When I was eleven years old, my mom attended my seventh grade open house. My English teacher said something like this, “Pam just seems so much more mature than the rest of the kids, so much more put together.” I remember my mom telling me this. Well, I think she told me. Maybe I just overheard her telling someone else. Either way, it stayed with me. It seemed like a good thing. Pleasing my teachers was top priority for me as a painfully shy, scared, confused kid trying to get through school. But this was also damn confusing because it didn’t feel true. My inside experience was something much different. My teacher thinks I’m put together but I feel like I’m falling apart. How is that even possible? I guess it’s a good thing. Outside me is what matters.
But this way of being in the world started earlier than seventh grade. I tucked away certain parts of myself. What was acceptable was the smart, well behaved, agreeable, quiet, pleaser that had no needs. I hid the sensitive, silly, odd, terrified, truth see-er that needed support. Everything was confusing. I saw truth but when I pointed it out, I learned pretty quickly people didn’t like that. No. No, they definitely did not like that. The most important thing was for people to like me, to accept me, to belong. So I went quiet. I learned to look outward and tune in to what everyone else was doing, to what everyone else wanted, to what everyone else wanted me to be. Outside me is what matters.
I continued this as a teenager. And when I became an adult. And then when I became a parent. Until I just couldn’t do it anymore. In my early 30’s I hit a wall. I slipped into depression. I had severe anxiety. Everything, even simple things, got harder and harder. Life was heavy and I was losing the strength I needed to carry this particular life.
With the support of my husband, we shifted most everything and I set out on a path of healing. This was roughly ten years ago. I set out to make sense of the world and myself. I dove deep. Over time, I felt better. I built my life back in a new way that worked better for me – a slower, quieter, smaller life. I found my creativity again. I learned to take better care of myself. But I was still searching. I still had a pull, a feeling there was something else. And I was right.
Last year, I learned there was a name for what was going on in my body and mind when I hit that wall. It’s called autistic burnout.
Last year, I learned I’m autistic.
When I started learning about Autism and what it looks like in girls and women, it was like taking off foggy glasses and seeing myself clearly for the first time at 45 years old. I read and read and read – books, articles. I listened to podcasts. I watched TikTok videos of other ASD women describing their lives. I watched YouTube videos from experts talking about how it presents in women. This was me.
My anxiety, my sensitivity, my awkwardness in social situations, my twirling my hair since I first grew hair as a toddler, my rational, literal brain, my child-like spirit, checking box after box after box. I’ve spent much of the last year processing, and I’m still processing now. (It really is a lot to process and hey, guess what? Autistic people need time to process and understand things deeply.) Recently, this culminated with an official diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Level One (formerly known as Aspergers Syndrome) and ADHD. (Honestly, I had kind of figured the ADHD part out on my own years ago.)
I have a high-masking version, which is common in girls and women. It’s what I described above. Outside me is what matters. I’m also considered high functioning, but really that label is a little problematic because what even is considered “high functioning” anyway? Being able to make money at the expense of your mental health? (A subject for another day perhaps!) I can function at a high level at a lot of things but it comes at a great cost.
The processing has been hard and wonderful and wild and WTF all at the same time. But mostly it feels like relief. Because now I can see this is just how I am. There’s actually nothing wrong with me. I don’t need to try harder. My true self is not shameful. That problem of me that I’ve been trying to fix for the last ten years, is not actually a problem.
Now it feels like I’m looking back at the movie of my life. (Well, what I can remember anyway. I hear that’s common for people in my situation too.) I see everything with a new lens. It’s a deeper understanding of myself. But with that understanding comes a lot of the feelings. Oh, the feelings. Anger. Sadness. Those are the big ones. It also feels like acceptance of a lot that I’ve been in denial about. And some days it feels like mourning a life unlived.
My guess is that this all could be confusing for the people who know me in real life. On the outside, things always looked pretty shiny and good. And in many ways that is the truth. There has been so much good in my life. I’ve done some pretty amazing things.
But it has been extremely difficult for me.
(It feels almost impossible for me to even admit that.)
One of the most important things I’ve learned these past ten years is that there is outside and there is inside. What are we looking at here? In this culture, we are all trained to look at the outside to measure the good. How things look, the things we own, the roles we play, what we can do for other people. But what about what goes on inside? What if the inside doesn’t match with the outside? I was trained in this way too. But my inside never matched the outside. Inside was the suffering. Inside was the truth. And I now know that what goes on inside of me is how I experience life. There’s no getting around it. It doesn’t matter what it looks like outside, if I am not at peace, I feel it deeply. That’s one of the hard and good blessings of ASD – you need integrity like you need air. And your entire being is determined as hell to get you there.
My biggest coping mechanism was that smart, well behaved, agreeable, quiet pleaser persona from seventh grade, my mask. I created this relaxed, super competent personality that required the denial of my inner suffering and truth. On the outside it looks pretty good. On the inside it is a storm. The more distressed I felt, the more chill I appeared. At my most distressed, I smiled and laughed.
