Monday, August 5, 2019

My name is Chris Whelan, I’m a 27 year old diagnosed autistic man from Fort McMurray, Alberta.  I am a registered social worker operating as a case manager in the Housing First program, and a co-founder of Neurodiversity YMM; a collective of neurodiverse (autistic, ADHD, OCD, dyslexic) self-advocates supporting each other in our city.  I’m the proud dad of a lovely and affectionate cat, a big fan of science fiction and futurism, a transhumanist, and a computer gamer with my favourite games being Factorio, Satisfactory, Overwatch, and Stardew Valley. I have been living independently for the last two years.

I learned that I was autistic at age 25, at the end of a long, dark period in my life.  When I moved to Calgary, alone, to begin university I was given a wonderful condo to live in by my parents.  But just weeks after the last time seeing my parents, I suffered mental health shutdowns. I was unable to connect to the people in my classes, and my university had no clubs for my interests.  That means that introverted, shy, and unbeknownst autistic Chris could not make friends and felt unwanted where he was. I began to shut myself indoors, playing Xbox all day and night, staying up all night until 7 in the morning, and eating whatever could be microwaved in two minutes.  I stopped answering my phone, and I ignored my family’s attempts to contact me. For weeks I would go without brushing my teeth, and I drank two litres of soda a day. I skipped my classes, sometimes for weeks. I couldn’t keep up with the new material being thrown at me in university and my studies lagged behind.  Finally, I began to self-harm by cutting myself as a form of release. During this time, I thought I had failed a “life test”. University, particularly September, was supposed to be a time of partying, making friends, potentially meeting the love of my life, and enjoying my newfound freedom as a real adult. Instead, I was eating microwaved noodles alone with no friends in an unfamiliar city.

For years I would call this “depression”.  Now looking back I understand that this was all due to an autistic person being removed from their environment.  The video game addiction, the two litres of soda a day, and the self-harm were coping mechanisms to deal with the unfamiliarity of my environment and being cut off from my social supports.  Locking myself in my apartment all day and not reaching out to my family for help was due to too much unfamiliar stimulus limiting what I was capable of doing every day. I stayed up all night because that was the time when there was the least amount of light and noise; and I could finally feel some comfort.  I could not make friends because I could not follow neurotypical social norms and struggled to take cues. None of this came up before because public school, up until that point, was seeing the same people every day; the same people I had seen five days a week since my family moved to Fort McMurray when I was 9 years old.  The classes were structured and flowed from one subject into another. There were extracurricular clubs and school social events where everybody knew everybody and we could explore new interests together. All of this was thrown out overnight by my moving to Calgary and starting university life.

During this time all of my social activity was online.  I was very active on Gaia Online and later on 4chan. Here I could tap into a world of people very much like me; isolated, into weird interests, and phenomenally bad at socializing with others.  I became obsessed with my online image: I wanted to be noticed when somebody saw my username on Gaia Online so I spent over half of my day responding to every thread I could fine; anything that I could provide commentary on.  After years of doing this I realized that nobody actually cared, nobody was noticing me despite all the work I was putting in to build an online image so I just stopped, and my addictions were probably at their worst at this time where I felt invisible online and offline.

Then 4chan came into my life, where nobody has a username and your relationships you make with people last until the thread you posted on falls off of Page 15 and into the archives.  It is a breeding ground for radical ideologies of every stripe due to the lack of accountability for what you type, and this was a terrible place for somebody in a low point of addiction and isolation.  I was indoctrinated with some terrifying and violent worldviews that took a whole lot of painful work to overcome, and that I’m still occasionally finding residue on my thought processes from. My worldviews became very racist, sexist, and angry.  And that feeling like I failed at life because of my lack of friends and socialization turned into anger at groups of people that did nothing to deserve it. The anger at these groups of people became another addiction, and it was one that I became entrenched with for a long time.

