In a few months, I will be turning 18—and I think it’s safe to say that I’ve lived my life as quite an “atypical” child. Of course, I mean that in the most self-lovingly way possible. A lot of this is, in part, due to the things that I’ve overcome—various diagnoses, my eclectic educational experiences (i.e a combination of public schooling, homeschooling, and community college), as well as internal struggles that are not uncommon, but affect me in a unique way. On all of my social media (which, not gonna lie, I’m a huge social media junkie), I typically don’t discuss my diagnoses, especially not in-depth. The reason for this is mainly because so many of these diagnoses are not inherently apparent to others, and also because I feel that I have learned to deal with them in a way that both myself and others find acceptable (well, it might also be because I am so easily annoyed when people can’t shut up about their struggles on the internet. Bear with me, this is going somewhere positive). However, when I do mention these things, people are surprised—and in the past, some people have been so surprised that they stopped being my friend (I couldn’t possibly deal with my diagnoses in a different way than you! How dare I!)
When I lived in California with my parents, I was misdiagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and medicated with lithium (which I promptly overdosed on—but obviously that’s another story). After that, I moved to St. Louis, where I began working with an amazing—and I mean, UH-MAZING—group of psychiatrists at Washington University. Over the next few years I was diagnosed with PDDNOS, ADHD, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. You have most likely heard of ADHD and anxiety—which are quite common—but very few people have heard of PDDNOS, which is essentially Asperger’s. Yep. I was diagnosed with high-functioning Autism. Many struggles arose from this situation, the most prominent being a very significant lack of social skills that led me to take seven years of pragmatics class when I was in the public school system, as well as hyperactivity, trouble focusing, astronomical amounts of hyper-fixation on things (art, photography, to name a few—which largely explains why I am so skilled in those areas), sensory processing disorder—attributable to my astonishingly low-level of spatial awareness and all the times that I got bruises on my stomach from wearing belts too tight as a child. All this, as well as executive dysfunction (resulting in the 2.5 times that I took algebra I), and an incredibly high amount of anxiety which causes me to tear my fingers to shreds and consequentially assume the absolute worst of every situation. Here is a nice example for you.
Last semester, it was the night prior to the final set of lectures before I would take finals, and I couldn’t find the fidget cube that had been helping me focus in class. I sat panicked on the floor (maybe I cried, but that’s not important), because of a thought process that went like this: If I can’t find my fidget cube, I won’t be able to get notes as well as I have been, and then I won’t be able to do well on the last chapter of my political science final. If I don’t do well on the final, I could get a B, and if I get a B, my GPA won’t be a 4.0 anymore. If it’s no longer a 4.0, I won’t get the scholarships I want for out-of-state schools that I really, really want to go to. If that happens, then I’ll have to go to a cheaper school in St. Louis, and I won’t get my scholarships. And THEN, I’ll have a hard time moving -, and I’ll spend the next ten years in a city that I really dislike with thousands of dollars in debt, and I’ll be MISERABLE.
For ten years.
You heard that correctly. I attributed not being able to find my fidget cube to living in my most potent idea of misery…for the next ten years. Of course, I found it, like, not even, 5 minutes later. But here’s the thing about my anxiety: I have had so much therapy, and I’ve been told by so many people that my anxiety is a “big, fat liar” (which, in this case, it demonstrably was), that there are a few times in my life that I’ve experienced something similar to the fidget-cube-fiasco and actually realized that I was being ridiculous. After the fact, of course.
In my life, I am lucky enough to have been blessed with parents (I mean, I’m not kidding, my parents are objectively phenomenal parents), who have tapped into resources that would eventually help me do things like begin college at the age of 16, traipse across the world nearly by myself, and even little things like participate in the talent show when I was in the 4th grade—which, lemme tell you, I made myself so nervous that day, I almost peed. But I did it. All my life, I have been not just given opportunities to do things, but have in many cases, forced to do those things that make me nervous, and force me to create coping mechanisms that, in turn, provide more opportunities. The things that I have been nervous about may not always go perfectly, but they certainly haven’t resulted in 10 years of misery, or even, ya know, death.
I can see why many people might not believe me, even angered by the idea that I claim to have these diagnoses, but what they don’t see behind the scenes is that I have had a village of help, and also many, many, many, many years of therapy, IEP meetings, various medications, doctors, and specific coping mechanisms put in place. No big deal.
All of these things combined have made me who I am, and also taught me invaluable lessons.
