This entry comes from Elizabeth Rodney, originally written when the site was stood up in March. You can find her on Twitter. Thanks, Elizabeth!
My introduction to the Neurodivergent community was a long time coming.
My name is Elizabeth Roderick. I’m forty years old, a single mom, an author of five published novels and a myriad of others I’m still working on. I currently live in a tiny house on a ten-acre farm, where I’m working toward subsistence sustainability. I am bipolar. I am autistic. I have PTSD.
When I was a kid, autism wasn’t a diagnosis, so I was just considered a socially-dysfunctional weirdo and left mostly to my own devices without the dog-training of ABA or other therapies. At home my screaming meltdowns and rigid adherence to routine were punished or ignored, as my parents felt the situation called for. Academically, I excelled, especially in language arts and science. Some teachers didn’t like me because I was prone to what they probably thought were non-sequitur outbursts and distracting questions, but others recognized my strengths. I was skipped over second grade because of my reading skills. This only caused me more problems, ultimately, because my social development was even further behind my peers than it would have been.
I was badly bullied. The trauma and self-esteem issues that developed in response to it made me a target for physical, sexual, and emotional abuse later as a young teen, and into my adult life. Suffering from PTSD from this, and dealing with the onset of bipolar disorder, I started to have psychotic episodes and panic attacks when I was 14 or 15.
I turned to heroin in my late teens to help me with my symptoms, and this landed me in prison in my early 20s on a delivery charge. Prison was, rather ironically, the place where I got a sort of crash course in social “development”. I got really good at masking my neurodivergent traits and symptoms, because I saw what happened to people who didn’t. It wasn’t pretty.
I knew all about ableism by that time, having suffered its effects on a daily basis. But I still didn’t know what ableism was. I thought I deserved harsh treatment for my behavior. I believed, as my mother and so many others had told me or implied, that mental illness and neurodivergent traits were weakness and lack of character. Like nearly everyone in society, I had internalized the idea that neurodivergent and mentally ill people were bad and dangerous and needed to be sedated and separated from society.
So, I masked, and when I was in a bad way, I would try to isolate. I wasn’t entirely successful. Mental illness and ableism continued to cause a mile-wide path of destruction through my life. Others noticed it. Some even tried to help me. But ableism is a powerful force, especially when internalized: the help they offered was often condescending or ineffectual, or I refused it due to the continued belief that to admit neurodiversity was to admit I was a lesser human being.
I was in my mid- 30s before it began to dawn on me that my neurodivergence wasn’t my fault, and that I shouldn’t have to struggle so much and internalize it to the point of self-destruction. It was a few years after that before I realized that neurodivergence can actually be a positive thing.
In 2013, I moved to California with my husband of seven years, who had gotten a tenure-track job at a local college. The stress of leaving my family and friends, and dealing with a very complex transition, sent me into a manic state.
I wrote obsessively, eighteen hours a day, finishing a full-length novel every six to eight weeks. I went on road trips to visit the places that appeared in my novels, and joined five different writing groups. I rarely talked about anything besides writing. This caused stress with my husband, who thought it was unhealthy. He pushed me to get a job instead, though we didn’t need the money.
But I didn’t want an outside job. I’d been a paralegal for fifteen years, and the amount of masking I’d had to do to function in that environment had been awful. It caused meltdowns and breakdowns. I was snippy with my friends and family outside of work because of stress, and rarely kept a job for more than a year, always believing that if I could just find the right firm to work for, I’d be happier.
I did look for a job, just to make my husband happy, but I couldn’t find steady work for reasons unconnected with my neurodivergence; the job market in that area was incredibly crowded and wages impossibly low. My husband still blamed and berated me for my inability to find a job. He called me immature and lazy, despite the fact I kept the house immaculately clean, made elaborate dinners, kept a garden and chickens, and did home renovations on my own.
I was happier than I’d ever been, however, even as my marriage disintegrated out from under me. I was finally doing the thing I was made to do: write full-time. It was something that accommodated my neurodivergence perfectly. No more clients or bosses getting livid with me because of my atypical communication skills. No more hiding in the bathroom having meltdowns at work. And I could keep my natural schedule, which involves working during the very early mornings.
It made me feel whole, like I had something to offer to society by the expression, rather than the suppression, of myself.
It was early in 2015, and I was living in the tiny, dusty town of Shandon, California: an outpost of around 400 full-time residents, with nary a gas station nor stoplight. I was busy writing my series The Other Place, which was my attempt to finally deal, through prose, with my history of abuse, addiction, and mental illness.
The second book in the series has a schizophrenic main character. When I’d first started to have psychotic breaks, I’d thought I was schizophrenic. That fear still lurked in my gullet, infected by ableism, and I wanted to show myself and the world that schizophrenia isn’t as scary as people think. Psychosis is a part of a normal mental process for some people, and people like me are still worthwhile and beautiful, capable of happiness and healthy relationships.
