Category Archives: Neurodivergence & Mental Health

On Identities and the Process of Being

May not have a strong sense of identity, and can be very chameleon-like, especially before diagnosis.

Questions place in the world.

I read those sentences on a couple of long lists of traits which are common among autistic women((The most comprehensive ones were Rudy Simones lists of female Asperger syndrome traits, and Samantha Craft’s “Females With Aspergers Syndrome Checklist“.)), but which are not necessarily diagnostic criteria. I found myself going over those lists again and again, eyes twitching across the page as my thoughts raced, seeking patterns and explanations. Words were suddenly put to a strange emptiness I’ve long sensed inside me.

Ironically, reading those lists, and seeing comment discussions where other people exclaimed how they described them so perfectly, my sense of disconnect and outsidership was made worse. That’s not me, I thought as I read something that didn’t fit, That’s not me either… And then every now and then, sentences like the ones above hit me like a fist in my stomach, leaving me reeling.

Who am I even?

2004, a lifetime ago. I would say I was looking for something even then, but honestly, I can’t remember.

I have always battled that feeling of being an outsider. That life is a party I can’t seem to join even if I was invited and wanted to go. I stand outside, looking at the rest of you with my hand pressed against the window. Occasionally, someone steps outside and joins me in my world, and then I’m less lonely for a while. But in the end, I carry a conviction within me of being fundamentally separate from the social world that surrounds me.

I don’t want to be alone. I want to be part of something.

I try not to shame myself for this longing I have to fit in, if not with normative society then at least some sort of tribe. But it’s sometimes difficult. I always thought of myself as an individualist — in fact, if there was ever a label I identified with, that would be it. Seeing the “normal” people around me as enemies while I grew up seeded an intense desire to distance myself from them, from everyone. To swim against the current, not because it wasn’t taking me where I wanted to go, but simply for the sake of it.

Because I had no idea where I wanted to go. I knew what I didn’t want for myself, but not much more than that.

 

I realise this is rather abstract. So let’s take style, for example. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I happily let my mother buy my clothes. Her ideas of how I should dress were slightly eclectic but in no way extreme, and that suited me just fine. I liked being different and getting acknowledged for it.((Besides, clothing stores gave me some pretty severe anxiety, although I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. All I knew was that I was completely incapable of going into one, looking through the racks, deciding what to try on and then deciding if I wanted to buy anything, because it was all just overwhelming.))

The thing is, I was never sure if something I thought looked good actually looked good. And despite this idea that I was an individualist, that I did things my way, up until the last few years I could never wear an outfit I wasn’t absolutely sure was acceptable to others — not unless it had been explicitly approved by someone else. Letting someone else buy my clothes was simply the easiest option.

I don’t need my mother to buy clothes for me anymore. But the fact is that even as an adult, every major shift in my personal style has been precipitated by me finding new people who inspire and encourage me to try something out that I previously didn’t quite dare to do.

 

Noticing this pattern, not just in dress sense but in how my interests, hobbies and overall focus in life has shifted over the years, has left me with a feeling that I lack … substance. Of course, I see “personality” not as a thing but as a constant, ongoing process. We are all being shaped and reshaped by our past, other people, our surroundings, circumstance, the world we live in, and so on.

I’ve identified with a lot of things in the past. Particularly movements; at first atheism and natural science geekdom, then humanism, then skepticism — never leaving the previous identities behind, but simply shifting focus. I’ve identified strongly as a beekeeper, as well. Then I spent a few years identifying as a kinkster.

And now? Now I don’t know. I’ve left all those lives behind, if not the interests and opinions. I have picked up a number of new labels for myself: Nonbinary, relationship anarchist, programmer, neurodivergent, gardener. But none of them have become my “primary attribute”, and I feel insecure about many of them. Insecure whether I fit in, whether I’m truly allowed to use them about myself. This despite my own very strong ideological viewpoint that labels of identity is something that each person must be allowed to pick for themselves.