1. It’s OK to go against the flow
Awhile back, my mom, who has worked with Missouri-Families for Effective Autism treatment for many years, was asked to do a presentation at a local middle school for disability awareness. The whole idea behind this presentation stemmed from the fact that many kids, like myself, were deemed the “weird kid” in the wake of an Autism diagnosis. We raised awareness for what Autism was, the characteristics of it, and also used me as an example to explain that Autism does not present in everyone the same (as people typically do not initially realize that I am on the spectrum. Although, some people eventually realize when I completely misunderstand larger social concepts. Oops.) Here’s a screenshot of one of the slides:
Actually, uh, this was probably in reference to when I wore colorful knee-high socks to school everyday in the seventh grade. Know your audience (a.k.a, a room full of seventh graders).
But this reigns true even then. I have found in my life that there are people who will, without fail, judge me for wearing something they would never wear, or listening to music that isn’t mainstream, or even, god forbid, something they would never enjoy. But I also, almost 100% of the time, realize that those people have less to be envied. Many of the kids that I felt so excluded and judged by, try so, so hard to be cool—to fit in—that they wouldn’t even know who they are, or who they would be, if they had given themselves the chance to stray from the norm. I have found that people who obsessively try to fit in and be cool, are consistently less successful, less intelligent, and less kind. No person is ever the same, but apparently their appearance is, if you introduce beanies and black leggings to a group of teenage girls. (No hate to beanies or black leggings).
I have found in my time as a teenager and child, that if you are most yourself, the right friends will follow. And those friends will be everything like you, and nothing like you at all. If we as humans all collectively learned to let our freak flags fly, and at the same time accept other people’s freak flags, then I truly believe that the world would be a funnier, happier place. Not that would ever happen. HA.
1. Be kind, always.
I know that this is terribly cliché. However, I am much more aware of my actions after my experiences with other kids in school. I have this theory that people who are mean, judgmental, or exclusive of others, either don’t have enough mean people in their life, or have had too many. As an example, I know a group of homeschoolers who, when I knew them, had hardly befriended people, ever, who were not like them— up until that point in their life. As a result, the homeschool group ceased to exist—but I noticed that many of these kids had been born together, and very likely had never experienced the judgement that comes from being in a place like public school. I very explicitly remember this one girl in the homeschool group bringing a friend to a summer meeting. In this meeting, what usually happens is that everyone hangs out and has a good time, but because a majority of this group didn’t like the girl who was already in the group as much as they liked each other (she was not “like them,” nor had she been born into the group), both the girl and her friend were ignored for so long that the girl, who was thinking about becoming homeschooled, left crying. Needless to say this girl did not end up being homeschooled. And the other girl left. And I left.
On the other hand, I know things now about people who have said hurtful things to me that I was definitely too young to realize then. There was a girl in elementary school who, at one point, called me “dirt,” and then promptly told her friends to ignore me, all of whom naturally listened. This group of girls rode my bus every morning, and everyday they tried their very best to exclude me from even so much as talking—in the clearest, most obvious way possible. I certainly had trouble with social skills as a kid—things like not looking people in the eye when I was talking, invading other people’s spaces, not being able to sit down in class, changing the subject in the middle of the conversation, talking excessively about things that I enjoyed, being hyper and excited. All the time. About everything. (etc. etc). were true markings of Autism and ADHD. Kids in elementary school don’t understand that, though. Of course they don’t! I realize now how bizarre it is for a child as young as eight or nine, to use the word “dirt” as a hateful comment—typically eight year-olds have no concept of what that would mean. All these years later, I realize now how that girl was not blessed with the kind, caring family that I was, and I forgive her. I can’t possibly imagine what it’s like to have grown up in her situation, and I think it’s of the utmost importance that I forgive.
What this all basically means, is that, yes, I had a hard time with friends when I was younger. I understand feeling terribly about yourself by the hands of someone else. But the greatest gift that ever came of that, was growing my level of kindness and compassion (which is a whole blessing in itself. My specific diagnosis is interesting in that I notice very high levels of compassion in both myself, and the kids who I babysit with the same case of Asperger’s).
Be kind, always.
3. Don’t compare yourself to others
Oh, boy. This is a good one. I cannot tell you, just how much time I’ve spent comparing myself to other people, and coming up with all the ways that I’m inferior, a disappointment, or less-worthy than them. I am still working on this—but the best advice I can give to successive teenagers, is that comparing yourself to other people, especially those with a different story, and a different life, will almost always go against your best interest—whether you are trying to find the good in yourself, or the bad.
Essentially, I have learned to go against the flow whenever and however I desire, I have learned to be kind to people regardless of what they look like, how they act, or what they’re interested in, but most of all—I have learned that any comparison against someone else will always be an unfair comparison. Weird is relative. We’re all weird—and that’s okay.