Sam Dylan Finch wrote about being a ‘good’ mentally ill person for The Establishment a few days ago. Though we have different diagnoses, I can still relate to the article rather intensely. My entire life has been a struggle to be the ‘good’ neurodivergent person. I’m autistic and have generalised anxiety disorder and depression, along with a few other brain things. I’ve been trained since early childhood to pass as neurotypical, starting with my early years in a preschool specifically for kids with disabilities and a speech and language pathologist I saw once after starting mainstream preschool.
Self-awareness has become a double-edged sword; on the one hand, I appreciate being able to understand myself more fully, but on the other, I struggle with intense self-consciousness. Growing up, I had every conspicuous neurodivergent trait scrutinised constantly by parents, teachers and other adults. I was told to have quiet hands, to stop dancing in the hallways, to stop twitching, to stop talking to myself. I was pressured into giving near-perfect eye contact even though it felt as though people’s eyes were boring into my soul when I looked at them. Everything was part of a concerted effort to make me indistinguishable from my peers. ‘Don’t do that! People will think you’re crazy.’ ‘Don’t do that. Other people don’t do that.’ I internalised a fear of People, with a capital P, and what they would think of the way I presented myself in the world. It grew even worse when I was a teenager and my parents started attributing some of my differences to Satan after they got involved with fundamentalist Christianity.
Even though I’ve long since rejected the idea that it is better for autistic people to pretend not to be autistic, it is still difficult for me to interact with people outside the disability community or my close friend circle without feigning neurotypical. I don’t judge other people for not ‘passing’, but I do judge myself terribly.
Even around people who do know I’m autistic and will probably expect less eye contact and more stimming, I still don’t feel right doing those things.
I feel as though I’m under constant scrutiny for my race, disability and queerness. It’s already hard to exist when you hear stories of yet another black person being shot by the police, new efforts by far-right governments to kill disabled people slowly through Social Darwinism in the form of budget cuts, or social conservative bullies trying to scare trans people out of existence through bathroom bills and constant barrages of hate speech. In order to be a respectable, credible advocate, I have to be performatively sane. I’m terrified of being institutionalised. I’ve never been in a psych hospital, but I’ve been threatened with it. I worry that dropping some of these performances will hurt my advocacy. Some of this is admittedly irrational and borne of anxiety; I know of other disability advocates who talk about their mental health neurodivergences with much more candour than I can muster. With so many intersecting forms of marginalisation, I feel there’s something I need to cling to in order to be heard. I reject respectability politics on principle, but have thoroughly imbibed it in my daily life because I feel I have to.
When I drop the mask, I’m much more conspicuously different from non-autistic and other neurotypical people. I talk to myself to keep my thoughts straight. I flap, I roll, I twiddle and spin. In fact, there isn’t a coherent, centralised ‘I’ here, but a number of different ghosts in this pain-ridden, fatigue-beset machine. I can make a good simulacrum of a centralised self, though. All these things take work to suppress. It’s exhausting. All that energy being used when it could be going towards things that would actually help me get through day-to-day life. I just want to relax, but I feel I can’t. Even at home I try not to do these things too often, even when my door is shut and nobody is watching. Though I’m crazy, I don’t want to seem too crazy. I support open neurodivergence in theory, but the praxis is daunting. I wonder: how much of this is necessary to survive, and how much of it will ultimately kill me by making me too exhausted to exist?