The original title of this post, which I devised when my mood was somewhat lower than it is today, was “Double Mourning”, but I ditched it as being too strong, and, in fact, not really factually accurate. It also reminded me of those terrible articles, which I’m certain are supposed to induce some sort of emotion, where parents write of their “grief” at discovering their child is autistic. An autistic diagnosis might be a shock, yes, and it certainly makes one think rather hard about rather a lot of things, but it is not really about grieving, especially when the diagnosis is so early that the child in question can be supported to be their full autistic self and get the best possible out of their life with the knowledge of who they are. The child is still there and has not changed – leave the “grief” for those who are genuinely bereaved, whose children have died, been stillborn or miscarried, or were never conceived despite much effort.
However, I can understand that any autism diagnosis is a huge shift in perspective, and can alter expectations and so on. And when that diagnosis comes late in life, although it is, in many ways, liberating and validating and a huge relief, it can also come with a lot of regret that it wasn’t spotted earlier, particularly for those of us who have been disabled by our autistic characteristics and whose quality of life has been generally poor. I have spent much of my life fighting against my neurology, trying to be a person I wasn’t, because I didn’t know who I was, and the effort that has taken has been huge.
And, to add insult to injury, I have spent my life working at absolute maximum capacity the whole time, trying my very best to live up to the high expectations that others had of me (because all they saw was a decent set of exam results so I really was told I could do anything, which turned out not to be true) and which, as a consequence, I eventually had of myself. I lived in a world where a grade B was a failure, where I was expected to be the best, to rise to the top, to be successful and to settle down and have a happy and fulfilled life. It didn’t turn out that way – as I discussed in Expectations Gone.
So while I am not mourning, I am having to look back and deal with two lots of what I shall call “regret” and this is where my situation differs from that of the small child – had I been diagnosed at 4, my parents would have had to replan my future, but there would be very little past to look back on, analyse, and very little to regret about how my life had thus far been conducted. At 45 I now face having to replan my future, whatever there will be of it, but I’m also having to come to terms with the events of the past and how both my being autistic and my not knowing about it has impacted my life.
I cannot help asking myself the question “What if I’d been diagnosed at n?” where n is a number between 0 and 45. Maybe one day I’ll try to do a post that conveys some of my thoughts on this, although, obviously, the whole thing is a hypothetical exercise. It is, obviously, of no practical use, but it’s a way of me working through my past and analysing the effect that being an undiagnosed autistic for 45 years has had on my life. And, because of the sort of person I am, I’m given to such experiments because they interest me. And since I have nobody to talk to about them apart from my long-suffering husband, they might well end up here at some point.
So while I’m playing “autism bingo” (see Disparate Facts) and scrapping my old plans and making new (hopefully exciting) ones, on my more introspective days I am dealing with two lots of regret, and I am sometimes getting really really sad, and sometimes really really angry, and sometimes wishing that I had a time machine and I could go back and have another try at life, with proper knowledge of my neurology and permission to be myself rather than having to act the Strong Woman for so long. There is a part of me that feels that 45 is too late and that my disastered life is beyond rescue now – the lack of any family, the failure of all the jobs, the huge debts, the chaotic living conditions, the shocking mental health, and my current poor quality of life make me wonder if it’s even worth the effort. But there is also a part of me that is interested to see what happens next, and to discover where things go from here, and to find out whether I can build a life that gives me some degree of either success or pleasure, or if I’m really really lucky, a bit of both – I have a husband, an insatiably curious mind, pretty good physical health in many ways, and maybe a few decades ahead to do some interesting stuff.
So why am I regretting TWO alternative pasts? And what are they?
The first is the past that I would have had had I not BEEN autistic. Of course, it’s impossible to tell what a non-autistic version of me might have been like, because autism doesn’t work like that and I’d have been a completely different person, but, if I look around at those who had similar backgrounds to me, then many of them went on to lead very different lives from me. The smiling group photos of friends I see on facebook, the people who enjoy going off on trips together, the people who meet up socially in their spare time and so on. And, of course, there are the families and jobs and houses that many have because they’ve been able to work and make money and use their qualifications to build a life in a way that I haven’t. I know, by the way, that this is not the case for everyone, and also that there are autistic people who have succeeded with families, jobs, houses and the like, but I’m trying to work out the things that didn’t work for me, for which I believe being autistic might have been responsible.
