The world is pretty much in the Stone Age when it comes to psychiatry. This makes it hard for people with any degree of mental illness. It’s especially hard if you’re not quite able to function like other people but you do well enough so that your problems don’t show every day.
That’s what it’s like for me on the autism spectrum. (Not everyone considers autism a mental illness. I consider it one for me because it affects my daily functioning and makes me depressed.) But I think it applies to most other disorders, too. Here are some tips that might help you keep a healthy perspective.
Know your limitations, but focus on your strong points.
You probably can’t handle as much stress as other people. So maybe you don’t get as much done in a day. But the flip side of that is that you’re probably a pretty patient human being. That’s going to make a lot of people want to be your friend.
I’m not sure why, but it seems like people with mental illnesses are overrepresented in the brains and creativity department. Autism often comes with great attention to detail and the same type of associative thinking as schizophrenia. And we all know how many artists are bipolar.
I’m not as productive as other people because it’s hard for me to do anything involving a quick transition of focus. Sometimes I feel like I can only do 40 percent of what other people can do in a day and see 25 percent of what other people see. I don’t think I can be an artist with the trajectory I wanted because the industry is too fast-paced. But that doesn’t mean I can’t figure out another way to sell my work.
I think having autism gives me a unique perspective that people don’t come across every day. I’m trying to figure out flexible work and how to recognize tolerant people so I can focus my energy on the good things I have to offer the world.
Figure out who will accept you.
A lot of us are charismatic in small doses. That gives people high expectations. But when we can’t be “on” consistently enough to meet those expectations it feels like we’re letting people down. There are some people you can be around all the time and others who are only able to deal with you on good days. That’s okay. Every friendship has a different purpose. Sometimes you fit with someone so well in some ways that it makes up for all the others.
Relationships are harder. I’ve had the best luck with other people on the spectrum. People break up with me early on because they say I’m weird. Or I break up with them because I can tell they wouldn’t accept me in the long haul. One guy ended things because he couldn’t stand my ruminating. He said I asked him the same questions over and over. But I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be comfortable in a relationship where I’m not allowed to do that. I could sit here years later telling people what a jerk he is, but he isn’t. I’m sure there are things he could endure in a partner that I never would.
Being a thoughtful, reliable person sets you apart in itself. Trust me, there’s someone out there who’ll deal with your panic attacks if you’re a good listener. Just think of the many people out there who don’t like to compromise. People who might vaguely want to become better people but find it easier to get a sort-of-spineless person to put up with them. If these people can have a relationship they’re okay with most of the time, chances are you can, too.
Don’t let people treat you badly.
A lot of us are easy prey for abusive partners and “friends” who want to make everyone around them as miserable as they are. I dated a controlling guy in high school who subtly tried to change my opinion of my family. I was vaguely aware that he wasn’t a good person, but I was so flattered by the attention that I put up with it until my parents wouldn’t let me see him anymore.
More recently I was talking to this well-dressed older guy who told me how many people talked to him in public. I said nobody talked to me. “Because you’re weird,” he said, and he invited me to get a drink with him. I didn’t go because I knew what he was trying to do. Picking at someone’s sore spot to get laid or to make them emotionally dependent on you is just about the lowest thing ever.
Please. Two of my friends committed suicide because they hadn’t dealt with their illnesses properly. You might be ashamed, but there’s way more shame in hurting people who need you because you don’t want to admit that you have a problem.
Get support, but don’t become your illness.
I’ve known I was on the spectrum since I was a kid. But it took until this year for me to understand that a lot of people will always treat me differently. I got fired from jobs. Kicked out of grad school. Most of the people I’ve been able to get close to have had some kind of mental illness themselves. I used to think I’d grow out of it, but now I know this is a permanent thing.
Going to autism support groups has helped tremendously. I don’t have to feel self-conscious in a whole room full of people who have problems changing focus. Most of us feel that need to say everything we’re thinking before someone changes the topic. The guy who likes movies can stop in the middle of a conversation to look up movie reviews on his iPhone and everyone’s totally cool with it.
But attaching yourself to your disability both excuses you from responsibility for your actions and preemptively shuts out other things that are more rewarding to focus on. There’s a fine line between accepting your limitations and letting them consume you. You owe it to yourself to figure out that balance.
Give something back to your community.
Flexible work tends to be best for people like us. You can freelance or find an employer who gives you clear instructions, a quiet workspace, and time off if you need it.
But if work is truly difficult, you shouldn’t feel guilty about trying to get disability. My boyfriend started getting SSDI years ago for autism and severe depression. He’s tried office work but he was overwhelmed by the hours. If you can get through most days okay, though, you might want to use your free time to do volunteer work. Maybe you could help other people with your disability. Your life might be harder than most people’s, but you’ll still feel better about your place in the world if you give something back to it.
Hold yourself accountable.
We still have to coexist with other people. Barring a depressive episode that gets out of control, we should make it a priority to do the things we’ve made ourselves accountable for. Not updating my blog doesn’t make me misunderstood; it makes me a flaky jerk. Yes, getting overwhelmed and losing track of my priorities is part of being on the spectrum. That doesn’t change the fact that the world doesn’t judge you on what you intended to do.
Also, don’t flake out on friends. Let them know in advance if you’re having a tough time and can’t make it that day. As a person who has trouble making friends I can’t stand it when someone I trust disrespects my time. It makes me feel unimportant to them. Most of us have issues with trust. We’d be hypocrites if we broke someone else’s.
Gain wisdom from your setbacks.
You don’t earn your right to sanctimony just by suffering. You have to learn from it. What have you learned about the human condition from scrutinizing it every day just to get by? What has rejection taught you?
There are people who become destructive after years of bad things happening to them. There are people who just sort of bumble along until they die. And there are people who might not get stronger exactly, but they do gain emotional knowledge that serves them well in other ways. Aim for that third one. You deserve it.
Don’t compare yourself with others.
And definitely don’t compare yourself to what you think you’d be like if you didn’t have a mental illness. Doing that just makes me depressed. Frankly, being depressed about having autism is worse than autism itself.
Remember that there are totally normal-seeming people who are crazier than you’ll ever be. They hold jobs and have plenty of friends, but when they go home they might beat their kids and drink themselves into oblivion and no one has any idea.On a less dramatic note, I’m sure you have some qualities that other people would love to have. Don’t compare your inner life to other people’s outer lives.
My therapist tells me to focus on the positives because that’s really the only option. It’s the only option to get through most things in life. You might feel like you have to become a more self-actualized human being than most people are to be worth more than your illness in the world’s eyes. But that’s all right. It gives you something to work toward. It’s a goal that everyone should have anyway.