Pop culture tells me that you’re supposed to have a strong sense of self that is more or less constant. That there’s supposed to be an unchanging core that is you. And, well, I don’t think I have one. I don’t know, because just like I’m not sure what it’s supposed to feel like to have a gender identity, I don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like to have an identity overall.

Which brings me back to autism.

What if there’s nothing there?

May not have a strong sense of identity…

I think it hit me so hard because it dawned on me that there might not be an answer to the question of who I am. That I might be navigating this labyrinth trying to find my core, only to find that it’s empty.

The fact is, I very much would like to be diagnosed with ASD. I can’t get rid of the notion that it would allow me some respite from the background buzz in my head: Who am I? Why am I? Why don’t I know these things already? It’s hard not to shame myself for it. I question my need for labels. Why should I need labels to know who I am?

But I do want a word for what I am. I want an explanatory model.((It does not escape me that this desire to categorise and label myself could very well be seen as a symtom.)) And I want it to come from outside of myself, because apparently I can never, ever trust myself to do things right on my own. I want someone with a degree to hand me a piece of paper saying I’m allowed to use this word about myself.

 

At the same time, on a different level, I really don’t care. Right now, I am so wrapped up in the process of being, that most of the time I don’t mind that I don’t know what that actually entails. The other day, I thought to myself that I feel like I have grown up a lot over the past year, but then immediately changed my mind: I don’t think there is such a thing as “growing up”, because that implies that we are all reaching for some sort of finished state. As I said, I see personalities as far more malleable than that.

Personalities, to use a gardening metaphor, grow like long-lived perennials. We’re modular and resilient, changing shape and direction depending on what goes on around us. I guess I used to think that everyone was a tree and that I had to be a tree too, but now I feel like maybe I’m a climbing vine, or something else entirely.

More importantly, it doesn’t matter in the end. Because a plant doesn’t need to know its shape or heritage to keep on growing.

Morning Pages – Self-Help for Self-Help Skeptics

I don’t know where I first encountered the concept of morning pages, but it was probably Pinterest. It’s something that crops up in conjunction with bullet journalling and other planner and organization-related topics. Continue reading Morning Pages – Self-Help for Self-Help Skeptics

My Road to the Code

Every day for the past week I have come to a point where I’ve had to accept that I would not be able to do any more programming that day. Either because it was getting late or because my brain was fried. Every day I have, with great regret, closed down Visual Studio and Unity3D and tried my best to put my current task out of my head. Every day it has been nearly impossible. I have never been so in love with a job – and I’m not even getting paid for this one.

My Road to the Code | alexfelicia.net

This shouldn’t be a surprise to me. This should have happened years ago. If there is one aspie tendency in me I have never questioned, it’s a penchant for logical, systematic reasoning. As much as I am driven by emotion, and as much as I geek out on relationships, I even approach my feelings systematically. No wonder I’ve taken to programming. Continue reading My Road to the Code

A Thing About Anxiety

After my psych appointment on monday morning, I was feeling pretty good. My doctor and I had a good long talk about my social anxiety and how I feel it’s grown untenably as of late. I was told (not in so many words, but in spirit) to go easier on myself. Just because I don’t feel like hanging out with people all the time doesn’t mean I’m suffering from a phobia.

And then, as I did a few errands on my way to the office, I felt my shoulders and arms tightening, skin tingling and crawling.

I found it hard to look up, found the presence of other pedestrians and shoppers threatening. I couldn’t bring myself to enter a grocery store to buy lunch, because I had already been in several shops and I simply couldn’t handle more impressions, and above all, choices.

It has continued like this for two days. Anxiety washes over me in waves. Sometimes it retreats and leaves me feeling almost normal, giving me hope that it’s over for now. Sometimes it drowns me, making me want to curl up in a fetal position and sleep until … some undefined point where everything is magically better.