Everyone masks to a point. We all build a persona for the world to see. With many autistic people, especially women, it happens to an extreme. I noticed patterns early and subconsciously knew that I was different. This created a problem because I wanted to fit. Belonging is one of the most basic human needs. It’s survival, it’s life or death. So I did what I needed to do. We like to tell kids it’s okay to be different, but the hard truth is that in many ways it’s not okay and they know it.
But masking to belong requires the denial of the true self. The longer I did it, the further back the true Pam got tucked away inside. This is disconnection from self, and it’s the root cause of physical and mental health problems. This is what I felt in 2011 when I burned out. I had completely lost the real Pam. And it turns out being seen and known for who you truly are is another basic human need. With a mask, people can only see the mask. It never, ever, works to only be seen for your mask.
Life became an endless loop of longing. Please, see me and my uniqueness, please see me and my struggle. But your body instinctively and automatically portrays this outer persona that is not struggling and needs nothing. Your inner true being wants to be seen, but you hide it. You want to belong, but the only way you fit is by denying your true self. Back and forth, day after day, year after year. The thing you need the most, you don’t allow yourself to get. It’s the gift your human body gives to protect you, but it’s also a curse. The mask creates a wall that keeps you stuck and alone.
It creates a feeling of deep loneliness even when there’s lots of people around. And it hurts like hell. Because I’ve hidden my struggles, it feels like I have to explain and justify and defend my truth. My very real inner experience has to be proved. And the person I most have to prove it to is me. I gaslight myself all the time. And then there’s the fact that I unconsciously chose people in my life who couldn’t see the internal struggle. I pushed people away that tried to access the inside of me, and only surrounded myself with people that liked that outer persona.
(Side note: As I write this, I feel I need to clarify – the mask was not perfect by any means. I thought I was hiding so well, but I wasn’t. I always peeked out. I always peeked out in so many different awkward ways.)
I wasted so much time thinking I needed to get people to accept me, but I really just needed to accept myself. And to do that, I needed to understand myself, my true self, and understand the world. And I had to accept how hard things are for me. And that’s a tough thing when you grow up immersed in that old New England farmer work ethic. I’m proud of where I come from but man, if you stop or even just slow down, you feel a lazy piece of poop. But I had to slow down and reassess. And that’s what I’ve been doing for ten years and it’s led me here. The end of a path. Autism. Well, will ya look at that. Who would’ve thunk it? It sure would’ve been nice to learn about ASD ten years ago. At least I know now.
All the best things about me – my sensitivities, my child-like sense of wonder, my analytical mind, my noticing and observing and deep processing, my silliness, my creativity, my ability to see truth, my tendency to be happy in my own world, my integrity, my weirdness, my many interests and how I jump from one thing to another, my assuming the best in people – all the best things about me are rooted in ASD and ADHD.
And all those things above that I value about myself, when I really look back at myself and I see these are the best things about me – that’s what I’ve been suppressing. I started hiding them very early. As I grew up, as my brain, my body, my nervous system developed, my entire being learned to suppress. And it continues to suppress involuntarily. It’s survival. That is what’s so hard now. It’s not as easy as saying, okay, let’s be the real Pam. It doesn’t work that way. For example, I found writing about five years ago. Writing saved me in many ways. But I couldn’t write what I wanted to because it felt unsafe to open up and show myself. This is the process I’m going through now, the healing and finding safety within myself to be honest with my life. Not only to be honest in my writing, but in all the other parts of my life too.
It takes time to heal and shift, but it is possible. I’ve seen it in myself over the last ten years. And I don’t want to waste anymore time. I don’t want to live for everyone else. I want to live for me. I don’t want to adjust myself to other people’s lives. I want my own life. And I want to fill it up with joy and contentment. I want to use the rest of my time to live as close as I can to the truth of myself.
I’m lucky to have a husband who supports me and knows me. It’s been rocky at points but when I found this all out and showed him what ASD actually is, he was basically like – well, duh. That’s how well it fits. It explained so much and it continues to open up our relationship with the new understanding and acceptance of how my mind works. He knows me and accepts me and supports me. As do my kids. And I have a few other people in my life who know me and accept me and support me too. What a gift.
The more I learn, the more I try to wrap my brain around the labels. And I like the labels. It’s a framework for understanding myself, understanding how I need to take care of myself, understanding the world and how it sees me. There are so many adult women, like me, who struggle with all the same things I have and don’t know they are autistic. I know this from my learning and reading about ASD, but I also feel this in my gut. The diagnostic criteria is based upon what it looks on the outside, what it looks like externally, the behaviors. When women are autistic, because social acceptance and adherence is more important for a woman, they learn to hide it. So the ASD can be mostly an internal experience for us and many times our experience isn’t believed. Imagine that.
That’s why I’ve been working on writing and sharing my story. Maybe someone will see themselves in it and have that giant puzzle piece fall into place like I did. We need more awareness and understanding of what ASD actually is and the gifts autistic people offer to the world. We are everywhere. I want to be part of building a world that is more accepting of differences. And I want to help empower other women like me, who somewhere along the way learned they were wrong at their core. The people I know who fit under these labels, they are the best of the best. They have so much to offer. And they’ve had it really, really hard.
I’m proud to have these labels, for myself and for little Pam who thought she had to make herself invisible to survive in the world.
We’re okay now. We’re good. And we’re free. Finally.