I remember the first time I revealed my depression to another person, and the first time I admitted that I had wanted to commit suicide. It’s not an easy thing to be open about; it’s shameful, and dark, and has the potential to hurt the person you’re talking to quite a bit (especially if they knew you when you were going through it and didn’t open up to them until years later). I’ve found a way to accept it as a part of my story and talk about it now, though, and I hope when I talk about it that I can encourage others who experience it. I have a mental illness, I can say, without being ashamed or guilty. I have been in these dark valleys, and heard these poisoned voices, and felt the dank stagnant breath of despair on my face. If you are there, I can say, where hope seems entirely absent and all light is lost, where you are lost in a pathless wilderness and the very thought of finding a way out seems pointless, I have been there too, and I am a witness that it is possible to return to the land of the living.
Autism has been a more difficult name to claim for myself. While I don’t have a medical diagnosis, it’s not doubt about the validity of the label that stops me; I can see every symptom in my autistic son mirrored in myself, I score well above the cutoff for every ASD questionnaire I’ve ever taken, and it’s evident to others to the point that my husband laughed at me when I told him I wasn’t sure if I could be autistic myself.
Instead, I think what makes it difficult for me is the admission, in accepting this diagnosis, that I may struggle with certain things for the rest of my life without a “fix.” That some of the aspects of myself I’ve always hated, some of the traits I’ve never accepted, are part of my neurology that will never go away. I can take a pill to shut out the blackness of my depression; there is no pill that will help me fit in with a group, or know how to move my face the right way when I listening to someone talk, or recognize when a friend is being sarcastic and when they’re being serious. I can go to a therapist to talk through unhelpful thought patterns and try to replace them with healthy and positive ones so that a depressive trigger won’t need to set off a ruminative episode of self-hatred; I can’t go to a therapist to talk away the irritability caused by spending all day with three kids whose normal play and conversation feels like an assault of noise, or the emotional breakdown induced by a last-minute schedule change, or the heights of anxiety scaled every time a new event or social appointment is upcoming. I mean, a therapist could potentially help me find ways to cope with those physical and emotional reactions – but they are still always going to be there.
As we’ve gone through the process of Rondel’s diagnosis and my accompanying self-discovery, I’ve read and read blogs and articles from the #actuallyautistic community – I’ve sought to have my understanding shaped by the words of autistic adults and self-advocates. So I know that autism is just a different wiring, a different way of perceiving the world and being in the world. I know that very often it is social norms and expectations that make autism difficult, not autism itself – that is, the difficulties do not exist because autism is bad, but because it is different in a world not designed to accommodate differences. I love that autism has given me a mind like a database and an unfailing eye for patterns. I think I can give autism some credit for saving me from the girl drama of middle school and high school, for giving me dedicated and focused attention on things of interest and importance to me, for helping me to be an honest and trustworthy person, for developing my (often repetitive) love of books and reading.
But sometimes it is just hard. I don’t want to be a different person, but sometimes I’d love to be part of a conversation without constantly having to evaluate and compare my responses with the responses of the other people involved, without having to laugh at a joke even if I don’t get it at all, without having to guess whether a statement was meant to be funny or sarcastic or not. Sometimes I’d like to be invited when church friends or coworkers have a BBQ or a game night – and sometimes I’d like to receive an invitation with casual nonchalance instead of panicked uncertainty. Sometimes? – I wish I could actually be normal instead of just pretending to try to fit in.
But maybe it is harder to try to be someone I’m not, and waste my life wishing I were that other, neurotypical, person, than learning to accept and embrace who I am, struggles and all. Maybe it is harder, in the long run, to wear a disguise every day of my life and pretend that I never need help or support. I just know that right now I’m still too scared to take off that mask.