This is a big one, guys. And it’s time for me to stop procrastinating and face my past.
Those who have known me for a while will know that I have a fair amount of experience with low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness, lack of belonging and negative self-perception. So this is another article I didn’t want to write, purely for personal reasons. But in my experience, they tend to be the most useful. (And if 11 Diary Entries From My Worst Years and How I Put Anxiety In Its Place are anything to go by, facing my past seems to be something my readers find valuable.) [All links on Autistic Not Weird open in new windows, by the way.]
So I’d like to thank Autistic Not Weird’s Facebook community for making me feel comfortable talking about these kinds of subjects (and to anyone who doesn’t know about the community, it’s a lovely friendly place). And also my Patreon supporters, who got the final vote on my next article and chose this one. I can always rely on you guys to help me get my priorities right.
A little about my backstory:
Instead of boring you with my whole life story, I’m going to give a quick list of some experiences which led me to write this article. If you can see yourself in some of these points, you may find my advice useful.
I had an inferiority complex in social circles from the age of nine or so. I felt like I wasn’t “allowed” to have the same influence as other people.
As a teenager, I felt alienated from most other teens. I may have been intelligent, but I certainly wasn’t ‘normal’ like I was ‘supposed’ to be.
I was bullied during my teenage years by ‘the popular kids’, which kind of cemented my opinion about myself.
As an adult I failed interview after interview after interview: not because I would have been bad at the job, but because I couldn’t answer questions well in front of an interview panel.
At 25 I got diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, which was ultimately one of the best things to have happened to me. At the time though, I saw it as a reinforcement of all my weaknesses.
I went through a string of temporary jobs, landing back at square one at the end of each contract.
During my worst days, it used to feel like I was trespassing on the rest of the world’s property just by being alive.
At the age of 27, I used to tell the therapist I was a failure. Not in an emotional kind of way, but in a matter-of-fact kind of way.
I launched Autistic Not Weird at the age of 29, when I realised that my lifestyle of getting anxious and failing interviews for a living just wasn’t working out.
So if you want some advice from experience, here it is.
1. Play to your strengths.
Yes, I use this phrase all the time, in my articles and in my talks. I even devoted one of my 3-Minute Autism Advice videos on YouTube to the subject. It is so important that I’ll keep repeating it until the sun becomes a red giant and swallows the Earth. [Disclaimer: this won’t happen anytime soon, don’t worry.]
It didn’t take my psychiatrist long to realise what the biggest cause of my anxiety was. It was my employment (or lack of it). I got a few bits of work here and there, but very little that gave me an opportunity to see everything that was brilliant about myself. Not long later I was working in a special school, helping autistic teenagers who were surprisingly similar to myself, and suddenly my strengths were being appreciated. My self-esteem went up like a rocket. (My anxiety remained – here’s a separate article about how I dealt with it – but my opinion about myself became healthy again, and that made my anxiety easier to handle.)
If you’re reading this and you’re a human, you have strengths. Take a look at the bullet-point list above: with the exception of that last one, I didn’t mention anything positive about my life. I didn’t write about my university degrees, my Boys’ Brigade captaincy, my writing prowess or my sheer awesomeness at playing chess. I somehow neglected to mention all those positives. Why? Because I didn’t spend much time thinking about them in my worst days.
Wherever you find the opportunities – be it at work, or at home, or socially or whatever- learn what you’re good at, and do it. Even playing chess was a nice reminder that I wasn’t entirely useless, at a time when I felt the rest of the world was trying to convince me I was.
2. Other people are allowed to be wrong too.
One common experience of being autistic is that everyone seems to know society’s ‘rules’ except you. And if you’re anything like me, this can easily lead to the assumption that if you have an opinion about something, and another person has a different opinion, it’s probably them that’s right.
It’s a complete load of crap, but I believed it.
If I had one opinion on what to do at the weekend, and someone else had another, I’d assume their opinion was more informed than mine. It couldn’t possibly have been a matter of both opinions being equally valid.
If I said something to an irritable acquaintance/colleague and they yelled at me for seemingly no reason, I’d assume I’d done something inappropriate and was too stupid to know what. It couldn’t possibly have been them being stressed and taking it out on me.
I’m not sure exactly when I realised that other people are allowed to be wrong as well, and that making mistakes wasn’t a privilege reserved for me alone. But it so liberating when I realised the truth: that all these “better” non-autistic people often made judgements that were even worse than mine. They were just better at hiding their embarrassment.
Blaming everyone else for everything is an unhealthy habit. But it’s equally unhealthy to blame yourself for everything. Take responsibility for the mistakes you make, but don’t pin other people’s mistakes on yourself. No matter how confident they look when having a different opinion to you.
3. People suck, but you do need them.
That’s obviously me from the old days talking. My opinion about people in general has improved these last few years.
But that was how I felt at the time. A load of well-meaning people – casual acquaintances, mainly – would say things that they thought would help me, but actually made me feel worse. I even came up with a Bingo game for it:
But on the plus side, at least I had people looking out for my interests. Even if they didn’t quite know how to help.