I've had a rough few days, battling anxiety. But I'm doing okay. | alexfelicia.net

And no matter what tricks I’ve employed, I haven’t been able to get to the root of it. I don’t know what it is that is worrying me right now; it’s just a general feeling of dread. Which means I can’t do anything about the cause, only mitigate the symtoms.

That’s the thing about anxiety – well, one of the many Things about anxiety – often it’s impossible to find the cause of it. Especially while you’re anxious.

On the plus side, last night when I was feeling completely overwhelmed and incapable of doing anything at all, I spontaneously came up with a new productivity technique. Maybe I’ll write a post about it someday.

For now, I’m trying to simply forgive myself. It’s okay not to be particularly productive sometimes. I’m mentally ill, for fuck’s sake. Just because life has been good lately doesn’t mean everything in my brain is right as rain – I will have setbacks sometimes.

I suppose part of what is difficult is that I have no idea how long this will last. Will I be alright tomorrow or am I going to have to deal with this for weeks? Months? Today, so far, it hasn’t been too bad; no panic symtoms, only a great tiredness. Which is tricky enough to deal with.

It’s funny how quickly you forget. I’ve felt so good the last few months, I had forgotten what it was like to be constantly sleepy, unable to just power through it. I used to think it was because I slept poorly (which I still do, most nights) and because I don’t work out – a perfectly reasonable explanation. When I was younger and grown-ups around me told me to just buck up, I didn’t understand how that was supposed to work. When I get like this, unless I’m actually moving about, my eyes will often literally refuse to focus on what’s in front of me and eventually start closing on their own.

These days it’s so obvious how my brain is trying to run away by shutting down. Sleep as a mental flight reflex.

Still. Under the circumstances, I’m doing well. I’ve kept to my routines, only lapsing in one or two less important areas. I get things done, though it might not always be what I wish I were doing or what I feel I should be doing. I’ve even managed to socialize a bit. A year ago, I would have been stuck at home, staring vacantly.

This is a pretty awful experience, but it is a valuable data point. It tells me something of how I’m doing, what I need to do to improve my life, how well my coping mechanisms are working, etcetera. As silver linings go, that may not sound particularly fun, but it works for me.

Invisibly Different: Neurodivergence, Mental Illness and Me

I think most people have probably asked themselves “What is wrong with me?” at some point. It’s a loaded question with terribly complicated answers, and it’s not the one I’m going to answer in this post. I will, however, tell you how I believe I’m different.

How I discovered I'm both neurodivergent and mentally ill | alexfelicia.net

I used to think I was a complete failure. Having been told throughout my life that I am so smart, so talented, with the constant implication that if only I would just put my back into it, I could achieve whatever I wanted … well, the fact that I never seemed to achieve anything at all gradually sucked me into a deep, dark pit of despair. I had received so much praise for my character, and couldn’t fight the growing suspicion that I never actually earned it.

On top of this, I suffered a recurrent feeling of being disconnected from the social world around me. As though life was one big party that I wasn’t invited to. Some of this persists to this day: The more I enjoy a social interaction, the likelier it is that I will be attacked by doubt afterwards. Did I make a fool of myself? Did everyone secretly find me really annoying?

Obviously, I have spent a lot of time thinking about why this was so. Especially my inability to harness the abilities I clearly possess. Why was it that I kept falling over every time I picked up some speed?

For a long time, I believed that my problem was that I had it too easy. That during my formative years I simply coasted along on my ability to pick up new skills and knowledge extremely fast, and never learned to do the work. So of course, when I started encountering real challenges, I caved. A lot of the time I was afraid of applying myself to new tasks because what if, this time, it turned out to be too difficult and my world would come tumbling down?

And I thought that obviously, there would always be people who didn’t like me very much because of how outspoken I was. I had gotten plenty of feedback during my childhood to indicate that I’m simply too much for many.

I thought that was the end of it, but it was never the whole picture. My story is one of getting to know myself, and learning the difference between neurodivergence and mental illness.

Clues

This is a difficult story to tell, not because it’s painful or private but because it ties together so many seemingly disparate parts of my life and personality. And so much of it, I haven’t even begun to understand until these last few years.