I didn’t know the words neurodiversity or neurodivergence yet, but I was finally beginning to understand the concept.
During this time, I met Phoenix. He approached me in the park one day: a tall, handsome man with a shy smile, who talked to me like we’d known each other our whole lives. He didn’t bother with the pointless, boring small-talk most people make me suffer through in an attempt to find a connection. He just connected.
He talked about my shoes and his workout routine, in a beautiful stream of consciousness glittering with surreal metaphors and brilliant observations. He was schizophrenic, and one of the best people I’d ever met. I fell in love with him, bipolar-style: immediately, totally, and obsessively, despite the fact he was over fifteen years younger than I.
I couldn’t stay away from him. We spent long hours picking wildflowers and getting drunk in the desert. We’d wander off on walks and not be able to make it home by dark, having to call my husband to come pick us up. It was the last nail in my marriage’s coffin.
I still think it was worth it.
One day not long after we met, Phoenix and I were sitting on the floor of the local library, looking at cookbooks. “Why do people worship cows, as opposed to worshipping God?” he asked, as he flipped through a book of vegan desserts. “Cows are cows. Why do you hate me? Is it because I’m not a cow?”
I blinked at him. I was vegetarian, and I’d later discover that vegetarian and veganism were a sort of trigger for him, but at the moment I was still learning him and getting the lay of his mind. “I don’t hate you, Phoenix.”
“You hate me because I eat cows, and you worship cows. But I don’t have a choice, because I have to live on dollar store food.”
The conversation went on like that for a little while, with Phoenix talking what most people would think of as word salad, but it made perfect sense to me: I’d learned to listen to his meanings and feelings, and not his words, when he got in this mood. We weren’t being loud or disruptive. It wasn’t a heated conversation. The only person within earshot was the librarian, who I soon realized was watching us with growing fury and mistrust.
I knew that look. I knew what was coming. I’d been through it so often before.
“You guys need to leave,” she said, jabbing her finger toward the exit.
Phoenix stood up without complaint and ambled toward the door, twirling and dancing the way he usually did. This sort of censure and rejection was obviously common in his life. I realized it had been common in my life, too: I was constantly shut out because my mind worked differently than most people’s. I’d always blamed myself for it, and told myself that I needed to learn to be normal in order to deserve acceptance. I’d painstakingly tried to memorize neurotypical ways of interacting, and to recognize when I was “doing it wrong” so I could correct my own behavior.
But Phoenix and I hadn’t been doing anything wrong. We’d just been having a conversation, and a more interesting one than this shitty librarian was probably even capable of.
I paused at the door and turned back to the tight-lipped librarian. “It’s not right that you kick us out. We weren’t doing anything wrong. He’s schizophrenic, and he loves this library. It makes him happy and helps him.”
Fear sparked in her eyes when I said schizophrenic, and I didn’t want to sit around to see her reaction. I turned to Phoenix, who was watching me with a bemused smirk. “Let’s go.”
We went to the park to climb trees and throw walnut shells at one another, and had a great time despite that ableist bitch. But that incident has never left my mind.
It was the first time that I stood up for myself, and recognized that I had every bit as much a right existence and self-expression as anyone else. At that time, I didn’t know that neurotypical people posed more of a threat, statistically, to neurodivergent people than we to them. But I’d finally realized that we are valuable human beings.
It took me loving Phoenix to learn how to love myself.
In the years we were together, Phoenix and I got kicked out more places than I can count for no legitimate reason. More than once, Phoenix was beaten (one time into a coma that lasted 3 days), just for talking in his rambling stream-of-consciousness. He was arrested for the crime of being schizophrenic in his own front yard (he was yelling at me—calling me a cow worshipper and singing American Woman at the top of his lungs—and the neighbors thought I was in danger. I wasn’t. I told the cops that when they arrived. But Phoenix then asked the policemen if they were cow worshippers, and, well…apparently that’s a crime in America).
Phoenix endured constant ableism, at times of the life-threatening variety. It had a huge effect on his self-esteem. He’s one of the most beautiful people I’ll ever know, and yet the world constantly tells him you’re worthless. You’re scary. You’re not welcome. Society thinks this abject ableism is correct. People think they’re protecting themselves by beating us into a coma when we’re trying to have a friendly conversation.
It isn’t YOU who need protecting from US. WE are the ones who need protected from YOU.
I had to move away from Phoenix when my husband finally kicked me out for good, and we haven’t yet found a way to live together comfortably, though part of me still hopes.
I’ve been through a lot of hard times since leaving California, but I finally got into treatment for my PTSD and other debilitating symptoms, like suicidal depression and anxiety. I’m learning to accept myself for who I am, and how to be happy. And I will never stop fighting until every neurodivergent person is happy and accepted for who they are, until we’re all welcomed into society for the beauty and wisdom that only we, as neurodivergent people, can offer.
Elizabeth Roderick is a full-time author, editor, and small-house homesteader. You can find her on TalesFromPurgatory.com