Not many people know this, but I’ve kept journals on and off since my teen years. However I’ve recently realised that in all of them, I’ve been simply repeating the same thing in different ways – “I am what I am, this is me, I’m different, I’m different, and I cannot change.” And of course spilling out all the pain and trauma of trying to live in a world that just isn’t meant for people like me, not to mention the self-hatred, depression, shame, imposter syndrome, and sense of being ‘out of place’ that arose in turn out of that.
I tried tackling these issues through various routes over many years. I tried self-esteem and assertiveness training classes, peer support groups, various counsellors and psychologists, communication skills classes, meditation, self-help programs, and of course lots and LOTS of reading, but all to no avail. I still felt like the lowest of the low. My journal was often the only place I felt no-one would judge or condemn me for being ‘different’, the only place I felt I could be my true self.
But I’ve now reached a stage in my life where I have found that privately repeating the same old same old isn’t actually helping anymore, and instead my urge is to take what I know and feel out to the world at large. Journaling has transmuted into sharing with trusted friends in small groups or private chat, comments on various posts, or, most especially, the rough scrawling notes which I later compile into blog posts like this. It’s taken me a long time to get to this point, and there have been several pivotal steps along the way. The main ones have been -
1) Finding the autistic community. If I hadn’t found the autistic community (as opposed to the ‘autism community’), I would have gone on feeling like an error on the human production line, and that what I believed were my defects were something I had to hide for fear of rejection. I would probably have refused to even identify as autistic, because the official criteria for them just wouldn’t have seemed to fit. What, me, that terrible, almost sub-human creature they describe? No way.
But I did find it. And though I’m no longer rosy-spectacled about it, and will readily acknowledge that it’s far from perfect, nonetheless, it’s a damn sight better than nothing at all. Without it, I was lost in a social wilderness, stumbling and crashing my way through the world, feeling like a fool. But in our community I found for the first time people who thought, felt and acted like me, people who didn’t think I was weird or stupid or laughable. In fact some of them seemed to actually like me! Want to know me! This still sparks amazement, but also the warmth that only comes from having true friends for the first time in my life.
Even so, it’s taken over a decade of support and acceptance from my fellow autistics for this to truly sink in. For the damage of earlier years to be undone, and the messages of autistic pride and neurodiversity to seep down into the deepest layers of my subconscious. I think that even after I found the community, on some level I was still ashamed of being autistic, of being ‘different’. But over time, my attitude has been steadily transformed into “this is me, this is who I am, and if you don’t like it, feel free to go find someone whose company you like better!”
I do appreciate that not all of us have the freedom yet to do this, be like this. I hope that someday we all can. And nor am I going to claim that any of this is easy, or that I’ve magically learnt the secret of ‘loving myself’ that so many people have tried to tell me was so important. Rather, I’ve realised that you don’t need to ‘love yourself’ in order to reach a point where you stop and look at all the negativity that comes your way simply for being yourself, and think “you know what? This is rubbish.” I am what I am. We are what we are. We cannot be anything other. So what’s the use of flagellating ourselves for simply being ourselves? Self-loving isn’t necessary. Self-respect is.
And let’s note here that this also extends to all our co-occurring conditions, such as Executive Dysfunction, Sensory Processing Difficulty, sleep irregularities, alexithymia, etc. I used to feel a lot of shame around these, but after years of struggle, I’ve simply accepted that I have problems with things like organising myself and my time/belongings, sleeping regular hours, coping with various sensory inputs, and recognising what I’m feeling. I’ve learnt that it’s okay to be different, to have different needs, and to do whatever’s necessary to accommodate them. And to stand up for myself when people try to tell me otherwise.
2) Exploring new identities around gender and sexual expression. In the last couple of years, I’ve discovered there are actually new ways to describe how I connect to others, how I am in relationships, and how I define my inner self. Realising that I’m non-binary and almost certainly aromantic and demi-sexual has helped me clarify that my feelings around connection are not flaws I should overcome, but simply part of who I am.
And once again, the understanding that I’m not alone, that there are actually labels for all the feelings I had no words for, has helped relieve a lot of stress. I’m finding another community, one that often overlaps with the autistic one, and no, it’s not all about younger generations or being ‘trendy’, as if identities were like fashions. It’s about deep ways of being, and some of us older ones are finding a new peace and self-confidence in realising that we’re just not into romance, or that we need to get to know someone before becoming intimate, and that this intimacy may not include sex, that friendships can be just as powerful and important as sexual/romantic relationships. Being single is not an inferior state, and Romance is not necessarily the pinnacle of human connection.
3) Taking back my personal power. This has been perhaps the biggest step of all, and I couldn’t have done it without the previous ones. My whole life, it seems, I’ve been pushed around, dominated, bullied, manipulated, dumped on, scorned or belittled or outright abused. Over and over again, people have told me what to do, what to say, what not to say or do, how I should live my life, what opinions I should express and how, what I should or shouldn’t eat, what labels I should or shouldn’t put on myself, what I should write about, even how I should dress or walk or stand. And sad to say, I mostly put up with it, either because I was scared, or didn’t know how to stop it, or thought it was normal, or even that I deserved it.
But I’m tired of being pushed around, and I refuse to let anyone do it anymore. I refuse to put up with anyone telling me what to do, whether it’s a bully on a Facebook post trying to excuse other bullies’ behaviour, a martyr mommy telling me that I should shut up because I don’t understand what a ‘burden’ autistic kids are, someone sending me messages simultaneously putting me down and telling me what to do, a health professional telling me to eat foods I loathe or that I ‘don’t need’ vitamin supplements, or an obnoxious person in a public carpark trying to boss me around.
That’s not to say that all my old habits and reactions have completely disappeared. A lifetime of patterns of please-and-placate, submission-and-appeasement, aren’t easy to get rid of. There are frequent ‘knee-jerk’ reactions, but they’re getting weaker, and after a moment my new patterns of thought kick in and cancel the old ones out. I’m getting better and better at this business of standing up for myself, even if this simply means walking away from confrontation, or blocking toxic people. These can be acts of self-respect too. And this change is, I hope, the final shift, the final throwing off of the traces that once kept me bound, the last foundation stone of a life where I don’t have to hate myself, feel ashamed of myself, feel weak and powerless and stupid, and so on.
Anyway, this is where I’m at, right now. So much more comfortable in my own skin, and with the public expressions I have, that I don’t need a private outlet for negative feelings anymore. I can simply be, be myself, with all my faults and idiosyncrasies, but still a person worthy of life, worthy of expressing myself, worthy of a space in the world.
And so are all of you.