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Chapter 9: The Suit of Armor

Envision a lifetime dedicated to accommodating the needs and desires of others. It sounds utterly draining, doesn't it? Yet, that was the reality for this woman, who was diagnosed with autism later in life. At one point, I believed I was simply a people pleaser, but that wasn't entirely accurate. My constant accommodation was driven by a deep-rooted desire to avoid feeling like an outsider, constantly striving to fit in with those around me.

The perpetual act of self-judgment has eternally been a solitary journey. Quite recently, an astute observer commented, "You truly are your own toughest critic, aren't you?" Ah, yes, their observation rang true. Deep within me resides an unyielding and critical voice—a pesky little 12-year-old—who persistently impels me to conform and "fit in." To be fair, I cannot cast blame upon her, as she stumbled upon this self-protective mechanism in response to ceaseless bullying. These days, I devote ample time to comforting this young girl, attentively tending to her needs and lending a compassionate ear.

In my youthful years, I possessed a keen awareness of my dissimilarities, fully comprehending that such divergence often bred contempt among my peers. Consequently, I embarked on a grand mission to stifle my uniqueness and seamlessly assimilate with the crowd. It was no ordinary mask I adorned; rather, it felt as though I enveloped myself in a robust suit of armor, shielding me from the piercing judgment and relentless scrutiny that invariably accompanied being different.

When we internalize our differences, an unfortunate consequence unfolds: we begin to direct them inward, ultimately transforming into our own worst adversaries. This is precisely what occurred in my case. I allowed my divergences to consume me, leading to self-criticism and self-sabotage, effectively becoming the source of my own greatest challenges.

As I matured, the weight of self-criticism grew unbearable, with the persistent inner voice constantly reminding me that I fell short of being good enough. In an attempt to silence that voice, I turned to alcohol, discovering that it provided temporary respite from the various social challenges I encountered. It seemed like a ticket to the "cool kids club" – a way to navigate small talk effortlessly and alleviate the overwhelming sensory overload. It appeared to be the perfect solution to my problems.

For a considerable period, alcohol served as a coping mechanism, until its grip on my life became too strong. Recognizing the need for a healthier path, I embarked on a journey of recovery. It was during this process that I began to remove the mask, even before discovering my autism. Through trauma recovery, I acquired invaluable skills applicable to anyone's life. These skills encompass establishing boundaries, confidently saying no, identifying emotions, advocating for oneself, understanding personal values, setting realistic goals, improving communication, building relationships, and a multitude of other vital abilities.

Despite becoming adept at these skills, they didn't yield the outcomes I had anticipated. Instead of bringing me closer to my ultimate goal of belonging, it seemed to slip further away. I started encountering familiar behaviors from others, reminiscent of experiences I had as a child. Especially women, would roll their eyes at me and interrupt me in group settings. It felt as though I unintentionally irritated people, but I couldn't comprehend why. I kept hearing that connection was the antidote to addiction, yet I struggled to connect with most of these individuals, and the reason behind this eluded me.

Fortunately, I am blessed to have a circle of incredible individuals in my life who wholeheartedly support my journey of self-discovery. They have been there for me, helping me get back on my feet whenever I stumbled. It was through the accumulation of subtle and not-so-subtle encounters with exclusion and ostracization that my friend Liv, who is also autistic, recognizing these patterns, raised the possibility that I might be autistic. Their insight opened up a new path of understanding and self-reflection for me.

I vividly recall several instances when I tearfully confided in my partner about my persistent feelings of not belonging in various situations. In a moment of frustration, he uttered the words, "Maybe it's not them, maybe it's you." Although he didn't intend to be cruel, those words triggered a wave of self-pity within me. However, as I emerged from that emotional spiral, I engaged in profound introspection, contemplating his words alongside the insights shared by my friend Liv. This introspection led me to embark on a journey of delving deep into the realm of autism, venturing down a new captivating rabbit hole of self-discovery.

Indeed, it is a realization that I am autistic, and yet, it is also an acknowledgment that the way others treat me plays a significant role in the turmoil I often face. Unveiling my true self and experiencing the consequences of social exclusion, without the necessary tools and understanding to navigate it all, proved to be an immensely challenging undertaking.

Now that I comprehend the reasons behind the way people treat me, it doesn't alleviate the pain—it simply grants me insight into the anguish of being a target of prejudice. Let me assure you, it is excruciatingly painful, quite possibly the most profound pain I have ever encountered in my life. To comprehend that individuals despise me for who I am and how I exist is utterly disheartening.

During my attempts to have my needs acknowledged and fulfilled in the work environment, I faced severe retaliation and devastating humiliation. Throughout my life, I had continuously accommodated the desires of others, but when I finally mustered the courage to assert myself and express the need for something different, I encountered complete exclusion. It was a profound disappointment to realize that speaking up for myself led to such negative consequences, undermining my sense of belonging and leaving me feeling isolated.

Oh, the bitter disillusionment lies in the fact that those individuals involved appear utterly impervious to comprehending the profound impact of their actions, the wounds they inflict, and the depths of my distress. They lack any semblance of understanding regarding the intricate experience of being neurodivergent, and what's more, they demonstrate a complete disregard for acquiring such understanding. The ironic twist is that they, the supposed authorities on behavioral health, remain blissfully ignorant of the very empathy and insight one would expect from their esteemed position.

I'm sharing this story not in search of any pity or sympathy, but purely because I possess the marvelous ability to do so. It's an absolute imperative that we engage in some serious workplace inclusion, as it's high time we put an end to all the prejudice and animosity hurled at our dear autistic comrades. And here's a delightful thought: if we dare utter those magical words about needing something different in our work environment, the finest course of action would be to actually believe us and, oh my stars, implement the change. How simply marvelous that would be!

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