Kevin Coyle

Community Voices
Nera Birch

How Masking Autism Can Lead to Burnout

Masking or camouflaging is something just about everybody does on a daily basis. Depending on where you are or who you are with, you act a certain way. People with autism have to do this on a much deeper level. We live in a world that was not designed for us, so we learn to “hide” the things that make us seem different. I learned how to keep my autism hidden in public, even before I was diagnosed. In fact, one of the reasons it took so long to diagnose me was because in school, at least until middle school when I was diagnosed, I was able to camouflage exceedingly well. I could go through an entire day without displaying autistic or different behavior. Home was another story. By the time I got home from school, I would be exhausted, physically and mentally, from masking all day. Bear in mind, I was not able to verbalize these feelings when I was a child. I would have intense meltdowns that affected my entire family very negatively. But home was the only place I felt safe enough to unmask and let out all the emotions and feelings I had bottled up during the day. Up until very recently, I forced myself to mask completely in public and even somewhat at home, if there were people around me. I refused to stim and got very embarrassed to be caught doing it. When out in the world, my goal was to look as though I was neurotypical. It got to the point where I would have a panic attack if I said the wrong thing or made the wrong facial expression. I became so self-aware when I was camouflaging. I could literally feel the weight of holding in my emotions and meltdowns. My body hurts and I have trouble breathing. My body feels heavy and underwater. When I’m masking to this degree, I feel like I’m on auto-pilot. I feel so close to snapping. I’m just being stretched and stretched and I’ve managed to bounce back every time, but a rubber band can only stay intact through so much stretching and pulling. It’s a scary to think what might happen if the rubber band actually breaks. That is called autistic burnout and it is a very scary state of mind. For me, autistic burnout occurs when I just can’t stand being autistic anymore. The thought of messing up socially, even something minuscule that nobody else will notice, makes me hate myself during burnout phases. I feel worthless and small. I have even felt suicidal. Masking is important and useful in small doses, but when you mask constantly, it can cause severe mental turmoil. Burnout will come and go. I feel wonderful today, but that could change tomorrow. Having a plan of action before you reach a burnout phase is very important, especially because you can’t always think straight when burnout occurs. I have a list of people I can call and talk to and a list of activities to try out when I feel this way. Letting myself act more autistic has been absolutely freeing. I feel comfortable enough in my own self to act the way that feels best to me. I embrace my echolalia and now I feel free to sing and repeat phrases that sound pleasant to me. I flap way more now, pretty much in every conversation. And the more awkward I feel, the harder I flap. But I don’t feel self-conscious about it anymore. In fact, I think it’s kind of endearing. I have sensory toys everywhere and I am not afraid to use them. If someone wants to stare, let them. It has taken me 25 long years to be this comfortable with displaying my autism and I still have a ways to go. But I’ll do it with my mask off and my hands flapping.

Kaden M (he/they)

