When I was a teenager, I didn’t feel like I had an identity at all. I was a bundle of trauma, loneliness, undiagnosed autism and unrealised transness. I barely communicated in the “real world”, spending all my time with online communities and friends that spanned a gamut of abusiveness. I “came out of my shell” when I started doing youth theatre. I became more social, began to have an identity in the commonly accepted sense.
But now, in the wake of another shutdown, I’m back at the inarticulate teenage phase of uncoagulated shards of identity.
In the morning, alone at home, free to stim and relax in my room, I feel me. At work, I tense up, but when it’s time to teach and the spotlight hits me, I perform as I always have. I’m a bit slower, a bit jerkier, and my humour leans in a more chaotic direction, but I seem to be the only one who notices. After work, I sit in the staff room, procrastinating on Twitter before listlessly filling in my records of work. Then I go and get some bubble tea, sit on a bench, and zone out with an audiobook while the world streams around me.
By this point, I feel like the identity has drained out of me. I’m reminded of the actress who played the Borg queen in Star Trek. In a documentary she explained that it took five hours for her to get into makeup and costume, after which she could not use the bathroom, as she wore a skintight bodysuit. When she inquired about this, they installed a small tube in the suit so she could urinate into a grill in the floor if she needed. She refused to do this, fasting before each performance. But for me now, as I go about everyday life, I feel the urine of identity, of neurotype, slipping down my leg and onto the pavement.
To the neurotypical eye, I look sullen, depressed. I recall many occasions when my mum rang me and I didn’t have the spoons to communicate in anything above a monotone. The conversations would always drag on, ending with, ‘Are you alright? You sound a bit down.’
The worst. If it was depression, it would be OK. Depression is not a direct erosion of identity, or personality, but an altered state. A pallor of wretched misery that clouds it, through which, with the right help, the underlying personhood can break through. But autistic exhaustion is something else. It’s the fat trimmed off the side. It’s the jeans with the crotch hole. It’s not sturm and drang, but an empty watering can.
I’m scared. I’ve had these periods all my life. A mix of bad sleep, poor introspection, dysphoria, and masking lead me to erase these memories from my consciousness, but now I can feel them like goosebumps. My early teenage years were a sea of identity drought, when I was constantly out of petrol and still gasping along.
Much of that was school. School has always been skull-scrapingly exhausting. University was terrible in other ways. But what scares me is that, since graduating, I’ve had a wonderful reprise. From late 2016 to very recently, I felt like I was being cured. A large part of that was finally going on sleep medication, but for a long time I genuinely believed I was ‘getting better’ from autism.
And now, the can has clattered to the ground and the water’s spilled out. A few weeks ago, the first signs of shutdown reared their ugly head, and I naïvely thought that a weekend of self-care would be enough to reset it. But it’s come back, a dog on my heels, and as I’ve detailed above, after just two hours of teaching I’m left half-catatonic.
I’m scared, because I’m in a calm period of work. Last week and this week there were bank holiday Mondays, so no class those days. This week it’s half term, so some of my classes are off. By all accounts I should be plowing ahead feeling refreshed, not shrinking into my carapace. And starting from this weekend, it’s ramping up: I’m doing a 4-hour online Esperanto course, and then next week it’s back to regular hours. And I need to work more. I’m still not at financial stability, and I have to take advantage of the busy summer TEFL period to make up for the two weeks I’ll be going away in July/August. I’m scared that it’s going to wash over me, smash me against the rocks and shatter me.
Perhaps this sounds dramatic, but I know myself. I know the depths my breakdowns can reach. In my last year of university I stopped going to classes, lived off sweets and junk food, suffered from debilitating insomnia, and was socially isolated. If that happens to me again, if it’s even half that bad, I could lose everything I’ve worked so hard to build up.
I call my watering can ‘identity’, because it does not feel like energy. I can teach with low energy, but I cannot teach without a ‘personality’. If I lose the ability to mediate a classroom, I lose everything. I’m already in a precarious job situation: zero-hours contracts supplemented by online classes. If my professional ability seizes up, I’m dunzo.
If the worst comes to the worst, I can always go and live in my parents’ house. I’m incredibly lucky to have that option, even though it would mean isolating myself in the countryside. I don’t want it to come to that, of course, but I need to know there’s a backup.
Being a “high-functioning autistic”, the middle ground between neurotypical and fully-dependent life is paved with shame. That’s where I feel I stand right now: working, living indepently, but still financially supported by my family. And that can’t continue forever. My parents don’t know I’m autistic, and it would be difficult to confront them about; a fourth coming out, that likely would not lead to an understanding and acceptance of the practical accommodations I require.
At 26 years of age, I still do not have a firm grip on life. I feel like a Darren Shan vampire, ageing one year for every human five. But as I grow older, even as my understanding of myself increases, the understanding and acceptance of the neurotypical world will decrease. You either shape up, or drown into a sea of addictions and dependencies.
I may be being overdramatic at this one moment in time. After all, in the pit of my major depressive episode, I thought I would never be capable of work, forgiveness, or happiness. I’ve made huge strides since then. But looking back at my checkered past, I can see the pattern clearly: suppression of self, a degree of neurotypical success, then burnout and refresh. The fact that I can hardly remember life before thirteen hints at how long-rooted this problem might actually be.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if I’m “high-functioning” if I still can’t function in a neurotypical world. And must I drain my body of life in the vain attempt at doing so? I want to live, but more than that, I want to be able to dream, of worlds where I can succeed on my own terms, free of capitalism and self-destruction.