Interoception from the Outside

Emma Barnes
3 min readMay 2

I bought a pouch of tobacco today. I’ve been without cigarettes for three days. Sometimes quitting goes well. But today I found myself stuck in a couch, unable to stand. I couldn’t order tasks in my head to perform them. I just sat there.

Autistic catatonia is the psychiatric label. Inertia is the term many Autists use. The psychiatric label gives saline drip trolley, while our label gives “how do we solve this ourselves?” — nothing about us without us please and thank you. More below on what inertia feels like.

So there I was, inert, thinking only “I badly want a cigarette”. I caved and I bought a pouch. Smoking it was no great thing, but something very interesting happened right afterwards. I managed a walk to the sink and filled myself a cup of water. Gulp gulp splash. Then another one. Gulp, gulp, gulp. And another… one and a half litres later I sat down feeling better. I needed a drink of water. Not a cigarette.

Noticing this, something else fell into place. I already knew I smoked cigarettes for the “time” they give my body: as the cravings rise of over the hour or so after I smoke one, I feel the passing of the hour. They bring the encroaching appointments into neuro-somatic relief. I don’t sense the passing of time without them. I knew that. What i didn’t know is that they also solve the lack of feedback from my body — interoceptive dullness. They make me thirsty enough to drink. The feedback from my insides is so mild that cues to hydrate don’t spark drinking. Cigarette throat does. I don’t even know to go to the toilet until it’s too late. Every time. I wet the bed into my teens. The list doesn’t stop there. I don’t know to rest unless everyone around me does so. I don’t know to eat unless it’s the main event. I don’t know to put my fingers in my ears until I melt down completely from the cacophony. Cigarettes at least solve the time and the water problems.

Burning time

None of this would matter in our ancestral environments. Prior to “civilization”, I wouldn’t need to find a bathroom. A shrub would do. Drinking would happen when we found a stream or a waterhole. Food would happen after we spent our five daily hours focused on bringing it to the table. Hyperacute interoception just wasn’t all that important until we civilised.

Emma Barnes

Autistic, trans, survivor, abolitionist @friedkrill on Twitstagram