Nonverbal Learning Disability: What I Wish People Understood

I have a learning disability — a few actually — including one you may have never heard of. It is recognized by most neuropsychologists and yet it is controversial because it does not exist in the DSM-5: nonverbal learning disability (NVLD/NLD). The name is often misleading to the average person. One may see the word “nonverbal” and assume it means the individual does not speak. This is often quite the contrary. Those with NVLD can be quite talkative; the reason behind the name is because NVLDers struggle with understanding nonverbal communication, a hallmark of the learning disability. But who am I to say all of this? I have learned a lot about nonverbal learning disability this past year because I was diagnosed with this condition not so long ago, as a 26-year-old. I have joined Facebook groups and read what I can find online, receiving most of my information firsthand from others who share a diagnosis of NVLD with me. Unfortunately, there is not enough information out there about NVLD, and that is why I’ve decided to write this. So… what exactly makes up a nonverbal learning disability diagnosis? While I personally believe it is OK to self-diagnose if one identifies with the traits and characteristics (as is also believed in the Autistic community), what leads to a clinical diagnosis by a neuropsychologist is an IQ test. The test results must include a decent discrepancy between the Verbal IQ and Performance IQ with overall average (or higher) intelligence. The key is not the numbers themselves but rather the obvious gaps between the two types of intelligence. My Verbal IQ is above average while my Performance IQ is low average, including a very low processing speed. But Kelly, you may ask, what does all of this actually mean? Living with NVLD, I have had challenges from the beginning… I was born 10 weeks premature, something that may (will never know for sure) have contributed to my developmental disabilities, including nonverbal learning disability. I did not have any extensive evaluations in early childhood. I was simply, along with my twin sister, held back in preschool by a year and considered mildly developmentally delayed. Coordination I have always struggled with my fine motor skills, including use of scissors, holding a pen, handwriting, drawing (this is why I stick to abstract art rather than neat sketches!), and even tying my shoes (I rocked those Sketchers velcro shoes until I was 12, and there’s nothing wrong with that). I have never been athletic or coordinated. Learning dance steps and physical movements is very awkward and challenging for me. I also run into walls sometimes — I remember in college once being called out for being really drunk, when in reality, I was actually sober; I laughed, seeing how my lack of coordination might come off as drunken clumsiness. I was even nicknamed “the spiller” in ninth grade by my best friend’s mom, as I spilled every drink or bowl full of liquid that entered my hands. Visual-Spatial Processing and Math Challenges My visual-spatial processing and math skills are not the strongest thanks to NVLD and my unique wiring.  I have consistently had challenges, and subsequent anxiety, in any and every math class (I also have a math-specific learning disability called dyscalculia). Geometry was and is particularly for me because of NVLD as well as learning how to read an analog clock — this still isn’t easy for me at 26! Other things affected by my issues with visual-spatial processing can be hard to explain as I’ve never seen the world any other way. I have challenges with driving and parking my car, reading maps  — I get lost anywhere and everywhere, to the point of comedy — and remembering and locating things I see. I also have what I refer to as a mild sort of facial blindness — I really do not remember or recognize faces easily. I remember at my first job out of college, weeks into working the position, I still could not remember or tell apart some of the other staff members nor remember basic instructions. This was embarrassing and I had no words to describe why I was struggling. With that, my overall processing speed is slow, regardless of whether it is auditory or visual-spatial. Executive Functioning Executive function issues are typically associated with ADHD and autism, but can also come with other conditions like PTSD, OCD, depression, and learning disabilities like NVLD. For me, this means trouble focusing/following along in conversations, constant disorganization — both internally and externally, emotion regulation difficulties, problems with shifting focus, issues dealing with changes and planning, time blindness, working memory deficits, having a hard time starting tasks and completing them, and lastly, I have a low frustration tolerance.  In summary, this has made school and in my case, especially jobs, a challenge. However, I persevere, particularly as I go through my master’s degree in creative writing (with accommodations and therapy, which also help!). Social Challenges Social challenges with nonverbal learning disability, like the other faces of the disability, exist on a spectrum or pie chart, however you’d like to look at it. For me, upon receiving my initial diagnosis, I scoffed, thinking I had no social issues. Well… then I really reflected and developed some more self-awareness in therapy, only to realize that I do; it is simply more subtle than I had thought could fit the diagnosis. In my case, this includes life-long issues with understanding sarcasm, interrupting others, trouble following in conversations, passionate and endless talks about my hyper fixations or “special interests,” not always being the best listener… and did I mention excessive talking?! And last but not least, I grew up feeling awkward. Different. Labeled as quirky and unique. This may not all be because of NVLD, but I feel it may be part of the picture. Connecting With Others Who Live With NVLD Nonverbal learning disability deserves more awareness. It needs more attention for the children and teens being diagnosed and accommodated, as well as the adults who find out later in life why they have struggled for so long. It is not uncommon to also have anxiety and depression with NVLD, as well as ADHD, other learning disabilities, and in some cases, NVLDers are Autistic. I want to say that this is simply what I’ve learned from others with NVLD plus my own experiences, and that meeting one person with NVLD is meeting only one person with NVLD, so never stereotype and assume, especially when someone tells you they have a hidden disability. If you have NVLD, please check out the group I have created here on The Mighty — it is new, so not a lot happening just yet, but I am hoping this community can grow. Hi Community Members!! #nvld #LearningDisabilities #ADHD #Autism #Anxiety #Dyscalculia #SensoryProcessingDisorder

