupies her own territory. So far, I haven’t experienced any sort of adverse reaction. I’m fortunate in the circles I move in and the kind of work I do.

As a queer woman, I was already well acquainted with the issues pertaining to closets, the ins and the outs and the intermediate positions. It’s a dance of complex, improvised choreography, in which we are always on the back foot coming forward. We are the torn out pages in the dominant narrative. ‘Everyone’ is straight, aren’t they? Just as ‘everyone’ is neurotypical, and the onus is on the rest of us to stand up and declare ourselves.

I’ve never had any time for closets. They’re too damn small and claustrophobic. I want to inhabit the full expanse of myself in the world, andI want you to see me doing it. In my view, if I tell you I am queer or I am autistic, and you have a problem with this, you have a problem.

But some closets feel more insidious and more difficult to emerge from, like the one constructed around my relationship with eating, which, from the time I started school up to now has run the gamut of pretty much every form of disorder other than bulimia, and that wasn’t through want of trying. Over the years, the extremes have gradually worn themselves out, along with the consuming guilt and the operatic drama. I know too much to want or to beable to sustain anorexia as a position or to find myself eating white flour and water at two in the morning when all the shops are closed. I used to feel a lot of shame about my crazy, disorderly eating, and now I really don’t any more. But still, I can’t claim even now – even by the fuckaroo standards of the culture I live in – to have a simple, untroubled relationship with food.

Until I started reading women’s first-hand accounts of what it’s like to be autistic, and the penny clattered to the floor, I was always puzzled by the violence and persistence of my eating behaviour. It seemed to be impervious to insight, therapy, mindfulness, moving, drawing, writing, processwork … According to some recent research and to anecdotal evidence, around two-thirds of women and girls diagnosed with an eating disorder also meet the criteria for autism. The driving need I feel alternately to establish control and to smash it apart now feels characteristic of autism and therefore rooted to a large extent in neurology rather than the presumed psychological dysfunction that I have spent so much time and energy trying to identify and resolve.

I don’t have much sense of physical containment. This seems to be the product of both autism and Ehlers Danlos / Hypermobility Syndrome (which affects many, but not all, autistic people), in which there is a deficit of proprioceptive feedback, so it’s hard to feel where I end, to formulate myself into a discrete, impermeable whole and hold all my pieces together. Controlling myself provides a means of encompassing myself and my experience, which often feels overwhelming in amount and intensity. Unleashing chaos offers a way of piercing the tension when it becomes unbearable. This may be a given; it may not be susceptible to change.

Above all I desire to be truly known. At the same time, by virtue of what I do for a living, I’m aware that I am often the recipient of a variety of wide-of-the-mark projections from clients and students who want to believe that a yoga or movement practice is going to beam them up out of the steaming shit heap of their own life. If you are one of those people, I have to tell you frankly that in my experience, practice is more like the fan in the axiom. What actually happens is the shit hits and you get to be more intimately acquainted than you ever thought possible with what comes out of your own arsehole. And this is the thing of beauty, this its very self.

What has tended to happen for me, what offers some loosening and breathing space, is that I have become quite a bit less reactive to my own shit. Because what’s the big deal anyway? We all shit, don’t we? It’s really very human. I haven’t stopped shitting, or being queer or autistic, or being perplexed by my other than shiny-magazine-paper relationship with food. But I feel that in some much bigger picture all of this is OK, just OK.

Since I have written publicly about being autistic, several people in my practice communities have confided privately that they too have a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. I feel sad and dismayed that autism still carries such stigma that the majority of them are unwilling to be openly autistic. So if being an out autistic weren’t vital to me because it’s the way I can be truly myself and clearly seen as who I am, it would still be very, very important because if we each own and speak ourselves, as honestly as we can, in all our dimensions – and especially those of us who are teachers, facilitators and therapists – together we become a body of living, breathing practice that others can be received into. No one has to become more perfect than they already are, and healing can be what I think it mostly is, an expanding sense of acceptance, rather than a surreptitious self-improvement project.

Note: since I wrote this piece, last year, I have been for four months a sober eating disorderly.


Description of Photo and Bio
Ibby asked me to write a bit about myself for this post, so here it is … I’m 51 years old and have changed my sexual identity more times than I’ve had hot dinners. At the moment I’m identifying as an omniverous queer femme. ‘Omniverous’ because I’m attracted to everybody; ‘queer’ because it’s big enough to encompass all my shifting sexual and gender expressions and always seems to fit; ‘femme’ because I’m currently having a bit of feminine renaissance. I was officially identified (I don’t like the D word) as autistic just over a year ago. I’m a moving body teacher, facilitator and therapist based in south-east London. You can read more of my writing at and find out about my movement work at


  1. Fantastic piece of writing, honest and liberating, thank you!

  2. I love reading your blogs - so honest and articulate, often funny, sometimes sad. Inspires me to keep on with my writing. Thanks for posting x

  3. WoW ... Thank you for sharing - I relate to the way you process, and identify with your frankness.
    ... I feel like I just looked in a mirror of sorts ...

  4. Thank you for sharing your experiences and thoughts!

  5. One question for you ... I am AS/HPI and I don't stay in the closet, closet means inside/out. In my world, there is no box. My question is why do you consider labels and why you need them ? Why you must tell what you are and not only be yourself without associating you with a group ?I am myself and do not try to be NT or something else I am not. I try to understand this need to put labels on everything. Human is enough for me.

    1. Some of us have a need to belong to a group. It can get very lonely, being the only person like you. All you know is that you're different from pretty much everyone you know. Knowing you're different, but not how you're different can easily lead to the belief that something is truly, deeply wrong with you, even though it isn't.
      As a personal example, I have gone through phases of being terrified that I might be a psychopath, but the fact that I cared as deeply as I did indicated that I probably was not. I may have called a professional to discuss the possibility, in tears and barely able to speak. With accepting and even embracing my autistic label, I can reach out and find more people who have less common experiences that I've had, and better understand how my own boundaries for things work.