Who I am, how I choose to live; an autistic reappraisal, one year in

As I reach the end of another year, my 54th so you would think my conclusions would be getting somewhat familiar by now, its interesting to note how much I really do feel I have rebooted my life and entered new territory in the past 12 months so there is actually nothing predictable about my end-of-year reappraisal at all.

This is largely because I have fully, finally, accepted and integrated the knowledge that I am autistic. For three years prior to that (before which I was completely in the dark), I “knew” and yet there was still some resistance, some push-back, some doubt and grey area but now I really know it, I live it and accept it with every fibre of my being; in fact, I can’t imagine wanting to be any other way. There is no minutest area of my life that this hasn’t impacted profoundly or required a complete overhaul in order to find out, once and for all, “is this me or some acquired behaviour adopted to fit in”. Its been astounding and sobering to realise just how many ways the perceived need to fit in and seem typical (to hide what wasn’t so) has systemically tugged my life off at a tangent for decades; the breach between what I really am and what I was trying to be forming a sort of abyss into which my ever-failing health began to crumble as I lost sight of who I truly am. The results of this year of reappraisal are too vast and too personal to share in a short post but I want to share just a couple of fairly trivial examples of attitude shifts that have occurred this year, through owning my autism…both of which betoken gigantean shifts across the board.

Both of them are to do with a lifelong assumption until fairly recently that my role here in life is to fit in and do as others do (wrong!); which is a fairly commonplace autistic assumption, either because it is encouraged by non-autistic people or self-adopted in order to hide traits we fear may make our lives unpleasant or even dangerous. When you don’t actually feel the way that others do, nor do you see things via the same paths of logic, the degree to which adopting more mainstream behaviours and ways of processing information can take your life off-course can be considerable over the years; equal to which you can feel more and moor out of sorts with your life as you get older (without even realising why, if you are so-far undiagnosed autistic). The effect can lead to wholesale discombobulation, isolation, disillusionment or breakdown and its fair to say I have had a mixture of all of the above over the last 15 or so years leading to the realisation it was all “just” to do with my undiagnosed autism (oh, the relief of that).

So here’s two examples, one to do with career, one to do with social engagement (two very big fish of life); both minor example I am about to give being like a metaphor for much deeper and significantly more fundamental shifts that have occurred for me since owning my autism and which completely alter why, or whether, I do things, going forwards (such as “create” or “self-promote”) or equally why, in what ways or whether I choose to interact with others socially (for instance, to “network”, “self-ingratiate” or “survive” being old reasons but these do not feel sincere nor significant enough, going forwards. Nor do I think my particular version of survival necessitates networking strategies…which is an entirely allistic point of view but this one wrong-belief alone is singlehandedly responsible for years of misery and self-perceived failure from believing myself to be defunct at a behaviour that, as it turns out, does not bring me joy nor enhanced safety since (the clue in in the title “autistic”) I thrive best when I have maximum autonomy and plenty of time and space spent alone.

That’s not to say I don’t want or need relationships but for me these are the crème de la crème of relationships that I cherish and work upon; I am not looking for the relationship version of junk food to sate my desire to feel connected at all costs (since I don’t ever feel such a need). Less is very much more and sincerity and quality are the names of the game.

So when my autism speaks for itself unfettered, I know from the soul that there is nothing more pointless and ultimately debasing of what true connection really is than the conduct of relationships devoid of true sentiment or substance; or, indeed, actions of any kind that lack true self-chosen purpose, heartfulness or pleasure. So my life, going forwards as an autistic woman, must involve choosing according to sincerity and self-ordained meaning or I will continue to perish internally (especially now I know how far I have been taken off-track by decades of conforming to typical). Yes, I have long been a bit of an oddity, a maverick, someone who seldom wanders far from what she really wants to do but there has been so much internal struggle going on; always feeling I should try so much harder to conform that it has been far from an easy ride. Beneath the surface, I realise I have always felt that I am a flawed person, someone who fails at friendships, who doesn’t reach out enough and disappoints in every-which way; but only because I have been measuring against a neurotype blueprint that isn’t mine. At last, I choose to feel comfortable in my own autistic skin; also, to stand up for my autistic aways as entirely acceptable and valid ways of being, just as much as anyone else’s ways (if different). Unabashed acceptance and ownership of my differences is what has occurred this year, in a nutshell.

Looking back, so much of what was adopted as habit or benchmark over the years, that was not really me, was to do with the fear of not surviving if I didn’t push myself forwards or make overtures of socially-expected friendliness to all and sundry, using mainstream ways to express myself. Bear in mind, I now realise that autistic ways of showing you are interested or care are often not the same as mainstream ones; and often very far distant from them (though no less, often more, well-considered and sincere, since they do not rely so heavily on convention nor actions performed, basically, by rote and which have become so habitual to some people that they don’t even know when they are performing them). When I express, when I reach out, when I make that effort in a particular direction it nearly always takes great deliberation (unless I am acting on one of my intuitive impulses) and has to be from the heart otherwise something inside of me withers or breaks. It has always been this way yet I have “made myself” do otherwise, to survive, which is why I became so withered and broken.

