What’s the best thing about keeping a diary through the bad years? Someday you read it back and realise how many lessons you’ve learned.
I’ve kept a diary for most of my life: sometimes every single day, sometimes just on holidays as a child, and sometimes as a ‘private blog’ kept in a Word document I updated every few weeks.
The last one is probably my favourite to look back on. It went into a ton of depth when I kept it.
If I could plot a graph of my perceived self-worth from my birth to now, it would look approximately like this.
This diary – totalling 262,924 words – covered the time in red. Notice how those years had the most sudden changes and the lowest moments. It ran between February 2005 to February 2015 – precisely ten years plus four days (entirely a coincidence that I discovered when writing this!). I could have kept it going longer, but then a certain site/Facebook page called Autistic Not Weird came along and absorbed the entirety of my free time. [All links open in new windows.]
Last week I opened it again. And the more I rediscovered about the angst and negativity that I believed wouldn’t change, the more I felt driven to share it. Maybe it could help some people.
So, having read through the entire ten years over the course of a week just for you guys, here are some quotes I wrote as a young adult, annotated with reflective comments from the present day (with a couple of names changed, of course).
Painful diary quotes from my worst days
This used to be absolutely Top Secret material that I would never share in a million years. And now I’m broadcasting it online, to a website that’s approaching a million hits. Wow, how times change.
1. Dealing with comfort zones (12th August 2005)
“I’m wondering whether mine and Amy’s friendship is over. We had an argument a few weeks ago, and she said things like “I regret ever ever ever ever even thinking you were sweet”. But I felt indifferent. And I guess ‘indifference’ is a word that describes my attitude to her pretty well right now.”
I once cut myself for this girl. Yes, literally.
She started to self-harm, and then brave 18-year-old me stepped in to solve the problem (that was how I used to think of these things: as problems to be solved, rather than people to be comforted). I gave her an ultimatum: next time she cut herself, I would do the same.
Except she didn’t believe me, so I cut my arm to prove I wasn’t bluffing… and then Mum found out. Bloody hell, that was a painful evening.
And after all that, she was self-harming again within a month.
The entry above was written a year and a half later, and our friendship was dead. In wanting to help her I had become persistent, irritating, and couldn’t tell when she wanted to be left alone. It didn’t take her long to dislike me, and then hate me.
I sometimes talk about Amy in my seminars, as an example of what can happen if you aren’t aware of people’s comfort zones.
Lesson learned: Well, Amy taught me several:
1) Recognise when someone’s issues are too complex for you to handle alone. Seek advice from more experienced people, rather than jumping in and thinking you can solve everything singlehandedly. (And bloody hell, keep yourself away from sharp objects in sensitive situations.)
2) As complex as other people can be, do what you can to learn about comfort zones and social strategies. And think of it as an education: very few people are naturally good at these things so don’t feel guilty for not getting it straight away. It took me until my mid-twenties, and even now I screw up. So does everyone else, although they may be better at hiding it.
3) Before the end, a friend advised me to spend some time away from Amy to allow things to cool down. This friendship ended because I didn’t take his advice. There’s no shame in taking a step back when things get too heated, and it often allows a stronger friendship in the future.
2. Good Guy Chris versus Bad Guy Chris (30th September 2006)
“I see no reason why Bad Guy Chris can overcome the Holy-Spirit-backed Good Guy Chris. Except, of course, by my own consent. And that is most definitely the hard part.”
I was very moralistic at university. And I was very preoccupied by what kind of adult I wanted to be. That may have been a good thing, since it helped me achieve the identity I wanted, but it’s tricky if you’re as anxious in character as I was.
In this entry, I took my loving, responsible side that rooted for people, and I called it “Good Guy Chris”. I took my irritable, impatient, angry side and called it “Bad Guy Chris”. It was a fairly extreme way of summarising my strengths and character flaws, but this paragraph shows that I knew what the ultimate factor was.
Lesson learned: We often don’t get to choose what life does to us. But we do get to choose how we respond.