The non-autistic life was also the one that, until 8 months ago, I believed I had. It didn’t even occur to me to wonder whether I was autistic or not, because nobody had ever raised the possibility with me. I believed that I had failed very badly at life, and I was fairly certain that with the amount of work I put in and the skills that I had, that it was rather unfair that things kept going so badly wrong. Of course, the paradox here is that, had I been a different person, a non-autistic version of myself, there might have been areas where I HAVE succeeded that I wouldn’t even have considered because they’re part of my autistic self. Had I been a good socialite at college, I might have got a less good degree because I’d have been in the bar chatting rather than in the library reading every single reference to every single journal article. Had I been good at team sport at school, I might never have spent so much time learning music and it would not have become such an important part of my life. Had I been able to hold down a job properly, I might never had the time to care for so many animals, and so on and so on and so on.
So a big part of this autistic discovery is, to a certain extent, to “regret” that I wasn’t “normal” (both words in inverted commas, because they’re the closest I can get to what I’m trying to say, and I know all the “yes but what is normal anyway” stuff and I’m trying to convey that I’m using the words because they’re the best I can come up with at this point). There is a huge regret that I didn’t find life easier and that I worked so damn hard and because my neurology is different, I didn’t get the same results for the same amount of work that other people did. But I’m not sure the concept of actually BEING neurotypical has much meaning for me, since I haven’t the faintest clue what it might be like. I’ve discussed with neurotypical people and heard about how they only hear the conversation they’re actually having when they’re in a room full of people, and how they can talk about things they haven’t rehearsed, and how they don’t feel sick when they go shopping, and how they feel happier running in groups and chatting, and how they think that a night out at the pub is more relaxing than staying at home doing advanced mathematics, but these things are so far from my experience that I really have no clue what it might be like. One of the things I’d really like to do is to find more neurotypical friends and really discover what life feels like for them, because it’s utterly fascinating.
The second alternative past that I’m “regretting” (again, I use the word advisedly), is the one in which I KNEW I was autistic. There is probably more to say about this, and about the consequences of having known, in a future blog post (the exercise described in the 5th paragraph above). I am certain that had I known what my neurology was earlier in my life it would have helped me no end, although I’m also conscious that it’s much more complicated than that because we have also to take into account the way that the world has changed in the last 45 years, so there are really too many variables to consider. A diagnosis of autism in 1975 would almost certainly have resulted in my future being limited by the perceptions of others, for example, whereas such a diagnosis for a 4-year-old now would produce a very different outcome. I also avoided any efforts to “cure” me with horrific therapies, though I was sometimes harshly disciplined when I had meltdowns, which were taken to be bad behaviour, my sensory needs weren’t recognised so I went through a lot of pain, which I learnt to normalise, and I stored up a lot of inner trauma and anxiety as a result of being bullied, struggling with friends, and trying to be “normal”. But I was able to use the skills I did have. The very things that meant that nobody was able to tell that I was autistic in the 1970s and 80s meant that I was allowed just to proceed with life and as I grew up people just got used to the idea that I was who I was, quirks and all, and, to an extent, I just learnt what was expected of me and did it the best I could.
I’d have liked to grow up with a diagnosis. I’d have liked my parents to have been able to access groups on facebook, to learn that I wasn’t being awkward, that I wasn’t actually trying to be headstrong, or picky with my food, and that I wasn’t trying to be bad, although I always felt I came across as bad. I’d have liked my schools to recognise that I was putting in lots of work, even though it wasn’t the sort of work that they were expecting, and I’d like to be able to look back on my childhood now and see it as a happy fun-filled time, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t do that. I see it as a constant learning process that required behaving well and doing well at schoolwork. I’ve heard people describe childhood as some sort of “carefree” time, but I’m struggling to think of anything like that in my own past.
But it was the 1970s. Nobody knew. And I forgive those who didn’t see how much I was struggling because they didn’t know what to look for and because I didn’t know either. It was just the way it was back then.
However, when it comes to adulthood, I have very different feelings. By the time I was in my mid-20s I was already very mentally ill. The masking that I’d learnt through childhood was already taking a heavy toll on me, and if I’d known in my mid-20s that I was autistic and had had the opportunity to learn what I know now then I believe my life would have been very very different and I’d be in a much better position with a much better quality of life than I have now. I’ll try and work out why that is at some point, and exactly what I would have done differently, partly because it might inform my own future and I can, I hope, stop making the same mistakes I’ve been making for the last 20 years, and partly because it might be useful for others, who are in their 20s and recently diagnosed.
