This article was first published by Pinkbike.com.
In my head, I think of these articles as my annual mental health columns. With this kind of timeline, I usually spend time trying to shape my thoughts into something that makes sense – a beginning, middle, and end. Where I started, what happened, how it ended.
For the past few years this has happened naturally – my first was a year away from my nervous breakdown so I had plenty of time to get through the worst and try to offer some hope for each other side. My second and third years were a continuation of the same theme, steps towards what I hoped would be a return to a life that didn’t look too different from before. These are milestones that I could hopefully make a point about and try to leave the reader with something to ponder.
This year I looked at a page trying to write something for months, but nothing came. Right now I don’t know how to talk about what I’m going through, how to sum it all up in 1,500 words and tie it in a knot.
Last fall, a month or two after writing my last column, I found out that I probably had autism.
Blindside doesn’t begin to cover it. It is not an understatement to say that I had never seriously thought of myself in these terms. After all, using Google MD, it’s all too easy to convince yourself that you have at least four cancers and a malignant personality disorder, and as someone with a diagnosed anxiety disorder, I know to stay apart.
High-functioning was the word used by my psychologist. Reading a bit, I suppose I would probably fall into what used to be called the Aspergers camp, although I also identify with many traits that would once have been codified as Pervasive Developmental Disorder, today I believe it is quickly called Pathological Demand Avoidance. I don’t like the urge to micro-categorize things, it seems dishonest to me, so I tend to consider it just “autistic” or “on the spectrum”, if you must.
The one thing I’m sure of is that when I try to explain this to people and they say, “Oh, you have mild autism,” it just doesn’t feel right to me. There’s little light on some moments from the past few years, but maybe that’s unfair to people with autism who can’t function on a day-to-day basis like I can.
To be honest, I don’t even have a formal diagnosis. My (now former) psychologist managed to convince me that getting a diagnosis at my age was pointless. Because I don’t meet the criteria to be considered disabled, it was bad luck. She did something of a number on me with it – dropping an atomic bomb of a revelation on my life, then leaving me to pick up the pieces without even a pamphlet to guide me, and the fixed idea that it didn’t happen. there is no help coming.
How are you supposed to handle the idea of discovering something like this near your 40th birthday? How do you reconcile that with a half-life of experiences?
One of the big differences I’ve found between anxiety and autism is that there’s a lot more anxiety material out there, practical resources to help you manage day to day. There are a lot more people talking about their experiences, and that makes a difference. I would love to have found a book, blog or podcast from someone I can relate to. It would be nice to have a model to try to manage things, rather than having to invent something every time.
Ever since my psychologist told me she thinks I have autism, it’s uprooted my whole world. It provides an explanatory narrative for my nervous breakdown, it explains so many events from my past that hurt me, it even explains things that I didn’t realize were hurting me. It may sound silly, but to feel that I have permission to admit that I find people confusing, to know that in social situations it’s normal for me to struggle, has been such a weight lifted off my shoulders.
In the past, when a social situation went wrong or stressed me out, I took responsibility for it. After all, if everyone seems to know what’s going on, it must be my fault that things are going badly, right?
The autism narrative seems to be extremely useful in the years to come, because one thing I’ve learned over the past few years is that learning more about how I’m wired has helped reshape my life. in a positive way. But it comes at a cost, reassessing your life is neither easy nor easy to do. The past year has been very hard and it is not over.
On days when I’m weaker, I hate the thought of being autistic. Because I see anxiety as a problem, a problem that I felt like I was about to solve. Stupid or not, I honestly believed that I could conquer anxiety and overcome it. Being autistic is permanent, there is no solution, and I want to throw my toys out of the pram to try in protest.
I try not to dwell on what I’m up against in these plays, but I feel like I’m falling into this trap because I don’t know what all of this is going to mean to me. I don’t know how I’m going to feel about this or how to explain it to anyone else. It’s just hard, but maybe that’s the point?
It would be nice to think of mental illness as something nice and clean like a broken bone. You go to the hospital, get the x-rays and the cast, and a few weeks later (hopefully) you’re whole again. For me, I struggle with the idea that there was a simpler, happier state somewhere in my past that I want to return to, but the truth is that it’s probably nothing more than a lie that my brain tells me.
Progress doesn’t come in the form of a nice clean trajectory where you feel better as you go along, the reality is that there will likely be phases where things get tough again. What I don’t buy is the myth that mental illness magically imparts strength to those who suffer from it. I can only speak for myself, but throughout my tribulations, I never felt strong. The only thing I’ve ever done is put one foot in front of the other, take it one day at a time. And that’s where I am today, one step at a time, focusing on the process, not the goal.
On my best days, I see my idea of a happier past is rosy-tinged bullshit. I spoke to a new therapist and found connections that can help me get a formal diagnosis, but honestly, I’m scared of what this process might bring, so I put it off. In these better days, I know I have to keep going, because evidence over the past few years shows me that if I can keep learning more to deepen my understanding of how my brain works, then maybe, just maybe, the true happier days are yet to come. While where I am today might not be fun, I’m closer to that goal than I was last year.
Matt Wragg is a longtime contributor to Pinkbike.com. Originally a full-time event photographer, Wragg has covered the Enduro World Series under contract for many of the world’s biggest brands. In recent years, he’s ditched the traveling circus of event photography for quieter spaces and focused on sharing stories and perspectives from his years in the industry. He lives in the south of France with his partner Mary, and still takes a camera from time to time.