Mesa Fama

What Keeps Me Going on the Hard Days With Mental and Chronic Illness

Depression, anxiety, chronic pain and a cheerful, sunny disposition — me in a nutshell. The truth is, I have no idea how I’m surviving other than I just keep going. I just keep getting up and telling myself to breathe (sometimes I forget to breathe). I tell myself to swing my legs out of bed and force my torso to follow suit. I tell myself coffee is waiting and it’s perfectly OK to have a cup at 3 a.m. because nightmares are what startled me out of sleep and who wants to face that again? I tell myself it’s early and who knows what the day will bring, and I tell myself it’s perfectly OK to not want to participate (knowing I have to anyway). I tell myself all of these things just to survive the day. I have lived with this life for over two decades, I’ve pretty much mastered surviving. Now, if I could master living, well, what would that even look like?! I get little glimpses every now and then, little breaks in the clouds where the light comes beaming through and I become astonished by the moment because my being recognizes it as something outside of the norm. I hold those moments close and sear them into my mind so in times like this, I can go back there and replay them. The moments that pull me through and convince me to keep going are things people probably wouldn’t think are very important, and yet to me, they are quite literally life-saving. Things like my husband making coffee for me every morning, making people around me laugh, my favorite music, reading a new book, taking in someone’s story for the first time, cooking good food, playing games with friend — trivia wakes my brain up and Cards Against Humanity makes my face hurt from laughing. It’s learning new things, exploring why we humans do what we do and think what we think. Giving back to society in different ways, listening for hours on end to conversations about life or my husband sharing his thoughts. Looking at the sky, the clouds are my favorite, wandering through my mind, my brain fascinates me. Looking at art and wondering what the artist was thinking while they created their piece. Watching my favorite movies over again and gaining something new from them every time. Love, knowing I am loved. These are the things that keep me alive. Seems so simple, right? I have to constantly remind myself these things exist and are real to keep going. I have to remind myself of what I’d miss if I gave up. I don’t take anything for granted, I suppose it’s because I know how quickly it can all go away. You wouldn’t know any of these things by looking at me, you might know them if we sat down to have a beyond-the-surface conversation, though. Oh yeah, add that to the list, too — beyond-the-surface conversations, those are most definitely worth getting out of bed for. I sank into my favorite corner of the couch this morning with the intention to write a “how to” for anyone who needs it. And I feel a bit like this has become my reminder list of how to stay alive. My hope is you’ll find yourself among some of the words and realize sometimes the smallest things are the biggest things to someone you care about. If you’re like me and you are looking for a reason to stay, my hope is you’ll fight through the pain that threatens to steal all the good and see you’re not as alone as your mind might try to make you think.

