Monday, September 24, 2012

Healing

Kate
 
When I was a fifteen years old, my psychiatrist told me that in ten years' time, there would be a machine that would scan my brain and tell the doctors exactly what medicine to give me to make me normal, to make me whole.

That was thirteen years ago, and though I have not yet heard of any such machine, I've realized that I never needed it. What I needed was acceptance. What I needed was love. These are the things that made me realize that I had, in fact, been whole all along.

Sometimes, I feel as if my life were a long, cold winter, and that spring took a very long time coming. Like many autistic adults, I did not have an easy time of it growing up. Even in adulthood, I struggled with loneliness, employment, and a host of other issues. Though I was almost unaware of it starting, a thaw was coming; the air growing warmer around me. I was finding myself, and I was finding myself healing.

Healing myself does not mean ‘fixing’ or ‘curing’ my autism. I spent a lifetime trying to do that, and although I can now make small talk and eye contact with strangers, I still cannot hide who I am from those who know me well.  For years, I hated myself for the mistakes I made. I knew that everything that went wrong was my fault, and I accepted without protesting whatever pain and abuse came my way. I thought I had it coming, that it was my fault for still being autistic.

Slowly, though, things started changing. I found a wonderful therapist who validated me as a person and  told me that the way people treated me was not okay. I learned about autism and what it meant. I learned that just because other people do not have my same experiences, it does not make my experiences invalid. When I hear things that nobody else can hear, it does not mean that I am crazy. It means that I have sensory processing disorder. Who knew?

I am lucky enough to live in a part of the country with a very active local Asperger’s group as well as a nearby chapter of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. And I will fully admit, that when I first met ASAN members who said that they were autistic and proud of it, I thought that they were crazy. How could you be proud of something that was so bad? But the people there did not judge me, they knew that I had to come to a place of acceptance on my own, and they knew that healing would take time.

Healing is giving yourself that time. It is acknowledging that you are in pain, and the pain hurts like hell, but at some point in the future the pain will pass. It is telling yourself that you do not need a magic machine, but there is no shame in taking help (or medication) when needed. Healing is doing quite a lot of hard work on your own, just to get to the place where you can accept yourself.

Healing is realizing that you can be both broken and whole. You can be autistic and dislike parts of it, even as you embrace your whole self with all its’ flaws. You have a lifetime of learning ahead of you, and accepting yourself does not mean that you will never change, grow, or find new tricks to make life smoother. You will continue to both defy stereotypes and embrace them. You will stim in the middle of a dance party. You will have days when you are verbal, days when you are not. Being autistic is to be in a liminal state; healing is learning to live with the liminality around you.

Healing is not letting yourself be taken in by charlatans or those promising a cure. In college and high school, I was an easy recruit for evangelical Christian groups, but they were quick to dismiss me when it became clear that I really found that whole Jesus/deity in the sky thing to be a load of bunk. In my twenties, however, I discovered a religion where it is perfectly okay to be an atheist. It is perfectly okay to be a humanist. It is perfectly okay to be whatever you are, as long as you treat others kindly and fairly. Embracing Unitarian Universalism has done more for my healing than anything else. It has given me a community where there truly is unconditional love, although it took me a long time before I really believed them.

Healing sometimes means distancing yourself from people who do not accept you as you are, and who do not love you and support you unconditionally. Sometimes, these people are family members, and it can be very hard at the holidays when everyone is celebrating and you have chosen not to be there. But if every encounter with that person makes you feel unworthy, if they tell you that if you really tried, you wouldn’t be autistic, then being around them is not good for your physical or psychological health.

Healing is forgiving. It is acknowledging that the people who harmed you did not usually do so maliciously. It can be very easy to lay the blame on others, when in fact the blame should go to no one. Anger about the past is useless, as nothing can be done about it. If we think about our dark times, it should only be to warn others against them and to celebrate how far we have come. Throughout your life people may wrong you, and it will not be your fault.

Healing is forgiving yourself. We all make mistakes, and we are all put into situations which are too hard for us to bear. Our past behaviors were not meant maliciously, and those who continue to think so are not healthy for us to be around. We will make mistakes in the future, and we must acknowledge that it is okay to do so, and it is okay to forgive yourself. If you can truly forgive yourself, then you can forgive others as well.

Healing is freedom. Freedom to design your sensory environment perfectly, to choose where you work, where you live, what you eat. It is being in charge of your own self. It is realizing that there is absolutely nothing wrong with spending hours, or even days, deep in the throes of your latest obsession, as long as your life is still getting lived. It is counting your spoons and deciding if going to a social event is worth it, and going to bed early on New Years Eve because you are tired, and there is nothing bad about that. There is nothing bad about you.

Healing is experiences. It's making new memories that you can store in your excellent brain. It is cherishing every moment. It is closing your eyes and singing. It is having people understand your odd quirks and mannerisms, and respecting your knowledge about yourself. It's funny that when you know that you can have a total meltdown, and it will be all okay, you find yourself having fewer meltdowns.

One evening this July, as I sat with friends around the dinner table at a vacation cabin, I realized that I had not had a ‘break’ from being around people all day. Usually, social events leave me so exhausted I have to leave after a couple of hours. But the friends I was with were so open and accepting of me that the tension and anxiety I am constantly carrying had managed to leave. I had relaxed -- in the presence of other people -- for quite possibly the first time in my life. I was healing, and damn, but it felt good.

It is a lot of work to vanquish the demons of your past. When you have internalized a lifetime’s worth of insults and abuse, realizing that you deserve to be treated fairly and respectfully means that your entire worldview will need to change. And when people begin to treat you the way you deserve to be treated, you will become keenly aware of your need to change your view: Because if these people accept me and think that I am worthy of their love, then why do I not think I am worthy of my own love?

Healing is having the courage to love again, even when you have been hurt, even when you know that you will be hurt again. It is acknowledging this radical, exuberant, dizzying idea that you are worthy of your own and other people’s love. What a fantastic concept- I am worthy of my love. I am worthy of yours. You are worthy of this love, just as you are.

Love; the promise of it, the certainty of it, is at the heart of all the healing you will do. Love makes your soul feel weightless, as the pain is lifted and you feel the sunlight on your face. Spring has sprung; summer is coming, summer is here.

Healing has come.