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Self Love is Not a Privilege | Living with Neurodivergence

abstract painting of many coloured swirls

Photo Credit: Chaos Swirls - a painting by Arpita

Neurodivergent. Another divergent. Divergent in sexuality, divergent in lifestyle, divergent in philosophy. I was already leading a life on the margins when a new kind of divergent finally entered my mind as a potential explanation for my ‘weird’ behaviours.

I was watching “Parenthood”, watching Hank realise that he had Autism, like Max did. I was watching Hank realise that he had Autism, and wondering, do I have it too? An echo, of an echo, I turned to my partner and playfully asked, "aren’t many of my behaviours similar to theirs?" Never one to waste words, he nodded, nonchalantly agreeing, while my whole world tilted by 45 degrees.

I may have asked this question many times before, but this time, I was listening. Listening to my body and my mind as they allowed this reality to sink in. My mind is not typical. I am not neurotypical. My first response, as always, was to scour the books. I sank into writings about the field of psychology - how it was developed trying to imitate science at first. How it developed with women as the central objects of investigation, when mental illness was called ‘hysteria’. The history and politics of mental health is a whole field of investigation that deserves an article of its own, but this is not that article.

I came to see myself, especially in women who had never identified themselves as neurodivergent, because the world had always asked them to pretend to be normal. Mimicry of behaviour is a talent that the neurodivergent possess, though I wonder what we have to go through to develop this art form.

Elsewhere, I read about the link between trauma and neurodivergence. Intergenerational trauma begets intergenerational neurodivergence. Unhealthy coping mechanisms passed from parents to children create increasingly twisted accumulations of pain and loss. 

As a child, I was perpetually sick. It would be some manifestation of the flu, or a stomach infection. It happened so often that my mother would quote one of her favourite Marathi sayings - Ek kombdi sada langdi. It translates to “There is always one hen who keeps limping”, which is to say that one hen among the brood always complains of something or the other. Someone to ignore. She was upset with me because my father would come home after a long day of work and unable to sleep from the noise of my coughing, bark at her to “shut her (me) up.”

I learned that it was my fault. My fault for not being healthy. For not being the good daughter who pleased her grown-ups, and was therefore not loved by them. I learned that I was unlovable.There was the root of my mimicry behaviour. If only I could learn to please everyone, I would be loved. So I learned to read people like my beloved books. I learned how to sound witty, funny, sarcastic, intelligent, sweet - whatever the other person needed me to be so that they would love me.

Another terrible aspect manifested for me - when I saw others being authentic, I would bully them, just as I had been bullied. It is what I had learned, and I thought it was what they deserved if they wouldn’t pretend to be perfectly fine while hurting themselves, just like I did. Years later, I would look back at my own abominable behaviour and struggle to forgive that child who hadn’t known any better and hurt others as a result.

In the meanwhile, as I learned to be a “good girl”, I kept falling sick, my body demanding, pleading, begging that I pay attention to my own needs as well. But I had the resources from western medicine to suppress my illness and continue to function with academic and extracurricular excellence. When I was around sixteen, I went to the doctor for my endless stomachache yet again, and heard this word - ‘psychosomatic’ for the first time. Not psychosomatic as in she needs help for mental health issues which are manifesting into physical symptoms. No, it was psychosomatic for she’s making this up. "It’s all in her head and nothing is visibly wrong in any physical scans."

I was resolute. If they thought I was making it up, then I would heal myself with willpower. I stopped my medication and bullied my body into functioning again. It worked for a few years. Especially in my twenties, when I would travel and come home as an alternating module, it was obvious that I would be fine when I was traveling, and fall sick as soon as I got back. My mother would complain about how I just wanted to be away, and I felt increasing guilt and shame.

A decade later, I realise that she was right. I did want to be away from home. The constant bickering and judgment, lifetimes of unresolved griefs and traumas had resulted in patterns of enmeshment and abuse. They were patterns that I had inherited as the only way of life that I knew, and it kept poisoning me. When I finally came to terms with the fact that I came from a broken home, where healing was yet to be realised, I felt guilt for naming it.

Dirty laundry is not meant for the public eye, after all. It took years of depression and therapy, for memories of child sexual abuse to resurface, for me to realise that nowhere in my narrative was I valuing myself.I had learned to cope, learned to manage. I needed to learn that I deserved to thrive, to flourish. Witnessing fights had made me sensitive to the smallest sounds and visual cues, so much so that I wouldn’t go to clubs or bars - social death for a twenty-something.