mama tine

I Realized I Have Autism After My Daughters Were Diagnosed

The following text was originally a letter sent from me to my mom in the form of texts: I was born with autism. My mom could not really hold or caress me without me retracting. I was a “fussy baby” and always had trouble sleeping and staying asleep. I had flat affect. Of my earliest memories, most were happy. But my earliest memories also include an anxiety attack at the tender age of 4 (I didn’t realize that’s what I was traumatized by until late into adulthood) and panic attacks. I was not diagnosed with autism as a child or even as a young adult. I could not feel the warmth and love from my parents. I could not feel warmth or goodness from anyone. I was unable. But oh, I could see the hurt you or anyone did to me. I could see your mistakes against me. I could see when you failed against me. I didn’t know it at the time, but I did not understand social norms. Social cues. This was the source of my low self-esteem and debilitating anxiety. I experienced feelings of rejection, aloneness and confusion. A child who cannot deeply feel warmth or love will develop very low self-esteem. Will feel alone and abandoned. Unfailingly rejected. No sense of self-worth. I believe it is by the grace of God that I survived so long. Who can live feeling alone and abandoned while they had a family around them? I was not literally abandoned, but I felt like I was. I wasn’t able to put the word “abandoned” to it at those young ages, but in retrospect, I believe that’s the best word for it. I discovered I was good at school, probably as soon as kindergarten and first grade. And succeeding there gave me the only shred of self-worth I had. I identified myself as only a good student. When I went to undergrad and school was hard, I lost my whole identity. I felt like I was garbage now because I failed at the one thing I clung to. It was during undergrad that I was first confronted with depression. I was the proverbial small fish in the big pond. I tried to quit and go home, but I was richly supported. I was able to manage my depression with exercise. It is by the grace of God that I met Al. I was so sure I would never be compatible with anyone. And I was content to be alone with my integrity rather than desperately clinging to a random man. With Al I had and continue to have a profound connection. He gives me unshakable loyalty, seemingly infinite patience, the most fun times of my life, and parenting compatibility. By the grace of God, I had children! I didn’t even think I ever would! Watching my first child BumbleBee grow up was illuminating. As she developed, I could not help but notice she was struggling. Of course, I love my baby just the way she is. She is perfect in her mother’s eyes. But, as a professional, as someone who had the privilege of studying childhood development, I just knew something was going on. Next, we had K, our neurotypical daughter. She is the sunshine of our family, and the little mama to her older sister in addition to her baby sister. Thirdly, we had baby girl Yaya, a surprise by all accounts. When Yaya turned 1, she became the most difficult child for me. I simply could not help her or soothe her in a profound way, beyond the surface. We struggled to get her a diagnosis, but at about age 2 and a half years we got her autism diagnosis. BumbleBee grew up and hit third grade. It became clear she was not thriving. She had way too much anxiety, and difficulty at home and school. The details will remain private, but suffice it to say she was not thriving. My daughter was not living, she was merely existing, floating around without an anchor and unattached to us. This just so happened to be when we were living in my sister’s house. We were between homes and living in a new city. Al was commuting. The girls were in new schools. The house was so full of family. And then COVID-19 hit the world. We were amidst a global pandemic. We learned BumbleBee has ADHD-inattentive type and autism too. During my autism studies for my daughters, I picked up this precious jewel: The hardest part about having autism and ADHD-inattentive is the anxiety it produces. That’s the hardest part. Something clicked. I saw my daughter’s behavior. These were not attention-seeking behaviors. She was struggling with something profound. And achingly familiar. Sometime after this, I don’t know exactly when, it just clicked. I am BumbleBee. BumbleBee is me. This is how I was when I was a kid. She also didn’t feel my warmth. She did not see the kind things we do for her. She only saw my frustration with her. She recoiled when I tried to caress her. I believe, I assert, that BumbleBee and I did this because of an inability to develop self-worth. Our autism went undiagnosed, so we didn’t have the understanding and support we needed. That stole essential rites of passage from us, and prevented us from developing a profound