My whole life, I have had to manufacture my own happiness. Because when you have autism, the world around you is always caving in. Ready to swallow you whole at any moment. You are drowning.
From my earliest memories, I have always felt out of place in this world. A secret knowing, that the one I came from before I entered this life is much better. A part of me that wishes I would go to sleep and never wake up again. Not because I don’t want to live, but because this world wasn’t made for me. It takes so much effort for me to face the sensory onslaught and social nuances each day. So much energy, to just live one day. I get tired.
My world is a storming sea of lights, sound, and smell. I see everything, yet nothing. I am unable to see or remember faces no matter how close I am to the person. If someone says a name to me, I do not think of his or her face. I have no visual memory of it, not even a short term one. I am constantly guessing from characteristics I’ve memorized to recognize a person. Sifting through the endless social cues that were taught to me, hoping I pick the right one. Creating my personality by mimicking parts of people I like. Not knowing if I will hear someone calling my name since it is one of many amplified sounds. Knowing that I may appear rude without meaning to, and worst of all hurting someone’s feelings without ever realizing it. I don’t speak your language. And I am bombarded on all sides by this storm of sensory. No matter how hard I try to enter your world, I will never fully be a part of it.
So how do I cope? I often turn to external factors for my source of happiness, just as they are often the sources of my anxiety. For example, I knew that I excelled academically. If I had the best grades out of everyone then I felt adequate even if I fell short socially. The problem of course, is this is not sustainable. There will always be someone better than you. But I am constantly seeking that validation from the outside world. Because I am so uncertain in everything else. Living a life where you are constantly second guessing yourself because you do not understand the social language is not only exhausting, but it lends itself to depression. I am completely influenced by my external experiences. How could I not be? They are magnified on a level that is indescribable. I may get anxiety from a simple everyday task like a grocery store trip. Not even being able to go to the grocery store without exerting one hundred percent of your effort to cope with the overwhelming fluorescent store lights, colors of products so bright that they hurt your eyes, music making it so you cannot process what you are looking for, and the potential crowds is a hard way to live. Everything you feel dazed by, I experience ten-fold.
It’s true what you hear; the worst depression feels like nothing. You just want to lie down and never get up again. You cannot bring yourself to care even though you know that you should. But you are so tired. You are a different version of yourself. Every day for a whole year I imagined myself crashing my car as I drove my commute, I felt more jealousy than sadness when grieving loved ones passing wondering why I am the one left here when I have so little energy left. My depression has always been situational and stems from burnout. The burnouts of constantly masking in my everyday life to appear just like everyone else. No meltdowns, no autistic behaviors, properly reading all the non-verbal cues that do not come naturally, and dealing with the sensory overload. Pretending that all of these things don’t exist, not wanting to ask the outside world for help even if it could be easier because deep down you want to achieve the same goals in the same way that everyone else does. You desire to appear that you function the same way as everyone else to outsiders. The scary thing for an autistic person is that we become too good at masking. So good, that it translates to depression as well. Not only am I now flawless in masking autism, I perfectly mask depression. I can fake happiness to the outside world, and many times even to myself, forgetting my own needs.
I always pick myself up again, mainly because I have such wonderful people in my life that are able to help me. But I have had to work extremely hard, especially the past two years to truly find happiness internally. So that I don’t go down the dark hole that gets harder and harder to climb out of. So I do not burn out completely.
I enjoy my life. And I have found so much happiness. It just takes more effort for me. I have had to learn a different way of finding happiness because I process differently. My emotions are equally as intense as the sensory that envelops me. As such, I will always need to find ways to learn how to identify the intense emotions I feel, and how to handle them. They are almost always caused by an offending sensory or social factor. Now that I am good at looking at my surroundings to see what the offender is, such as the lights, a crowd, or music that is too loud, I am better able to remove myself from the situation and find more peace within myself. For me, life is a marathon and I must always find ways to reset and find sanctuary from these overloads. I was scared to find this peace within me, because my emotions are often so unpredictable. I now know it is triggered by my environment. I must create this predictability to calm the swirling emotions inside of me. And through that, I create happiness. I may still always mask, but I truly believe I have authentic happiness and authentic self.
For other autistic people out there, I want to leave you with this: I know the journey is hard. I know it’s exhausting. But the one thing I wish so desperately I could go back and tell myself is that it does get better. It is cliché and we hear it all the time. You can’t ever believe it when you are struggling. However, I can tell you it’s true even if I can’t explain it. If I had given up, all of those struggles would have been in vain. Eventually, they will pay off. Eventually, there will come a moment of realization that all the excessive worrying, the sensory, the masking, does not change your authentic self. And that moment is what creates freedom.
Image credit: 12019
Mikhaela Ackerman is an adult on the autism spectrum. Diagnosed with ASD at 5 years old, the rate of autism was only one in every 2,000 children, and even more of a rarity in girls. Mikhaela and her mother were faced with the task of creating roadmaps to navigate autism in a time when few were available. She writes from her own experiences, giving a glimpse into her world. She founded a blog “Edge of the Playground” in February 2018 to help individuals on the autism spectrum with life transitions and their families. Mikhaela is a contributing author on “The Mighty” and spoken at various autism events. Mikhaela earned her Juris Doctorate in law in 2016 with the intention of using her legal skills to advocate for others on the autism spectrum. Mikhaela enjoys photography, traveling, yoga, and proving assumptions wrong.