The other day I was out getting some food and by chance, because even when you happen to be in a big city it tends to be a lot smaller than you hope, I came across an old acquaintance from my early university days. I pretended not to see him, not because I didn’t like him back then or now, but because I’ve changed so much, I couldn’t face him again.
In fact, back in those days, I considered him a friend. I thought he felt the same and whenever we met up, we had a good time. Nothing spectacular, just one of those comfortable and easy friendships that never grow really intimate.
I was a very different person back then though. I hadn’t been diagnosed yet, so I struggled a lot with things like OCD, anxiety and above all else depression. I didn’t know why everything was so difficult and because I had been misunderstood and misdiagnosed by every person I ever approached for help, I had convinced myself I was broken beyond repair and had to hide just how broken I was from other people so that I wouldn’t get punished. Not again, not anymore.
How did I deal with all that?
Well, I was on and off my medication because I didn’t want to take it, I hated the way I felt when I was medicated and struggled with the idea that I might have to be on medication forever. I am now off every kind of medication possible and even though it was tough getting here, it was worth it to me.
I also survived my dark periods by drinking and smoking far more than I should because it helped numb the pain and made me able to socialise better. I needed to dull the pain and anxiety in my mind and body and copious amounts of alcohol and cigarettes did that quite well. I ate a lot of bad food as well, at least when I did eat, which I didn’t always do. I consumed more coffee than any other non-alcoholic beverage and abhorred tea, but now I drink mainly tea and I love it.
As you can imagine, I am a very different person now. I care about my health, my diet, I quit smoking and now I hardly drink. I try to take care of myself and those in my life in a way I never did before.
Back then my life was a farce, but now I am finding myself and trying to figure out how to live in this world. It’s not easy when we are on the spectrum, but I do believe there is a way of partly making the world fit us and partly adjusting to the world around us.
Meeting that old university acquaintance could potentially have been great. A nostalgic trip down memory lane with the occasional stop for tea and a snack. I am very well aware that meeting old friends can be a positive and happy experience, and had I not changed so much, I would probably have said hello to him. As it was, I didn’t.
I instantly felt myself get pulled back into the past and felt a need to put on the ugly mask I wore every day back then. I say ugly, not because it was ugly to me then, but because it is ugly to me now. I hate thinking back on those days and remember what I was like. I was so unhappy, so frustrated and surviving only because I didn’t think taking my own life was fair to my mother who gave it to me. I was always pretending to be normal, pretending I understood what was going on around me and pretending I had tried to be funny when people laughed at me and I was confused as to why. I was always trying to be what I thought people wanted me to be.
Feeling the pull of that old mask, and the strong desire never to put it back on again, made me emotionally shut down for a little while. Even now, a few days later, I still feel the internal pull to put the mask on. I don’t want to and I’m still fighting to stay aware and present in this moment and thankfully the pull is turning into a little tug at my heart and soon, I hope, it will disappear altogether.
Did you ever feel yourself regress into a past version of yourself when you met someone from your past?
Perhaps it was nostalgic and felt good, but we all have done things we are not proud of in our past, right? If that’s the person we become once more, it’s a strong reminder of why we changed, but the guilt, or perhaps the shame, is still there too.
It would be nice if the masks I wore was not so ugly to me now. If I could just take them on and off as I pleased and use them when needed. The problem is, when I mimicked those around me, I didn’t choose what I liked, but what I needed. A lot of those things I needed to mimic were things I hated, but when you really just want to die, differentiating between what you hate and what you like is rather irrelevant. At least it was to me.
Mimicking wasn’t fun either. It was a battle, it was learning in the hardest way possible. What’s more, it was something that became second nature to me. It was painful and hard, but I switched between my masks like a pro… because that was what I was.
When I was finally able to just be me, after my diagnosis and a lot of solitude and recuperation, it was surprisingly hard. The masks were so natural to me, that even though they caused me pain and grief, I could almost not leave them behind. It was yet another struggle to do so and to just be me. More than anything because I wasn’t really sure who this ‘me’-person was.
When I avoided my old acquaintance, I was afraid I would not be able to take the mask off again and I didn’t want any of the people in my life now to see that person. I want them all to see me, the real me behind masks and mimicked gestures and ever practised conversations and sentences. Putting on the old mask again was a risk I was not willing to take.
I changed for a reason, and I am grateful to be reminded why, but I also feel a little guilty towards my old acquaintance. Of course, he might not even remember me, but ignoring or hiding from him seems childish and cowardly to me. But what else could I have done?
I pretended not to see him and whenever possible hid from him and then, luckily, it was over and I could hurry away from the shop.
It would probably be better not to run from the old versions of myself, since I am only me today because I was those other versions before. I wish I could love all the past versions of me, but I just don’t know how. I guess forgiving myself for having been that person in the first place is a good place to start, but how do we even do that?
I know that I hadn’t been diagnosed, and all of us who are diagnosed late in life, we struggle to cope in whatever way we can. We need to fight to survive, but our battles are rarely with other people and more often with ourselves. We are our own enemies, because we hide ourselves and try to fit into a neurotypical box that, even if we believed in such a box which most of us don’t, we would never be able to fit into.
We can try to run from our past all that we want, but all it takes it a glimpse of someone or something and we can get pulled right back in. It doesn’t matter how hard we try to forget it, our past is always a part of us in some way. It helped us figure out, if not who we are, then what and who we are not.
One day I hope to be confident enough, to know myself well enough, to be able to meet old friends and not be afraid of being pulled back into who I used to be. I’m just not there yet. I can only work on becoming more me and forgive myself for not being strong enough yet. But, that’s got to be okay, right?