My 9-Year Authenticity Mission Led to an Autism Diagnosis

Plus, tips for your own life-changing authenticity mission.

Originally published in the Medium publication, The Ascent. If you’re a member over there, I sure appreciate claps as that’s how we’re paid. (You can do 50!)

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

The journey to my summer of 2020 autism diagnosis — at 37 years old — was a lifelong one with a jillion ingredients, but my 9-year authenticity mission was certainly a crucial one.

It started one evening in early 2012, the night I realized I didn’t know who I was anymore.

I’d spent my twenties trying to find my people, my place in society — and after far too many job changes, ill-fated relationships, and moves, I’d come up short. I still had no idea where I fit, and worse, all that external striving had led to feeling like I didn’t even know who I was anymore.

I was 29-years-old; confused, broke, 40 pounds overweight, isolated, lonely, burnt out, and just completely lost.

I knew I had to find my way back to myself. But how?

Luckily, like many late-diagnosed autistic people, I’d spent the vast majority of my college credits trying to figure out the human condition, taking every sociology, psychology, and philosophy class that I could.

Brené Brown rocked my world with quotes like, “If you trade your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.”

In one called Eastern Philosophy, I was taught how to meditate, and why I ought to. I fell in love with it immediately but my practice was sporadic at best, as I was too focused on the external world to really focus on my inner one.

Additionally, my insides didn’t really match my outside, and this fraudulence was all I could think about when I tried to convince my mind to sit still in meditation. It was painful.

However, that class also introduced me to mindfulness, which can be done whilst also doing life-stuff, so I had a much easier time keeping it up.

Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash

That decade of consciously observing my headspace before realizing I was lost created at least a semi-awareness of my mind’s contents; so I knew that I spent most of my enjoyable thoughts contemplating the nature of reality, just philosophizing my lil’ brain and heart out.

It meant the world to me, but the few times I’d tried bringing these ideas up — ideas that examine our society, reflect on spirituality, and figure out how to live a soul-satisfying life — they usually resulted in a comment on my strangeness, a giggle, or a rolled eye.

And the rest of my thoughts, well, they were heavy on the grieving, pining, distressed, and self-effacing.

It wasn’t a great time to be me.

But, externally, I did my best to keep the “too weird” musings and endless sad thoughts to myself.

When I socialized, which was less and less by the year; I had a tendency to engage by asking questions and agreeing.

Talking about myself brought pressure because people very often reacted differently than expected, plus the sad stuff had a way of seeping out. Like many autistic people who mask their traits, I commonly felt like I didn’t have much to contribute, or that it wasn’t wanted.

Because I was using these social occasions, which were usually alcohol-centered, in such a deflective and people-pleasing manner — I usually felt like less after them.

Despite having genuinely laughed, enjoyed listening, even talked some story myself; I was usually left obsessing about what errant looks and comments had meant, wondering why I never felt seen, and if anyone else really did. (Do they?)

My Outer World Falls Away

Photo by Taha Sas on Unsplash

So, after that 2011 revelation, having finally admitted to myself that I was lost, I sat down on my living room floor and meditated.

And, though my practice wasn’t daily, I kept meditating.

Additionally, I started changing the way I approached the internet, heading straight for personal development articles. That’s how I discovered authenticity maven, Brené Brown.

She rocked my world with quotes like, “If you trade your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.”

It was so spot-on, it felt like a personal attack.

After decades of wondering what my problem was, I had found my problem, at last — I wasn’t behaving authentically, and it was eating me alive.

My life got even more tumultuous after that, so the next decade or so would be a complete and total shitshow; but my mission co-occuring helped ensure that it was a highly centering one.

The primary cause of the shitshow, though there were many, was a congenital B12 deficiency that’d been prolonged by a homozygous MTHFR mutation; I’d nearly die from it in late 2015, with the doctor saying, “132 pg/mL is extremely low, you’d have been paralyzed in months and dead within a year.”

It’s been said that travel can help uncover who we really are by removing our own society’s influences; well, I didn’t go far, but my homeless experience did that for me.

The three years between starting my authenticity mission and getting that diagnosis were filled with ever-growing mysterious symptoms, moving too many times, and much professional chaos — however, this didn’t impede my authenticity mission, I kept right on at it.

The most important change I made was no longer having my “after-work beer(s),” something I’d presumed was normal from watching TV.

Instead of spending my nights zoned out, I started to tune in.