What I do know is that I’m reading a lot of articles online about “late diagnosis”, and I read and read and read and it sounds exactly like me, and then the punchline comes: “and it was like this for the first 25 years of my life”!!!! And I sit there and think “25? That’s TWO DECADES AGO for me!!!” I feel old. I’m middle-aged. I’m in the middle of the menopause. My hair is grey (it is grey at the moment because I can’t dye it because I’ve destroyed my scalp too badly). Some of my contemporaries are grandparents. How is 25 LATE for anything? At 25 you have almost your whole life ahead of you. You have a maximum of around 20 years’ masking to undo, you can be YOU for almost all your adult life!!!
Now, of course, I realise that this is my perspective as a 45-year-old. And I am encountering people who are newly diagnosed autistic in their 50s, 60s, and even older. I’m sure a newly-diagnosed 70-year-old would look at me and think how young I am, how much opportunity I still have (especially with my relative physical fitness), and would ask me what on Earth I was complaining about. And, of course, they’d be right, that my lot in life is considerably better than theirs was in very many ways (though also worse in others – I believe there are ways in which some aspects of the past were more advantageous to autistic people than some aspects of the modern world – that’s yet another blog post for the future).
However, when I look back on my life and wish, desperately, that I had known I was autistic, the point that I really wish it had been discovered was somewhere in my mid-20s. This was the point at which my mental health took a huge nosedive, the point at which life started to become seriously seriously tough for me and moved from anxiety into severe depression and when the suicidal ideation became suicide attempts and I didn’t understand why things were so very bad. Had I had the knowledge about my neurology back then that I have today, I could have, instead of going through months of hard CBT to try to cope with supermarkets, realised that they did indeed make me sick and I wasn’t being pathetic and the answer was to spend less time in them and wear dark glasses. Instead of reading the guides to good mental health that told me to spend lots of time with friends because that would be good for me and forcing myself to go to the pub after rehearsals and so on, I could have gone home and saved that energy. I’ve spent a lot of the last 20 years PUSHING through, fighting through, being strong, making myself do the tough stuff because I looked around and everyone else could do it so I knew that I should be able to as well. But the cycle of push, get sick, fail went round and round, and in 20 years of mental health service use, nobody suggested autism. That, I really do regret.
I survived my childhood. I even did reasonably well academically. It wasn’t amazing, but it wasn’t the spectacular disaster that the last 20 years have been. I’m also now questioning how anxious I really am, and wondering whether the high levels of anxiety contributed to our being unable to have children, and if I’d allowed myself enough downtime and been aware of just how anxious I was, whether it would have helped. That, of course, I can only speculate, because it’s impossible to know. I am just coming to realise how high my anxiety levels have been all my life, but because they’ve always been that way, I’d never really noticed them. With my diagnosis has come a relief, a liberation, and a permission to relax and be myself that I’ve never felt before in my life. I don’t have to try to “achieve” any more, because I work on a different system and I have to operate by different rules in order to compensate for the way I perceive the world. Now that I do know, I can start to figure out what works and implement it. I can start to work on reducing anxiety, on planning a future that’s not based totally on striving to be the best or work the hardest, because those things aren’t suitable for me.
And I really do wish I’d known all this 20 years ago. The biggest regret I have is not that I am autistic (I’m not sure, in many ways, that that’s even a regret at all, because the notion of a non-autistic me simply doesn’t make any sense), nor in some ways, is that it wasn’t spotted in childhood (and getting the 2017 “diagnosis” for my 4-year-old self has, in many ways made peace with that anyway), but that I have spent a quarter of a century of my adult life not knowing I was autistic. THAT is the big regret.
And that’s the bit I’m most still struggling to come to terms with, the bit that needs the most work. I still need to do the thought experiments for “What if I’d been diagnosed at 40, 35, 30, 25, 20…?” I still need to work out how my own history intersects with my experiences in the mental health services, the knowledge of autism (particularly among those of us assigned female at birth), and I still need to work out where to go from here.
There’s not much I can do apart from keep going with it all. Reports from those who’ve been through similar experiences suggest it will take a year or so. I’m still less than 8 months post-discovery and less than 8 weeks post-diagnosis, so it’s not surprising I’m not there yet!