The first part was identifying what I call my Aspie tendencies. As an example: For a long time, I believed that I was a bit arrogant, because that’s what I was told. Perhaps I was, at that, but it was never my intention to put people down. Yet I was always receiving criticism, sometimes openly from adults in power positions, sometimes more or less veiled barbs from my friends and schoolmates, for my know-it-all attitude. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I finally realised that there’s a complete disconnect between my intentions as I understand them, and what other people hear.

See, one integral part of my personality is that I have a reality fetish. I like facts, a lot. As an extension of that, I like knowing what I’m doing (which means doing things sub-optimally if I want to is a valid choice!). And I always assumed everyone else was the same. Thus, correcting people when they were incorrect, or giving them pointers when they were doing things wrong (and it seemed likely they weren’t doing so on purpose), was for me an altruistic act. Still is. But these days, I understand that what they often hear is an intention to tell them that I am better than them. So I’ve learned to watch myself, to weigh my words carefully when I do decide to put in a correction.

Then there’s the way my brain sometimes can’t cope with changes of plan if I’m the one supposed to carry it through. And of course there’s the fact that I find it extremely uncomfortable to have eye-contact for more than a moment or two, with anyone other than close romantic partners. And my general subconscious obsession with following rules. And how I often find physical interactions difficult and awkward. And possibly the fact that I’m agender.((There’s evidence suggesting gender dysphoria or being transgender is more common on the spectrum.)) And lots of other tiny little things that mean nothing in isolation, but together start to paint a picture of a mind that doesn’t quite work like it’s “supposed” to.

The idea that I may have ADHD entered the picture only recently. Although I was aware of the diagnosis and had read up on it, I had discarded the idea that any of it applied to me, except perhaps in some very limited ways.

Sure, I was rather disorganised and tended to procrastinate a lot, but that was just laziness, right? The fact that I’ve never really been any good at focusing on anything that isn’t super interesting, well, I thought that was just how brains worked. It seemed natural to me. Why should I want to spend mental energy on stuff that bores me? I didn’t have a poor attention span, I was just … discerning.

And the idea that I may be hyperactive was downright laughable. I’ve been struggling with constant tiredness since my teens. It never occurred to me that the constant complaint I made that I just can’t stop thinking could have been a sign. And I certainly never connected it to how I’m always fidgeting with something. Poking at the leftovers on my plate after I’ve finished eating, or folding napkins until they fall apart – that’s not hyperactivity, that’s just bad table manners. Or so I thought.

Labels

The way I see it (and do keep in mind this is a layman’s personal opinion), many of the psychiatric diagnoses we speak of today are simply labels we affix to certain aggregates of personality attributes and resulting behaviours. Sometimes these have some foundation in genetics, sometimes they are responses to external stimuli. But everyone, regardless of psychological make-up, has to figure out their place in the world and learn to cope with societal demands. For some, the necessary skills come more easily than for others, and for those of us in the latter group, there are sometimes labels.

So, I probably have ADHD. My psychiatrist agrees that my symtoms are consistent. Perhaps I will end up getting a formal diagnosis, perhaps not. I am already taking medicine to improve attention and initiative, and this has had a huge impact on my life.

I also might qualify for Asperger syndrome. It’s something that definitely exists in several branches of my family, and as mentioned, I do show some symtoms (again, my psychiatrist agrees). I don’t know whether I will want to investigate this further or if I’m happy as things are.

Official diagnoses or no, I believe I could be described as neurodivergent, and it’s a label I have adopted for myself. The way my brain works means I don’t fit into society’s mold for a productive citizen quite as neatly as I should, and this means more work for me and sometimes for those around me. It means I may need special treatment in some areas, and for now, it means I need medicine.

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Breakfast of champions

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It should be noted that the pills pictured above are not the ones I take today to manage anxiety, etc. I had strep throat at the time.

