My Journey to Self-Love as a Woman on the Autism Spectrum

they are
on a separate plane,
in a separate reality that is
visible to me
but only just.

the film that divides us is

still, the glow of their bodies
burns through me like jealousy;

makes wonder if they are more
permanent than i am.

I wrote this poem as a senior in high school. At the time, I didn’t have a name for the shadow that seemed to loom over me. The sudden loss of friendships, my unconventional interests, and the general feelings of isolation I experienced were things I hoped to grow out of. Once I moved on to university, I assumed I would find where I “fit” in the world and all would be well. Somehow I’d become a better student, a more pleasant person.

Unfortunately, wishing for something doesn’t always make it so. Four weeks into college, I dropped out and never returned. I bounced from job to job, attempted cosmetology school twice, even briefly toyed with the idea of a tattooing apprenticeship. All around me, people I grew up with were coming into their potentials. They were marching to the beat of a drum I couldn’t hear, regardless of how hard I tried. I spent the better part of my late teens and early 20s feeling defeated by it.

However, something began to shift when I gave birth to my daughter in 2013. She connected with me, offering toothless smiles and babbled words. She didn’t care about my eccentricities and failures. To her, I was the entire world. Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to provide for her and be someone she was proud of. My husband and I began making drastic changes in our lives. We moved across the country, he joined the army, and I started cosmetology school again.

Even though I was taking steps in the right direction, the unnamed shadow still followed. I was making progress with my education but found my demeanor too blunt for the industry I was entering. I zeroed in on specific subjects with an intensity classmates regarded as odd. Even though some people wanted to befriend me, I just couldn’t connect. One day the phrase, “Fake it ‘till you make it,” came up in class and really struck a chord in me. I began to observe individuals I perceived as kind and created mental scripts to ease conversation. I pieced together a public persona and wore it like a mask every time I stepped foot outside my door.

For a while, this approach worked extremely well. I was regarded as quirky rather than weird, quiet instead of aloof. It was refreshing to finally feel included in a way I had never been before. I hoped with practice, these behaviors would become natural to me. I spent two years focusing on my education, part time jobs and involving myself in social events. Before I knew it, I graduated and was hired as a stylist at an amazing salon. With my attention no longer divided among school, work and family, I was painfully yanked out of autopilot mode. My days consisted of keeping my head above the huge waves of anxiety that permeated every waking moment. My personality began to fall flat, and my work performance suffered.

When it finally became unbearable, I called the salon and informed them I couldn’t work there anymore. I stopped attending meetups for social groups I was involved in. I no longer interacted with my family. Somehow I found myself in the same dark place I visited frequently as a teenager. However, where before I could pull myself up for air, I couldn’t now.

These negative emotions reached their height about three months after I quit my job. I hadn’t left my house in weeks, couldn’t cook or clean, and slept most of the day. Desperate for relief, I scheduled a behavioral health appointment. I hoped that with the right combination of medication and therapy, my life could get back on track. Two sessions in, I stumbled across a blog post that changed my life. It was as if the author had written it specifically for me. A person I’d never met managed to describe my personality and experiences with an unnerving clarity.

I took these findings to my therapist and within a few weeks, I finally had a name for the shadow that hung over me. It was called autism spectrum disorder. This knowledge sent me on a journey of self-discovery that continues today. I learned that my way of being isn’t something that needs to be fixed, but embraced. My talents and skills are largely a result of the hyper-focus my condition affords. With the help of professionals, I can now recognize the signs of burnout before things become desperate.

I’ve spent time grieving over the things I believe I’ll never have. Saying goodbye to the idea of a “normal” life has been difficult at times. However, a sense of relief overpowers these negative thoughts. I’m beginning to embrace the idea that there is room for me in the world. Tentative hope has rooted, growing as I learn more about myself and what I have to offer. To live a healthy life, I know I must lead an authentic one. Yes, it isn’t a smooth transition and letting go is a difficult process. I have years of bad habits and unhealthy coping mechanisms to undo, but I am profoundly hopeful.

Saying goodbye to the persona I created has been a bittersweet experience. It got me through school and helped me gain employment and make friends. Even though camouflaging was unhealthy for me, I survived situations I wouldn’t have been able to handle otherwise. Below is something I wrote to my past self, to thank her for trying so hard. Without that bravery, I might’ve never been able to get to know and love myself as I truly am. It’s finally time to put down the mask.

When I step off this ledge,
when my fingers can’t find purchase anymore,
I will let you go
and thank you
because I mean it.

My hands will only catch the ache of wind
but they will not mourn
for loss of substance

since I’m parting from you

there is always a beginning to every end.

I will let you go
because I love you

and because
I have to.

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