It would be easy to tell you, from within my current existential crisis, that every day of my life has been a trash fire. But that would be a lie.
It’s true that there are a lot of painful memories and a lot of bad outcomes that I didn’t know how to avoid. I’ve lost a lot of friends. I’ve lost a lot of money. I’ve walked away from a lot of really good jobs. My credit score is so small if you turn it sideways it disappears. I’ve had a lot of failures.
And it’s true that in spite of spending every day of my life in my own presence, experiencing my own brain daily, I haven’t really understood who I was or how I work, which is a very painful realization. Most of my life I had no idea that I wasn’t dealing with the standard brain kit. I thought I was pretty much like everyone else, just… more chaotic. Maybe, maybe, more special. Normal, but with fairy dust… and a lot of failure.
I thought I was failing at normal, and that some day I’d get it right. I thought that the way I struggled was temporary when in fact my struggles were built into my anatomy, into my structurally atypical brain. It’s a big deal to have figured that out, and in the scale of geological time, if you zoom all the way out, because I know things now about how my brain works, I’m going to be okay. I’m going to figure myself out.
But I used to be, without any effort, a thing that I may never be again: cool.
Like… for enough moments that it felt like it could be my normal state, I was brave, bold, funny, warm, ambitious, curious, surprising, caring, and scary smart. I was the person who said the insightful thing. The really funny thing. The beautiful thing. The thing everyone needed to hear. I went on delightful, unexpected adventures. I was a leader. I had friends.
I felt welcome.
I was somebody.
I was cool.
In and around my trash fire of financial and career and relationship failures, I had an accomplished life. I was a successful and valuable employee, a standup comic, a songwriter, a visual artist, a writer, a carpenter. I did solo canoe trips. I led protests. I swam in big rivers. I loved and was loved by impressive people, great humans who Accomplished Interesting Things. I influenced. I challenged. I played. I took risks. I made a lot of money for a small town kid from a fucked up family. I could be vulnerable in public with grace. I helped other people feel comfortable and safe. And I told really good stories.
I have been, in spite of struggling nearly every day for 56 years, a pretty interesting person. Someone people liked knowing.
I had, in spite of my failures, confidence and charisma. I was someone I liked.
Lately I’ve struggled to like myself.
For a couple of years – and if I’m honest it’s probably been longer than that, off and on – I haven’t been warm or funny or caring or adventurous or even smart. I have been angry, afraid, reclusive, brittle, confrontational, jagged, jangly, lonely, and very, very sad.
Of course, the last three years have been a trash fire for more than just me. A global pandemic, a national crisis of identity, an attempted coup in my formerly stable country, a human rights collapse, and the elevation of an American political culture of feckless, ignorant bullies… all these things have been happening to just about everyone. In what we’ve unimaginatively learned to call “these unprecedented times”, most people – at least most Americans, about whom I can speak with some authority because I am one – have struggled.
But what I’ve been through in the last three years was going to happen anyway. A global pandemic didn’t cause me to lose track of who I am. An American president who sounds and acts like the bullies I endured as a kid wasn’t necessary to dismantle my confidence.
The things that broke me were ordinary things. Work. Love. Family. Friends.
What broke me was a perpetual conflict between who I was and who I thought I was.
I thought I was a normal person with a few talents who inexplicably and erratically failed at life, temporarily. I thought I was just a little hamstrung by my emotionally weird family and my backwater childhood in the rural south, and that with enough time I’d learn the ropes and slay a few personal dragons and come out somewhere on the other side of OK.
I didn’t know that my erratic cycles of success and failure were because my autistic ADHD brain doesn’t actually work well when I try to force it into neurotypical structures. My strengths (empathy, pattern recognition, observation, bravery, humor) were also my weaknesses (emotional dysregulation, hypersensitivity to threat, hypervigilance, self-deception, inability to read the room). I thought I was a normal person with a bit of a failure problem when actually I have always been a really weird person with a talent for hiding (even from myself) how much I struggle in a world that isn’t built for me.
That is a big thing for me to take on board.
I mean, it’s a tremendous boon that is going to change everything mostly for the better. It’s the breakthrough I needed in order to survive. It’s kind of everything. It feels like I’ve been wandering in the woods forever and I finally found the path.
But it’s taking me a bit to get used to it.
I can see that further on along this path I’m going to find and rebuild myself. I can see that because I’ve seen it happening to other people in the late-diagnosed neurodivergent community. I can see that my life is going to improve. I’m going to be OK.
But I don’t know how.
I don’t know how I go from rolling burnout and perpetual meltdown to some new, more comfortable version of me. I mean, right now I’m basically faking functional and trying not to freak out every single minute of every day. I don’t know how I find my sense of humor or my sense of self again. I don’t know how I will rebuild my confidence – and my personality – into something sustainable and reliable and real.
All I know is that what I shouldn’t do is push it. I can’t keep faking normal. I can’t pretend to be what I used to be and hope it will all turn out OK. I can’t keep functioning as if I’m normal.
What I am is autistic with a sprinkling of ADHD. Somewhere in my faltering self-concept is a foundational belief that this is something I can be proud of. I have, I think, an extraordinary brain. Not extraordinary as in “better than”. My brain is spicy: different, wild, rich, unexpected, useful, tricky, and complicated. I think the talents I used to have (minus the one where I hide my struggle from myself) can come back in new ways. I will find ways to be funny/smart/brave/warm/curious again, plus maybe some new talents or skills borne of actual self-knowledge and the lessons of my community.
I choose to be confident that I can become confident again, once I better understand the things I need to feel OK and learn how to make those things happen.
And so I move forward. Slowly. Carefully. Not pushing. Giving myself the grace to fail again – because I will – and recognizing the small successes on which I hope to rebuild myself.
I may not ever be cool again. Maybe that’s OK, if instead what I become is me.
3 responses to “I used to be cool.”
Having received a very late diagnosis of autism just a month ago, after a few years of increasingly severe burnout I couldn’t understand, this post hits me right in the heart.
And its final words? Oof, but how I relate. I hope this is what’s ahead, for both–all?–of us.
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Yes yes yes just let us be us.
I love your brain. I love what it was, what it is now, and what it will become when it’s living its best life. I love that even when it’s this fucking hard, you keep leaning into the authentic person you want to be. I bet she’s gonna be warm, funny, creative, cheeky, sexy AF, and 10 gallons of smart in a 5-gallon tank when she finally gets loose. And if not, imma love her anyway for being surprising on top of whatever other wonderful things she turns out to be.