For most of my life, I had no idea. I thought I was neurotypical, if a bit eccentric, and that my failures in some areas were merely due to various personality flaws. I thought I was a bit of a bitch, but I wasn’t – I was a bit of an Aspie. I thought I was hopelessly lazy, but I wasn’t – I was mentally ill.

My inability to focus led to crippling anxiety, and that is mental illness. ADHD((If you think you may have ADHD and this is negatively impacting your life, try filling out the Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale (ASRS). It is a well-established screening tool developed by the WHO. You can find it as an online form here. It has been translated into a number of languages. PDFs are available here. Should you test positive, consider seeking professional help.)) and Asperger syndrome are not.

Erasure

As with so many other things in healthcare and research involving humans, psychiatric studies often focus on boys and men. For a long time, it seems no one really thought of how socialization might affect symtoms of neurological divergence. Therefore, both Asperger syndrome and ADHD were believed to primarily manifest in male children, which means people with problems like mine end up never getting the help they need. Or, as in my case, get it only after 15 years of anxiety, long periods of self-loathing and suicidal thoughts, and too many lost opportunities.

Boys are expected and therefore subconsciously encouraged to be loud and active and take up a lot of space – no wonder hyperactive boys literally climb the walls. Girls are encouraged to be the exact opposite, and so their hyperactivity is often channeled inwards. They’ll sit quietly staring into space while their mind races, and so their attention problem is never noticed. I think the moment it really hit home for me that I may have ADHD was when I discovered that it is very common for women who go undiagnosed to end up descending into severe anxiety and depression, because they see their constant failures in life as personal flaws.

Asperger, too, is seen as a boy thing. I was raised as a girl, and I was forced to learn the various social behaviours that didn’t come naturally to me. This was done through constant negative feedback about my person. I know that the people around me who did (and in some cases, still do) this meant well, and in some respects I am grateful. Being socially competent is a nice skill to have. But it has also left me deeply insecure, and constantly monitoring everything that’s about to come out of my mouth is really draining.

Then there’s the interpersonal aspect of erasure, born out of a mix of kindness, misunderstanding and lack of knowledge. Often when I mention to someone that “I’m a bit Aspie”, they will disagree with me. “No, that can’t be. I sure haven’t noticed anything, you seem perfectly socially competent,” they’ll say. And I know they mean well, and if you are one of those people, please don’t worry that I’m angry with you. But this is erasure. I’m a bit Aspie, but I have learned to act like I’m normal. I am socially competent, because social competence is a skill that can be learned. But to me, my difficulties are real and ever-present.

All’s Well?

About a year ago, I started seeing a psychiatrist. Of course I should have done so much sooner, but like so many others suffering from mental health issues, I was stuck in a mindset that didn’t allow me to ask for help even though I was aware I had problems.

All’s well that ends well is one of my favourite sayings, even if I don’t believe in it. I won’t go into detail about the process that followed because this post is long enough as it is. But I want to finish up by reiterating how much better I am doing today. Therapy and medication is turning me from an anxious wreck into an organised productivity monster, and I love it. My journey isn’t over yet, of course. I expect setbacks and many re-evaluations. But right now, I’m happier than I’ve ever been.

I’m doing better because I got help, and I got help because I have amazing people in my life who helped me get to a point where it was possible for me to accept it. If you’re one of them, then from the bottom of my heart: Thank you.

And a big thank you to anyone who has read this far. I appreciate you taking the time to get to know me better. Please feel free to share any thoughts you have on the topics I bring up. I am also perfectly comfortable with receiving questions about myself.

Getting Past Mental Blocks

I actually experienced a pretty huge mental block quite recently. See, it turned out that writing that first post didn’t release me from the issue of deciding how to start this blog off. After all, that wasn’t a real blog post, it was just an introduction, of sorts. Immediately I found myself wondering: What do I do next? I have all these things I want to write about, but where do I start? What is a good topic for my first actual article?

And so I found myself in a very familiar state: Paralysed with anxiety. Continue reading Getting Past Mental Blocks