I used my time after work to start writing again, publishing personal essays on sites like MindBodyGreenTinyBuddhaand Elephant Journal; as well as starting a blog largely about how to apply spirituality to messy ol’ life.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Additionally, I started a happy hour club for spiritual people; which brought much enlightening conversation, memories with many lovely people, and a great friend that I still have today.

All of these centering activities set me up to emotionally survive the experience I’d recently started on that diagnostic day: living a near-completely solitary life — just me, in my isolated apartment, alone with my mind. All. The. Time.

I’d leave weekly for a doctor/grocery trip, made possible by a Medicaid ride service; but other than that and maybe 10 precious visits spent with loved ones, I was all alone — for 22 months.

If I’d gone straight from that lost evening to such an isolated life, I wouldn’t have been able to survive the darkness that inhabited the ignored corners in the back of my mind. (Honestly, it nearly killed me anyway.)

But since I was a couple of years into working on being a more whole me, that unwanted isolation also presented a unique opportunity — I would truly see who I was without the ever-present influence of other people.

At first, I’ll admit that I just refixed my excessive other-orientedness to Facebook; a junkie looking for any kind of social fix, any shot at connection, at feeling understood.

But that’s not really what Facebook is for.

It became depressing, maybe it’d always been that way and I hadn’t noticed, but watching my world go on without me definitely wasn’t helping, so I stopped, and haven’t let myself idly scroll there for close to five years. While I know and care about those people, so miss knowing what’s going on with them; it’s really helped sort out my issues around insecurity, which are directly related to feeling like it’s safe to act authentically.

Of course, it was still a tremendously difficult time, and I had many personal relationship issues and related insecurities that whirled around in my head — but at least I wasn’t persistently feeding them new content.

And, eventually, I got to a place of feeling really, truly, centered.

I was insanely stressed trying to get marketing clients from my sickbed in order to pay bills, plus all the health chaos, so this experience was not at all expected.

This inner calm was actually so unfamiliar that it was a bit jarring.

I’d just gotten out of a long meditative bath, and laid down in a sun puddle — and quite suddenly realized I felt just thriving, it was like an energetic peace had been waiting under all my other-oriented mental bullshit and it’d suddenly filled my heart and spread to the rest of me; it was wildly inspiring, it felt like a peace that was ready to bust out bold works of creativity and authenticity.

And it did.

Getting to the Root of the Issue, at Last

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

That feeling, if only sporadic, helped me power through the rest of my time alone in that apartment — and then it helped me survive eviction, three months of being a guest whilst sick AF, and seven months of living in my barely-functional 1993 Camry.

If nearly two years alone is great for an authenticity mission, then losing the societal comfort you’ve always known and falling into abject homelessness is fan-f**king-tastic.

(Don’t get me wrong, I don’t at all recommend it, but it was wildly helpful, nonetheless.)

It’s been said that travel can help uncover who we really are by removing our own society’s influences; well, I didn’t go far, but my homeless experience did that for me.

My society may still have been everywhere I went, but I felt removed from it like I was no longer a member; that detachment hurt, but it also gave me perspective on what really matters to me and helped me release ideas for my life that no longer fit.

My diagnosis has also been a beacon of hope, and a lens for the world that finally makes sense, at last.

I eventually pulled myself out of homelessness (and into sensory-overwhelming roomate-ness), then finally won a disability payment for a couple of years of the (still-ongoing) health crisis, and that combined with paying writing gigs allowed me to get into my own place again, at last.

And it was here, in my lovely little space, that I realized my authenticity problems weren’t just about insecurities and fears, and my people problems weren’t just a result of my messy life — it was here that I’d finally learn I’m autistic.

When I moved in, I was feeling pretty darn good, lifewise. I finally had work I could do with health needs, it was fulfilling, I was finally making survivable money; and, after four loooong and lonely years, my health was manageable enough that I was out trying to make friends regularly, at last.

I was so excited to meet people in my new community as my wholly authentic self, and sans all the unappealing life-chaos…but it didn’t go as well as I’d hoped.

Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash

Even though I was looking for my people in places where I was likely to meet like-minds, and even though I was talking about the common interest at hand, not life-drama — they still looked at me funny after I spoke, like I wasn’t doing it quite right.

They still thought I was hitting on them, or otherwise misread my motivations. They still totally misunderstood the things I said. They still made inaccurate assumptions. And they usually stopped returning my texts after knowing me long enough.

I didn’t know it yet, but my authenticity mission had largely unmasked my autism, so people were reacting to that differentness; plus, now-ineffective-yet-ingrained masking behaviors just confused matters further (still do).