And that’s the main point here: if you (like the old me) are caught between wanting people to help but feeling awkward when they try, it helps to let them know what kind of help does you some good. My parents have always been very supportive, but their support became far better once I told them that pep talks at dinnertime weren’t actually helping, and that sitting down and eating was my ‘quiet time’ away from the day’s worries.
Yes, it’s uncomfortable to talk about. And it can feel very tempting to stick in your silent comfort zone and just deal with the bad feelings as they come. But cumulatively, it’s a lot less depressing to have one or two tough discussions and then feel better supported afterwards.
Once you do that, and your band of well-intentioned-but-annoying onlookers became supporters who know exactly how to support you, you may find out that people don’t suck quite as much after all.
4. Just because you’re having a bad time doesn’t mean life itself is ugly.
This particular memory of dealing with depression is so uplifting to me that I’m literally laughing whilst writing this.
When things were bad for me, the good in life was difficult to see. So I tried to see the beautiful things literally anywhere I could find them. I’d look at the shape of my hand and think “wow, this is incredible when you actually study it.” I’d look at a tree and think exactly the same thing. I’d read through famous chess games and admire the genius. I’d look at the colour blue and concentrate on how blue it was.
It was the little things – the really tiny things – that made me realise that my own life may not have been going well, but life itself was still a rather amazing thing.
A few years later I escaped my depression. But by then, the habit above had been fixed into my head (evidently it’s not just negative behaviours that can become engrained). So these days, I’m no longer depressed and I still find beauty in the tiny things in life by habit!
It really is a beautiful habit to have. And if I hadn’t gone through my bad times, I wouldn’t have that habit today.
Incidentally… after five or six years, I think it’s time I finally said a public thank you to Jonah.
I’ve been friends with Jonah’s mum for a long, long time now. And like many mothers, her son appeared in several of her photos. And, rather oddly, he had a wide smile in every single one.
Every. Single. One.
I may not be the best at reading people, but it didn’t take a genius to work out that Jonah utterly loved his life and everything about it. And it was made visible to me, every day.
You’d think that’d annoy me, right? Perhaps make me jealous of this boy who was able to love life so much, during the years when I didn’t?
Nope, on the contrary- after getting home daily from a long day of being miserable, seeing my friend’s son happy was one of those tiny things to focus on, in a sea of reasons to be depressed.
Jonah never knew about my depression, of course. But, unknowingly, he reminded me that whether or not things were going good for me, life itself was still full of beautiful things. Children aren’t that happy by accident, and I wanted to get back to my real self so I could see the good in the world like he did.
Thank you, Jonah. Now you’re probably old enough to be told about all this, you deserve to know about your part in my escape.
To everyone else reading, I hope you have (or find) someone who reminds you of the things in this world that are worth being happy about.
5. The future is not set.
Yeah, I totally ripped off the Terminator films for that heading.
It’s easy to not see a way out of your troubles. Partly because, if you endure them long enough, it becomes a part of your normality. The brain doesn’t see ‘escaping normality’ as something that can happen on a permanent basis. It can be imagined, but just seem unreachable.
But it’s also because many possible ways out are utterly unpredictable.
Life is a crazy and complex thing. At times it may seem stale and predictable, but it’s really not.
Whenever I play a game of chess, there are over 288 billion ways that the first four moves each can be played. And that’s just on a static board with sixty-four squares, and pieces that can only move in certain specific ways.
With that in mind, it’s incredible to think about how many different directions life itself can go in. Find a positive one, and aim for it.
One final point I’d like to make before finishing:
Professional help- does it actually help?
Articles on the internet can be really useful (or at least I hope so!), but I’d never claim for a moment that they’re a substitute for talking to a professional with years of psychiatry training and experience.
Of course, you will find hugely varying stories about how effective therapy is. Some will say it worked wonders, some will say it made no difference. For me personally, it was one bout of each.
My first bout of therapy was delivered face to face by a psychiatrist who didn’t know much about Asperger’s, but he understood me. His help was invaluable, and lifechanging.
My second bout of therapy was delivered over the phone by someone who I don’t think cared very much. Same strategies, same theoretical stuff (it was Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which sometimes works for autistic people and sometimes doesn’t), but with a different practitioner and delivered over a medium I was uncomfortable with (I’ve been phone-phobic for most of my adult life).
So in conclusion? The effectiveness of professional help depends on the practitioner. And it depends on how they choose to communicate with you.
But in terms of whether you should seek professional help in dark times? Yes. Yes you should. There may be some parallel universe where I didn’t seek any professional help: in that universe, I wouldn’t be in a place where I can play to my strengths, and I certainly wouldn’t be an award-winning writer. (I still can’t believe I can write that about myself. The 27-year-old me definitely wouldn’t believe it. But like I said, life is full of unpredictable possibilities- and professional help may open some of them up.)
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