Don’t Assume You Understand Neurodiversity. You Don’t.

I’m going to write another bitchy blog post, because I’m organizing my thoughts. I invite all people to read, and comment if you want, but this is really a conversation that needs to happen within the neurodiverse community, without paying a lot of attention outside input.

I love the term neurodiversity (or neurodivergence*). When I first heard it,  a light came on in my mind. I finally had a word for something I’d felt my whole life: that “mentally ill” isn’t the right word for who I am, because I’m not ill. This is just my personality, and you can’t (nor should you want to) cure me of it. (Yes, I want/need some symptoms treated, but that’s a different discussion.)

The problem is, the term “neurodiverse” is a catch-all term for A LOT of different sorts of people. This is one of those “duh” statements, but I think we need to meditate on it. I hear a lot of people say “I’m neurodiverse, too,” (or, worse yet, “my aunt is neurodiverse”) as a precursor to statements indicating they think they understand what life is like for ALL neurodiverse people.

Ugh. Amirite?

I don’t want to stop using the term “neruodiverse”. I lurves it, and don’t want to complicate the language by having more and more terms, or just labeling ourselves with our diagnoses. “Neurodiverse” expresses an idea about all of us, that we’re not ill and are okay the way we are, and thus is a good catch-all term.

But we all need to check ourselves when we start thinking we understand what it’s like for all people under the neurodiverse umbrella. There’s a huge spectrum not only of different diagnoses under that umbrella, but also of levels of marginalization. Some of us struggle daily with the problems our neurodiversity causes us. It’s affects everything we do, and every conversation we have with others. Other people’s neurodiversity has only a minor effect on their lives.

If you have minor clinical depression, for instance, you’re neurodiverse in my opinion (unless you choose to not identify that way, of course). Depression is something I experience, and is super shitty. It can make you miss work, sabotage relationships, hurt yourself. But, in the case of minor depression, most people won’t know you have it unless you tell them.

mentalOn the other end of the spectrum is my partner, Phoenix. He has schizophrenia and can’t even walk silently into a room without people reacting to his neurodiversity: his strangeness radiates from him like a glow—a beautiful glow, in my opinion, but not in the opinions of most others. He’s one of the very best, coolest, smartest, kindest people I’ve ever met, but most folks will never know that because their reactions to him are almost uniformly negative. They avoid him, or have a (misguided) “protective” anger reaction (for instance, they call the cops on him for yelling and pacing in his yard. They beat the shit out of him for talking to himself, because they think he’s “talking shit” about them). At best, they pity him and don’t take anything he says seriously.

You can imagine the effect this sort of marginalization could have on a person. Phoenix is positive and confident, but he’s told me on various occasions that before I came along, he thought he’d be alone for his whole life.

I, for the sake of you knowing my viewpoint, fall somewhere in between that. I struggle daily with my bipolar and PTSD on an internal level, and it’s been a defining force of my entire life path. It’s destroyed more than one relationship, and caused me to seek out abusive and toxic ones. It’s landed me in prison. It’s made it extremely hard for me to maintain employment for more than a few years at a time, and has cost me many promotions because of latent bias (and no, I’m not being paranoid. I have direct evidence). The list goes on. But in my daily interactions, at least at times I’m not in crisis, people generally just think I’m a little bit eccentric or “off”. It certainly colors their reactions toward me, but they might not even guess at first blush that I’m neurodiverse. Plus, I have the advantage of not being one of those people that comes off as creepy. At least it doesn’t seem like it, usually, based on how I’m treated (I mean, I’m not creepy, right? Tell me if I am). So my neurodiversity doesn’t isolate me in that way (though it will cause me to self-isolate at times).

So, what I’m saying is, someone with minor depression can’t know what it’s like for people like me, or people like Phoenix. And I can’t know what it’s like for someone with Autism, or schizoaffective disorder, etc. But I can probably identify with what other neurodiverse people go through better than most neurotypical people can, and I will endeavor to listen and be accepting—to be a “safe space” for other neurodiverse people to express their feelings and experiences. I will never say neurodiverse people are “doing it for attention” or any of those other horrible, marginalizing things neurotypical (or self-hating neurodiverse) people say.

The reason we label ourselves as neurodiverse is to try to seek out people who understand what it’s like for us, and will listen and accept us for who we are. Thus, it’s very, very important to be careful of behaviors in the community that can cause us to marginalize and isolate our peers even more. We need to be there for one another. Let us remember to listen and be good allies, as well as good peers.