So, whether it’s a way of earning a living or of conducting relationships, I have felt abhorrently pressurised to conform since I first realised there was a sizeable gap between my thinking and “the way things are” when I was a child. When I do act from the heart, even if my ways of acting are less run of the mill, you can be sure there is great sincerity behind it; however, because my ways of showing care are different, my intentions have often been misconstrued because the “wrapper” of my gesture (the way my care is delivered) has not always been so very conventional. For instance, I may show I really care by being there, above and beyond, for the friend that needs the space to unravel the kind of emotions they daren’t expose to anyone else and without fear of being judged or betrayed. Or I might show care by doing what I can to help in practical ways rather than by offering empty gestures and insincere platitudes in a more timely (often more public) way, as when people rush to send “the expected” words of condolence like they are checking off a list of behaviours. Likewise, I may make a wholly impulsive gesture (though my confidence in this has been undermined by social conditioning) when something seems apt in the moment; not constrained by rules of how “appropriate” or “measured” I am being but driven by an intuition that its right to act in that moment because my highly-tuned empathy gives me the certain nudge that its what that person needs right now, like a child might pick a flower and thrust it at an elderly grandparent. So my behaviours may lack perfect timing or elegance but they are deeply heartfelt and I am loyal to a fault.

When it comes to what motivates me to be creative and how to project that out into the world in ways that don’t undermine my core values, I really struggle as so much of what constitutes “being successful” relies, these days, on a semblance of popularity plus the skillsets of networking and self-promotion. All of these are outside of my autistic remit; I don’t relate nor do I have the abilities they require and this has made most of my productive life an uphill struggle; but, ironically, less so now that I see the “issue” of my autistic differences with all new clarity. Rather than feeling more hopeless as a result of this, there has been new ownership of the way I happen to be wired plus, more importantly, dis-ownership of what I am not this year (including the knowledge that there are words such as “popularity” that need to be completely dropped from my dictionary) and the result has been powerful. I am what I am and I accept that fully, no apologies and no more energy wasted trying to bend myself into some other shape.

So here’s the first example of the kind of review I have undertaken this year and it occurred to me because of this. I came across a statement branded across an email in my inbox this morning and it read “People follow people more than they follow artists”. Now isn’t that the truth; it hit me right between the eyes, nonsense that it is. Rather, its the mainstream truth as I follow a clutch of artists because I appreciate their work (no personality required) but I am in the vast minority.

I’m sure this message was meant to be a motivational, sent by my print on demand partners, designed to encourage me to get my shit together as a more commercial artist in 2023 but all it really does is confirm “well I might as well give up then”. Not only do I not want to put all of my energy into building a persona on social media but I have literally come to the realisation (yes, thanks to finally seeing things through the eyes of my autism), that I simply can’t do that popular engagement thing as its against my very wiring!

The very thought that I have to be this particular “personality” adept at engaging with a following in order to get my art seen isn’t only obstructive to my art “career” but entirely repugnant to me…deeply so. Not only have I found it impossibly hard to proceed in this way, over the last couple of decades that I have been working at my art yet also bashing my head against this particular wall, but quite impossible; the same way that it would be impossible for someone without legs to take up ballet.

For 3 or 4 years I have been floundering in this regard, not really knowing whether there was much point in painting anymore if I didn’t also want to self-promote but this year was different; this year I detached from the attempt to project a persona as an artist and the effect (though lacking fanfares on the face of my career…however, things trickle along and its amazing what work has come to me) has been monumentally positive for my mental health. There has been an ironing out of internal stressors that has left my art free, at last, to get on and be whatever it wants to be. Its a slow process but I feel it breaking new soil and starting to shoot again; maybe it will even start to unfurl fresh leaves in the coming year (there’s certainly no pressure from me) but, whatever it is, it feels more authentic and no longer has this core of abject inauthenticity gnawing away at its centre because I am not pretending to be anything that I am not in order to claim my place as an artist. Instead, I claim my own kind of place as this kind of artist; whatever that happens to be.

So, rather than feeling defeated by the headliner in the email, I read and respond to it with a feeling of triumph; as someone who can now shrug and not feel “there is still so much more for me to do before I succeed” (what a bugbear that must be for the majority of career artists; always having to flog that social media horse to go faster). Instead, I am already succeeding better than I used to…at being authentically me. This is a milestone in terms of ownership of selfhood. I no longer strive to be that which I cannot be and therefore I feel (much) more comfortable in my own body, my pwn psyche, my own world. So much energy has been released from making efforts that were thwarted before I even began because I didn’t realise my own autism. Now, I realise my own strengths and though they may not be the same as other people’s, they are mine and that is what centres me in the expression and use of any gifts that I happen to have. Because of decades of being knocked off centre, I am only at the infancy of exploring them so there is much to get excited about. I feel, in some respect, like I have rewound to the way I used to be as a child; the kind of innocent and organic things that would excite and motivate me to get going on a project in the morning, without all the outwards pressures (to which I was thankfully immune as a child) to conform; letting go of those pressures as irrelevant to me. This is proving utterly cathartic!

