This may be a long blog because it’s a pretty big topic and one I spent years struggling with over the years. Our sense of identity is one of the most important elements of being a well-adjusted and happy human, but it is one that many of us on the Autism spectrum and those with mental health issues struggle with,
For the first few years of my life I was a very confident little Jeanette. It didn’t occur to me to be anything else. I was in a loving family within a caring church, my tiny village primary school was pretty much devoid of bullies and I had books, paints and my big brother to keep my company. All this changed when I was 11 and went to high school. Within what seemed two minuets of my arrival at this huge, scary school, it became evident that there was something different about me. I was the least popular kid in the school. It was at this point that I questioned my worth. Who was I and why did everyone seem to hate me?
I moved to Australia and my school experiences were similar to those in England. Suddenly I wanted to belong to a peer group or at least spend a day at school where mean girls didn’t tease me and smelly farm boy bullies didn’t steal my lunch money from my locker or pull my shorts down in PE class. I had very little self-worth and thought I mist be a horrible person if all these kids hated me. At one point I changed how I spelled my name – hating myself so much that I wanted to change even how I was described, thinking this might make me a different, more popular person, I was lucky to still have the church. The church had the aded advantage of apparently owning ‘The Truth’. Yes, they put the fun into fundamentalist but I didn’t mind. The beliefs and community made me feel safe and sure and I knew where I stood. Church was my community and where I belonged. Sadly all good things must come to an end (and if you claim your beliefs are the Truth with an upper case ‘T’ this would possibly seem more inevitable as dogmatic groups tend to cause factionalism in my experience). The split in the congregation was the most traumatising event I could imagine. I had trusted the ‘brothers’ of the church and their firm beliefs. I had based my entire belief system on what they said and now they didn’t agree with one another. I was betrayed and furious. They had stolen my certainty and my identity. I followed my passionate interest at the time of communism and joined a Trotskyist group barely months after the split. Enough with the Christadelphians and their questionable Truth. I had a new dogma now, a new group to belong to. I stopped being Jeanette, devout Christadephian and become Jeanette, devout socialist.
I spent the next ten years moving from one ‘culture’ to another – criminals due to an evil, older boyfriend and drug addicts. For a while I owned the identity of a mental health diagnosis but when I discovered it was inaccurate I gave that up. The common factor in all of these things was that I used them to determine who I was. I was so uncomfortable with myself and had such a low value on who I was that I needed to define myself through membership of a group. I hated myself so much that when I was given something which I could actually connect with – a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome – it took me seven years to accept it and incorporate it into my sense of who I was.
In fact the day I accepted my Autism – albeit rather gingerly and reluctantly – was the day I turned my notion of who I was around and started to become who I am today. That day was in early 2002 and I am only just beginning to feel proud of who I am and being able to value myself as I am, diagnoses and ‘difference’ included. It was a long journey, for me as it is for others. We live in a society which determines that we should conform. If we are different, confused, quirky, feel broken and lost, have a different gender identity to the acceptable one, being to a cultural, religious or social group that people are prejudiced against or have a diagnosis of any number of things which differentiate us from the ‘norm’…if these things are the case we are often made to feel excluded and judged. This exclusion and judgement can make it difficult to value oneself and form a coherent and positive identity. I sometimes wonder if it is a basic human need to ostracise people who don’t conform. These days there are many platforms for people to express who they are in a respectful and safe way. There does seem to be more respect for people who identify as divergent from the ‘norm’ and this is a great thing.
On my own identity journey, I seemed to grow in self-worth and self-acceptance the more I helped others and talked publicly about Autism and mental health. By talking to others about how to support them to be the best them they can be resulted in me translating my message into language I understood. I often say I am speaking to my 16 year old self when I am on stage and think I am. I am working to help my remembered 16 year old self build her confidence and view herself positively. I love that I am in a place where I can value myself as an Autistic woman with a mental illness and a rather challenging past. It is not enough for me to value msyelf though. I want everyone on the Autism spectrum, everyone with a lived experience of mental illness to be able to stand up and say ‘I am me and I am proud of who I am and what I have done’. Yes, I wish that for all of us
Me telling people to be awesome…or something like that