Trigger warning: mentions of abuse, anxiety, depression, trauma.
I’d like to start this post off by saying that my story is unique to me, and is not universal across every autistic person or even every autistic woman or anyone who was raised as a woman. Also, I am sorry for not posting for a while, I gave myself a bit of a breather over the holidays!
Mental health is, thankfully, a topic that is being spoken about in a more public way than it used to be. We are encouraged to talk to loved ones and to seek therapy when we need it, and people are sharing their mental health stories more often and with more people.
This is very different from even a decade ago, when I was in school. I remember getting lessons about it (albeit very briefly) in high school, but they didn’t have the kind of impact on me that was probably intended. I was somewhat aware of mental health issues in those around me, but their behaviours were easily recognisable because they fitted in with the expected portrayals of mental health disorders in neurotypical people.
But how do you spot mental health disorders in an autistic girl? Furthermore, how does she notice them herself? That’s what I want to address in this post.
I recently realised that I have suffered from (undiagnosed) anxiety for almost my entire life, now that I actually know what it actually looks like for me as an autistic woman. Firstly, I would like to highlight that a lot of the signs of anxiety that I show overlap with those of autism because the two conditions are closely linked. Because of this, there aren’t many instances where I can point to a specific behaviour as “just anxiety”, because autism is an integral part of who I am.
Nonetheless, I think it was very clear that I was an anxious kid. As a toddler, I tried to control it with structure and routine. While in nursery I would ask for the same book to be read to me everyday (Hansel and Gretel) and I would wear the same princess dress from the costume box (definitely not my style anymore). But although this may have helped for a bit, it meant that any disruption to this routine caused me to act irrationally and erratic which no one could understand.
For instance, I remember realising another girl had taken the dress first and trying to explain (with all the eloquence of a 4-year-old) that I needed to wear it. This resulted in a very embarrassing incident where I got very angry with the other girl, which shocked everyone around me since I was normally a very quiet and well-behaved child.
School and Suffering
My anxiety only worsened as I entered primary school and realised that there were a lot more variables that I could not control. For example, I never knew when the teacher was going to call on me so I would either watch them like a hawk and figure out exactly who they were about to pick based on their body language or eye contact, or I would raise my hand to try and get them to pick me every time (I was always the teacher’s pet). This might sound extreme but it was my way of taking control to ease my anxiety.
This was around the time I remember starting to mask for the first time. I developed social anxiety around my peers once I realised I was very different, and so I changed my behaviour to fit theirs. I even started to walk differently after I realised that girls didn’t walk the same way as boys. I was in constant fear of being discovered, but I didn’t know why I was different.
Puberty and Pain
High school was in one word: hell. All of a sudden everything revolved around socialising, the one thing I hadn’t quite figured out yet. Hormones dazed our minds and amplified our emotions, and this was not a welcome change for me. My anxiety worsened to the point where I remember having meltdowns (although I didn’t know they were meltdowns) the second I got home from school. Everything was overwhelming and my peers got angry at each other so easily that I was even more terrified of them noticing my differences.
I’m not exaggerating when I say I hated high school. I was a good student and I enjoyed classes because in the classroom I knew what teachers expected of me. But outside of class I had to navigate a neurotypical labyrinth of hidden meanings, emotions, jokes and arguments that I could barely keep up with.
I could have spoken to someone about all this but how do you tell someone that you don’t know how to be a teenager? For me the main issue wasn’t my anxiety, it was what was causing it. And I didn’t seriously consider autism at the time because I didn’t look like other autistic people that I knew. So I tried desperately to fit in. I went to parties, I joined clubs, I tried to date people. But a lot of it still felt painfully forced, like I was putting up a facade. Especially dating, because I felt that I couldn’t ever fully open up to someone because they would call me a freak and leave. These are all very heavy and lonely thoughts for a teenager to deal with, and honestly I don’t know how I did it.
Unfortunately, this loneliness and isolation lead me to enter a very toxic relationship at the end of high school. I saw all the red flags, and ignored them all. I saw their possessiveness and obsession and comforted myself that I was finally important to someone. I saw their mental health problems and distracted myself from my own by trying to “fix” them. They hurt me, in many horrible and manipulative ways, and took advantage of my insecurities.
I was in that relationship for a year and a half before it ended. By this point, my mental health was dangerously poor and I had lost a lot of love for myself. I felt numb most of the time, and my outlook on life became more cynical and hardened. My anxiety showed itself in panic attacks where I scratched my arms to direct the pain elsewhere, and recklessness as I tried to take back control. I started to avoid social situations and cut myself off from a lot of important people who I cared about.
Healing and Happiness
Thankfully I got out of that relationship, and I have started to heal. When I think back to it, it feels like a long period of blackness where my brain shut out happiness. Maybe this was depression, I still don’t know. It has taken a lot of personal work to get to where I am now. I still have anxiety and bad days. I still have panic attacks. But I’m happier now. I’m learning about myself with an autism diagnosis and this gives me a new perspective when looking back on my past. I have also learned not to blame myself for staying in that relationships.
One thing that surprised me over the last year is that after I opened up to friends and family about my autism diagnosis and then my anxiety, they started to open up to me too. I guess sometimes we need someone to be brave to allow us to be brave, but I’m glad that I have reached the point where I can help others. I hope that this post has the same effect on others that read it.
I think that confidence is an important mindset that everyone – especially autistic people – should aim for, through self-acceptance and self-love.
I know this might seem unattainable for a lot of autistic people, but please try to believe in yourself a little bit more. Look after your mental health and don’t be afraid to talk about it. I am by no means at the stage I want to be with my mental health, but I’m working towards it. We will always be autistic but that doesn’t have to be accompanied by poor mental health. We deserve better than that.