My whole life, I struggled with extreme introversion—beyond what was seen as acceptable—as well having other issues that made it hard for me to focus and fit in. It wasn’t until I had reached my late twenties that I learned more about autism and ADHD. I realized I could likely be classified as having one or both of these neurodivergent conditions.
For a while, I was confused, fixating on all my symptoms and questioning who I was. But ultimately, I learned to see myself as part of a broader community of mental diversity. The key is to accept my unique tendencies with an open mind, and focus on what I can do to thrive. Here is my story of how I figured that out.
I was a “smart” child who masked my struggles
I was seen as an intelligent kid who had the highest math scores in my grade. Like many children, I clung to the compliments I was given. And I tried to hide any secret struggles I had that contradicted the positive image assigned to me. For one, my mind constantly wandered. This made me disorganized and bad at following instructions. Second, my practical abilities were low, and I was slow at learning arts and crafts. A third matter was my intense introversion. I had little energy to participate in groups. All I wanted to do was crawl into a corner and write in my diary all day.
Last but not least, I had a nerdy perfectionism about things that caused me to be over-the-top thorough. For instance, I intended to play “Harry Potter” with my younger sister after school, but I kept getting sucked into my temptation to make endless lists of spells and write an entire year of Hogwarts lesson plans, all so that our acting-out of the Wizarding World could be “realistic.” This took forever, and I kept wanting to start over—so this quality of mine really prevented me from living in the moment, with other people.
Coming of age, I yearned for a passable excuse for the amount of time I spent alone, as it alarmed my family. I did some mental health interventions, I read books on communication, and I cleaned up my diet. Yet, none of this fixed how easily overwhelmed and overstimulated I was by the busy, chatty world that surrounded me. Also, I worried that my social blunders were far worse and more frequent than a “normal” person’s. My theme song could’ve been “Born to Be Weird.”
I was offended when a friend suggested I was neurodivergent, but it all started to make sense
In 2020, I made a new friend who had found out as an adult he was neurodivergent. (Neurodivergence refers most often to autism, ADHD, and dyslexia, but spans various conditions.) From getting to know me, the friend suggested I may be neurodivergent too. I am a transgender woman, after all. Research shows we gender-variant folks are 3–6x more likely to be autistic.
At first, I was quite bothered by what my friend had proposed. Never did I have delayed speech, nor was I a science wiz or weak at reading facial expressions. But I knew my ignorance about autism was showing. I needed to replace the stereotypes in my head with real education. As COVID times went on, this education became inevitable as I noticed something curious. So many of the online writers whose writing I most related to had Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)—or mentioned that they suspected themselves to—as did readers who responded to my own writing.
When I spoke about my potential autism with a close friend of several years, she told me she was likely on the spectrum herself, and had ADHD symptoms, too. Ha, no wonder I always loved talking to her so much! I also clarified something important, which is that only 50% of people with autism have co-occurring alexithymia, or difficulty with emotional recognition. People on the spectrum can have average or even high levels of empathy. Also, autism and ADHD are underdiagnosed in women and girls, as the traits manifest differently from how they tend to in males.
As for the ADHD component, I am easily bored and can make careless mistakes. Restless, fidgety, forgetful, I have trouble concentrating in groups, and a hard time unwinding and turning my mind off at night. I marvel at people who get anything done in coffee shops with all that noise and activity around them! While online tests are only an indicator and not a diagnosis, my results for ADHD said it was even more “likely” than the autism tests I took.
For a while, I felt confused and hopeless about my abilities
Following these discoveries, I went through a phase of confusion. I had battled my inattentive, Asperger’s-like brain for years, all the while expecting myself to live up to societal standards of success. Now, for the first time, I had technical language—other than “ultra introvert space cadet”—to explain some of my struggles.
Now I could simply throw up my hands and say, “Oh, I don’t live up to norms? Well, la di da, cuz I have a free neurodivergent pass to get out of this game. I give up. No more trying. No more pretending. I’m a lower-functioning adult. I accept my fate.”
But of course, those thoughts were an overreaction. In truth, the idea of being a low achiever the rest of my life is not something I am willing to accept as destiny. I want to be happy, healthy, and successful in my own way. I intend to have enough determination in me to make sure that happens!
I feared that by invoking the words ADHD and autism, I was lying down as if to die a premature death to my potential. There have been days I’ve longed to forget neurodivergence altogether, dismiss it as a self-fulfilling prophecy I’d fallen for in a moment of weakness. But alas, I traveled down the neurodivergent rabbit hole for a reason. I can’t simply pray away my symptoms.
It’s felt tricky to find a balance between accepting my limitations, and embracing the power that I have to grow stronger.
Finally, I’m staying focused on how I can thrive
The long process of writing this article yielded an aha moment. What I realized is that I needed to stop associating autism and ADHD with “can’t succeed.” Despite my attempts to de-stigmatize, I kept subconsciously putting a bad rap on these conditions. This made it so I couldn’t acknowledge my neurodivergence without lowering my faith in my abilities.
I decided that from now on, I would associate ADHD and autism with “succeeds in a unique way.” And that was exactly what I was going to do. I even made a list of positive mental associations, to keep on my desk and glance at. ADHD is linked to greater creativity, while one of the leverageable benefits of autism is “an intense and often narrow focus on a specific topic.” I also think my autistic tendencies are connected with my independent thinking, and my attention to detail when I write.
My action plan for my autism is, in a nutshell, to live by my own rules unapologetically, while encouraging others to do the same.
Rule #1 is that I get to say yes to the social situations where I naturally thrive, and say no to the rest. Even after COVID is long gone, I will continue to conduct most of my friendships virtually, and attend small events, sparingly. Even on family vacations, I am allowed to spend half the day alone in my hotel room!
Rule #2 is that I get to pursue my passion of writing—and all the sub-passions I write about—rather than feeling like I need to be competent in a conventional or well-rounded way. There’s no denying I am a geek about the things that I like. At this point, I am embracing that, and I focus on building connections with like-minded people rather than fitting in with larger norms.
To thrive with ADHD, my main plan is to keep building up my meditation practice. For the past two months, I have stuck with 8+ minutes a day. I’ve experimented with breath, body scans, loving-kindness, visualization, and so on, to figure out which types of meditation work best at different times or depending on my current state of mind. Another practice I have started is the writing of daily affirmations or intentions, to concentrate on the goals that light me up, and hopefully refresh my present-moment intention throughout the day when I notice I have veered off track.
On days like today, immersing myself in the topic of neurodiversity, reading the writings of people like me, is just what I need to feel nurtured. At other times, I prefer to forget all the labels, just be who I am and live life. I don’t know I will ever seek out a diagnosis, which is often expensive and unreliable, as Rakshita Shekhar has explained. In the end, questioning whether I had autism and/or ADHD led me to conclude what I already knew: Whoever we are, let’s accept our strengths and our limitations. Let’s do what it takes to help our unique brains prosper!
Mental health labels are not hard and fixed; they are here to help us understand ourselves better and support each other. As autistic Medium writer Jennifer Rudarbith encouraged me in a comment, “The lovely thing about the autism community is that it by and large accepts even the self-diagnosed with open arms. I think any place you can find a real sense of community is a place worth being.”
I have learned I am not alone, and to focus on my strategies to thrive. I hope my story helps you love your unique mind, too!
Also by Phoenix: Why I Share My Diary For Fun
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