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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.