My next example is to do with the (on the surface of it) entirely trivial topic of Christmas cards. For years I’ve struggled and writhed with these, feeling they are mostly illogical and a complete waste of resources, a throwback to the Victorian era when people lived a stage-coach ride away but with no place in a world that has so many other forms of communication. A few years back, I even announced my point of view in a blog and a round robin message to all my friends and family….this being before I realised I was autistic, thus what was meant as a sincere and well-intentioned announcement that I had assumed would be met with a sigh of relief from others eager to be let off the hook of sending pieces of paper in the post probably came out with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer and I either lost contact with a few people, forever, from that point onwards or they politely stepped around my message and sent me one anyway; in response to which I felt myself being guilted back into sending them myself the following year. It was all very awkward and went the same way as so many autistic “conversations”; where I was enthusiastic if overzealous as I put forwards my case and then misconstrued or ignored, an awkward silence left hanging in the air like a rebuke.

These days, I carry the self-same sentiment of irritation around with me for day after procrastinating day as soon as the card-sending time of year comes around again (as does my husband…he loathes the whole process with a spit and feather fury) but I know I need to go more softly softly with the delivery of my thoughts on this topic than I tried before (realising my autism has actually allowed me to retire my sledgehammer as I now know when its pointless to push my opinions). As with everything in my autistic life, I learned the hard way that to be different is to risk marginalisation; not through lack of cards (ironically, they keep on a-coming) but lack of admission that I ever said anything on the topic, which leaves me feeling unseen and unheard.

Let me be clear, I don’t mind cards sincerely meant and carefully chosen for close friends and family, in fact I actively enjoy the process of exchange between myself and the small handful of my most cherished people and I sometimes make my own for family members. However, when you feel you “have to” send them out to an entire network (yurgh….the very word that makes most autistic people shudder) then it feels abhorrent, pressured, wasteful, bullying and rouses not-so subliminal irritation, even passive aggressiveness as all those envelopes that have to be reciprocated continue to plop through the letterbox. Why am I having to send a piece of paper to some far-distant relative I haven’t seen for decades and who knows absolutely nothing about me or my life, or to some friend who lives 20 miles away yet we haven’t bothered to meet up or ask anything meaningful about each other’s lives for so long I still imagine her 30 something children as toddlers and, presumably, she does mine too; we have drifted but the cards continue to fly in like accusatory darts. Its a criminal waste of trees and delivery resources, not least in a year when the UK post office is so backed up it’s ground to a halt and I may as well cross out happy Christmas and write happy Easter on the inside with arrival dates predicted to be, at least, as late as February. Its not even that I don’t like to write; writing is my sincerest form of expression, to all my nearest and dearest, which is why I hate to make it so perfunctory, like the written version of much loathed small-talk.

So perhaps I am using the mail crisis as an excuse but this year, if you happen to get a card off me (postal service allowing), please know you are one of a small select posse of people I actually like choosing a card for and from whom I enjoy receiving one back (because I know you, likewise, put in the effort). I know it is no empty gesture between us and that ingredient of sincerity is absolutely key when it comes to all of my motivations and habits. It’s so interesting to read my diary from when I was 14 and discover I felt just the same as this, 40 years ago! Back then (I’ve so loved discovering some of my diaries and getting to read, first hand, how obviously “autistic” I really was in so many of my foibles, sensibilities and ideas) I made more or less the same irate speech to myself about the self-evident perfunctoriness of the whole thing and how bitterly ironic it was to receive cards (which I felt beholden to reciprocate) from people who made no attempts to hide how much they despised me for the other 364 days of the year; also how cards chosen with great tenderness and care for particular recipients were received with no more than a blank face or a shrug. The whole thing was a minefield of bewildering social mores…and continues to be so.

Still bewildered, 40 years later, it’s time I acted from the heart when it comes to all these social rules and typical behaviours; time I became the autistic person I really am, take me or leave me. The rule of thumb is now relatively simple; if I don’t see the logic in it, if it brings me no joy, or if it feels perfunctory, it’s time I let it go and made room for more gestures of the heart, for more purposefulness on my own terms, for being myself and no stamp of approval needed.

4 thoughts on “Who I am, how I choose to live; an autistic reappraisal, one year in

  1. So many of the slogans and well-being dictums are designed for others! Even most of the psychological studies backing up certain advice for mental health don’t include neurodivergent people! So important for us to give ourselves the right to do what works for us, especially when it’s counter to what the email headlines say!

    Liked by 1 person

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