and healthy sense of self. Why would a child with privilege and comfort and resources and otherwise good health feel this way? Why would they be so low? Because of the trauma. Because they have internalized shame. My daughters have an invisible disability. I have an invisible disability. This mother’s trials and tribulations on behalf of her daughters unearthed a diagnosis for herself. I have autism spectrum disorder. I have always had it. My autism does not look like “textbook” autism. At least not to the typical layman. It does not look like what has been historically studied and researched and presented as autism. I believe in the future science will be better at identifying autism in girls, and identifying autism in folks who society perceives as “high functioning.” People with autism like mine often experience some of the worst, most pervasive anxiety you can imagine. I bet it makes a lot of folks depressed. I assert that many may have been carrying the painful weight I was carrying and still do not know it. My God. I was liberated from my burden. From the pebble I was holding on my back since I was born. That matured into a boulder as I aged. Once I married. Once I had children. Then exponentially when I had a child with disabilities. Then not one but two. And another typical child. I was carrying a boulder the size of a mountain. I have superhuman strength. I am exceptional. I am not garbage. I am awesome! I am a good mom. I am doing something hard. And I’m good at it! I have an invisible disability and I am doing things that are difficult for typical folks, typical parents. I have an invisible disability. I have autism and ADHD-inattentive. These two things I was born with give me anxiety. I had so much anxiety from such a young age that I didn’t even know it. Anxiety is all I know. It is my existence. The tremendous anxiety is connected to my depression. I wasn’t depressed for no reason. I have an invisible illness that gave me anxiety and depression. Depression that was likely on its way to killing me. It is with great seriousness and in the spirit of advocacy that I admit this taboo to you. It is difficult to discuss in this uncertain climate, but autism makes it easy for me: I was not thriving, I was not living, I was merely existing and waiting to die. I was probably on the road to suicide. I had an invisible disability my whole life. I struggled with it without help. Medication. Tools. I hurt a lot as a kid but I looked typical. I looked healthy. But I was in hell inside my body. This revelation made me a new person. I’m not the old Mama Tine. I am a brand new person. Immediately, I felt a surge of energy. The boulder was lifted. A miracle happened inside my mind, body, and soul. My posture changed. I did not want to sleep all day and abuse food. My children couldn’t believe their mommy was off the couch. I played and played with them. I was up before them and the last to sleep in the house. Immediately, I was thrust into the proverbial “pocket.” I could not stop writing. My ADHD was no longer my enemy. In my mind I could see all the thoughts I wanted to write and my ADHD was my superpower. My autism gave me a steely conviction and an infallible moral compass. I can’t do harm when I am as honest as pure light. I don’t have a filter. My intentions are pure. I am eloquent and empathic. Autism is truly my gift and superpower. (OK take it down a notch, Mama Tine. I am human and rife with flaws. But if you know someone with autism, you probably get what I mean.) When the boulder of pain left my body, the shame and anxiety as a result of my lifelong trauma dissipated too. When it clicked in my mind body and soul that I have autism, I was freed from the oppressive pain that is shame and anxiety. My struggle and drive for my children saved my life. I believe I have saved their lives, since I am now equipped with the tools, science and resources to ensure my neurodiverse children will thrive. They will not shoulder the confusing pain their mother carried. They will point to their disability with understanding and even pride. The chant in our home is, “My brain is different, not broken!” Here I am now, with big eyes for the world. I want to inspire, advocate and offer relief. I can’t be the first to have these feelings or life experiences. But in my 10 years of parenting and existing in the social media space, I have never heard anyone else mutter these words, or narrate a life story that was similar to mine and my kids’. I want to be the loud, warm voice. I want to prevent every ounce of pain possible. Parents unable to connect with their children. Folks with autism who might be undiagnosed or struggling with diagnoses and comorbidity and uncertainty. I can’t shut the door behind myself. So I learned how to set up a blog and spent the money on a domain. And I joined The Mighty. This is me extending my hand back and pulling you, dear reader, up.

