What Elizabeth Warren Taught Me About Success and Autism
Campaigning for the 2020 presidential election is in full swing, meaning contenders on both sides of the political aisle are making appearances across the United States and posting the occasional “relatable” Instagram content while they’re at it. Elizabeth Warren, my candidate of choice, has distinguished herself through outreach to voters, having attended over 128 town halls and being known to talk afterward with supporters and take selfies with them. On her Instagram, she shares detailed explanations of her plans ranging from single-payer health care to student debt forgiveness, along with thank you’s for the supportive letters she’s received and pictures of her golden retriever, Bailey.
Apparently, one must make a meme of themselves to succeed in the democratic process these days, and we’ve come to know Warren’s simultaneously no-nonsense and compassionate approach to her work, not to mention the signature look of a cardigan or colored blazer on black. I even saw in a product in a store with an illustration of a cat saying, “nevertheless she purrsisted,” a pun on Mitch McConnell’s reaction to her iconic filibuster.
A few days ago, I was scrolling through my own Instagram feed when footage from her recent town hall in Marion, Iowa caught my attention. Warren was taking questions from the audience when Raelyn, a 17-year-old high school student from nearby Cedar Rapids, took the microphone. She wanted to know if there was ever a time in her life when someone she looked up to didn’t accept her as much, and how she dealt with it.
Warren went on to explain that she and her mother had different views of how to “build a future,” that she wanted her to marry well, and Warren tried, but it didn’t work out. The day came a few years later when she had to call her family to explain that she was getting a divorce. Warren further admitted to hearing the disappointment in her mother’s voice, all the while knowing it was the right thing to do. She concluded by saying, “sometimes you just gotta do what’s right inside and hope that maybe the rest of the world will come around to it. And maybe they will and maybe they won’t, but the truth is, you gotta take care of yourself first.” And the two hugged.
While many factors have made me “stan the women with a plan,” Warren’s priorities to create a social safety net and fight for marginalized communities are imperative to me as someone with autism. She probably won’t see this, but I want to share my story.
No amount of masking or conventional success have made me feel quite safe enough in the world. Although I don’t require day to day assistance, I have to go to therapy at least once a week and take several medications each day to treat the nebula of mental health issues I’ve sustained, including a new diagnosis of complex PTSD. While I am currently covered under my parent’s medical insurance, my dreaded 26th birthday will arrive, and I’ll be kicked off. At 21, I ponder the future obsessively, putting pressure on myself to get healthy as I’m enveloped by expectations to have my life figured out. Perhaps in that way I’m not so different from others my age and I’m slightly over-identifying with the challenges of my disability, but I’m assimilating myself into the responsibilities of adulthood when it’s harder to read between the lines of how the world works.
I’m only beginning to accept the reality of being autistic as an adult, along with the associated trauma I’ve accumulated, and all the while, Elizabeth Warren’s vigor has given me a reason to keep showing up for my own life. Now here she was, speaking truth to my circumstances!
My inability to socialize, navigate the school day and speak clearly as a little girl put my parents through the whole shebang of an uncertain prognosis, IEPs and intervention options. The speech and occupational therapy I received left me uncomfortable in my own body and combined with people left and right who took my autistic traits as a free for all to comment led me to create an image of who I needed to be. Being from a Jewish family that prized academic accomplishment and intellect left me eager to keep up with my studious brother and cousins as we got older. Clearly, I had to sit still, make friends and do a good job on my assignments.
Leeway to be my own person has been conditional on my ability to succeed in a neurotypical world and be composed, and I knew it from the get-go. I took comfort in my ability to write well, feeling like I had a foot to stand on. My school reports usually said I wasn’t the most organized but brought a unique perspective to class discussions. I needed more time to take in information, but at least I could learn in my own way! I tried to get by with as little academic support as possible, so people didn’t know the truth about my brain.
As the culmination of my efforts to succeed took shape in the form of taking challenging classes and making the honor roll, I was praised for “overcoming” my disability, a problematic concept in and of itself. As I met more people with autism, I couldn’t help deriving a sense of security from knowing where I stood in terms of my ability to function and engage with the world.
