Mental illness is stigmatized in this culture. There’s no denying that. Whether it’s a developmental disability you were born with, like autism, or one you acquired later on in life, like OCD and PTSD (I have all three) nobody likes admitting that they have a mental disability. It gives strangers, acquaintances, and friends alike the chance to offer you nasty “advice” masquerading as concern for you well-being. It’s almost as if there’s this universal presumption at play that people with mental illnesses cannot manage their own lives, and need a neurotypical to butt in and tell them just what they need.
So even though I am a semi-famous local autism speaker, and I have a good reputation among the mental health professionals in my town, I rarely disclose my disabilities when I’m out among new acquaintances unless someone asks, or recognizes me or my name from my work. I also will talk about it on various websites, but only when it’s particularly relevant to the subject matter. The PTSD is especially difficult for me to talk about it, because unlike my autism and my OCD, I have had a really difficult time “owning” it, and recognizing how I can best work with it within my life. How does one learn to work with nightmares, with horrible moments of being triggered into a panic attack, with losing the ability to breathe, to speak, with feeling so terrorized at seemingly random moments you worry you might literally die of fright? It’s all so new to me, too. Maybe in ten, fifteen years, I’ll be able to talk about my experiences with PTSD without crying, without bringing up horrible flashbacks.
In the meantime though, I’ve been biting my tongue when I get triggered, and a lot of people who know me mistakenly assume that when I get shaken up, it’s because of my autism, and just let me self-soothe, and don’t make a big deal out of it and embarrass me. Strangers though, are less forgiving, and I’ve heard everything from “What’s wrong with her?” to “What the hell’s going on, why did you bring a spazzing retard here?” When I try to engage people in a conversation to stop triggering me, or explain the triggers, it’s worse though. It’s so difficult for me to explain it, between my discomfort with talking about my PTSD and the fearful inner turmoil that surfaces from the triggers. I rarely get the chance to give the full picture. So people respond in less-than-kind ways, either when I am explaining, or when they see me being triggered. My least favourite one? “You need to see a psychiatrist!”
That’s a seriously loaded statement. It has taken me a long time to figure out why that statement, above all others, puts me in such pain and anguish. I think it’s because they assume, based on one experience where I got overwhelmed, that I cannot handle what goes on in my own brain. Everyone gets overloaded sometimes. I do more often than others because, quite frankly, I’ve experienced painful things other people haven’t, and because my neurotype handles it differently. But it is precisely because of my neurotype that a psychiatrist wouldn’t be of much use. With a few golden exceptions, I don’t trust many autism specialists. They come into the office with their own ideas about autism, and it’s very difficult to force them out of it. Many of them will interpret my experiences to fit their own pre-set viewpoints, and won’t be able to discuss the intersections of my disabilities. A regular psychiatrist usually doesn’t have much of an idea of how autism manifests either, in my experience, but I strangely prefer them because they’re easier to convince to abandon stereotypes than the specialists.
I’ve lived with this PTSD for six years now. Since that time, I’ve found and treasured safe spaces on blogs, engaged with other people who live with PTSD with different experiences from my own, and learned to discover my sexuality, which I was almost certain PTSD had gotten a hold of too. I don’t need another person telling me that I’m crazy or that I need someone else to explain why X happens when I experience Y. What I need from people is their understanding, and their willingness to put aside the idea that people with mental disabilities are powerless, and need their almighty neurotypical “objective” outlook in order to get better. Neurotypicals: If you were to live one day as us, under the crushing power of disablism, of misunderstanding and cruelty, and the unexpected twists and turns of our own minds, you would see we’re moving mountains while you play in the sandbox.