Content/trigger warning: mentions of abuse and police brutality, reclaimed slur
Today I want to talk about normalizing neurodivergent symptoms and traits.
I mentioned in a previous post that I have experienced a metric crapload of invalidation of my mental illness. (I don’t believe I gave an amount, but the correct technical term is “metric crapload”.) Thinking about invalidation made me wonder what could possibly motivate an asshole NT to tell someone they weren’t actually mentally ill. Could it be because they had never seen me being visibly mentally ill? A week or so later, I found myself ruminating on how I was born with a near-inability to lie. (It is a stereotype that Autistic people cannot lie. Also, I am an eight-foot tall ferret with purple stripes and opposable thumbs.) But at this point in my life, I can lie as easily as I can breathe. Many abuse survivors can do this—lying to our abusers could keep us safe—but even if I hadn’t been abused, I think I would have learned well to lie. Because I find myself telling small lies all the time. I get asked if I have a cold and I say yes, although the reason I am blowing my nose is because I was crying, not because I’m sick. I tell my supervisor I am physically sick and cannot come into work, but the organ that is misbehaving isn’t my stomach but my brain. Someone asks if I’m stressed or nervous, and I laugh and say “no” even though my spine feels as though it has turned to ice water because something has just tripped my PTSD and I’m a hair’s breadth from dissociating.
You might be asking, “Mara, why do you do that? You’re such a loudmouth about mental illness stuff.” Well, first of all, sometimes I have to lie to my abuser. (Yes, I’m still in contact with that person; it’s a long story about a lot of things I can’t change.) But also, I’m not as brave as I would like to be. I stay afraid, but can’t always do it anyway when I’m having a symptom and someone wants to know what’s happening. And sometimes I’m not even afraid; it’s just a reflex from the days before I was diagnosed but knew something was wrong with me, but I felt like it would be wrong to talk about what was really happening. Maybe, even at that young age, I was already afraid of invalidation. Maybe I knew enough to be afraid of saneism. But it became a habit that is hard to break. I catch myself lying about symptoms and then mentally kick myself.
I once had a combination flashback and meltdown—that’s my best description of it; I’m not sure exactly what it was, but it really sucked—on public transportation. Specifically, I was on a bus. I was already dissociated after finding out I had gotten on the bus going in the wrong direction, so I don’t remember what the bus driver said to me to set me off, but I ran to the back of the bus, screaming and pounding my fists and my head against the seats. I’m lucky the bus driver didn’t call the police. If she had, I might have been shot. (No, that’s not an exaggeration. The police are not properly trained to handle neurodivergent people.) One of the other passengers was a nurse who was able to identify what was happening to me; she talked to the bus driver, and thank the gods, I was left alone until I calmed down. This scenario could have gone very, very differently had there not been someone who knew what was happening to me, and I was nonverbal and too panicked to tell anyone what was going on or flash one of those (admittedly handy) apps on my phone saying I was having a meltdown.
Formal medical training shouldn’t have been necessary to know what was happening to me. Traits and symptoms of neurodivergence should be common knowledge. Perhaps they could be taught in middle and high school health classes, along with what to do to help (hint: ask if the person in distress needs anything, and if they do not respond, let them be, and for the love of chocolate don’t call the police unless they are actively threatening someone). Stigma against mentally ill and other ND people is a safety issue. (Note: this also means that if you feel safest hiding your symptoms, please hide all you want. Stay safe.) A society that doesn’t know how to handle neurodivergent people is literally dangerous to us. (More on that in another entry.)
I’m sure that having symptoms or talking about them in front of NTs makes those people uncomfortable. To be honest, sometimes I get a thrill watching them squirm because I hope they’re confronting their biases against neurodivergent people. It’s not a day if I haven’t made an NT uncomfortable. You might think that making so many people uncomfortable would be counterproductive and make NT people hate us ND people more. Well, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the root of stigma is NTs thinking of ND people as Other. If they could see or hear about people they know exhibiting symptoms, maybe they could understand that those symptoms happen in those they already think of as people. It’s easy to Other someone if you don’t know their name, their ambitions, their likes and dislikes, etc.
I try to do what I can to normalize being obviously neurodivergent. I make neurodivergent pride gear. I post pictures of my pill bottles on Instagram and tag them “#medicatedandmighty”. I tell my friends that I don’t have the spoons for a social event instead of faking sick. My Facebook profile picture reads: “I’m not neurotypical and that’s okay”. Unfortunately, sometimes I still balk at discussing symptoms during interpersonal interactions. When I insisted to a friend on the bus ride to work that yes, I am Autistic, and she would find that easier to believe if she had seen me melt down, my heart was beating so hard felt like it was trying to escape from my ribs. When I first told my girlfriend that I had been hospitalized for suicidal ideation, I thought I would start shaking. It’s hard to power through that fear sometimes.
I’m not going to ask every mentally ill person to start showing or talking about their symptoms more openly. That wouldn’t be practical or fair. The onus should never be on the oppressed to make their case to the oppressors, anyway. NTs need to learn to accept that neurodivergent people have neurodivergent traits that affect their lives. Yes, yes, I know that that sounds contradictory to how much I talk about what I, a neurodivergent as hell person, do to try to dismantle saneism and other forms of ableism. But I have to do something, because that’s who I am. I do what I can even though I know I shouldn’t have to. I dream of a world where neurodivergent people can freely discuss their symptoms and/or traits without fear, and in the meantime, I fight like hell.
Carrie Fisher quote of the day: “I’m what the psychology journals refer to as ‘batshit crazy’. It’s a delicate mix of bipolar disorder, which I’m able to control through serious medication, and a completely untreatable case of ‘I just don’t give a shit’.” Yeah, replace “bipolar disorder” with my cocktail of mental illnesses and you’ve got me too, Carrie.