Los Angeles, CA, March 31
My Dear Younger Self,
I’m sorry to tell you, you’ll always be different. You won’t always see it, but you’ll feel it. And others will too. The problem is, there are more of them than there are you. So, you will feel wrong. And you won’t fit in. But it won’t be for lack of trying.
For many more years, you will feel desperate to belong. Because belonging means safety, so your mind will make it happen. You will do subtle things to mimic your peers in the same way that you breathe –automatically. You mostly won’t know that you’re speaking or looking or moving like the Others; you will only know that they like you. A lot. But you won’t take it for granted. In fact, you will be hyper-vigilant about people-pleasing. All of your interests and personal goals will relate to being good, looking good, and doing good for others.
But still something will be missing. You will be the sweetest, prettiest, funniest, most delightful girl in the world. But when you go to the fair or the mall with your mom and your brother, you will see all your friends together, without you.
You also will have middle school “friends” who prank-call your house to call you “ugly” and laugh and hang up. Then in law school your “friends” will say, “you wore makeup for THIS?” You will realize you are always too much or too little, but you won’t stop trying to be perfect.
And when you fall short, it will traumatize you. Each instance of rejection, disappointment, and ridicule by others will live in your throat, indefinitely. And this will change you, just a little bit, every time you hurt. Each pain will be a lesson not to be like you again.
And the people closest to you will pick up on that. Even a relative will call you fake and say, “you’re far from innocent; trust me!” So, you will try harder. You will pray without ceasing. You will accept abuse, and you will radically forgive. You will give away too much money. You will vomit when you make a mistake.
You’ll keep bending ’til you finally break. Hospitalization, meds, and therapy will keep you alive, but they will not fix things. But you will live as a courtesy to your parents and your husband. You refuse to cause them anymore pain. You will say, “I’ve done 34 years of this, I can do 34 more.”
But then something miraculous will happen. You will find out you are not bad or ungrateful or st*pid or fake. You’re autistic, and you mask. A lot. So, you’re exhausted. You learn that every time you couldn’t be what you wanted, you were too burnt out. And how couldn’t you be? You’ve been hiding your pain for three decades! You’ve been your own compassion and your own worst critic, and you’ve never healed from anything. You’ve only changed yourself to avoid feeling more grief.
But things are different now; you’re autistic! You get to be this way! Sights and sounds and touches and even tastes can hurt you! You’re riddled with obsession, trauma, fear, and anxiety. You get to be tired. You’ve felt everything, and your feelings were valid. All this time.
You finally know that there’s nothing wrong with you. You are exactly how you were supposed to be, and you’re worth the accommodation and effort of being understood. You will rid yourself of those who don’t believe that. That includes jobs, lovers, “friends,” and family.
You will learn that no one who thinks your needs aren’t valid can give you a good time. And you can’t heal around people who don’t believe you matter. Change is scary, but the changes you make will be gradual, and they will not feel like a choice. You will see the value in taking good care of you. So please do not be dismayed or fearful.
Your recovery from grief and burnout and trauma will be ongoing and lifelong. So, when you fall again, and you feel just as badly as you ever felt, even after everything you’ve learned and tried, and all the time that has passed, please be kind to yourself. You have not failed or been broken. And nothing was wasted on you. You still belong here. I promise.
We have survived all these generations, adding tremendous value to this place. Do not believe the lies they spread about people like us. We matter. We suffer and still, we create, we nurture, we innovate, and we heal things. We are sustainers. Us.
Your task is not to be like the Others, but to build a life worth living, the best that you can. It is the hardest thing you will do, but if you are going to be here, it is the only thing to do. I love you so much. For who you are, not what you’ve done.
Please never lose sight of your worth.
Courtney Munnings is a member of RespectAbility’s Speakers Bureau. While the month of March is traditionally recognized as Women’s History Month, RespectAbility is using this moment to amplify the voices of all underrepresented genders in the Disability community, with a month-long editorial series titled, “Empowering the Next Generation,” acknowledging the important role each of these voices plays in the overall goal of building gender equity and equality for future generations.