This article is part of the Here. Now. essay series, which seeks to de-stigmatize mental health treatment, and improve accessibility to treatment and support for teens and parents in metropolitan New York.
On my list of “things that are surprisingly difficult,” passing for neurotypical is way up there with calculus, whistling, and reaching the top shelf. This is partially because neurotypicals say the darndest things. “But you seem so normal!” is a biggie in my life–but mostly because passing for neurotypical is a constant process.
Let me introduce myself. My name is Jo. I’m 19 years old. I’m a writer, a singer, a dancer… and a neurodivergent, having anxiety, depression, and autism along with a neurological hearing disorder.
For the so-called “average” person, looking like a neurotypical is easy, because “average” people are neurotypical–which is to say, their brain chemistry is well-balanced and everything neurological is in perfect working order. But most of us aren’t average.
For me, being neurotypical-passing requires constant effort. My anxiety is like the character Fear from “Inside Out”–running in circles, twitching, overanalyzing everything, and screaming hysterically at any setback, change, or sense of worry. My depression is like a wet blanket over the anxiety, telling it that nothing matters anyway–not that anxiety cares. And being on the autism spectrum means that on top of my brain alternately telling me that everything matters and nothing does, I’m constantly thinking about what to say or do next in order to pass as a socially functional human being.
Of the three, autism has been the longest-running and most pervasive struggle in my quest to pass for neurotypical. Being on the spectrum means that the social instincts my peers possess–to smile at friendly strangers, to laugh when something is funny, to respond adequately to a question or greeting–are a little lost on me, and there’s a subconscious part of me that constantly has to pull the necessary strings to make me do the things that are required in a social interaction. Sarcasm and jokes are occasionally difficult for me to navigate. And more subtle social nuances, like how to chat up the popular kids or flirt with a cute guy, are still a little beyond me a lot of the time. I remember I somehow managed to start blathering on about fish saliva to someone once. That’s not cute. (And fish don’t have saliva. Fun fact.)
At the same time, anxiety is constantly dancing through my head, making me worry either irrationally or just way too much about everything that goes on in my life. It keeps an overly sharp lookout for signs that people are just tolerating me. It stares at every problem I encounter until it decides I can’t possibly deal with it. It fears the future and is constantly analyzing the present. Occasionally it freaks the heck out and I wind up crying in a corner. And depression is just there in the back of the room, telling me to give up.
The thing about passing for neurotypical is that people don’t realize there’s a struggle going on beneath my friendly, sassy exterior. People who don’t know me as well don’t know that my depression is telling me that there’s no point; that my anxiety is staring at them trying to figure out if I’m bugging them and making lists of everything that could go wrong; and that my ASD has me pulling strings for every aspect of the interaction.
If I could ask for anything of anyone, it’s patience. Patience to learn, patience to understand, patience to help me through a hard moment. If you can be patient with me and my little demons, you’ll get to see the part of me that shines through underneath. And isn’t that beautiful?
This post is part of the Here.Now series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
and is made possible by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board.
You can find other educational mental health resources here.