CW: suicide attempts, drugs, homelessness are mentioned
I’ve spent most of my life feeling alienated from most of the world. I always knew and felt different to my peers. My school reports are littered with comments on my personality. “Zoe needs to be kinder”, “Zoe doesn’t get involved in team sports”, “Zoe is a quiet child”. Comments that made me feel surprised, upset, alienated, an inherently bad child who isn’t like other “good” children. School children would comment that I don’t pronounce words right, that I don’t say hello in the morning and just awkwardly join the group quietly. My parents were perplexed at my tantrums in shopping centres, at my absolute refusal to wear a seatbelt because it rubbed against my neck, my inability to express in words what is wrong when I was upset.
Life went on, and I went off to secondary school. For the first year, it was mostly fine, I had friends and participated in most of my classes. Then second year came, there was a massive falling out with my friend group and I began to refuse classes. I would forge notes from my mother saying I can’t do PE, I would hide in the bathroom during maths class, I would start answering back to teachers and I became very angry and alone. During this time I spent most, if not all of my days either in the principal’s office receiving a lecture on my bad behaviour, or at home, suspended for a few days. My parents are so perplexed by my behaviour an educational welfare officer is assigned to me by the school. She tells my parents I am a spoiled child.
Life went on again, and I somehow managed to scrape some of myself together to get my junior certificate. Even though I refused to do some parts of the examinations, I passed everything and even got some A’s and B’s. However, at this point, I was so anxious, overwhelmed and depleted, so I decided to quit school at 16. I was so relieved to not be under the pressure to perform socially and academically on a daily basis.
Life went on again and I moved to London a few months after leaving school. Now I was performing the role of a young administration worker in a hospital. This went well for about one year, until I began to crash and burn spectacularly once again. This time I was homeless, had been fired from two jobs, and was using lots of drugs and was desperately alone. I had no choice but to come back to Ireland to my family. Here I pretty much lived on the sitting room couch for two years. On the dole, exhausted and empty.
I become very depressed and suicidal. Over the course of the next ten years I attempt suicide more than 10 times. I am in and out of psychiatric hospitals, outpatient clinics and I am seeing a cocktail of different mental health professionals. Psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists, psychiatrists all work together to figure out why I am so depressed. I am diagnosed with a range of different disorders during this time; PTSD, Depression, Anxiety, Borderline Personality Disorder.
Borderline Personality Disorder is often misdiagnosed in adult women with undiagnosed autism. The symptoms/traits are very similar. Unregulated emotions, self harm, lack of identity, explosive rage (meltdowns in autism) etc. However, where these issues originate is very different for autistic people.
Eventually, at age 28, after a three month hospital admission for repeated suicide attempts, I am assigned a clinical psychologist who suggests we do an assessment to see if I am autistic. To my suprise, it turns out I am autistic! This completely changes my perspective on myself, the “bad child” I have always identified with, now becomes “the misunderstood child”.
Before this diagnosis, I had always understood my difficulties in school, in social situations, with following rules, being related to undetected mental health issues during my childhood and adolescence. I now understand it all to be related to being an undiagnosed autistic person.
The school environment was challenging and hostile and I didn’t understand how to navigate it. I preferred to spend math class in the school toilets because the school toilets were quiet and peaceful and gave me a chance to catch my breath. Spending school days in the principal’s office was preferable to classes because the principal is only one person, and in class there are 20+ people to deal with.
My autism diagnosis allowed me to see myself as a whole person, and feel compassion towards the parts of myself that I was previously ashamed of. My autism diagnosis allowed me to explore the range of ways I can connect with others rather than pushing myself to socialise in a way I find overwhelming and exhausting.
My autism diagnosis has allowed me to give myself a second chance at life, and live a life that fulfills me and fills my cup, rather than living in a way that depletes that cup. It has given me a second chance at a life worth living.
Zoe lives in Dublin with her girlfriend, dog, and cat. She spent many years confused about why she felt so different, and after spending ten years in and out of mental health services, hospitals, and treatments she was eventually diagnosed with Autism when she was 28. She is passionate about creativity, autism, and mental health recovery and founded The Autistic Art Club to facilitate connections with other autistic people who use art and creativity as a stim.