And yes, some of us have conditions that impair our capacity to make judgements. (Autistic people who suffer from meltdowns can’t just avoid them by deciding they can’t be bothered with one that day.) But whenever we do get to make the choices, whenever we can control our judgements, we become responsible for what kind of person we want to be.
3. Self-perception (12th April 2007)
“Although I don’t suffer from inferiority complex, it feels like other people think I should. For a while I’ve had times when people have treated me as less important- not by deliberate decision, but as if it’s just the natural position to take. The fact that I often struggle with speaking doesn’t help much either. I guess that, although I don’t see myself as inferior, I see myself as inadequate.”
I was extremely self-conscious until not very long ago. And like a lot of people, I made the mistake of basing my self-perception on other people’s opinions of me. (And not just what they thought of me, but what I thought they thought of me!) The biggest boost to my self-perception was launching Autistic Not Weird – for the simple reason that it allowed me to play to my strengths and to be recognised for them.
Lesson learned: Self-perception is everything. I learned it during therapy (which I finally asked for in 2013), and I’ve heeded the advice since. And although it’s good to take advice from people, don’t let other people call the shots on what type of person you get to be.
4. My dream career (16th October 2008)
“I basically get the impression that the ideal way to live would be becoming a professional author, doing maths tuition in the meantime, and having time for Boys’ Brigade in the evenings. But hey, that’s just a pipe dream and I know it.”
I wrote this paragraph just one month after starting my teaching degree. When I read it this week, I burst out laughing.
I’m not a professional author, but last year my first self-published book sold over 1,300 copies (and I even got some fiction published in an anthology within the same month). At time of writing, a second print run is on the way [2018 edit- just had a third!]. And on top of that, I run a website that is read worldwide.
I also do tuition for maths, English and German, both professionally for autistic teenagers and in my free time with the Boys’ Brigade children… who I still see three evenings per week.
I’m still aiming to turn Autistic Not Weird into a full-time career (here’s a Patreon link, if anyone’s interested), but it is looking progressively less like a pipe dream. In fact, a career in authorship has never been closer.
Lesson learned: Dreams do actually come true. They just come true after a ton of work. And they also come true slowly, little bit by little bit.
And that doesn’t lessen the wonder of dreams becoming reality. If anything, it makes you feel more satisfied because you earned it.
5. My baby steps in special education (20th June 2009)
For me, this is the most embarrassing part of this article (except for maybe the panic attack entry four years ahead).
This was my first ever experience inside a special school: a four-week placement with students who had moderate to severe learning difficulties (and about half a year before I realised I had Asperger Syndrome). In 2017, I work with autistic students all the time as one of my three jobs. But what do you notice about what I wrote eight years ago?
“As well as feeling comfortable with the environment, I was just generally fascinated by the students. I spent the placement trying to learn about the way they see things. I wanted to know how they see other people- why George will in one moment smile at me and reach out to tap my nose (his way of friendly communication), and in the next moment see me as no more significant than the plank of wood he’s leaning against. I want to know how to tell the reasons behind their seemingly random tantrums.”
“Kiera seems an entirely normal girl who you could easily hold a good conversation with. And Steve [despite severe epilepsy] is a normal thirteen-year-old lad who likes bling and hip-hop, with a normal cheeky young teen’s personality.”
“There are emotional difficulties involved: knowing that those in Class Two, even though from photos they look like totally normal children, will never see the world through a ‘normal’ person’s eyes.”
In case you missed it, here are the things that embarrass me about this 2009 entry:
Copious use of the word ‘normal’. I have since learned that nobody likes that word, and it is particularly inappropriate in a special needs context. Not least because normality shouldn’t be seen as something to aspire to (although I’d spent most of my life being made to believe it was).
Use of the word ‘tantrums’ in the first quote. Back then, I only associated the word ‘meltdown’ with Chernobyl. I had not yet learned that some ‘tantrum-like’ behaviours are actually responses to major anxiety, and the affected person is usually terrified.
