We are closing the 12 Days of Kindness with a day for self kindness, and I am choosing today to demonstrate my own self acceptance with this blog post. I'm sure you'll forgive me asking you to indulge me in reading it, as it is probably the hardest and most freeing piece I will ever pen.
I have spent 40 years on this planet, and for half of those, I have been lucky enough to have a job that I love. When asked what I would like to be as a child, I responded with a variety of professional endeavours, from midwife or teacher, all the way to forensic psychologist. In UCC, I finally settled on studying Early Childhood Studies, a broad base for my career as it now stands.
Eight years after I graduated I had one of my hairbrained ideas (these occur most often at night, when I am alone in a sea of my own incoherent thoughts) of a social skills programme for children on the cusp of the teenage years, to allow them to overcome barriers and find their place amongst their peers. Luckily for me, I had a manager who was not only supportive, but saw the potential in such an endeavour. The project was given the green light and I began researching, spending the following eleven months devouring any text, study, article or video link I could find on the topic of social skills. I saw the good, the bad and the ugly, and sprinkled my own beliefs and strategies into the notes I took. From this concoction, a social skills development programme was born. I, like a proud mother, nurtured and guarded it for the following twelve years, turning it into a highly regarded and successful programme. I didn't realise it then, but that initial year of research was transformational for me. It had more of an impact on me than my seven years in college and all of my work to that point. It was, one giant "ah-ha" moment . One of these realisations was that I had been suffering with anxiety all my life. It would be a further four years before I realised I had both generalised anxiety and social anxiety, as researching anxiety became my focus in that year. Yes, I was self diagnosed, but I was textbook it would appear, and so blatantly obvious, I did not feel the need to explore it further at that point. I simply applied myself to figuring out how best to manage and live with it, another research project to devour.
I bet you're thinking... where is she going with this self indulgent piece? Well, if you can stay with me just a little longer, all will become clear. Let's fast forward to this year, lockdown number one to be precise. March 16th 2020 started like any other, but by the end of the day, we were all in our homes for the foreseeable. While it began with hope of an end, by the end of the second week, I was stressed and pretty fed up. This lockdown brought with it, infinite space for introspection, as there was nowhere to go and nothing to do. It lead me to realisations, about myself and about my past. Like a stream of consciousness, one lead to another, which lead to another and so on and so forth. Those realisations were followed by three long months of journaling. Thoughts, memories, experiences. Some fond, some painful, some embarrassing and so deeply buried, it took days to untangle them. This extensive introspection lead to me booking an appointment which would turn my world on its head, but I knew at that point I could not progress beyond that point alone, external insight was required. That appointment took place on the 11th of August 2020.
As I sit writing this, I am overcome with emotions. It will be the first time I have written this down, and I am choosing to do it for the entire world to see ( I am aware the entire world won't read this, maybe no one will, but it feels as if they will).
I am autistic.
The thought that I was on the spectrum, is one which was whispered quietly inside my head for years. Every time I heard the whisper, I quickly reminded myself that my difficulties could as easily be explained by my anxiety, or perhaps it was just an innocent quirk, we all have them, right? Over the years though, the whisper became louder. This march, it became more of a soft call. It gained rapid momentum from there and in June I could no longer ignore the evidence that roared before me. On August 11th, my thoughts were confirmed and I was formally diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum.
Please don't read this and think I actively avoided diagnosis. The truth is, had I been more certain years ago I would have investigated it then, but I could not see the wood for the trees. I could not marry autism and my own presentation, for no other reason than I could not truly see myself. I dismissed things I did as being "Laura-ism's" . I owned my own personality as unique, but did not see the bigger picture. I also masked so heavily that it took some time to properly find the real me. My family and firm friends know the real me, and there is no act when I am in their company, but historically I have been somewhat of a chameleon. I change and alter my persona to suit the setting, I match my clothes to those around me or my perceived notions of their expectations, rather than my own mood or taste. I even absorb the accents and intonation of others at times. Professionally, I appear confident and am capable of speaking in front of large crowds for long periods. In truth, it is my comfort zone, for I am standing in front of people who have come to listen to me discuss my special interests; autism and social skills. I am like a child engaged in a monologue about dinosaurs, in my element. When I host events, often for hundreds of people, I play a role. I have lists of lists to keep me afloat, cue cards of things to be said, a plastered on smile and several mental checklists. I revel in the process of organisation and have realised I most like to plan, so as not to be left out.
Those who can do, do, those who cannot, teach. I had heard this saying years ago, and it it only now that it makes sense to me. The year I spent researching and studying social skills brought more than a successful programme, it brought me the skills I was lacking, and the comprehension of the "why" people did the things they did. I have had many special interests over the years, they change often, but autism and social skills were the one that stuck. Most people read fiction on honeymoon, I read Steve Silberman's, Neurotribes. I can talk for hours about intricacies of social exchanges, I revel in the small details and the cause and effect of the different aspects of reciprocal interactions. It is no coincidence that the friendships that I count as being my strongest, were forged post 2008. Until then, I experienced what Jennifer Cooke coined "era's of friendship", falling into and out of friendships as if they were fashion trends, dismissed as seasons changed. Post 2008, I knew what my responsibilities were in relationships, I understood the need for reciprocity in conversation, and I had learned the importance of listening rather than speaking. I finally understood the "others" in my life, and my life was richer for it.
Telling friends and family was hard, not because I am ashamed, not in the slightest, but it is a very personal thing, and I was not sure of people's reactions. I had hoped that they would be indifferent, no big deal, you're still Laura. They exceeded my hopes with love, praise and encouragement. One friend even remarked that my "traits" were the reason she loved being around me. I am very straight talking, I don't own a poker face and I often say what others wouldn't. It made me smile when she sent me a snap of her amazon shopping cart not five minutes after our call, with Autism in Heels by Jennifer Cooke already purchased to try to understand my revelation further.
It has taken me four months to say this publicly. The most difficult thing for me has been reconciling all that I am, with all that I know. I am blessed with an incredibly supportive husband, family and circle of close friends, who all now know, but the one thing that kept me from saying it publicly, is the backlash. My anxiety has been quick to help me imagine what would be said. I imagine everything from "she's not autistic" and "she's looking for attention" to "she wants to be autistic to further her career". The truth however is simple. My diagnosis serves no one except me. It serves me to be my most authentic self. It serves me to live freely and understand my needs and difficulties fully. If that transfers to helping my clients, then that is only a blessing, but I have not chased this diagnosis for any reason other than my own needs.
Today, I am proud to be Laura, I am proud to be autistic, but most of all, I am proud to know who I am and what other people think of this, is none of my business.