* I don’t like that this term as much, for the silly reason that I don’t like the novel Divergent. We all have our quirks.

Mental Illness is Not Weakness

A few days ago while addressing a group of veterans, Donald Trump said that strong people can handle trauma without getting PTSD. In effect, he was stating that only the weak are susceptible to mental health issues after they experience trauma.

I myself suffer* from PTSD. My case arises not from wartime trauma, but from physical, mental, and sexual abuse. The idea that people with PTSD—and really, people with any mental health issue—are somehow too weak to deal with the fact that life sucks sometimes, and that we need to buck up, get over ourselves, and move on, is prevalent in society. In my case, it’s a belief that hinders my recovery.

I was diagnosed with PTSD about a decade back. At the time, I didn’t really know what the diagnosis meant. I thought PTSD was something ONLY combat veterans had, and thus I thought my doctor was joking. I’d never had to experience the horrors of dodging bombs and watching my buddies get blown apart. What kind of whiney bitch did my doctor think I was, that I would be as traumatized by my own experiences as a combat veteran would be by theirs?

I dismissed the diagnosis and refused treatment of any kind. I didn’t even investigate what PTSD was, or how it might affect my actions. I even went so far as to have that—and my other diagnosis of bipolar—removed from my medical records. I didn’t want to suffer the stigma. I didn’t want people to think I was weak or attention-seeking.

Then, a few years ago, I went through a period of very high stress in my life. The stress coincided with, or perhaps triggered, a severe manic episode, and I started writing obsessively and behaving a little oddly. My husband at the time became pretty snide about it. His behavior triggered something in me that sent me over the edge, I guess because it in some ways mirrored the behavior of a person from my past. He started to smell like this person, and sound like him. Whenever he would say something unkind to me, my emotions became uncontrollable: I’d get really, really angry, or hurt, or hysterical. I began avoiding him, disappearing for weeks on road trips.

The situation became a sort of feedback loop: the more emotional and erratic I became, the more critical my husband became of me. He told me I was an immature loser and that he was done with me, and kicked me out of the house on a couple occasions. For my part, I was drinking heavily and, eventually, cheating on him.

I wanted to either act “right”, or leave, but I literally couldn’t bring myself to do either. I was terrified to be alone, yet incapable of pulling myself together the way my husband wanted me to. I would watch myself do incredibly self-destructive things and be absolutely powerless to stop.

It’s hard for me to say that: absolutely powerless to stop. After all, lack of self-control is the ultimate weakness. I told myself, day in and day out, that my marriage and my life were in shambles because I was too weak to fix them. If I’d had any control over my emotions and behavior, I would have been able to make my husband love me again.

I was already in a severe depressive episode when my husband finally served me with divorce papers, on the day after Valentine’s Day. I had a suicide attempt (a fairly halfhearted one, since the means at hand were poor), and finally ended up in a mental health crisis center where they said, no really, you have PTSD and bipolar disorder, and we’re going to help you with them.

I’d never been able to stay on medication before. I thought the whole point of pills was to dull your brain and render you inert, so you wouldn’t cause problems for yourself or those around you. I thought they’d kill my creativity and prevent me from going manic; that I’d never have fun or feel any real feelings anymore. After all, pills couldn’t fix what was wrong with me, because they couldn’t cure weakness or repair personality flaws.

But I stuck with treatment this time, because I was tired of my life being unstable, and I had a kid to stay alive for. I didn’t know what else to do. I had to try something.

After trying a lot of different horrible meds, I was finally put on a combination that didn’t make me feel like a disjointed, sleepy puppet from the dream dimensions. It actually made me feel better.

The first time I realized they were working correctly was when I got into a very stressful situation. I’d been in the same situation before, when I was unmedicated, and I’d reacted very badly. My anxiety, self-loathing, and other distress had swelled up in me until I couldn’t see; the only thing left in me were those feelings, and so they were all I had that could inform my actions. When you feel like that, you can’t behave in healthy ways. You want to destroy yourself so that you don’t feel like that anymore. However, with the medication, I was in control, and not my emotions. I was still upset, yes, but my feelings didn’t send me skidding into the walls off-kilter.

That’s when I realized I’d never actually lacked self-control. My brain just worked differently than most people’s, and pretty much anyone would have acted the same way if they’d felt like I had when I’d done those self-destructive things. This was probably the most amazing self-realization of my life.