Drinking alcohol with bass pounding away to the rhythm of the strobe lights would give me heart palpitations. The same reaction I now have in my thirties to a strong cup of coffee. But these are not things common to the neurotypical. Just last week, I was called “grandma” for not wanting to subject myself to sensory overstimulus.

The difference between a decade ago and last week, though, is that I have slowly and consistently been cultivating self-compassion. I have been making peace with the fact that I am neurodivergent. This manifests in thousands of small ways. The hypersensitivity to lights, sounds, smells; erratic and inconsistent behaviours often based on my passions and interests; focusing on details to the exclusion of macro-perspectives.These traits have certainly made my life challenging.

The same divergence, however, has enriched my life in ways for which I will never have enough gratitude. My hypersensitivity makes me the artist I am - allowing creativity and barrier-breaking in writing, music, painting and movement. My passions and interests fuel my explorations - they have allowed me to have been a facilitator, writer, spiritual practitioner, teacher, performer - all within the last decade.

My focus allows me to create prolific work when I do, though there is much to figure out about fitting my erratic systems of creativity with the consistent systems of the economic markets.It took the descent to the Styx, deep within my depression for me to realise that my greatest betrayal had been my own. In not standing up for myself, I was sabotaging my health, my relationships, my creativity and my contributions to the world. To find love,  I insisted on mimicking people, never finding the voice that was my own, the love that was my own for me.

.In the rich online world of post-pandemic social media, I found voices like my own, encouraging each other to embrace the divergence, embrace the weirdness and the uniqueness. Much like being queer, neurodivergence is a spectrum, and I learned not to get caught up in the labels of diagnosis and treatment. I found a therapist who is neurodivergent themself, and offers me the most validating, comforting and challenging ways to work with my unique way of being.

Instead of getting stuck in the diagnosis trap; yet another way to label and categorise beautifully diverse beings that we humans are; we have been working together in therapy to understand my unique manifestations of social non-conformity, inconsistent behaviour patterns and eclectic tastes.I have been reaching out to groups and circles that value and support neurodivergence, that value and support the unique experiences that each of us have been through, to come to the point where our lives now intersect.

There are those who struggle with too much eye contact, and those who struggle with too little. There are those who have been unsupported for not being “divergent enough”, as though struggle needs to be visible to an outsider, or else it is not valid. Many, many neurodivergent people have struggled with depression and anxiety, not because of their neurotypes, but because it is so difficult to adjust to the expectations of a neurotypical world with its rigid framework.

I have often wondered whether it is a privilege to acknowledge and work with my neurodivergence. There are so many people struggling with basic needs. Do I then belong to the elite members of society who have the time, space and support to have made peace with neurodivergence? Then I remember the wise words of my therapist - “what is the responsibility of the collective in taking care of us?” 

They said this in a conversation where I spoke much of my personal responsibility and privilege, and they reminded me that we also live in a world where exploitative systems are in power, and collective care is imbalanced. We are dismantling these systems and disentangling the destruction they have caused slowly, but it is important to remember that self-care is not a privilege; it’s a basic human need. Loving oneself is essential to live a fulfilled life, to make meaningful contributions to social systems, to find creative transformations for the challenging times we find ourselves in today.

And so I love myself some more with a deep soothing breath and dream. I dream of a world where diversity is welcomed and celebrated. A world where wanting a quiet atmosphere doesn’t invoke the label of “grandma”. A world where institutions and individuals alike can appreciate the contexts that each of us come from and offer unique, creative solutions on a case-by-case basis.

Find yourself scattered? Find a symbiotic organiser and make a dynamic team! Need things to be specifically organised? Find a creative who would benefit from your management! Reading overwhelms you? Find someone to read things aloud to you! Overwhelmed by videos? Find someone to explain the gist or get you a transcript.

I have mentioned some very superficial engagements to exemplify that there is a symbiosis for every kind of divergence. I want to assert here that the responsibility of finding these symbioses does not lie on neurodivergent individuals, but on the community as a whole. Just as Nature finds ways to nurture different beings within an ecosystem, the answer is in loving community and creative solutions. Instead of blaming individuals; ourselves and each other; for not being good enough, smart enough, well enough, in a world that was never meant to be linear, may we find ways to a different, more natural world.

May we find a world where we are not defeated into homogeneity by social pretence. Instead, may we create a colourful world where our unique gifts, generated by our unique traumas, are remembered, processed and celebrated - not because we are privileged, but because each of us deserves to thrive and flourish. May we create a world where we acknowledge and appreciate that each of us deserves love; most of all, from ourselves. 

Disability Justice
Human Rights
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