By the time the pandemic started, I was relieved to no longer engage in the heart-wrenching activity of trying to meet people who truly get me.

However, the shocks of 2020 quickly overtook that relief, and the meltdowns that I’d been attributing to physical pain from health issues, went from monthly-ish, to several times a month, even though much of that body-wide pain had dissipated.

The meltdowns continued to increase and by the end of June, they’d taken over my life and neurological health — each one causing hours of being unable to do anything but cry, scream, zone out, pace, or, honestly, self-harm (autistic meltdown norms), and days of intensified symptoms afterward—they are truly terrifying experiences.

Additionally, working on becoming a more whole version of yourself won’t just help boost your joie de vivre, it can lead to you having a better impact on the world, yours, and ours.

I sought answers by looking into the neurology of Highly Sensitive People, something I’d been thinking of as “muggle empath,” and kinda wrote off due to already doing all kinds of spiritual work on owning this sensitivity. But I quickly discovered that there are actually neurological differences, so kept digging and found an article asking if HSP’s were actually representative of the female autism phenotype.

My life flashed before my eyes as I read the article, and it kept on doing so when I moved on more information, my brain suddenly doing its hyper-focus thing — an occasional autistic perk that allows me to work on chosen topics with great speed, for many hours.

And, via the grace of telemedicine and a serendipitous therapist recommendation, I was diagnosed with Level Two autism just a few weeks later.

(My diagnosis experience is not at all typical, I got lucky — as a result of this systemic hurdle, self-diagnosis is widely accepted within the autistic community.)

While it’s been extremely overwhelming (to put it mildly) to learn that I’m actually autistic after nearly four decades of thinking I just sucked at being normal; my diagnosis has also been a beacon of hope, and a lens for the world that finally makes sense, at last.

Additionally, I’ve also been able to join online support groups for autism (and late-diagnosis autism specifically), which has felt miraculous. I log onto those groups and get to read posts that I could have written — it’s uncanny and wonderful.

I’m not a freak. I’m just autistic.

And now I know there are all kinds of (literally) like-minded people out there; I have a word to describe people who think like me, a word that can help me find more of them, and a word that’s helping me get tools so I may get better and actually go meet them.

Without my autism-unmasking authenticity mission, I may have just been a failed neurotypical forever; doomed to have therapists always looking at me quizzically, never providing the answers I so desperately needed.

Regardless of your neurotype, getting real can help you get your answers.

Authenticity can teach you how to can best live by introducing you to yourself, your whole self—and anything else is one shaky foundation to build your life on (trust me).

Bring More Authenticity into Your World

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

Your authenticity mission isn’t likely to result in an autism diagnosis, but it can still help shift your life into one that truly suits you — and you don’t need to almost die, endure years of isolation, nor become homeless to do it.

Score.

Additionally, working on becoming a more whole version of yourself won’t just help boost your joie de vivre, it can lead to you having a better impact on the world, yours, and ours.

When we become more aligned with who we really are, we become more present, more willing to engage, and better able to express ourselves in ways that are helpful — as well as more interested in doing so.

Things might shift a bit, but when they settle, it’ll be somewhere we can better grow.

Tips:

  1. Plan alone time. Years in isolation aren’t necessary for everyone — thank goodness! — but quality solitude is a mandatory step in becoming more authentic.
  2. Pick up a childhood hobby. For me it was writing, maybe for you, it’s horses. Whatever it is, pick it back up and remember what made you love it, even if it doesn’t recatch your fancy it’s likely to inspire something that will.
  3. Stop gossiping. Help rein in the urge to compare by curbing the urge to know and spread others’ business, as well as reconsidering how you experience social media behavior — is it focused on others, or is it focused on what you’d like to bring into your life?
  4. Acquaint yourself with norms in other circles. While it can feel like our personal world is the entire world, “normal” isn’t a freakin’ thing, and reminding ourselves of that helps relieve the pressure to live up to others’ expectations.
  5. Meditative time. Maybe it’s full-on meditation, or maybe it’s a walk in the woods, but get quiet and see what’s really on your mind to connect with your whole you.
  6. Keep reading about it. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here, and learning from other people’s mistakes, detours, and mishaps is a highly efficient way to approach any task — so devour any authenticity and personal development materials that catch your eye.

Best wishes on your journey! There will probably be growing pains and some awkward feelings, but certainly no more awkward than pretending to be less of yourself.

Remember, you need your whole you to thrive — this journey is worth it.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

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