Community Voices

Complications of birth injury

When I was born the doctor told my mother I may have lost oxygen to my brain. I also had a hole in my heart, and saw a specialist until I was eight years old. When I was three months old I saw a neurologist because I was not sitting up straight. I always had a hard tim with balance, and never learned to ride a bicycle. As a young adult I had seizures. Later in life, I did a search of these symptoms and came up with hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE). This term seems to fit me, but doctors never put all the pieces together.

Community Voices

Undiagnosed birth injury

#PTSDWhen I was born, a doctor told my mother it was possible that not enough oxygen went to my brain. I think my birth injury was traumatic even though it was never confirmed. I now know that a lack of oxygen can lead to developmental delays. In 2004, at age 44, I was told I had a learning disability.

Why Trauma Survivors Can't Just 'Let It Go'

It seems the deeper I journey into the healing and recovery process, the more I find that much of our cultural and conventional wisdom does not help trauma survivors. All the trite platitudes and sayings that might help someone having a garden-variety bad day can actually become giant triggers for someone living with trauma. Let’s assume everyone wants to live a healthy, pain-free, abundant and productive life. There are hundreds of motivational books and centered on “fake it ’til you make it” principles, which encourage people to “think positive,” “let it go,” “don’t sweat the small stuff,” etc. They may have helped some people. Judging by book sales, they have probably helped many. Yet, for many trauma survivors searching for relief, these books and motivational coaches don’t help. In fact, many, like me, feel more depressed, broken and impossibly disconnected after reading them. Here’s why. Trauma survivors are often highly motivated people. Many are conditioned to be hyperaware and hypervigilant out of survival. They are often overly critical of themselves because they were held to impossible standards by their abusers, and their attempts to please them often went sour. Some become overachievers, yet never feel like what they achieve is enough. Because nothing is ever good enough to appease an abuser, some survivors give up trying, becoming the self-fulfilling prophecy of whatever their abusers told them they were. Many survivors internalize that they are “lazy” when it’s not a lack of motivation that keeps them from their goals, it’s trauma. Trauma causes the nervous system to fight, flee or freeze, and for many survivors, their bodies are either stuck in one of these, or alternate between the three. Holding this pattern together is a web of toxic shame that is extremely difficult to break. Think of a race car stuck in first gear, with a foot on the gas and a foot on the break. That’s how many survivors get around. To a survivor, telling them to “think positive” sounds cruel. I mean, that’s exactly the problem for anyone recovering from psychological and emotional abuse. Their thoughts were hijacked by someone else, and now they are fighting for their sanity to get their own thoughts back. And it’s not just their brain that was taken over. Emotional trauma gets hardwired into the physical body. Not only does it cause mental anguish, it creates a lot of physical pain, which can sometimes morph into serious long-term disease. Doctors and scientists are currently making great strides in connecting the dots between trauma and disease, but the general public is years behind in understanding and accepting this reality. “Positive thinking” shields the reality that sometimes people feel shitty. In order to heal, survivors need to let down their shield and feel their feelings. Here’s the other problem when a trauma survivor feels pressure to “think positive.” Often, for a survivor, this can sound like it’s not OK to feel whatever they are feeling, so they stuff it away, often relegating it to the subconscious. Trauma survivors are experts at burying their feelings. But burying feelings doesn’t mean the pain goes away, it means the survivor is less able to access what they need in order to heal. Many survivors experience dissociation. Dissociation is a common coping mechanism that needs to be broken by actually facing the terrible thing that caused so much terror that mentally “going away” was the only option. Similarly, minimization plays a huge role in coping, either by the survivor or the people around them. Usually, it’s both. “It’s not that bad, ” or “It’s not as bad as X has it…” is not only a huge roadblock to recovery, it’s a road block to being aware of the trauma in the first place.  So, when a survivor decides not to “sweat the small stuff,” the small stuff turns into a giant, insurmountable mountain of shutdown feelings and emotions. Getting into a pattern of not speaking up, whether to keep the peace or to avoid uncomfortable emotions means more skeletons for the pile in the subconscious mind. Survivors need to pay attention to the small stuff. Here’s another one. “Just let it go.” If only it were so simple. If survivors could, they would gladly be doing it. While this is actually the end goal for resolving trauma, it often gets waved in front of the trauma survivor’s face like some shiny, magical, yet unattainable talisman. Too many people are trying to let go of trauma they haven’t yet fully grasped. To let go of something means you need to be aware that you’re holding it in the first place. Trauma that is stored in the locked closets and cupboards of the subconscious mind continue to control from within, often without the survivor fully understanding what’s happening. The process of letting go can’t happen until those things are dragged into the light and fully processed. Once again, that means feelings uncomfortable feelings. It means grieving. It means giving yourself the kind care and attention that no one else did. Sometimes, it means wallowing for a little while. The harsh inner-critic of a survivor usually doesn’t allow this for very long. It means sending the critic away. It means bringing all of our subconscious thoughts into our conscious awareness to objectively take stock of what we’re working with. So, next time you feel compelled to encourage someone to “let it go,” don’t. Instead, see if you can encourage them to lean in to whatever it is and feel it. Letting go will happen in its own time. That is, if you allow them to give their brain and body what it needs to heal.

