“Everything you’re sure is right can be wrong in another place.”Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
Like you I have many stories – some I can’t believe are true even though I lived them. Only by looking back can I see where they’ve brought me, and the places I’ve been.
In this respect some of the stories here are as new to me as they are to you, reframed and retold through the lens of neurodiversity.
An outsider on the inside
Emigrating aged eight cemented my sense of ‘outside observer’. To fit in I became adept at observation and imitation, finding my place in groups that would have me.
As happy as I appeared on the outside it was exhausting staying in character, I had no solid sense of identity to sustain me when my self-esteem was trampled, which, in an abusive home, happened often.
Periodically misery bubbled up from deep within, erupting in bouts of crippling depression that followed me into adulthood. Raised to believe my own flawed character was to blame I berated myself for being lazy and weak, shamed by falling so far short of what most people managed easily.
Kicked out at seventeen, devoid of family support and inept at ‘reading’ people, I was taken advantage of by ‘friends’, bosses, and boyfriends to the point where I believed it was the price I had to pay for connection. I learned to avoid human contact since it hurt, quite literally.
Lost years, and being found
Memories of the dazzling potential my teachers extolled faded to a self-accusatory whisper as I pushed through homelessness and depression to complete college, only to drop out of university with a year to go – exhausted.
And my future husband found me.
His steadying influence helped me move away from the chaos and confusion that hallmarked my early adult years as someone with an autism spectrum disorder trying to function in a neurotypical world. Although it would be a few more years before I was officially diagnosed with Aspergers (diagnosis came relatively late, as is the case for many females) I knew there was something fundamentally different in my relationship with the world around me. For a time things were good; but while marriage into Punjabi culture gave me a taste of other traditions and insight into the complexities of Islam, it left a bitter tang when my new family ultimately couldn’t see past my skin-colour.
I’d found somewhere else I didn’t belong.
Despite my husband’s unwavering support, engaging with the world was frequently stressful and draining. Over and over I questioned the intelligence of pushing to overcome difficulty versus accepting my limits, though some days those limits didn’t even stretch to going out for bread and milk.
Life on the spectrum
It was after we emigrated to Canada that the diagnosis of my youngest child with Asperger’s led to my being re-diagnosed with Asperger’s and Bipolar II and things finally came into focus. Researching on my daughter’s behalf was the first step towards accepting my own ‘differentness’ instead of hiding it. As her role model I have the chance to make her future the antithesis of my past.
Like most people on the autistic spectrum I struggle to identify and process emotions. All those years I never realised that the way I saw things was not how the average person did. Writing about my experiences has helped me make sense of them, leading to my participation in a research study for CAMH (Canada’s leading mental health research facility and one of the world’s largest), and opportunities to write for MIND and Black Dog Tribe, two prominent UK mental health organisations. It’s also the lens through which I come to understand the world.
Settling in a new country is perhaps the closest thing to the ‘apartness’ of autism. My outsider perspective is oddly at home in the expat existence, and since coming to Canada I’ve written articles for newspapers, magazines and various travel & expat websites, as well as a monthly column for Expat Focus, an established online expat resource.
Life doesn’t always turn out how you planned it. Sometimes, just sometimes, it turns out better.