Quirk Monster #20: The ghosts of Pre diagnosis life part 2 — internalised ableism and shame
Trigger Warning: Ableism, self harm, suicide
I’ve been called a lot of names over the years. ‘Weird’, ‘cold’, ‘bad person’, ‘not normal’, ‘loser’, ‘b*tch’ and so many more. When they said I was a monster, I believed them. No matter what I said, wore, did, felt, I never quite measured up and I spent the first 27 or so years of my life desperate to prove them wrong. I believed what I was being told. I genuinely believed I wasn’t good enough and prediagnosis-me dedicated enormous amounts of time to learning how to be ‘normal’. How to fit in. How to be perfect.
Growing up, I hated being different. I saw it as a defect and I started masking as soon as I realised I wasn’t like the other kids. I despised myself. Don’t Let Me Get Me was my theme song. I’ve spent most of my life so far drowning in self-hate.
As a child, I’d read books that I saw the popular kids reading but didn’t necessarily enjoy. I’d watch TV shows that honestly bored me so I could talk about it at school and maybe gain a friend. I’d pick arguments with teachers and other kids because it made me feel less invisible. I thought being seen would make me popular. All it did was paint a much larger target on my face.
When I was bullied I hid it. I’d brush it off and cry in my room at home. I learned the hard way that teachers, parents and adult family members are pretty much useless when it comes to stopping kids from bullying other kids — and are just as capable of it themselves. As a teenager, I’d pour over magazines I didn’t enjoy reading, absorbing every tiny detail of how to behave, think, feel, wear my hair and dress. Anytime a new clothing or accessory trend hit the shelves, I had to have it. I had to be out in front of it. I thought that it would help me belong. I genuinely love fashion and I was always very good at imitating what the ‘cool’ kids wore with what was in my wardrobe. Maybe that’s one positive thing to come out of my long term masking — I’m damn good at styling myself. Thankfully, now it’s a form of authentic self-expression and I do it for me and me alone.
My obsession with fitting in only got worse as I got older. My hatred of my differences intensified and in my final three years of school, I engaged in self harm and multiple suicide attempts. I took my rage at myself out on myself. I hated being different so much that I didn’t want to live anymore. Every time I made a social mistake, I would punish myself.
When I was 17, I was told that I wasn’t intelligent enough to attend university. I believed this person and focussed my efforts on vocational training and retail jobs. There’s nothing wrong with these things, they just weren’t what I wanted and I only did it because I thought it was what was expected of me. I didn’t allow myself to dream bigger or wider because I bought into the lie that it was unattainable and unacceptable to those I was dying to please.
Once I started working, I suddenly had resources to buy better clothes, better makeup and much nicer handbags. I wore the things I thought you were ‘supposed’ to wear. I was afraid to wear red lipstick or blue eyeshadow. I shuddered at the thought of being seen carrying a handbag that wasn’t branded or wearing a dress that wasn’t new. I was terrified of what people would think of me and what they might say or do so I pushed for what I thought perfection looked like so they couldn't fault me.
I would hide my taste in music from other people, eat foods I hated, pursue goals that meant absolutely nothing to me and befriend people I couldn’t stand. I was going through the motions of what I thought ‘normal’ people did.
I could never just say I liked someone or something, I always had to justify it. I was afraid to make ‘unpopular’ choices. I remember justifying my admiration for Lady Gaga on a forum by prefacing it with a putdown of her outfits. I’m disgusted with myself for doing that. I want to be her when I grow up. She’s kind, inclusive, talented in so many ways, authentic and makes people like me feel seen and valued — not that I owe anyone an explanation. I think everyone works to fit in to an extent, but I took it so far that I crafted a separate identity for myself and I don’t even know who she was. The Ashlea I created was a reflection of what I thought the world wanted me to be. She was the minimum standard of what I thought it would take to be loved and accepted.
She was the personification of internalised ableism and shame.
Eventually I reached a point in my life where I was sick of pretending and permitted myself to entertain the possibility that maybe being different wasn’t so bad. I learned how to love myself and this became a pathway to me seeking my autism diagnosis.
The level of masking and self-loathing I engaged in all those years breaks my heart, but all I can do now is focus on moving forward. I now live my life for me and I don’t give a shit what other people think.
I no longer accept the narrative that I am broken and need to change to be more like everyone else. I call out ableism and no longer stay silent when being gaslit or bullied. I see these people for exactly who and what they are.
I fight like hell for the safety and acceptance of autistic people to just be themselves because I know how it feels to live someone else’s life and it nearly cost me everything.
This short article is a lived experience example shared from my life to help you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be autistic. I am just one autistic person in a really big world. No two of us are exactly alike. I can only speak for myself and to my own experiences. If you want to know what other autistic people think — and you should — look them up, talk to them and read their work too. We all have our own voices and this is only mine. This article is part of a mini content series I publish to LinkedIn when I can. You can view the other articles in this series via my LinkedIn profile.