BUT– two mitigating factors:
I went to that school wanting to learn about the students as individuals. Understanding special needs is essential, but it’s no substitute for knowing the students themselves, and even back then I knew it.
I really really wanted to be there, and I really really wanted to help. My understanding wasn’t great, but I had the motivation.
Lesson learned: There is a very important difference between an uninformed person and an ignorant person. An ignorant person would call a meltdown a ‘tantrum’ and would be unwilling to learn the difference. An uninformed person would make the same kind of mistakes, but listen and learn when people teach them.
So if you hear someone referring to stereotypes, using the wrong words or generally misunderstanding special needs, don’t be too quick to judge. The person – like me in 2009 – might genuinely want to learn, but not have the experience yet. And the reason I learned so quickly was because the staff guided me, rather than making me feel guilty.
6. Jake (5th April 2010)
“Before the final goodbye, the last thing I said to Jake was that I’d given him the best life advice I knew how to give, and the only thing I ask for in return is that he looks after his brother and supports his parents. Time will tell if he does. I went home at the end of the day happy with how it ended, driving past an awesome double rainbow on the way home.”
Due to a hiccup on the teaching course, I deferred for a year and spent some time as a teaching assistant. There I supported Jake: a ten-year-old lad with a hugely negative self-perception, who just took it for granted that he’d grow up and go to prison because he was “just a bad person”.
Jake had a fantastic mind and huge potential, but he had his own personal barriers to cross. The headteacher noticed the warm relationship we had, and asked if I could support him at the beginning and end of each school day. It usually took the form of just chatting and offering life advice, but it was one of the best things I ever did in the profession.
Coincidentally, I happen to be writing this paragraph on Jake’s 17th birthday. (Yep, nearly a decade on and I still remember the children’s birthdays.) And last I heard, he was halfway through a referral order for some kind of crime he pleaded guilty to.
I felt gutted when I found out. Because a part of me still feels protective of him. But there’s nothing left I can do. That ten-year-old boy simply no longer exists, and my positive influence ended a long time ago.
Lesson learned: In my opinion, this is one of the toughest lessons to learn in life. I literally could not have done any more for Jake, and I shouldn’t feel personal guilt for his mistakes as a teenager. But it’s harder than it sounds. I’m no Star Trek fan, but this Captain Picard quote sums it up perfectly.
7. I’m autistic! (9th June 2010)
In November 2009 at the age of 24, I finally learned I had Asperger Syndrome. This entry, written the following summer, was an attempt to come to terms with it through writing.
“Autism is the beauty and the beast- it can make you see things in different and unique ways to other people, for better or for worse.
Because of autism, I look at the world and spot a vast range of amazing patterns and sequences that dance into everyday life, and all the beautiful ways that mathematics weaves its way into everything around us. I can contribute ideas to discussions that don’t even occur to other people, and once in a while I’ll get an eyebrow-raising impressed silence that makes up for the times I don’t come up with the obvious ideas. I guess I don’t see autism as a blessing or as a curse- simply as an integral part of my personality.
I grew up believing I was the weird kid. So in a way, it helps to know there was very little I could have done about it in the first place. There may be absolutely no cure for autism, and there never, ever will be, but the best advice I’ve received about dealing with it has come from Dad: whether you have autism or not, everything you face in life will be a matter of making the right choices, and learning from the choices you don’t get right.”
Learning about my autism didn’t solve my self-perception problems straight away. There were too many underlying self-esteem issues I was dealing with. But I was much stronger with the news than without it.
Lesson learned: The moment someone can be helped by the knowledge that they’re autistic, they should know. And it’s ok if it takes them a while to see it positively. Thankfully I was able to see autism as the source of my strengths as well as my weaknesses – and in my experience, focusing on people’s autism-related strengths is a major factor in how long they take to not see their autism as ‘the bad guy’.
