|Content Warning: suicidal ideation, childhood neglect, complex trauma. Please nope out if you’re in a place where reading about these things will trigger you. Come back later if you are curious and feeling stronger. Skip it altogether if you need to. You are the expert on the care and feeding of you.|
I wrote here, recently, about the things I’m doing to overcome burnout, and here about some of the things that are still failing for me. Both of these posts are very practical: here are the things I’m trying, here are the problems I still have to solve. It’s almost transactional; work through the to-do list, solve the problems one by one, and we’re golden.
But brains don’t work that way. Emotions don’t work that way. Beneath the surface work, the practical steps, is a darkness borne of decades of pain and confusion that at this point I cannot manage with a transactional approach. I can only try to describe it, as a first step to stopping the damage that darkness does.
First some background. I’m 56 years old. I grew up in a town of about 1500 people in rural south Alabama – a small, poor farming community. It was my mother’s home town. My parents were academic-adjacent professionals. Mom had an MS in Education and taught in public schools, doing research and graduate work on the side. Papa was former military (Air Force intelligence) with an MS in Criminology who worked as a homicide investigator for the state of Alabama. (He was CSI before CSI was cool.) My parents had traveled the world (all over the US, the Philippines, Turkey, etc.) before settling in Mom’s home town after Papa transitioned out of the military.
I’ll note that this is the town where most of my bullying occurred, and where my mother had been bullied a generation before.
More background. My brother, 3 years older than me, is autistic. We didn’t have a definition for that when we were younger. It would never have occurred to my parents to have an evaluation performed for him. He was academically very capable and an extremely talented musician, so for them his struggles were “mostly social” and were just the sort of thing that my family thought one should just “live with” and “work harder on”. It wasn’t until he and I were in our 20s that I began to realize what I saw in him (the awkwardness, the toe-walking and “strange” gestures and frequent misunderstanding of social cues, the deep longterm special interests in philately, numismatics, and music) as indicators of autism. It wasn’t until his late 40s that he came to that realization, too. (He’s doing well now – a successful gig and session musician with a fantastic partner and many very floppy dogs.)
I tell you all this because now that I’ve also been diagnosed with autism and my own history is becoming clearer, I realize how profoundly our family was impacted by neurodivergence. Though my parents are dead now, I am nearly certain that my father had ADHD (that he managed fairly well with a kind of military discipline) and my mother was probably autistic (judging from how many of her struggles and how much of her life history matches mine). Additionally, judging from the amount of un-addressed conflict and addiction that I observed in my mother’s family, every single member of her immediate family were neurodivergent in some way, fully unsupported and undiagnosed.
No one in my family has ever been supported in our neurodivergence or in mental health. I am the first of us to go to therapy, to be hospitalized for mental illness, to get a formal diagnosis (ADHD/Autism), or to seek ADHD medication support (which I hope to have in a few weeks).
The problem for us, I think, is that none of us were so obviously symptomatic that we were forced to seek help – especially in the 70s and 80s when neurodivergence was only understood as a crippling developmental disability that deeply disrupted families and mostly happened in boys. We were all wildly unhappy and serially fucked up in a number of ways, but in our collective self-concept, we were “normal”. All of what I now see as expressions of neurodivergence felt to us like things we could just manage with more discipline or better scheduling – as if we should just be able to will our way to mental health and social wellbeing.
So it never would have occurred to any of us to seek help or look for explanations for our unhappiness. We were just like previous generations in our family: fine enough, functional, and we did our best not to whine.
(I know. The ableism in my family just wafts off this history in nearly visible waves like stink off a skunk. I struggle with my own internalized ableism every fucking day.)
I tell you all this history to explain this: I had a very specific role in my family: make things better. Of my mother’s two children, I was the one who was highly intuitive about the emotional state and social needs of people around me (something that, interestingly, until recently was understood by the neuropsychological establishment as disqualifying for a diagnosis of autism). I was “the good one” and “the capable” one and “the loving one”, and I was given the role of making sure our home was peaceful and my mother was calm and hopeful.
(Spoiler: I failed miserably at this every single fucking day.)
My mother saw in my brother a kind of intractable weirdness that she eventually gave up trying to change, replacing that initiative with mostly shame, the occasional admonishment, and money spent on things to keep him occupied. But because she kind of gave up on my brother, she had plenty of focus for me, making sure that I didn’t turn out “weird” like him.