Some people might still think I’m weak—Donald Trump maybe thinks he’d be able to go through what I’ve gone through, and still be his pompous, egotistical self. And maybe I am more susceptible to PTSD than others, because of my bipolar, or for some other reason. I don’t know.

I was in the supermarket once and saw a young woman with no arms, using her bare feet to grab cups of yogurt from the cooler and put them in her cart. I tried not to stare, but it was pretty amazing to me. I’m sure it wasn’t amazing to her, though: it was just what she had to do, because she had no arms. No one with any scrap of insight would call that woman weak. I would even make the claim that nothing was wrong with her whatsoever. If she broke her ankle, it would probably affect her life more than it would someone who had arms, but that still doesn’t mean she’s weak. She’d just have to cope in different ways.

Those of us with neurodiversity and mental illness are not weak. We just have to learn to cope differently than other people. I actually think that my experiences have given me more self-knowledge, depth of character, compassion, and insight into the human condition than someone like Donald Trump will ever have. And that isn’t a disability: it’s a beautiful thing.

*I use the word “suffer” intentionally here. I would not use this word with any other sort of neurodiversity (and whether PTSD is truly a neurodiversity, I will leave others to argue, because I think each individual can choose for themselves how they want to identify). However, PTSD is unlike bipolar, ASD, schizophrenia, and other diagnoses that are an organic part of the brain. PTSD is caused by trauma, is preventable and, unlike those other diagnoses, has no component to it that I would call desirable (and yes, I think that neurodiversity can be a good thing, though there are some struggles that definitely go along with it).

Elizabeth Roderick is an author. Many of her books deal with neurodiversity and abuse issues.

Surviving, and Writing About, Abuse

I wanted to give my thoughts on a subject that’s close to my heart: how people in our society view, and write about, domestic violence and other types of abuse.

I’ve participated in a lot of discussions, both online and in the real world, about what makes people stay in abusive relationships. The answers people often give are along the lines of, “They’re insecure.” Or, “They just don’t know anything different.” And, “They don’t see any way out.”

I have been in abusive relationships, and I’ll tell you what I hear when people give the answers above: “It’s your fault. You stayed with your abusers because you’re defective: weak, ignorant, and stupid.”

I’m not saying there isn’t a grain of truth in the fact that people living in abuse are insecure, sometimes lacking in objectivity with regard to their situation, and that they might have a hard time taking whatever steps they need to in order to leave their home and family. Do you know who else fits that description? Pretty much everyone else on the fucking planet.

Unfortunately, more than a few fiction authors portray abused women (the abused character is usually a woman, though that isn’t always the case in real life) as creatures we should both pity and cheer on as they inevitably overcome all their difficulties and reinvent themselves as strong, confident individuals.

Conversely, some readers of my novel The Hustle have expressed frustration with the main character, Liria, who goes through a string of ill-advised and abusive relationships throughout the course of the story (will she do better in The Other Place? I’m not telling 🙂 ). “I just don’t understand why Liria keeps getting involved with people who treat her so badly,” some people say. “It’s like she doesn’t want a better life.”

That’s another way of saying it’s the abused person’s fault for being abused. And yes, I know it is upon each and every one of us to take control of our lives and try to be the best we can be. However, suffering people’s ignorant judgment doesn’t help us to feel empowered. Nor does pity, because pity doesn’t really equal understanding…though it’s definitely better than sneering judgment.

When I was a teenager, I was in a relationship that was physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive. After that, I was in a couple relationships that maybe weren’t exactly healthy, but were marred to a greater extent by addiction than abuse. Then, I met my current (ish) husband.

My husband is a Ph.D. professor of biophysics; a hard-working, incredibly intelligent guy who comes off in company as perhaps a little odd, but sweet and quiet and nerdy. I, on the other hand, have only an undergraduate degree and a history of incarceration and heroin addiction (that stuff is far in the past, but still). I felt sort of like I’d hit the jackpot when I landed my husband; not just because of his education and the fact he didn’t do needle drugs, but because he was unfailingly kind to me, never so much as looked at another woman, and was always reliable and safe. He had his frustrating weirdnesses, sure, but doesn’t everyone?