8. When a part of me was dead (8th January 2011)
“She pointed to my graduation photo and said how back then I was happy and enthusiastic, rather than withdrawn, shy and a shell of my former self. The happy, kind, generous, confident and lively part of me has been pushed down these last couple of years.
In her words, whilst almost in tears- ‘I don’t recognise you anymore.’
And really, that’s the main memory I have about Christmastime this year.”
For a couple of years, my personality just vanished. The story’s far too long to go into the details, but from mid-2009 I was strongly encouraged by a small group of ‘important’ people to believe that I was offending people with every word I said.
It’s extremely damaging when you’re made to believe you’re pathologically inappropriate. You daren’t crack jokes at the dinner table in case someone gets offended. You daren’t use your own methods when solving a sudoku puzzle in case someone tells you you’re doing it wrong. Better people are telling you you’re wrong in most situations, and you feel like you have a duty to be more like them. And in my case, it was better to be silent than speak out and be told I was wrong.
Lesson learned: The most damaging years of my life were the ones when I tried to replace my own personality with someone else’s. I had never been so obsessed with becoming ‘normal’, and seeing it as a target I had to reach in order to become acceptable to these better people.
As Judy Garland once said, it’s better to be a first-rate version of yourself than a second-rate version of someone else. Because guess what happened when I tried becoming someone I wasn’t?
It didn’t work. All it did was guarantee that I went into every situation not knowing what I was supposed to do. At least when I was myself, I had my instincts to rely on (patchy as they were).
Improve your social awareness if you need to. Take advice from trustworthy people, and change certain habits if you need to. But don’t throw out your entire personality under a bus and attempt to grow a new one like I did. Not only is it damaging to you, but it doesn’t work anyway.
9. The ‘memorygasm’ (5th September 2012)
After finally getting my first teaching job in a fantastic school, I was devastated when my contract wasn’t extended as I thought it would be. Six months after achieving my lifetime’s ambition, I was unemployed. Feeling defeated and weak, I sought salvation in Germany – on the site of a children’s camp where I used to work for the German Methodist Church. I went to the adults’ camp instead of working with the kids, so for once it felt like a holiday.
But it had been four years since I had last had money to leave the country, and when I got there I’d almost forgotten how holidays worked. Literally, I didn’t know what to do with myself.
Eventually I started using it as an opportunity to rediscover myself. A better Chris had used to work here, and I wanted to go back to better times.
“Once camp ended, I caught the ferry to Laboe and visited the Naval Memorial, and realised on the way that I hadn’t been there since my very first Kindercamp in 2006- the best two weeks of my whole life.
After that day, I really think the word ‘memorygasm’ needs to be entered into the Oxford English Dictionary. I walked around, recognising beaches and shops from six years ago, but the totally unexpected part came when I looked at a tourist map and recognised the shape of a road to the east [yep, I literally looked at an aerial view map and remembered the sensation of walking down that same road]. I followed it, then found myself at the same random beach that we took the kids to for their overnight excursion [in 2006]. I wandered around recognising old sights: the walk along the cliffs, the precarious wooden steps, and the grassy field where I once played tag with a boy called Lukas. The whole afternoon felt like the step back in time I needed, and brought back a world gone by when the future looked bright: a world before the teaching course, before autism, before unemployment, before failed interviews, before Jake, before ‘the dream job’. Before the deaths of Granny and Ted [my Boys’ Brigade captain who introduced me to this camp]. Back when I wrote songs and Sonic fanfiction just because it was fun. Back when my weirdness was seen as a quirky personality trait rather than something that got in the way.
Wherever he is, Lukas must be nearly sixteen now. The past is never coming back, but days like this allow me to look back at how beautiful it was.”
Sometimes we need steps back in time. The past isn’t a good place to live in, but revisiting memories can give us the chance to see what has motivated us back then. And once in a while, you find lessons you can apply to the present day.
10. Finally, finally getting therapy (1st July 2013)
“The borders of my comfort zone have been unclear lately. They keep shifting inwards and outwards at random intervals. My mental health’s taken quite a hit these last two years.
