I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my mental health recently – mainly wondering why, despite thinking about it a lot, it hasn’t improved. Now of course, thinking about something alone won’t improve it. Things have to be actually dealt with, acted on. However, I just realised on my bus trip home that it hasn’t improved because I haven’t worked out what’s at the core of it – well, hadn’t. This moment of clarity on the bus was accompanied by a whump of the core of it all dropping at my feet.
I’ve been carrying a lot of shame. Internally. So much of it and for so long that my organs have moved out of the way to make way for it. I am shame. If you cut me open I’m sure you’d find a pool of it sloshing from my feet to my head. For as long as I can remember now I’ve been living with a sort of stooped, closed off posture, perpetually terrified someone will see the gunge residing in me and the evidence that I am bad will come bubbling out of my mouth like a pungent hot broth. Because that’s what shame is (no, not a pungent hot broth). Its cousin, Guilt, proclaims, “I’ve done something bad!” Eyes averted, Shame whispers, “I am bad.”
There are many, many reasons for this that I am only just starting to acknowledge, accept, and understand, but this column is about neurodivergency, so I’ll only talk about that (I will stay on topic for once, I will!).
Now I don’t think I’ve ever been obviously neurodivergent. A slightly above average intellect and initial desire to learn that mutated into a desperately voracious appetite for validation meant I did well academically in school. And doing well academically in school is a nice ol’ distraction from anything else that might be going on. My less-than-desirable qualities were never considered in combination, they were just that – qualities. Which meant they were undesirable parts of me that could and “should” be shamed out of me.
Emotional volatility in my childhood and teenagehood that went beyond the norm have turned me into a young adult who just keeps their mouth shut. People would tell me over and over that I was just overreacting, that I was being ridiculous, silly, to feel that way. Friends told me I spoke far too much and needed to shut up. I got berated for losing things so often. Told repeatedly how lazy I was when really, I was just struggling with task initiation. An inability to do my homework on the first try in primary school whipped my mother up into an anger so great I’ve forgotten the specific instances but still instinctively sink into myself whenever she gets annoyed. At worst, I was told I must be lying when I’d forgotten to do something, and at best given a look of disgust. Given a derisive sad eye when I got “over” excited about something. Excitement at a school presentation about something I was really interested in resulted in a teacher telling me to “control myself” and that, if I didn’t, I “wouldn’t be allowed back.” Seeing the same uneasy look in peoples’ eyes every time I told them about something new I wanted to try out because I’d never completed any of the previous projects before.
All of these experiences, this repeated negative feedback, have squished and rolled and prodded and minced me into a person who doesn’t dare stray outside very narrow boundaries. These shame-inducing experiences only ever came when I was in one of two states: struggling, or happy. I know now that I was struggling, but for a while I believed that I wasn’t, that I just had bad qualities, that I was a bad person, and that I needed to do better, without asking anyone for advice on how to stop being a bad person. I know that I am allowed to be happy, but I do not yet feel it. When I am happy, I am what could perhaps be called a little bizarre, a bit annoying. I am loud and I talk loads and I like to sing and move about loads and make funny noises (a friend and I recently discussed how we’d like to run about the kitchen shouting “whee!” while we do it. That was an incredibly healing experience and I thank her for having that conversation with me. She does not know how much it meant to me – well, she will do if she’s reading this. Hi). And that’s okay! I am trying to learn that’s okay.
Whenever I struggle now (which is genuinely almost all the time), or am happy, my mouth burns. Scalds. Reminds me of all the times I was told that it was not okay to be either of these things. How am I going to unlearn this shame I don’t know. Guess I can add it to the list of things I need to talk to a therapist about (when I can finally afford one). Until then, I will just try to be gentle with myself, try to understand that other people couldn’t see the truth of the situation when they made me feel ashamed. And if someone seems like they’re being “too much” or “too lazy” or “too whatever”, try to be gentle with them too. Tell them you want to run around a kitchen yelling “whee!” with them. Maybe they need to hear it.
(Musings on Neurodivergency is a monthly column by Briony Taylor, exclusive to the qmunicate.com. Stay tuned for more installments!)