So today we’re going to talk about my fun times with mental illness, since it’s the reason this blog post is late. Yay.
I didn’t plan on getting too personal for this blog; my list of topic ideas is mostly cultural critique. I’m sure I’ll come back to that list for later posts and even save some of them to put up on my own blog(s) eventually. Right now I need to process some meta before I can get back to doing the thing.
Of note: I’ve rewritten these paragraphs several times to try to fit them into some kind of linear or thematic structure. I really like structure–more on that later–but the thing about mental illness is that it often defies structure, both practically and metaphorically. Madness resists linear narrative.
My second year at UMBC, I had mono. I missed a lot of classes that semester, but I still got better grades than any other time. My final exam score for Discrete Mathematics was 106. (This is one of only four specific assignment grades I remember from my entire academic career; in ninth grade biology I got a 98 and 95 on the midterm and final; in tenth grade physics I got a “62!” on the fall term final. That’s a sixty-two-exclamation-point, not sixty-two-factorial.) I often look back at that semester and try to isolate the components of my success, but I really have no idea. These days I mostly wish mono infections weren’t just a one-time thing because it might explain why I’m so tired all the time. And I’d have a reasonable excuse for missing school on days I can’t seem to drag myself out of the house.
I missed about two weeks of classes this semester, which is my first attempt back at college after two years off. Some classmates noticed my absence and asked if I was okay, which was nice, but I didn’t know what to say. It’s the first time, other than the mono, that I was actually able to come back after starting to fall off schedule. The last four times I just gave up entirely, too ashamed and afraid to show my face. Staying home isn’t a party; my stomach tightens and my hands shake and a headache builds under my eyes and across the back of my skull.
I take medication for depression, anxiety, and ADHD. I may or may not be on the autism spectrum; my parents think the idea’s ridiculous, but my autistic peers tend to agree with me. At any rate, I’m a hyperverbal/daydreamy type rather than a hyperactive or nonverbal type, and my early school environment was basically ideal for accommodating my oddities and tendency for distraction, so it’s not surprising that I wasn’t tagged for any of it as a child. It has made it difficult for me to adjust to regular school.
Structure and routine are my jam. Without them I feel morose and start to perseverate on inconsequential activities as my brain struggles to compensate. Puzzles are like candy. The last few weeks it’s been sudoku, obsessively completed one after another for hours at a time when I should be taking a shower, eating, or getting myself to class. Crosswords, jigsaws, cryptograms, logic grids, and other word games have all made the rounds. The puzzle helps me focus and calms my nerves, but turning to them when I’m supposed to be doing something else brings its own dose of anxiety which I then attempt to sate with another puzzle. Knitting helps in a more constructive way, because it’s kind of like a puzzle that is almost entirely physical, leaving the rest of my brain free to do homework and pay attention to lecture.
The thing about structure is that—while maintaining it is usually a vital part of having a satisfying, productive life with autism and ADHD—both conditions carry impairment in executive functioning, which includes the set of skills we use to create and stick to routines. Tricking my brain into doing the things I need to survive in an unpredictable, social world is exhausting. Most of the time I stumble forward by accident, and want to give up in despair when a favored technique suddenly stops working.
I’m not unhappy, generally—thanks to my antidepressant. I remember being desperately sad a lot of the time before I started the medication. But it’s frustrating and demoralizing to have to work so hard for simple things that neurotypical people find easy. I’m not saying NTs never have problems, or even similar problems, or that anyone who seems fine in public doesn’t have secret burdens or impostor syndrome whispering in their ear that they‘re the only person who doesn’t have it together. But most neurotypical people don’t have to struggle with basic things like remembering to eat and shower and how to act in commonplace social situations. (Why is eye contact so important?)