Juliette V.

What Are the Fight, Flight, Freeze and Fawn Trauma Responses?

Whether we realize it or not, most of us are familiar with three classic responses to fear — fight, flight and freeze. When our brains perceive a threat in our environment, we automatically go into one of these stress response modes. From an evolutionary standpoint, these responses have served us well by allowing us to respond quickly to threats and get to safety. But for folks who have lived through prolonged exposure to abuse or trauma (often referred to as complex trauma ), the threat never feels like it went away, leaving many individuals “stuck” in different stress response modes. Think of the person who seems to lash out in anger at the slightest provocation (fight). Or the perpetually anxious person who avoids interpersonal conflict by immersing herself in work or school (flight). Or the individual who constantly feels defeated by their inability to make decisions (freeze). These are classic examples of fight, flight and freeze due to trauma, but did you know there’s actually a fourth response? It’s called “fawn” and is a term coined by Pete Walker , a C-PTSD survivor and licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in helping adults who were traumatized in childhood. Before we get too deep into the fawn trauma response, let’s make sure we have a good grasp on the other three commonly-recognized trauma responses: fight, flight and freeze. With the help of trauma-informed treatment specialist, Patrick Walden , LICSW, we’ve defined each below. As a note, most trauma survivors tend to lean toward one stress response. It’s important to remember no one response is “better” or “worse” than the others. If you find yourself “stuck” in one of the stress responses, and it’s affecting your quality of life, we encourage you to seek the help of a trauma-informed specialist. Fight Survivors who tend toward the fight response innately believe power will guarantee the security and control they lacked in childhood. “Fight looks like self-preservation at all costs,” Walden told The Mighty, adding that this trauma response can manifest in explosive outbursts of temper, aggressive behavior, demanding perfection from others or being “unfair” in interpersonal confrontations. He also noted that while we typically associate the fight response with men, women can also struggle with anger, though in many cases they direct their anger inward at themselves instead of toward others. Flight Survivors who tend toward the flight response are usually chronically busy and perfectionistic. They may believe “being perfect” is a surefire way to receive love and prevent abandonment by important people in their lives. “Flight can look like obsessive thinking or compulsive behavior, feelings of panic or anxiety, rushing around, being a workaholic or over-worrying, [and being] unable to sit still or feel relaxed,” Walden said. Freeze Survivors who tend toward the freeze response are often mistrustful of others and generally find comfort in solitude. The freeze response may also refer to feeling physically or mentally “frozen” as a result of trauma, which people may experience as dissociation. “Freeze looks like spacing out or feeling unreal, isolating [yourself] from the outside world, being a couch potato … [and having] difficulty making and acting on decisions,” Walden said. What Is the Fawn Response? Fawning is perhaps best understood as “people-pleasing.” According to Walker , who coined the term “fawn” as it relates to trauma, people with the fawn response are so accommodating of others’ needs that they often find themselves in codependent relationships. O n his website he wrote: Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences and boundaries. Below we’ve listed some classic signs of fawning. These behaviors may be especially prevalent when a survivor feels triggered or fearful: People-pleasing Being unable to say how you really think or feel Caring for others to your own detriment Always saying “yes” to requests Flattering others Struggling with low self-esteem Avoiding conflict Feeling taken advantage of Being very concerned about fitting in with others Because fawn types struggle to take up space and express their needs, they are more vulnerable to emotional abuse and exploitation. In abusive circumstances (for example childhood abuse or intimate partner violence), abusers may suppress a survivor’s fight or flight responses by threatening punishment, leading to the the survivor’s reliance on the fawn or freeze response. “When we lack the power or ability to fight or flee, which occurs commonly with complex trauma, we will freeze, ‘appease’ or dissociate,” Dr. Cathy Kezelman, AM, president of Blue Knot Foundation: National Centre of Excellence for Complex Trauma, told The Mighty. “The appease response, which is also known as ‘please’ or ‘fawn’ is another survival response which occurs [when] survivors read danger signals and aim to comply and minimize the confrontation in an attempt to protect themselves.” What It’s Like to Experience Fawning As humans, we tend to seek out relationships that feel comfortable and familiar. For fawn-type trauma survivors who are used to working hard to please in relationships, this can unfortunately mean attracting abusive relationships that feel familiar or “deserved.” This is something mental health advocate Sam Dylan Finch wrote about on his blog, “Let’s Queer Things Up“: The more invested I was in an emotional connection, the less likely I was to criticize that person, vocalize when my boundaries were crossed, express unhappiness with their behavior, or share anything that I felt might damage that relationship…It took stepping away from a friendship that had so thoroughly gaslit and demolished me — while plummeting into the deep depths of anorexia — before I realized that chasing controlling, emotionally unavailable, even abusive people was crushing my spirit.I sought out the most emotionally inaccessible people, and I threw myself into the pursuit, somehow believing that if I could secure the love and affection of the most unattainable person, it would indisputably prove my worthiness. If you are a trauma survivor and can relate to his words, you’re not alone. There is no shame in struggling with fawning. Fawning, like the other stress responses, is like self-protective armor. It has helped many trauma survivors live through abusive and sometimes dangerous circumstances. As we mentioned above, there is no stress response that is “better” or “worse” than the others, but getting stuck in one of them can be harmful. Though fawning tends to assuage anxiety and make you feel “safer” in the moment, it can actually silence your voice and prevent you from healing or surrounding yourself with people that truly care about your well-being. How to Find Help The good news is it’s never too late to heal from trauma. With the help of a trauma-informed therapist (check out this helpful tool to find one), you can work to change your deeply ingrained responses to fear. “People who have experienced complex trauma often struggle to feel safe and regulate their often strong emotions,” Kezelman told The Mighty. “ Learning to find a sense of safety can be a slow and gradual process, but one which is absolutely achievable.” One of the most important parts of your healing journey will be learning to develop and assert healthy boundaries with people in your life. (For a crash course on boundary-setting, check out our guide here). In times of stress and fear, instead of compromising your needs, a therapist can teach you self-soothing and self-care strategies, as well as grounding techniques if you struggle with dissociation. As you begin (or continue) your healing journey, there are a few things we need you to know: You deserve to take up space. You are enough just as you are. Your thoughts, feelings, opinions and boundaries matter. To connect with The Mighty’s trauma survivor community, we encourage you to post a Thought or Question on the site with the hashtag #TraumaSurvivors. Whatever you’re facing today, you don’t have to do it alone.