About three years ago we moved to California for his job. The dynamic of our relationship shifted, and his frustrating weirdnesses turned against me. I’d quit my job and started (compulsively) writing when we moved—we didn’t need a second income, and we’d discussed my being a stay-at-home mom when he got a tenure track job. But, for reasons I won’t go into again here, my husband ended up not liking this situation. He accused me of lying around all day and writing silly stories. He called me selfish, lazy, and immature. He said I was using him for money, and didn’t have the guts to leave him only because I didn’t want to get a job to support myself and my kid. Pretty mean stuff, right? But think about it: if you were lucky enough to get to stay home and write all day (and, you know, clean the house and cook and garden and all that), you might feel a little guilty about it, right? That’s pretty normal among others I’ve spoken to who are stay-at-home. So, when my husband said that stuff, I didn’t really think it was abuse: I thought he had a point, because he’d hit the bull’s-eye of my guilt.I mean, his words pissed me off and hurt me, sure, but this was a man I loved and had been married to awhile. I respected his feelings and opinions. Plus, he had never been so critical of me before, so I thought he’d get over it. I even tried to get a job to make him happy, because sometimes doing stuff to make your spouse happy is part of marriage. But we’d moved to the worst economy in the known universe so I didn’t get a single call back.

Some friends I cried to about this stuff told me he was being abusive. But I’d suffered real abuse, I thought, and it hadn’t really been the same. Other people thought I was overreacting. After all, my husband was the big fancy doctor with a sweet nature, and I was just some weird, emotional chick with a sordid past who thought she was a writer. This argument hit home with me, as well. All you writers out there probably know what it’s like to feel like a fraud and like you suck, especially when those rejections are rolling in.

Anyway, my husband moved on to saying he had lost all respect for me and was done with me. He told me he wasn’t interested in having sex with me ever again, and told me to get the fuck out of the house on various occasions.

Now, you think, any self-respecting woman would have packed up and got the fuck out of the house for sure at that point. And I actually did, many times. But I would always come back. I loved him, and I was worried about him. His behavior seemed erratic, and I was concerned for his mental health. I told him to go to a psychiatrist, which he did. We also went to marriage counseling. I still had hopes things would get better. And besides, I was a little selfish and immature: I just wanted to stay home and write, and I wouldn’t get to do much of that if I left to be a single mom. Plus, destroying a household and uprooting your kid never seems fun, under any circumstances.

My husband didn’t get better, though. He got worse, and I “dealt” with it by getting smashed-ass drunk several times a week and hanging out with another man. I can forgive myself for this a little bit now, because I was truly miserable and going off the deep end, but at the time I felt horrendously guilty and weak for not being able to change my behavior. I knew I had some mental health issues of my own, as well, and that I wasn’t really taking care of myself, which exacerbated all these problems. So when my husband yelled at me and berated me for all of this stuff too, it again didn’t feel like abuse: it hit home. I felt like it was mostly my fault our relationship had gotten so bad, and that I could fix things by being a better person.

It was true I needed to change in some ways, and I did, eventually: I cut down on drinking, etc. And, eventually, I took my kid and left. I went home to my parents’, where I renovated and built onto a cabin on their property. Now I lie around here all day writing, editing, gardening, playing with my kid, building cabinets and making homemade wine. I don’t know how long this situation will last, but I wanted to still live my life on my own terms for as long as I could. I didn’t want my husband to win, and force me into a miserable life that I don’t want.

Now, a lot of you who are still reading this (if anyone) might say that I stayed in my abusive relationships because I was insecure, because I didn’t know any better (having been in abusive relationships before), and that I didn’t see a way out (at least that allowed me to live the way I want). You’d be right, in a way. But what you might be wrong about is the fact that you would never act that way in my situation. Whenever I hear someone say they’ll never be with anyone who doesn’t treat them like a princess/prince, I usually roll my eyes inwardly. Because there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m just a human being who has made decisions that made sense at the time. I’ve done the best I can do with what I’m given. I don’t always do the right thing, but if you think you always do the right thing there might be something wrong with you.

Anyone who has been lucky enough not to experience abuse is just that: lucky. They weren’t subjected to it at a young and impressionable age, and they didn’t get sucked into it slowly and insidiously like I did later, or any of the other things that can lead people into abusive relationships. Because I didn’t stay with my husband because I’m weak or dumb or ignorant: I stayed with him because I loved him, and I didn’t want to give up our life together: the same reasons people stay in healthier relationships.

What we need to do, both in life and in fiction, is see abused people as human beings—intelligent human beings with rich inner lives, just like anyone else—not as objects of pity and contempt.

Find The Hustle, my book that deals with abuse, here.