It’s my belief that I was depressed pretty much continuously from late primary school right up until some point in my mid-to-late 20s. Anecdotal evidence (…Twitter…) suggests that this is pretty typical among late-diagnosed autistics.
Don’t get me wrong. Aside from occasional episodes of self-injurious stimming, I rarely self-harmed. I usually managed to get out of bed. I still achieved academically for the most part, albeit with substantial inner difficulty at times. This was not a two-decades-long, unbroken, shouting, screaming cacophony of suicidal thoughts or pounding feelings of impending doom, but simply a low-volume, sustained drone of low-level despair, with occasional crescendos and discordant incidental crashes for dramatic effect.
My consistent teenage response, every time I encountered that saying that “your school days are the best days of your life” (what bastard thought that one up? Not an autistic bastard, at any rate, I’ll hypothesise), was to reason that if this were the case, my life must be pretty much over. Why continue, when life after school was going to be even worse?
My school years were soundtracked by an inner voice suggesting to me that something wasn’t quite right. I lived for weekends and school holidays, and I would wake up every weekday morning during term-time with a sense of dread.
What, or who, was going to make me cry today?
What was I going to say today that would be wrong? In what way would I embarrass myself, or the people I was with?
What tasks were going to be required of me that I would agonise over and put off performing, despite being clever enough to perform them?
What academic achievement – impressive, and coming naturally to me, but never something I could truly celebrate – would cause me to be singled out, exposed to view, yet again?
How was I going to cope with the noise, crowding, and encroachment in the corridors, or those cold breaktimes outside in the playground, when all I wanted to do was to be indoors, safe from interactions I didn’t want to have, protected from being taunted and teased for wanting to enjoy my own company?
Of course, the ennui was punctuated by happy events and activities, and things that I enjoyed. I still had friends, although the groupings shifted from time to time (meltdowns and misunderstandings have that effect). But all through that time, I never understood why.
Why couldn’t I just get on with stuff sometimes?
Why did I break down in tears so often, and always at the smallest thing?
Why did simply being feel like the performance of a role? And why did that role feel so difficult to play?
Why was this the way things were?
And I wish so hard that someone could have explained to me why.
Depression in my final years of school was mundane. Mundane, but present.
I calmly observed that whilst I myself did not especially want to go through the rigmarole of killing myself, I could entirely understand why some might want, and try, to do so. I was constantly tired. A perpetual greyness hung in the air.
But I assumed that this was just how life was. Everyone felt like this, right?
I went to university. I met people with interests like mine. And I tried to be like them. I feigned far deeper knowledge of obscure musical genres than I ever actually held. I laughed at jokes I didn’t get. I sought comfort and intimacy in the wrong places, with the wrong people. I drank so much I erased entire evenings from my memory banks.
All those years of pretence, the years of dread, the years of wondering why. And then, at the end of my second year, a failed relationship (my first ever. Two months. Not long. But significant). A flat, despondent summer. Abject fear at the prospect of all the demands of my final year. Studies. Too many extracurricular responsibilities that I’d placed upon myself. The Future. Everything came crashing down. In the first week of my third year, I collapsed. Crippling depression. The single biggest “episode” I have ever had. And it lasted that entire year.
I still made it through. I achieved a 2:1. But the fallout was massive.
On finishing my course, I fell prey to a parasitic boyfriend who took advantage of my mental state, emotionally and financially abusing me, gaslighting me, and blaming me for being “emotionally frail”.
Another break-up, and another breakdown, less than eighteen months later.
A succession of temporary jobs. Meltdown after meltdown, struggling to handle the everyday pressures of existing in a world not attuned to my needs, all the while not realising that I even had such needs.
My experience is far from unique. And it’s far from extreme. Far from the worst.
Things got better.
I’d always been surrounded by loving, beautiful friends and family, who picked me up and helped me through. I played in bands, meeting my future husband along the way. I got into running. And when my wayward body meant I couldn’t run, I found other ways to keep active.
I struggled through jobs I hated. But eventually I found my niche – something that I now love doing, and get paid enough to do.
My husband and I started a family, and although they exhaust me and overwhelm me at times, I love them dearly and I love the joy they bring to my life.
I’ve had help from time to time with organising my work, or organising my life. I’ve learned practical strategies for managing my mood, keeping the bad thoughts at bay, and looking after myself better. I’ve been taking antidepressants for years now, and they help; they buoy me up just enough to allow me the energy to take care of myself.
(I just wish they didn’t interact with other meds, and that I could take something stronger than paracetamol for those bloody migraines. But such is life).
And I can honestly say that haven’t been depressed now for a few years. In recent times, what I’ve often thought was depression was probably autistic burnout, or simple, common-or-garden stress. But mostly, my life is good.
But knowing now that I am autistic explains so much. And I think to myself, What if?
What if I’d known as a child that I was different, but that this was okay?
That I was not broken or faulty?
That my reactions and responses were the result of having a brain that worked differently from those of people around me?
That I didn’t need to try to be something, or someone, I was not?
I wish, when I was younger, that someone had been able to explain to me why.