You Don't Have To
I’m going to start off by saying I will be mentioning Autism, wanting to unalive myself, and some other potentially sensitive content. So if you need to check out here, please do.
My daughter, Mackenzie Salome— meaning born of fire and of peace, made her arrival finally on September 10. This was the last day of National Suicide Prevention Week, a topic I am more concerned with than I truly let on.
Since it’s still #SPAM, culminating with the arrival of my firstborn and a few small wins and changes in my personal and professional life— I have become increasingly motivated to finally share.
Not for you, of course, you understand. It’s all for her now, which means staying genuine and honest in taking care of my mental health—
This brings me to the purpose of this article.
I haven’t had suicidal ideation in several months, which is a relief after going through two decades of painful thoughts and 9 attempts).
I want to first acknowledge that it isn't so easy, but I’m sharing hopefully to encourage someone to find their autism-- and maybe it isn't autism, even.
I didn’t get diagnosed with ASD until I was 23.
So what did I do in the meantime?
I grew increasingly frustrated--
The world around me seemed to not be following the rules. Speaking to people was unpleasant but a necessity if I wanted to succeed in this crazy world. I grew up in and out of homelessness despite a single mother’s best efforts. I did not want to be successful but absolutely needed to be because I still had an epileptic younger brother who I imagined looked up to me the way I did the eldest.
At 18 realizing nothing was in my way technically, and legally, I set a plan in motion to— pick myself up by my bootstraps. Except, I didn’t have boots, I wore a single pair of Jordans or Adidas that I work hard for a few summers before.
My voyage had commenced— so I sailed with the full understanding that statistics show, even from nothing, most normal people can build a successful life— even if rife with stress. But first I had to define success.
Well, I hear people say life is a game and we all want to win (so in no particular order the imaginary list went):
-Go to college ✅
-Fall in love ✅
-Find a job ✅
-Start a family ✅
Around 21 I really started struggling with most of these things. I could not understand why I wasn’t “showing” love or emoting properly. My resume cuts a year off of my actual work experience because I graduated a year late. A full schedule while working two jobs because I still needed to meet certain education requirements went from the most exciting and only thing I wanted to do, to impossible thanks to burnout.
Finding a job is the thing that made me eventually find therapy and my diagnosis. The workplace can carry some of the same stressors that bring about an Autistic meltdown depending on the individual and their support needs as well as the company environment. I didn't need the diagnosis to feel the sensory overload, I just needed to understand it-- to understand myself.
The types of sensory overload can be divided into the following categories and look different depending on the situation... and individual. So I will stop here to acknowledge again, that this is me speaking only from my perspective on my specific brand of ASD.
Sounds: Especially persistent sounds like lawnmowers, washing machines, ticking clocks, or dripping water; for me loud sudden noises or consistent grinding noises can become overwhelming.
Sights: Such as a flickering fluorescent lamp or curtains that flutter; for me, this includes uneven, well almost anything.
Smells: Particularly heavy or distinct smells such as cleaning supplies, perfumes, new carpets, or foods; for me, this is such a constant, and being raised neurotypical, it seemed small to be so visibly irritated by smells-- so I really heavily on masks and respirators at work.
Textures: Such as eating slippery foods or touching a slimy gel; for me, this includes the texture of wet clothing.
Vestibular: This refers to structures in the inner ear that detect movement and changes in the position of the head. The vestibular system can tell you, for example, when your head is upright or tilted even when your eyes are shut; for me, this puts roller coasters on a limit of how much and frequently I can enjoy them. And I do enjoy them even when it looks like I am not.
Proprioception: This refers to understanding where your body is in relation to other objects. The proprioceptive system is made up of receptors in muscles that monitor muscle length, tension, and pressure. This also lends itself to my issues with roller coasters.
Interoception: This is the recognition of what is going on inside your body, such as knowing when you are hungry, full, hot, cold, or thirsty. The interoceptive system involves a network of cranial nerves that interprets changes in the digestive tract, blood vessels, and other organ systems. For me, this means a lot of things. I need to be reminded at work to eat sometimes because I can go days without taking a lunch break, especially in my area where the work itself can be so involved. Work to me has (and probably will) always involve my special interest. When this happens I no longer feel when I am getting hungry or even if I’m thirsty. This one is also really big in recognizing when I am on the verge of a meltdown. I begin to feel cold to the point where my body starts shivering, regardless of temperature.
For years I had no idea these symptoms were a sign of anything, and was convinced I was not allowed to express what I was truly experiencing, out of fear of disappointing those around me. After I received my diagnosis I spent years battling back and forth about what being Autistic even meant.
Being Autistic only meant being who I’ve always been. Except for this time, I can see myself through a clearer lens-- one with fewer cracks in it. I can say now five (5) years later I haven’t made an attempt in well over a year, and haven’t had ideation in several months.
It wasn’t an immediate switch but finding the proper diagnosis did help, and I hope anyone who is struggling can find the strength to go talk to someone honestly. It can be very scary, but you never have to do it alone.