The pivotal moment was New Year’s night, when I went to Simon’s, got roaringly drunk, then had a panic attack at 3am and refused to sleep alone. I woke up the next morning, silent and embarrassed in front of my friends, and decided enough was enough. I had gone for too long without seeking help.”
So what happened on New Year’s night? I drank my weight in alcohol because (in my words) “screw it, it’s not like I’ve got anyone to impress”. My self-esteem was so low that I just took it for granted that others would see me as negatively as I did. At 3am I lay down, but when the light went off I realised I was breathing manually rather than automatically. I thought I would stop breathing and die if I fell asleep. It was truly terrifying.
After a terrible opening night, 2013 turned out to be my recovery year. But it should not have taken an event like that for me to start talking about my mental health. I should have asked for help. (In fact, I still think that calling the doctor and putting my feelings into words was one of the bravest things I’ve ever done. And I’ve jumped out of planes.)
Lesson learned: For most of the years covered by this diary, therapy would have helped. Don’t wait for something drastic. Call for help while there’s less to fix. And for the love of everything you hold dear, please don’t endure eight years of it like I did.
(And by the way, I just took one of the most embarrassing/frightening moments of my life and put it on the internet for the world to read. I really hope it wasn’t for nothing. If you’re reading this and you need help like I did, please ask for it.)
11. Finding my place (4th August 2014)
“Working with teenagers is usually fun if you get a good bunch, especially if they’re people you can reach. From September to Easter, I spent most of my timetable with ten students who had “mild to moderate” autism- it was really striking how they were very mature socially, but academically they struggled (and in some cases, a terrible time in mainstream left them with enormous self-esteem issues). The chess club I ran was the most successful I’ve ever done- it had a profound impact on a dozen students, and some found serious talent despite struggling in so many other areas.”
“During my final assembly, I was up at the front receiving a leaving gift, and Barbara [my colleague and friend] gave the most fitting tribute I can remember ever receiving: “we’ll miss Chris- his chess club and his… quirky approach to life.” (pause) “I think that’s the kindest way of putting it.” Which was actually pretty lovely.”
Remember the ‘self-worth graph’ at the start? Between 2009 and 2015, it was only positive twice: once when I had my first class, and again when I started work in a special school. I was valued there. I was useful there. And I was helping and building people like I’d wanted to do for my whole adult life.
On top of that, the school had never knowingly had an autistic staff member before, and the teenagers inspired me to finally open up and start talking about my Asperger’s. I became someone who could talk to autistic teenagers from the perspective of someone who could empathise with them, who thought in the same direction as them and was willing to offer life advice from experience. It was probably the most good I ever did for anyone in the teaching profession. Perhaps including Jake.
Lesson learned: A year before this entry, I kept telling my therapist I was a failure. And that, despite two university degrees, I wasn’t really worth much.
This experience is probably why I include this advice in every talk I give: find a place in life where you can play to your strengths. I spent far too long thinking of myself as inadequate when I simply wasn’t in the right place.
Looking back over that 262,000 word tome that spanned a decade, my twenties were pretty rocky.
But ultimately, they had a happy ending. After that last entry I had one last job as a primary school teacher with renewed confidence. Two months after the diary ended I launched this site and its Facebook page, started delivering autism talks, and I’ve been playing to my strengths ever since.
And oddly enough, I owe a lot to those tough times. Because the biggest bit of advice I can give to anyone going through such times is to look for the lessons. They’re sometimes tricky to find (and we don’t always have the motivation to look for them), but they’re the lessons that have the greatest impact. Trust me.
I hope this far-too-honest article has helped some of you. And for those who made it from 2005 to the present day, thank you.
Underdogs, a near-future dystopia series where the heroes are teenagers with special needs, is a character-driven war story which pitches twelve people against an army of millions, balancing intense action with a deeply developed neurodiverse cast.
Chris Bonnello is a national and international autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window). Autistic Not Weird on Facebook