In life, we orbit around an axis, of things we believe to be true. Like rings around Saturn, we spin around our thoughts and understanding of the world which have come to be through our childhood experiences, our family, relationships, peers, our society, our work. But what happens if something tilts us off that axis? What if things we held to be true are thrown into doubt? Four years ago, I had my first nervous breakdown, 9 months ago I had my second. Then, unexpectedly, one month ago I was diagnosed with high functioning autism. These moments, these milestones, have given me a new lens through which I view the world and is the space from which I write this reflection.
In life we identify ourselves based on what we hold to be true, our individual belief of the world. This perception of self is developed as we grow, as we find our place in society and fall into predefined societal roles – that of partner, husband or wife, mother or father, student, professional. If something happens, however, and we can no longer fulfil the definitions of these roles, our pre-conceived identity – what we see of ourselves to be true – starts to slip.
I have always had anxiety – I know this now with the benefit of hindsight. As a child this manifested as an irrational fear of water, baths and toilets, insomnia, difficulty in making friends, and nervous tics including blinking and “typing” words in the air when I was under particular stress (two quirks I still have now). However I never knew what anxiety was, and as an adult, I did not recognise the signs until it was too late. The nerve pains in my legs, the hot flushes, the heart palpitations, the irritable bowel syndrome, the chronic muscle tension – each symptom I could explain away until I could explain it away no longer and my body yelled at me to stop - in the form of a breakdown. And then, again, another breakdown when I let the pressures of work and life become unbearable again.
Being diagnosed with a generalised anxiety disorder made me question everything I knew to be true. If I can no longer fulfil the roles that I inhabit – that of wife, mother, teacher, healer – when I go through periods of being mentally unwell, then who exactly am I? If I strip away the roles, strip away the axis around which I have always spun in orbit, strip away the layers – what is left? If we were to shed our skin, our muscles and tendons, our organs, our bones – what would there be? Do we desperately clutch at anything to have an anchor point before we spin off our orbit, hands reaching out to grasp anything that seems solid and real? For someone who develops an illness which has substantial impact on their capacity to fill their roles, what is left?
Being diagnosed with high functioning autism has helped make some sense of this chaos. Anxiety and depression are common co-morbidities for those on the spectrum, and as I grow to have a greater understanding of where I sit on the neuro-diverse spectrum, I have a greater insight into myself. Many of the things I have achieved in my life – becoming a midwife, completing my PhD, co-founding a charity for children with autism – have been because of my autism and anxiety, not despite it. I am passionately obsessed, crave variety and am driven by the need to be a master of many things – all of these qualities make me an intuitive artist, an empathetic healer and teacher, and a highly efficient employee.
As someone with high functioning autism I have always been fascinated by people. By watching and observing, I was figuring out how to shape the person I was going to be, who I needed to be to be accepted and appear to fit in. And now, since I have become a teacher, I am more captivated by what it is that makes a person, what inspires someone – despite a whole range of challenges, to continue to get up each day, to go to work, to do their best to plant a smile on their face and fulfil their roles as society has prescribed. In the movie Fallen (1998) features Denzel Washington as a homicide detective – John Hobbes – who works to solve a series of murders. In the movie the character John Hobbes states:
“There are moments which mark your life. Moments when you realise nothing will ever be the same and time is divided into two parts: before this and after this…Sometimes you can feel that moment coming….I tell myself that at times like that, strong people keep moving forward anyway, no matter what they’re going to find.”
Sit in a chair. Place your feet on the floor, your hands in your lap. Be in silence, close your eyes. What is it that you feel in your heart? What pulses through your veins, what nourishes you? Are these things the same as before your “moment”? Are you still in there? This is what I ask - am I still in there, somewhere lost inside? If we break it down, our biological construct is the same, our heart beats, our blood pumps, our neurons fire. At the most difficult of times, when I am consumed with existential angst, when I wonder if I can go on for another day, I say a silent mantra that “all I have to offer is myself”. A beating heart, which swells with a resilience, which shimmers and shines and radiates a glow that filters through my pores emitting empathy and hope. Even in those depths of darkness, even if my purpose is an illusion, a heavenly trick of smoke and mirrors, I commit to this: that my experiences, both the wonder and sorrow, will be shared in the hope that we can unite and walk a new path. A path where we listen with our hearts, look with kindness upon each other, and respect the individual journey for each person on this earth. That we acknowledge the contributions that those of all levels of physical and intellectual ability have to teach us.
Because even in the depths of darkness as Martin Luther King so aptly described “Only in the darkness can you see the stars”
Holly Priddis 2017