I began this blog to document my discovery of Canada but it has increasingly become a vehicle of self-discovery. The expat experience ignited beacons that guided me ever inward, to search more intensely the inner workings that gave rise to the outer journey.
It was in Canada that my heart once again opened to the fresh perspective offered by a different culture after my Pakistani in-laws’ terse rejection.
And it’s in Canada that, years after laboring under another label, I was finally diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and the bipolar traits first exhibited by my father and sister. As any expat knows, sometimes it takes a change of scene to see the obvious.
Not too late to make a difference
You may question the significance of such a discovery at this point in my life – after all, I’ve come this far, how does knowing change anything? I wondered this myself; they’re just words, based on fallible human opinion. But used as a starting point to explore possibilities and look for clues about my behavior, ultimately, it clarified a lot.
For example, Asperger’s accurately explains my experience of humans as a frustratingly inscrutable species thanks to a difficulty inferring what others are thinking. It’s probably the reason I’m more comfortable in a new country where my deviations from expected social behaviour are attributed to my ‘foreignness’ and more quickly forgiven.
It explains my struggles processing certain kinds of information and my tendency to think via association rather than logic – one thought leads to another, which leads to another, and so on – a double-edged sword for a writer as it supplies inspiration and distraction in equal measure.
My previous diagnosis addressed none of this.
It also gives an explanation for my alexithymia (the inability to identify and describe emotions in the self). I’ve been complimented on my ability to describe the emotional ‘feel’ of a scene to the point where readers felt they were there, but this is something I can only do in print. When it comes to communicating feelings in person I’m a tongue-tied, taciturn lump – just ask my husband.
But by far the greatest gift of this new information has been the realization that it’s the wiring of my brain not a fault of my character that’s at the root of my struggles. This helps immeasurably in keeping things in perspective and learning to live with myself.
Never saw it coming
Funnily enough it was the bipolar II that was the surprise. With hindsight it’s difficult to understand how I never suspected – uncontrollable moods, depression, suicidal ideation (thoughts about/preoccupation with suicide) and a hereditary link – DUH!
But I grew up around a father with bipolar I, and because I never experienced anything like his money-spending, fast-talking, loud-laughter euphoric highs I figured I’d got the bum deal with plain old depression. When I looked backwards I saw only cycles of deep despair and numbing anhedonia (an inability to experience pleasure from normally enjoyable activities – “a falling dead of delight” as American philosopher William James once put it).
I know I’ve thrown an excess of clinical terms at you but the point is I never knew these words existed to describe my experiences. They helped me see my difficulties weren’t personal failures but actual, identified symptoms.
Information is power
Both of these conditions are lifelong companions. Bipolar in particular worsens over time if untreated, with 1 in 5 sufferers going on to kill themselves. But that knowledge gives me some autonomy in how I face them (and reinforces my deep-seated belief I should never have a gun on the premises). I’ve begun keeping a mood diary to chart patterns and timescales in my emotional landscape so I’m not constantly blindsided by my feelings (I’m using moodtracker.com, a free online tool that records fluctuations in mood, irritability, anxiety and sleep).
I won’t lie to you, some days life seems indescribably bleak, but public perception plays a big role in making it more bearable; accurate information is crucial to combating stigma and making sure that perception is a valid one. The better we, as sufferers, can communicate our experience the faster this will happen, and realising you’re part of a ‘tribe’ gives you a voice and removes the humiliation of being a solo oddity.
And for the artistically inclined at least, there is an upside: both Asperger’s and bipolar have been linked to heightened levels of creative thought. Notable Aspergians include Andy Warhol, Glenn Gould, Carl Sagan and Temple Grandin, while bipolar luminaries count Lord Byron, Virginia Woolf, Vincent Van Gogh and Sylvia Plath among their number.
Not only does this bequeath me an enviable aristocratic pedigree in terms of creative thought, it’s also a reminder these labels needn’t be a barrier to a productive and artistic life. Admittedly things didn’t end well for the final four mentioned above, but famous bipolar creatives ‘hanging in there’ today include Carrie Fisher, Jean Claude Van Damme, Linda Hamilton, Richard Dreyfuss, and my personal hero, Stephen Fry.
The bipolar/Asperger celebrity angle gets a lot of attention, but unfortunately some of the coverage is still uninformed or unbalanced in its negativity and so much valuable information about how successful people have triumphed over their conditions never makes it into the popular media.
But the times they are a’changin’, and with more voices than ever before campaigning for greater awareness and understanding public opinion is starting to accept that these conditions don’t preclude a successful future. Getting my diagnosis was like being handed a key to my prison, not a life sentence.