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How A Diagnosis Changed My Perspective

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

Holly Sutcliffe - Photograph: Rebecca Douglas

I have struggled with my mental health since I can remember.

I’ve lived a life. I have been loved, supported and celebrated. I have been heartbroken and abused. I have been extraordinarily happy and I have been very very sad. I have been a lot of things but I don’t remember ever feeling ‘normal’ or fitting in.

I have struggled to keep up the pace and keep up the pretence that everything is okay (that I am okay). People often use words like ‘strong’ and ‘brave’ to describe me. Sometimes, that is how I feel. Sometimes it’s not.

Sometimes I have been okay, others I have been the opposite of okay and self-medicated, self-harmed and self-abandoned. There have been rough, dark, desolate times amidst so many moments of light.

As a privileged, white, middle-class human from a present and loving family, I have never known what was ‘wrong’ with me, why I didn’t ‘fit’, why I couldn’t cope better.

I know I’m one of the lucky ones (and I am grateful).

“Can’t you just get over it, whatever it is? Don’t you realise how lucky you are?”

People have asked me - I have asked myself too.

No, I can’t.

I can be the most capable person in a crisis and fall to pieces over going for a pizza with friends. Somehow, the pizza seems harder. (It doesn’t really make sense to me, either.)

I’ve had a breakdown and a few near-breakdowns. I’ve been diagnosed with Depression but ‘you’re too positive’ to be depressed. I ‘have’ Anxiety yet am also really confident and self-assured.. After my child was born I realised the therapist who had suggested I had PTSD in my twenties was - actually - right... And yet the mental health diagnoses never answered my questions:

Why is everyone nice to people they don’t like?

Why do people keep talking all the time?

And why does it make me so exhausted when they do?

Why do I need to lie on my bed and stare at the ceiling for hours?

Why doesn’t everyone want to live on their own?

(There are a lot more of these questions in my head.)

It’s confusing. Not being able to be ‘normal’.

Honestly, I don’t remember ever wanting to be. But I have known there has been an expectation that I should. Like the good girl I was raised to be (not that I always was) I tried my best to be a regular person and do regular things. Really, I did.

“Don’t be so honest.”

“Let it go.”

“Do you have to be so... “

(When what they’re really asking is ‘Do you have to be so you?’)

I have been consistently told that being ‘so me’ was not okay, that it was - in fact - wrong; and yet I can’t be anything but ‘me’ (although, I am still trying to figure that out). I am excruciatingly self-aware - therapists always comment on it - and yet I spent 39 years not truly understanding and accepting myself.

Because I never knew I was autistic. I never knew there was absolutely nothing wrong with me and that I do fit - differently. I fit in the space I create for myself. No more being the living, breathing embodiment of the proverbial square peg trying to force itself into the round hole.

There’s room to breathe. There’s room to - simply - ‘be’.

Holly Sutcliffe - Photograph: Rebecca Douglas

And there’s so much more - the opportunity to understand myself and the possibility to grow into an identity I never knew was mine. The missing link that explains why life has been so hard. And yet so easy, because I oscillate between two opposing states. There is very little grey or muted tone - it’s all shiny and brilliant, gleaming sunshine and joy. Or it’s not and the light fades fast (when I’m not paying attention or meditating or practising yoga enough). It all seems ‘too much’ - I seem ‘too much’ - for neurotypicals, which is why mental health diagnoses are often given instead of a neurodivergent one.

Intuitively, I’ve always subconsciously framed my difference as different ‘bad’, something that needed to be fixed or changed. ‘Masking’ is what autistic humans do to fit in and I have done it all my life, without ever realising (a natural response to all those comments about how wrong it was to be ‘so me’).

So, when I read the report from my autistic diagnosis I instinctively jarred at the singularity and assuredness of my answers, the harshness of my honesty; recoiling from my true self. How could I not when society tells me I need to be different from who I am? Society has made those judgements on my personality and I have internalised them so deeply, it takes a lot to disentangle them from my insides. How could that not impact my mental health?

It’s like an impossibly knotted thread of never-ending difference for autistics trying to meet the demands of a neurotypical world.

I am different but you want me to be less different and more like you. So I try to become more like you but I can never actually be like you. I do change - I work really hard at it - and in doing so move away from my natural innate difference. I find myself uncomfortable and still unacceptably different from you - more like you and less like myself - rather than comfortable and different from you but truly me.

Exhausting, huh?

That societal narrative has had a really significant negative impact on my mental health throughout the course of my life. Now, I get the chance to explore the reality of being different in a celebratory way.

It’s me who gets to create that new-shaped-space for myself - society sure hasn’t made one that fits me and my neurodivergent kin. I think that’s true for us all on some level - that we get to create a space for ourselves as we grow and explore our identities. In fact, we must create a space for ourselves and for the many others who need a space too.

It needn’t be this hard for everyone.

Because however your brain works, or your skin looks, or where you were born, or how your body works, or if you were born into the wrong body, or who you’re attracted to (or not) - you deserve the space to be ‘you’. My hope for the world is that we can create and build space for everyone’s differences and hold each other up along the way.

Personally, I do that through meditation, yoga and somatic healing to support myself with love and compassion and I work within the neurodivergent and education communities. I advocate for everyone to have the right to be different and to celebrate who they truly are - for you to celebrate who you truly are.

I still struggle with my mental health - I’m sure I always will. The more I am ‘me’ the less I struggle and the more I can celebrate the shadow side of my life’s experience too. The more I accept myself and align my life with what truly matters to me and who I am - an autistic human with all that encompasses - the less permanent and never-ending the darker times feel.

Realising who I truly am changed my life. Accepting who I am - and the ongoing growth that requires - is changing my life every single day. Without my autistic diagnosis I would still be trying to change who I am to fit in with everyone else - that’s certainly not a place of good mental health for me, and not the life I want for myself or any other autistic human.

Creating a world where differences are accepted, normalised and celebrated will not only allow autistic humans to live actualised lives and it will allow everyone - no matter their difference - to do the same.

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