Stuck In Limbo: Special interests and transitions

The past 16 months have been a constant pile-up of sudden, unexpected, overwhelming changes. Here, I’ll focus mostly on one.

One of the big perks of my flavour of autism is the way music feels, and I just wish I knew how to explain it to other people beyond just listing parts and hoping something sinks in – the strings, the synths, the louder-than-anticipated drums, That Bassline, the intense middle eight, the outro, the outro, the outro. On first listen, Limbo sounds more Daft Punk than Royal Blood. It appeared on my Facebook feed in a difficult time, and it grabbed me – partly because it was so unexpected, partly the combination of upbeat danceable music and darker lyrics at a dark time but mostly that outro. The fade-out is practically begging to be looped, and that I did for most of the following day. Inevitably, it became my virtual-office 3 O’Clock BangerTM. “This is the best thing Royal Blood have ever done,” I told my long-suffering colleagues, excited to share something special from a band I liked an entirely normal amount.

I had other things on my mind, but in hindsight, it must have been obvious then.

A few weeks later, things were looking up – for the first time since the pandemic hit, I had a realistic plan for a gradual move back to London, and it had a huge effect on my mood. Freedom was in the air at last – first the shops, then the world. Fittingly, the video for Boilermaker consists almost entirely of director Liam Lynch doing a lot of cool walks. The riff is practically already a loop, and that only encouraged me to skip back again and again and again and again. Somehow, Royal Blood had managed to release the best thing they’ve ever done twice, and the penny still hadn’t dropped.

When the full album Typhoons was released at the end of April, I downloaded it on waking up and used it to soundtrack my morning run, and the penny still hadn’t dropped. I looped it seven or eight times over the day working from home, and the penny still hadn’t dropped. I’d clearly posted about them enough to have attracted friends’ opinions of the album, which was exciting beyond belief, and the penny still hadn’t dropped.

A few days later, I was waiting for a Zoom call with a friend and I’d found myself watching old Royal Blood live videos and interviews, taking whatever the YouTube algorithm recommended next. And the penny dropped.

Not again.

GIF from BBC Bristol. Brenda, on being told a general election has been called, responds "Not another one!"

I have a long history with band special interests, but I wasn’t expecting a “band I like a normal amount” to suddenly make the leap. Muse were already megastars by the time I was old enough to pay attention, Bastille was love at first sight (love at first Muse support band, in fact!), so it’s strange to instead hear music I’ve listened to for years in a whole new way. Again, I just wish I could show you how it feels. What I can tell you is that in a year that’s emphasised and exacerbated all the worst things about living in this brain, this has reminded me why I’d never swap it out for a neurotypical model.

In many ways, having a new special interest is like having a new crush. The quiet excitement, the failing concentration, wanting to share with anyone who’ll listen, but also not wanting to share in case you’re calling it too early and it fizzles out, but not not wanting to share… Then, there’s the trademark autistic narrow focus. Guitar practice quickly turned into attempting to learn Figure It Out. I’ve discovered multiple new podcasts via the medium of “Royal Blood going on those podcasts”. It took some effort to persuade myself to watch the next serial in my classic Doctor Who marathon rather than continue down the Royal Blood YouTube rabbit hole. It took several weeks to persuade myself to write this blog rather than continue down the Royal Blood YouTube rabbit hole. Anyone who tries to normalise special interests as “what would just be called passions in neurotypical people” should see my YouTube history, and the state of my phone’s “recently played” playlist.

Honestly, the sudden singular focus of a new special interest was also a little unsettling. Partly because I’m very aware that bands are comprised of actual human beings – what I didn’t think twice about as a 14-year-old with a Muse fixation, I’m more conscious of as a 27-year-old previous harassment victim – but partly because at some point I learned that it’s just a bit weird. So much autism literature talks about “repetitive behaviour” (which encompasses so many things – helpful, harmful and neutral – that it can become meaningless) as innately worrying, something to be fixed. So many neurotypical people talk about it as annoying, so it takes a while to persuade myself that it isn’t that annoying. But it’s worth it once I do, because getting tagged in those podcasts is my new favourite type of notification (thank you!), and occasionally they have isolated bits like the Limbo strings or Typhoons backing vocals and I find a new astral plane to join.

There was only one other thing I wanted to think about last month: a “trial run” of living in London for a few days, my first overnight stay in my flat since March 2020. The beginning – hopefully – of a long, uncertain, major transition. Sometimes, I couldn’t work out which all-consuming focus was keeping me awake. But they complemented each other well – as the London trial got closer and the excitement inevitably became anxiety, by some miracle there was something else strong enough to keep me distracted. It’s a really handy accidental coping mechanism, and one which has served me well in the past.

An S-Stock London Underground train

A few years ago, just as I was realising that I probably wanted to move to London permanently after uni, I suddenly got obsessed with the London Underground. Prior to 2017, I had no particular interest in trains. Then, out of nowhere, one of the most challenging aspects of living and working where I wanted to became one of the most fun aspects. I’ve always thought my autism was preparing me for what was to come.

You can’t prepare for a pandemic, or (hopefully) to emerge from it. Like everyone else on the planet, I’ve lost a lot this year – my mental health, my independence, and two grandparents. I’m conscious that one minute I was at my second socially-distanced funeral in five months, and the next minute I was back in the band-special-interest pattern that defined my teenage years. Looking back, every major special interest I’ve had as an adult came alongside a major life change – university, a difficult break-up, London, and now this. Maybe that’s not a coincidence.

The story behind Typhoons is well-trodden by now – Mike Kerr drunk himself into a crisis, got sober, and wrote a surprisingly danceable album about the demons he faced along the way. Much of it was written pre-pandemic, and my own demons are very different, but it was still well-timed just as I was taking tentative baby steps forward.

At the time, I was a little frustrated that my brain decided to become a self-generating joy machine now, when it was already producing joy by itself, and not in the despair of the first lockdown easing (for everyone else) or the bleak first few months of 2021. Maybe, I thought, this was a sign that something in there is working again. Now, I see things differently. Now is a point in time where I have to actively move forward, where I have to find more energy, more resolve, be braver – but the grief is still raw, the pandemic is still very much ongoing, and it’s that time of year when I’m traditionally less-than-100%. Basically, there has never been a more important time to have a self-generating joy machine.

I suspect, to an outsider, this looks less like a new special interest and more like the natural continuation of an existing one in music, as an entity. I think that was probably the case in my early teens, until I settled on Muse. Then Bastille happened, and the only way I can describe it is it felt like I was having an affair. I wasn’t, because band monogamy is literally not a thing, but it might give you an idea of how huge a shift this is from the inside. In the middle of it all, Muse announced a remastered Origin of Symmetry album; of the tracks released already, Citizen Erased sounds better than ever, Megalomania is an entirely different beast, and both of them were hiding an orchestra the whole time. It’s all still there. The balance of the universe survives another day.

I often think of Muse as the one thing I still have in common with my Year 9 self – a reassuring constant when everything else has changed. Doctor Who went supernova in time to become my entire personality at university. A few more transitions later, I’m trying to figure out who I’m going to be in the “new normal” – I can’t just snap back to 2019 when so much has happened, but I can’t stay stuck in 2020 forever either. Re-wiring myself is going to be a long process. So far, I’ve learned that I treat taking new steps as data collection, I’m prone to a giant shutdown if I take those steps too quickly, and I’m really into Royal Blood.

The rest will emerge eventually, but special interests are so often part of phase one.


3 thoughts on “Stuck In Limbo: Special interests and transitions

  1. Pingback: Introduction – An Autistic Guide Through Horror

  2. Pingback: Happily ever after? | Mind the Flap

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