Sometimes things change quickly, and it is easy to see the change. Sometimes they shift ever so slowly, and the change kind of sneaks itself in without you realizing it is there, until suddenly you turn around and everything is different. Growing up can be a bit like that. And as I get older, I am learning you never stop growing up, and identity is a dynamic thing.
Growing up, I was parented so that life was structured in ways that, unknown to both my parents and I at the time, simultaneously suited me well and taught me to be compliant and chameleon like. Even though inside I usually felt I was never quite right enough and not quite good enough, on the outside -by using a combination of mimicry and invisibility – I got by.
Friendships involved attaching myself to one or two people I cherished and staying within that safe circle. Getting through high school involved many hours hard work behind the scenes that I denied enduring to justify my less than spectacular results.
When things went wrong I endured the knowledge that I was wrongly accused in silence, both because it was easier than the confrontation involved in defending myself (mostly because the beautiful strings of words flying through my head explaining what had actually happened got stuck there and never made it out my mouth), and because I honestly believed (and am still learning to unbelieve) that my role in life is to make other people happy no matter the cost to me.
Making other people happy became my thing. If everyone around me was happy, I was content because there was no conflict. I hid my needs deep inside and moved through life on the constant brink of shutdown.
I was not happy. I did not believe I was unhappy, but I knew I was uncomfortable.
I remember my mother telling me once, as I lamented being chronically and unhealthily underweight, that when I became happy with my life I would put on weight. About 5 years ago, that began to happen.
It didn’t start with a feeling of happiness. It started with a feeling of giving up. I gave up trying so hard. I was too tired. I knew I was not enough to do all the things I had been doing. I was at the end of my coping. I began to let go.
Since then, there has been a slow process of realizing I am me. Which may sound odd, but it is what happened. I stopped doing and pretending to myself, and began to recognize myself.
I am not a tidy person. I do not have good organizational skills. I do not thrive when I expect myself to be around people a lot. I do not like change at all- it makes me ill. Realizing the ‘do nots’ helped me find the ‘I likes’.
I like writing to express my thoughts. I like to be home a lot. I like having friends, but just a couple of good friends who I can really engage with. I am passionate about justice and equality. I am prepared to stand up with those who need help standing up to be heard, and I can do that well when I acknowledge my needs within that context.
The process actually began when my family members were diagnosed with their own disabilities. The first step in recognizing myself was learning to look after myself well, so I could be healthy and available to support them. Part of that was finding community who understood my families needs. For me this was the Autistic community.
Over time I learned, with the support of new friends, the word neurodivergent. That was a revelation. I saw myself in it immediately, but took my time in claiming it as part of my identity because change is hard even when it is good.
I thought it, then began to speak it, until it was part of the fabric of me. It was like being given a gift, and as I allowed myself to identify as neurodivergent, and therefore to notice what my tolerances and limits are, the more I have grown to know that these things have been needs for my whole life that up until now I have managed to take care of alone without inconveniencing anyone else, but that the cost to me has been huge emotionally, physically and mentally.
I began to identify as “Neurodivergent NOS”, believing I would not ever find a specific label. As I talked through some of this with my autistic friends, I grew increasingly aware of how similar my life experiences have been to theirs. Their openness and willingness to share with me helped me to gain confidence to stop using my kids needs as cover to have my own needs met. I needed to allow myself to be me, or the slow slide to burnout I had been feeling would become a quick fall.
At the same time as I was deciding the need to stop and allow myself to be me, four autistic people (including my daughter) all asked me in various ways why I do not think I am autistic. The idea was not new to me- I had even talked to my psychologist to explore the idea over a year before, but, as often happens when women get through 40 years of life before questioning their assumed neurology, she kind of said ‘nah- too high functioning’, and so I moved on. My answer to my friends was that I have been coming to that conclusion over the past couple of years, but had not been confident to say so.
One dear friend edged me closer to confidence ever so aptly when they questioned “are you feeling less NOS?”. I cried that night after telling that friend “Identifying as neurodivergent I gave myself permission not to pass. Now the less I pass the more autistic I feel.” and having them respond “Oh yeah I GET THAT SO HARD….”.
I was so relieved I barely slept the night that I shared with another friend how hard I was finding it to hold everything together and they responded, “I think we all feel like that. You know what though, once we identify as autistic, it’s pretty common for all the things we were doing to keep it all together to sort of come crumbling down for a bit. We realise how much effort the whole thing took.”
Having affirmation from them was so helpful, and has allowed me to begin seeing things through a specific lens that answers many more questions than it creates for me.
I think I am autistic. I have been thinking it for a long while now. I am ready to speak it, until it becomes part of the fabric of me.
image is my face (fair skinned female presenting person wearing dark rimmed glasses looking directly at the camera) and some trees in the background to the right of the picture. On the right of the picture are the words “recognising myself autistic” and web address michellesuttonwrites.com
This post is part of my emerging autistic identity series- read them all by clicking here (clicking link will open a new window, posts are in reverse chronological order- first at the bottom)