Learn With Me

I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at the age of twenty, after actively struggling for several years. When I use the word ‘actively,’ I mean that, while I had had difficulties with all the things that turned out to be characteristics of Autism, they had become really hard to deal with and were having a serious impact on my life and my mental health. For example, I’d always found socialising confusing and stressful but I’d managed it for most of my life, thinking that that was just how I was built. Ultimately, that’s true but knowing where it comes from has been very helpful, both in validating that struggle but also in helping me to learn how to cope with those feelings. So, the diagnosis was a really big deal but I still think a lot about why it came so late and what that means.

In my opinion, there was one big reason why it took so long to get a diagnosis and that was the lack of awareness and understanding around both mental health and Autism, especially in women. Because Autism in women often presents very differently to the stereotypical male presentation, no one even mentioned it until we’d been looking for an explanation for more than eighteen months. I have a couple of blog posts about the process of getting my diagnoses coming up but the short version is that we started out by looking at my mental health. We went to various people but no one took my anxiety, my depression, and so on as serious problems, brushing them off as things that everyone deals with. So it took a lot of work to get even one person to recognise that what was happening was an actual problem, and then even more work to get them to see that that was part of a bigger pattern. And I know that all of that was down to this general lack of awareness about how Autism can manifest and again, how it can manifest in women.

I am very grateful to have my diagnosis, regardless of how long it took to get it but I do think that getting it so late has had a detrimental effect on me:

  • Expectations, my own and those of others – Having grown up assuming I was neurotypical, I have always compared myself to my neurotypical peers and hated myself when I couldn’t measure up. When I got to sixth form, I started to really struggle (mentally, socially, academically) and so the whole thing started to snowball. And because I was comparing myself so viciously to those around me who were coping so much better, I did great damage to my mental health and self esteem. Had I known that my brain worked differently and that I might need support, those two years of my life would most likely have been an altogether different experience. Even now that I know the difference is there, I still find it really difficult not to compare myself to others; I still often see myself as less capable or less intelligent or less whatever word is relevant to the situation.
  • The mental health consequences – While this is not something I can scientifically prove, the chances are that this whole process has had an impact on my mental health. Being repeatedly invalidated and brushed off definitely made my depression and anxiety worse. That invalidation may also have triggered the development of Borderline Personality Disorder; I’m not qualified to make a definitive statement on that but between discussions with my health professionals and my own research, it’s a theory if nothing else.

I’ve often had friends and family ask what they can do to help me and to be completely honest, I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure all of this out for myself: what’s affected, what helps, what doesn’t… Sometimes it feels like, just because it’s my diagnosis, people think I have this deep understanding of it. I’m definitely more clued in than I used to be but even two and a half years later, I don’t always know what to do when something comes up. I think the only thing I can say is this: “Learn with me.” This is a process, which involves a lot of trial and error and over-planning and screwing up. When it doesn’t work, it’s no one’s fault. We just learn and move on to the next thing. But hopefully, we can navigate it as a team rather than a group of individuals.

I try not to spend too much time thinking about how my life would’ve been different if I’d been diagnosed at a younger age because there’s little to be gained from it. It is how it is. But occasionally the thought creeps in and I imagine this life where I’m so much more productive and engaged and independent. I don’t know if that’s how it would’ve played out but it’s a seductive thought. But as I said, I try not to go down that rabbit hole. I think it comes down to this: there are people I wouldn’t have met and experiences that I wouldn’t have had if I’d been diagnosed as a child and ultimately, I wouldn’t give those up for anything.

BPD and Feeling Abandoned

Feeling abandoned is a big thing when it comes to Borderline Personality Disorder. And events as everyday as someone not immediately responding to a text can trigger that feeling. The smallest slight can be incredibly upsetting and anything bigger can feel devastating. It’s never ending and exhausting. And with the fear of being abandoned hanging over you, relationships (of any kind) can be very stressful. They can feel like a waiting game, wondering how long it will take for the other person to give up on you.

As someone with BPD, I feel emotions very strongly and when something upsetting happens, it feels like I’ve been hit by a massive wave and it’s all I can do to find my way back to the surface. The emotion overwhelms me and there’s no room for logical reasoning. It doesn’t matter what else is going on; all my energy is taken up trying to process all of that feeling. It can take weeks to recover and I feel more fragile each time.

And what makes it more difficult is the fact that it’s not completely irrational; there is ‘evidence’ to support the fear. People have abandoned me in the past, both voluntarily and involuntarily, so whenever I try and talk myself out of the panic, my BPD lays out all these examples, ‘proving’ to me that I will always be abandoned. It’s an exhausting cycle.

I’m not going to go through my history of feeling abandoned, example-by-example, but there is one experience that I want to share. I think it’s too important to leave out. A few years ago, someone really important to me cut ties when I was in the lowest place I’d ever been (something they were aware of). I felt completely abandoned and it had a massive impact on my mental health and view of the world. I was so hurt and so confused and for a long time, those emotions overwhelmed everything. I felt broken. But slowly, that weight lifted. It took two years but I’m finally free of it. And that’s amazing. But it’s not the end of it. That experience has affected me, especially when it comes to my relationships and my anxiety around them. And like I said, it’s hard to talk myself out of that fear when I feel like I’m about to go through all that again.

I’ve wanted to write about this for a while but I wasn’t sure how to frame it, if that makes any sense. But a conversation with one of my best friends brought all of this to the surface.

So let me tell you a story:

One of my best friends had just come back from a trip to the US and was desperate to go back. I was in a pretty fragile place already (dealing with another situation where I felt like I was being abandoned) and watching her plan her next trip abroad felt a lot like she was abandoning me. I didn’t want to say anything and I felt guilty for feeling the way I did: she was building her career and she was so excited and here I was, wanting her to stay. But in the end, I had to say something. We’ve always talked everything through so, even though I was terrified of sounding needy and pathetic, I reached out and told her how I was feeling. She knows a lot about my mental health difficulties so I told her how I struggle with feeling abandoned and that I might need some extra reassurance around her upcoming trip.

(I want to add that although it might sound easy, it wasn’t. Part of me – a big part of me – was convinced that expressing these feelings would be the ‘final straw’ and that she would abandon me on the spot, that I had finally become too much to deal with. This is something that I think is often misunderstood about BPD. This reaction is not because of the other person; it’s because of the BPD. The other person could be the most reliable person in the world. It doesn’t matter. It’s the BPD telling you that everyone will leave, that you’re not enough to make the other person stick around. So defying that and telling my friend how I felt was very, very scary.)

And this is the important bit: how my friend reacted. Instead of telling me I was being ridiculous or brushing off my request, she responded compassionately. She told me not to feel pathetic or guilty, that she understood why I was feeling the way I was. She asked me how she could help, and said that she would do whatever she could to make it easier for me. She said, “I am not going to leave you.”

It was such a relief that I burst into tears. It meant (and still does mean) so much to me. She validated my feelings, asked me what she could do, and gave me the reassurance I needed. I wish everyone responded this way. Perhaps ironically for a condition with such close links to invalidation, these feelings often get written off as being oversensitive or overdramatic. And in my experience, that only makes it worse. Things are better now that the important people in my life understand where these feelings come from; before the diagnosis, the only explanation was that I was very sensitive and therefore needed to ‘toughen up’. It was a fault. And that’s what I thought too. But now that we understand it, we know how to handle it, how to approach it.

I will likely need to hear this again and again to combat my fear of being abandoned but that doesn’t minimise the importance of this moment. As I’ve said, change is a series of moments like these, moments I hold very close, like charms on a charm bracelet.

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