[Trigger warning: mental illness]
To everyone who has ever known me,
Recently, I’ve discovered something about myself. And what I’d long wondered about, and convinced myself of, was officially confirmed for me. I am autistic.
To some, it will come as no surprise at all. Others may not have seen this coming. And to others still, this may shock or alarm. But to everyone, regardless of your reaction, I would like to make something clear.
I am still the same person.
I’m still the little girl who criticised your drawing for its inaccuracy. Who denied the existence of anything she couldn’t understand or hadn’t previously encountered firsthand. The little girl who was reading books recommended for children way older than she. The little girl who told on other children. I had, and still have, a strong sense of justice and fairness. You had done something wrong. You hurt me. A grownup had to know. They had to do something about it.
I’m still the kid who cried at everything. Who cried at ‘nothing’. Still the kid you teased for the big words she used. I’m still the kid who cringed with embarrassment at yet another certificate handed out in school assembly for a record number of ‘merits’ achieved. And yet, despite that embarrassment, saw nothing wrong in wearing white socks, or a Girl Guides sweatshirt outside of weekly Guides meetings. It was a nice sweatshirt. I liked it. Why not?
I’m still the child who got all the interesting character parts in school plays at primary school, but was relegated to being little more than an ‘extra’ in secondary school drama productions. I’m the girl who found solace in creating endless pencil drawings of people in her bedroom at home, and in playing music with others – a way of interacting that suited her.
I’m still the teenager who was called a ‘swot’. Still the teenager who decided to give up on getting my homework done early. Still the teenager who decided to make a ‘thing’ of drinking alcohol, kissing boys, and trying to appear ‘other’ than what she was. The teenager who had meltdowns at the ends of nights out and holidays; the teenager who embarrassed you all with her inability to control her emotions. Still the teenager who didn’t exactly want to kill herself, but could nevertheless understand the logic behind the decisions of those who did choose to do so. I’m sorry I embarrassed you. But I was mortified when my behaviour, and your reaction to it, led to the breakdown of our friendship. Time and time again.
I’m still the girl who repeatedly reinvented herself. Tie-dyed leggings-wearing hippie chick. Indie kid with coloured hairslides in bobbed hair, vintage sportswear and plastic children’s jewellery. Clichéd punk with pillarbox red spikey hair and a safety pin through her ear. Staring-eyed, shirt-and-skinny-tie-wearing androgyne. Chic Européenne with neat long hair and chiffon scarf knotted round her neck.
I’m still the student who sought physical closeness, love, and affection in the wrong places. The student who fell asleep in lectures, handwriting trailing to a spidercobweb trace across the page; not just from the hangovers, but also from the sheer effort required to concentrate on the onslaught of verbal information. The student who spent her final year swamped by depression, terrified of the all-consuming despair, fear and emptiness eating her from the inside while she lay awake in bed at night. Of course, I still got that 2:1. I still ran student societies, played music, socialised, interacted.
I’m still the woman who was gaslighted, emotionally and financially abused. I was in love. You recognised how impressionable, suggestible, and vulnerable I was, and you took advantage of this. But I am better than you. I am strong, I am resilient, and I got over it. I am happy in my marriage. I deserved something, someone better, and I now have that.
I’m still the woman who repeatedly broke down in the office; screaming, shouting, flapping her arms. Tears streaming down her face. The woman dismissed from a temping job without notice. The woman given verbal warnings for swearing in front of students on a college open day. The woman whose colleagues complained about the disruption she was causing. It still pains me to think of how much noise, irritation and chaos I brought to your workplace. I care about what others think of me, and I don’t like to upset you.
I’m still the little girl who lived in an exciting world full of stories. Whose drawings captured the essence of the people depicted therein. I’m still the girl who had enormous fun experimenting with her appearance. The musician able to lose herself utterly in the all-encompassing moment of a performance. The woman with a thirst for knowledge, and a love of learning.
I’m still the friend who experienced sheer unadulterated joy spending time with you at concerts and festivals. Who sat in your living room, eating, drinking, talking and laughing with you.
I’m still the bandmate who shared laughs and camaraderie with you in the rehearsal room, the exhilaration of a good gig, the crushing disappointment of a bad one. The life and soul of weddings, conference dinners, and family get-togethers, coaxing you onto the dance floor to throw caution to the wind and move, before anyone else in the room had the guts to do so.
I’m still a friend to you. I’ll still support you with information and advice. I’m especially good at doing so online, using the written word, but the fact that I might then be awkward the next time we see each other face-to-face doesn’t negate the extent to which I care about you, and want the best for you.
I’m still the passionate educator, fascinated by how people learn, always keen to hone my skills and teach better, and better, and better. I’m still the employee who cares about the people she works with, and the people she works for. And goddamnit, I work so, so hard to keep those meltdowns at bay when I’m in the office. And usually it works. But sometimes, it all comes crashing down when I arrive home. And that’s hard. Hard on my husband, hard on my children, and hard on me.
Because I’m still the woman who loves her family endlessly. Who would do anything for them. Would die for them.
I was all these things, and I still am. Because you are only ever who you are. You cannot be anything else. It’s just that, for a long time, who I really was, inside, was invisible – to me, and to all of you.
I have always been autistic. I only know it now. It is one part of me, but it is intrinsic. I’m still the same person.
But here’s the thing. Now I know this about myself, things have to change. In order to be the best wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, teacher, and colleague, I have to do some things to look after myself. To protect myself.
Not much will be different. I won’t turn my back on you, just because I’ve realised your world is not ideally set up for me. I love you too much for that. I love this world, no matter how imperfectly attuned I am to it. And when we talk, I’ll still interact – I’ve been doing it so long that there’s only a split-second difference between conscious thought and automatic, instinctive response. But that split-second difference still exists.
You’ll probably notice, next time you see me, that I’m more relaxed. Happier. But, probably, a little flappier. A little more liberated in my movements, in a way that might seem odd to you at first. But don’t worry, I’m just me. And now I feel liberated to be more myself. Please allow me this freedom. I’ve been denied it for so long.
And I’ll be more upfront. Sometimes I’ll go along with your need for small talk; at other times, I will smile, greet you quickly, and we’ll both get on with our days. I’m no longer going to pretend to laugh at jokes I don’t understand. I’ll make it clear that I like prior warning if you want to visit my house. If I’m tired and want to go home, I might just be a little more honest about it.
Because I’m trusting you with this new knowledge you have about me. And if you ever need me to explain, I’m always happy to do so. I can help you understand, as much as I am able to.
Things are clearer now. Truer now. I’m still the same person, but things have changed. For the better.
Sincerely yours, but always and forever myself,