In my more mature moments now, by the way, I don’t really blame my mother for this anymore, though I did for much of the time she was alive. I thought that she tortured me into being what my brother couldn’t be. What I recognize now was that she was also autistic, with all the same kinds of blind spots and spiky skillsets that I’ve struggled with, and she was utterly unsupported. By the time she was a mother in her 30s (with Papa traveling constantly for work – he attended to every suspected homicide crime scene in the whole state), she was already damaged by her own life in a small conservative town and dysfunctional family, unsupported in what must have felt to her like mysterious emotional storms. Just surviving day to day was a herculean struggle.
Given that her sister suffered with lifelong addiction, I should at least congratulate my mother for having avoided that. And I have enormous compassion for the effects of her being unsupported emotionally and neuropsychologically her entire life. I know what that feels like.
So it’s true that she did try her hardest to make me what my brother wasn’t – social, accomplished, happy – she didn’t do it to torture me. She did it because it was the only option she had.
That doesn’t mean it didn’t break me. Hence the darkness.
Don’t. Be. Weird.
My mother’s consistent message to me was simple: Don’t be weird.
Don’t be awkward like your brother. Don’t miss social cues. Pay attention. Make the comfort of other people a priority. Don’t embarrass me. Don’t make people ask questions.
DON’T. BE. WEIRD.
It’s an understandable message. She didn’t know why my brother was weird. She just knew she was embarrassed and she struggled to change his behavior. She could change mine, so she focused there.
The problem is, of course, that her belief that my “not being weird” was a matter of simple will blinded her to the fact that I struggled every single day to … you know … not be weird. I struggled because I didn’t know what to do – only what not to do – and I struggled because despite my 100% willingness to conform to social norms, I was bullied because, I guess, I was weird. No amount of will or willingness was going to change the fact that I was autistic, too, and on some level, the people around me could see that even if they didn’t have a name for it.
And my mother wasn’t the only one who told me to stop being so weird. My teachers stepped up to that plate, too, and Sunday School teachers, dance teachers, coaches, band directors, therapists, and friends.
I don’t think anyone in my life, including the behavioral scientists I saw in grade school (that’s a whole other story I’ll tell eventually), really saw how hard it was for me every day to balance my naturally expressive personality against the admonition not to be so goddamn weird. They didn’t see me crying. They didn’t see most of the fights (verbal and otherwise) that I got into at least weekly. They didn’t see me failing to understand. They didn’t see my confidence flag and then crumble. When they did see me breaking, mostly they treated these as isolated incidents. Nobody saw a pattern.
And they told me I could fix it all myself if I just tried harder. Nobody thought to go deeper, to look at it from the struggling child’s perspective, to see the patterns and the frequency of distressing incidents I endured.
They didn’t see the struggle because they were focused on changing me, not the circumstances around me. And they didn’t see me struggle because – surprise surprise – I masked it. Masking was the only strategy I had that made any part of my life tolerable.
How Could You?
So here’s the thing. I get it. I hid my struggle so no one saw it. They weren’t incented to and didn’t have the more evolved frames to understand that this wasn’t a matter of will. I understand that this was inevitable given that nobody in my life had any idea in the 70s what neurodivergence is. I get that.
Still, no matter how unfair it is of me, there’s a little girl in here who has trouble forgiving the world for the times we lived in. Trouble forgiving the flawed humans who didn’t do anything, some of whom still don’t do anything.
Hence the darkness.
It burns in in around the edges of my consciousness when I’m in that fucked up place where I am not certain I want to keep living: the thoughts I don’t like to think because they are unkind and unfair and very, very dangerous to my ability to stay alive.
When I melt down, when I am burned out, when I can’t find my calm and it’s late at night and the tears take over.
I will never find a place where I fit.
I don’t deserve help.
But most importantly, most clearly, ringing like a crystal bell past the actual sobs and the silent screams:
How could you watch a human child struggle and not do everything you could think of to help?
Fair or not, understandable or not, in the loneliest corners of the early morning, it’s difficult for me to understand a world full of people who can watch someone vulnerable struggle and cry for help, and not find a way to answer.
I’ll be fighting that darkness for the rest of my life. If I end my own life ever, it will be this particular darkness that made that happen.
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