“Everything you’re sure is right can be wrong in another place.”
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
Let me tell you a little about myself. It’s a reflexive pronoun that means ‘me’…
Like most of you I have many stories – some I can’t believe are true even though I lived them. Only by looking back can we see the places they’ve brought us to, and the places we were.
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.
The perennial misfit
Emigrating aged eight cemented my sense of ‘outside observer’ in a world not my own. To counter problems fitting in I became adept at observation and imitation, finding my place in groups that would have me. Although I grew up undiagnosed I always knew I was different.
But as happy as I appeared on the outside it was exhausting staying in character. My sketchy personality was a shadow puppet with no solid sense of identity to sustain it when my self-esteem was trampled, which, thanks to an abusive home-life, happened often.
Periodically, misery bubbled up from deep inside, erupting in bouts of crippling depression that continued into adulthood.
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 of what might have been as I pushed through homelessness and depression to complete college, only to drop out of university with a year to go – exhausted. Disastrous extremes of mood and reason saw me attempting to join the Royal Air Force one minute, and the next, signed off my civil service job indefinitely and left to rot in agoraphobic isolation with nothing but a repeat prescription and my suicidal ideation for company.
And that’s where my future husband found me.
Incredibly, he saw beyond the mind-mess and racial differences. A diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and subsequent Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) opened a doorway back into the human race and for a time things were good. I found work again, we married, I learned to drive and became a parent; 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.
I spite of my husband’s unwavering support, engaging with the world was frequently stressful and draining. More and more 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. I no longer met the criteria for BPD so why I was still struggling?
Life on the spectrum
It was after we emigrated to Canada that the diagnosis of my youngest 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, I don’t intend to squander it.
Asperger’s falls under the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). People with autism have different neurological ‘wiring’, we interpret the world in a different way. Despite an extensive vocabulary I don’t always ‘get’ what people are trying to say, I miss social nuances and non-verbal cues and while I’ve actively learned skills required to pass unnoticed in social situations I’m constantly assessing everything I do and say; when to make eye-contact, when to break it, where to hold my arms, what to say, how to respond, when to interject, whether I’m speaking too loudly… you can see why social interaction can be draining. If my mood is low it’s impossible to even contemplate.
Bipolar is also a neurological condition, broadly characterised by amplified moods – agitated ‘hypomanias’ of enhanced creativity and well-being contrasted with crushing depression that sucks all hope and energy and leaves me craving the cessation of consciousness.
Living with these conditions has taught me to hold most people at arms length.
To my husband I’m the woman who hears everything or is totally oblivious. I’m either aware of what all my senses are detecting, making it hard for me to focus on a single voice in a crowded room for instance, or concentrating so hard weighing flour for pancakes I don’t register the acrid smell of a pan of burning sugar next to me.
He knows I experience feelings strongly to the point I’m overwhelmed; adverts, films and happiness all make me cry. He pushes me to push myself, supports me in my choices and listens to me process the same things time and time again. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.
Different, not less
Writing about my experiences has helped me make sense of them, increasing my self-awareness and self-acceptance by pinning down fleeting feelings and half-realised truths into solid, tangible black-and-white.
It’s lead 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.
Settling in a new country is perhaps the closest thing to experiencing the ‘apartness’ of autism so my ‘outsider’ perspective is unexpectedly 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.