Happy Mental Health Awareness Month. Such an interesting phrase. For much of my life, I decried the contradictory idea that I would somehow be happy with awareness of my own mental health challenges. At least, that was until I received a diagnosis that, for the first time in my entire life, gave me a lens through which I could finally make sense of my persistent challenges and allow me to integrate better with the world around me.
Less than five years ago, in my mid-30s, I was diagnosed with what used to be called “Asperger’s syndrome” but is now officially referred to as an Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD. You would think that a diagnosis of autism would be both obvious earlier in life and received with fear and/or sadness, but the truth is that my diagnosis gave me insight into how being aware of my mental health condition could make me happy. I spent 35 years of my life trying to figure out why I struggled so much to feel comfortable in the world around me. Yes, I had friends and hobbies, but I never really felt connected to others. It felt as though no matter how hard I tried to communicate with and help others, there always seemed to be something missing, and I would inadvertently end up pushing most people away. It is here that the definition of Asperger’s may be helpful.
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, “Asperger’s syndrome (AS) is a developmental disorder. It is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), one of a distinct group of neurological conditions characterized by a greater or lesser degree of impairment in language and communication skills, as well as repetitive or restrictive patterns of thought and behavior.” The above description is a great high-level summary but this article at Healthline.com does a better job detailing out the symptoms into the following three areas: emotional and behavioral symptoms, communication difficulties, and other symptoms (such as clumsiness or obsession). The narrower description of Asperger’s syndrome, along with other characteristics of high-functioning AS, such as higher-than-average IQ, are what helped me initially accept my diagnosis with ease, and it is also why I feel having narrower categories is important. I understand the need to destigmatize Autism Spectrum Disorder by eliminating descriptors like high-functioning and the term Asperger’s syndrome itself, but please note that some of us need these crutches to accept the diagnosis.
With the above in mind, I imagine it has become more apparent to many of you as to why I struggled to create connections with others and find my place in the world. If you can imagine what it is like to communicate with someone who has completely different emotional responses than what would be expected for a given situation, seemingly speaks the same language as you yet you struggle to be on the same page, and struggles to move on from one subject to another even when others have moved on, then you can understand what communicating with me can be like. Now if you flip this around and look at it from my point of view, you can probably see why it was so challenging for me prior to receiving my diagnosis.
As a child, I found that I was overly receptive to the world around me; where I lacked in communication skills, I made up for it in part by obsessively focusing on trying to figure out why I struggled to communicate with others and create relationships as a child. The best analogy I can think of is that someone with vision issues may spend more time trying to focus on something and thus be more likely to pay enough attention to truly absorb all the details, but those with strong vision may only glance long enough to determine if what they are looking at is relevant to them and move on before taking it to memory. I worked extremely hard to ignore my innate desire to insulate myself and, rather, pushed myself to socialize, albeit much less frequently and certainly more awkwardly than most others. This led to me developing coping mechanisms that made it easier to hide my most telling traits of AS and thus made it harder to diagnose me.
Now that I have learned the impact that AS has on me, I can address the various challenges caused by my diagnosis more directly and better understand why things have happened in my life as they have. Now that I comprehend why the world reacts to me the way it does, I finally have the insight and communication skills needed to find my place in the world. I can better understand others and thus adjust how I listen and communicate to meet the needs of my audience. I also express my communication needs to others up front so that we can both be on the same page from the start. While I still struggle with larger groups at times, I am now more comfortable taking moments to myself to recharge, rather than feeling like I am weak for not being able stick it out.
I must admit that this was an extremely hard article for me to write. While I am very forthcoming with all those close to me about my Asperger’s diagnosis, I have been afraid of letting the world at large know about it due to the stigma that may come along with it. I am career-driven so I have been afraid of it negatively impacting my prospects, but I also have a strong desire to give back to others. If I cannot express myself as I am, how can I truly be there for others?
If I can leave you with one final thing, please remember that discovering yourself – even your challenges – will only make you stronger. While we usually hear the words “mental health” in conjunction with the treatment for a specific diagnosis, please do not wait for a diagnosis to take care of your own Mental Wellness. Just like we exercise to help keep ourselves physically healthy and reduce the chances of physical injury, we can seek mental healthcare to keep us mentally well and reduce mental injury. And with all that said, I can finally and fully express and support the phrase “Happy Mental Health & Wellness Awareness Month!”