At the end of an autism panel I spoke on in middle school, the mother of someone newly diagnosed came over to tell me that I’d given her hope because of my ability to speak and how well I seemed to handle everyday situations. While I was flattered, the shadow of my inner neurology remained. She hadn’t seen my struggle to make friends and get on the good side of teachers who didn’t “get” my learning style. But still, a part of me felt invincible, like I’d gained distance from the early years of people waiting for me to catch up.
I did well enough in school to be accepted to Mount Holyoke College, my first choice school for its dedication to social justice and encouragement of independent thinking. But years of suppressing my instinctual behavior and pushing myself had backfired in the form of mental illness that has taken a toll not just on my brain, but my body. My senior year of high school was marked by debilitating anxiety and dangerously low moods. In my first quarter, I earned As in all my classes except for one, and let’s just say the rest of my senior year report cards looked a little bit different. The grand indication of “overcoming” my disability had arrived, and I realized I’d traded one form of impairment for another. The depression left me struggling to perform basic tasks such as reading and keeping my bedroom clean. I was embarrassed to share my good news, feeling like a fraud, or that my defectiveness would be found out.
Deferring college for a year seemed sensible, but needing more time to find my baseline wasn’t the problem. I figured I was fine considering Mount Holyoke was only an hour away from my home in Connecticut, meaning I could easily go home if anything went wrong. Upon arriving a year later like I’d planned, I bonded with new people over feminism and the creative process, but the anxiety of being on my own forced me to give it all up after a month. Unbeknownst to me, my body was keeping score of every time I was touched and manipulated by a therapist without permission and the general sense of exclusion I felt later on. This cumulative trauma began revealing itself in the form of sleep disturbances, inability to be with my own thoughts, and a debilitating sense of disgust with myself.
I couldn’t keep up with the schoolwork when I was constantly fatigued and overwhelmed. Additionally, the executive dysfunction I’d masked well enough in high school wasn’t so easy to deal with when I was suddenly responsible for daily tasks such as laundry and getting around on my own. Although I was in contact with a local therapist, she wasn’t versed in complex mental illness. It wasn’t going to work. In my head, I hadn’t beaten the odds after all, and I dreaded reminders of how behind I was all over again.
I don’t believe Elizabeth Warren had a story like mine in mind when she told Raelyn that you sometimes have to do what’s right and take care of yourself, but hear me out. I’ve noticed parallels between obstacles women used to face and the current challenges facing the disability community. Going through a school education system that didn’t accurately anticipate my needs or appreciate what I bring to the table and pressure to be “normal” starkly mirrors the ways women have been pigeonholed throughout history.
Warren herself grew up wanting to be a teacher, but her mother treated the idea as preposterous given the family’s financial means, also believing her daughter might not get married if she kept up her ambitions. And then the marriage she did enter didn’t pan out. While I won’t pretend I know how it feels to be a woman from her era, I can’t help but identify with the mindset of wanting something more for oneself and wondering if it’s possible. Warren navigated the ropes of higher education and later a law career all while raising a family in a society uncomfortable with facets of who a woman can be. Half a century later, I’m trying to do the same when the world hasn’t caught up in terms of attitudes regarding disability.
I’m still struggling with the mental health symptoms that forced me to leave school in the first place, and my days are taken up by confronting many hard truths about the expectations I’ve set for my life. My family has not unlearned how to tiptoe around me, and there’s still all the stereotypical Jewish talk of who’s going to what college or this and that. At this point, I don’t have the time or mental space to please them. I am now making plans to get my head down and return to school on my own terms, hopefully for a degree in psychology to understand the intersections of autism and trauma.
Acknowledging commonalities of the human experience has been a lifeline for me, and Elizabeth Warren’s sentiment at the town hall could not be timelier in my life. Out of the belief that my words and my vote can shape the society we live in, like Liz, I persist. I like to think that had I been in the audience asking a similar question to Raelyn, she would have given me the same heartfelt answer, whispering in my ear that everything is going to be OK.
Photo via Wikipedia.