Being a 'Smart Girl' With Undiagnosed ADHD

I have ADHD. Surprise! Who would have guessed, right? Actually, to most of my friends, it’s pretty obvious. My train of thought is more of a streetcar on detour rather than a train, and my stories have virtually no end. But why did it take 24 years for a doctor to actually diagnose me? When I was a kid, my teachers told me I was “gifted” and “above average.” I finished all my work before everyone else, and often got bored in class. Instead of acting out, I would zone out or work on something different. Sometimes it was writing stories, or reading a book under my desk. By the time I was in sixth grade, I was running a gum and candy business from inside my desk. I never really got in trouble, because my actual school work was finished and I was always the first to hand in my exams and class assignments. My parents thought I was just bored because the content was too easy. In reality, I struggled with focusing. I struggled with doing one task for an extended period of time, and would rush through tasks before my attention span ran out. There was constantly an attention hour glass that ran out just a bit too soon.When I was young, it was cute – I had messy writing, didn’t color in the lines, and couldn’t cut a piece of paper in a straight line. Everything was a race, and quality slipped through the cracks. As I got older, it became less cute and more annoying. School got harder, and I didn’t magically know all the answers anymore. I tried to explain to my parents that I thought I had ADHD when I was about 12 or 13. When they took me to a doctor, I didn’t fit the usual ADHD bill. I wasn’t disruptive, I didn’t act out, I didn’t have bad grades. I wasn’t necessarily hyperactive. I just wasn’t disciplined enough because I had always had it so easy. In university, I skipped a lot of class, because I barely got anything out of lectures, and when I was in class, I would be doing a million other things. I struggled with studying, and could only accomplish anything if I was having a “power hour.” I didn’t realize my “power hours” were actually a part of ADHD. In the ADHD world, it’s called “hyper focus,” which means you have these bursts where you put so much focus into one thing that the rest of the world is basically shut out. It was brilliant for writing papers and studying when it happened, but the problem was that it never really happened when I needed it to. Sometimes it would happen when I was trying to work, but my focus was directed at something completely irrelevant. I always finished exams early because I could barely pay attention in a 45 minute lecture, let alone a three hour exam. ADHD impacts every little bit of my life – from getting restless at work and needing to walk around every hour or so, to losing my keys, wallet, shoes etc. to forgetting important dates like birthdays and social obligations. I lose track of more things than I can count, and find it difficult to follow through on a lot of things I commit to. It’s like being scatter brained on steroids. It’s also incredibly stressful. This past year, my doctor asked if I ever had issues with attention and focus. I was seeing her because I had gone into a deep depression and my anxiety was out of control. Her question seemed irrelevant and surprised me, but when I did some of the diagnostic tests and realized I actually experienced a ton of ADHD symptoms, something clicked. It turns out that it’s really common for undiagnosed ADHD to manifest itself as anxiety and depression. We learned that part of the reason I was “treatment resistant” was because some of my anxiety and depression came from my ADHD. The stress of not being able to stay organized or the anxiety that comes with having a messy apartment (and let’s be honest, kind of a messy life), actually heightened my anxiety and depression. I was actually quite relieved to get my diagnosis, but a big part of me was sad too. Why did it take so long to get diagnosed? What could have been different had I not struggled with my ADHD for so long without knowing? Could I have done more? Achieved more? Could I have avoided my depression and anxiety getting so severe? I’m not sure, and I guess I’ll never really know. I do know that we talk a lot about people being misdiagnosed with ADHD, and stimulants being over-prescribed, but we don’t talk nearly enough about how women and girls are often looked over and not diagnosed. The way ADHD manifests itself can be quite different for young girls and boys – girls are more likely to retreat and disconnect, while boys are more likely to act out. Therefore, the boys get diagnosed because it’s a lot easier to see. Girls are more likely to be “inattentive” (like me), while boys are more likely to be “hyperactive.” We also think of hyperactivity as being a physical thing – like running around or being disruptive, but “hyperactivity” (in girls especially) can be more emotional – like having outbursts or emotions that don’t quite make sense or fit. This leads to the inattentive girls being labelled as lazy or stupid, and the emotionally hyperactive girls being labelled as drama queens or “crazy.” Stimulants (medication for ADHD) can be dangerous and very easy to abuse, so it’s important that we are not over-prescribing these medications. It’s also important that we don’t under-prescribe to those who need it, especially girls who are already under-diagnosed. Now that I’ve bounced around enough, I should probably get to my main point, which is this: a proper diagnosis can be absolutely life-changing. And getting it sooner rather than later is really important, not just for medication, but because it can explain a lot. I struggle with my self-esteem and always felt foolish or forgetful, but it was really just a part of my ADHD. It’s a lot easier now that I know what’s going on, but it was a long road to get here. When we let our knowledge of a condition be guided by misinformed stereotypes, we miss some important warning signs. When that happens, we let people slip through the cracks or misdiagnose them and treat problems with the wrong medications, which is dangerous and expensive.