I did graduate from university and earned my Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice, although with a pretty abhorrent GPA that was far lower than my capabilities.  I moved back in with my parents as they had moved to Calgary themselves, and we all lived together for a few years. I worked as a security guard for a while, but could not get work beyond entry level positions.  

I eventually went back to school for social work, using references from a drop-in centre that I had worked as a security guard at.  I was placed in a nearly all-female, all-feminist graduating class who had little patience for the racist and sexist ideologies that I carried with me, and frequently challenged me on my beliefs.  Professors as well did not initially take kindly to my ideals, and I had been asked by two professors to change my major as the profession of social work was in opposition to the ideas I carried. However, I had already spent four years writing academic essays, and my aptitude for arguments within my papers in favour of the material my professors presented was beyond question.  I could write fantastic essays in favour of anti-oppressive practice that my personal addictive anger fought back against in private. Again, I could not integrate myself with my peers, but my addictive coping mechanisms caused me to be a stalwart individualist and take pride in my independence from others.

But in the spring of 2017, in my final practicum placement, I could not endure rapid change any longer.  My practicum placement had me going to new, unfamiliar locations every day and I was unprepared for what each day would bring.  Every day on this job wore down on my resilience, and my ability to cope. My anger at the world had burned itself out, and no longer provided relief.  Self-harm was on my mind again, and this time, it came with ideas of suicide. I had been feeling like a failure at life for seven years at this point, and was approaching my 25th birthday, still feeling unwanted, still feeling unaccomplished, and with a desire to just escape everything.  Killing myself was going to be that escape. I had two near-attempts in March of 2017, and after the second one, my family found out.

After the first near-attempt I had been diagnosed with ADHD and been put on daily medication which changed my behaviour.  Not in a positive or negative way, just I was not “Chris” anymore. My thoughts became very practical. I was very productive.  But I was uncreative and not interested in the things that gave me joy before. When my family found out that I had been taking ADHD medication, and that I was suicidal, my mom told me something my family had kept from me for most of my life.  

When I was in grade 5, I was given a diagnosis of “Aspergers Syndrome”.  I had been tested for ADHD and other neurodivergent conditions by provincial experts, and the only positive diagnosis was what was known as “high-functioning autism”.  The doctors gave us referrals for supports for auditory processing, which included extra time for completing exams, but nothing beyond this. My mom said that my family had not told me because they did not want me to feel different.  They did not want me to be stigmatized, and especially not to stigmatize myself. My mom believed that I was capable of anything, and that if I labelled myself as an autistic person then I would limit myself in self-diagnosis of what I could or could not do.

March 2017 was the month the old Chris died.  I survived a suicidal meltdown, but I began the process of killing the old Chris that had lived in anger and addiction, and became a Chris that loved myself, loved the world, and was a positive, empathetic person.  I began to see my own gifts, and that these gifts were not developed in spite of autism but because of it. I began to listen to the feminists that had berated me for my hateful ideas, and listening to them helped me to conceptualize how my hate had been what’s called “internalized oppression”, where a person who is forced to live inauthentically because they want to mask themselves and pass for a “normal” person, takes their emotional pain out on others.  I am proud to say that I have been living authentically for two years now, and no longer live with the emotional pain of masking and being inauthentic.

I moved back to Fort McMurray, my hometown, to start my first job as a Housing First social worker in May 2017.  My family was understandably cautious that I would isolate myself again, and go down an unhealthy road once more.  This time has been different; I love my job and I feel like my work is important to my community. I feel necessary.  I feel like I belong where I am.

I am angry at the world again, but now it is not anger directed at people but anger directed at our living conditions.  I could have lived a happy and healthy lifestyle from age 17-25, if I had been given adequate social supports and if there was no stigma attached to having a neurodiverse condition.  I believe that this is a healthy anger. There is anger that causes discord and division between people, and anger that brings people together to make a better world. For the rest of my life I will do what I must to avoid the former, and everything I can to incite the latter.

My newest project, Neurodiversity YMM, is an effort to show a model of a healthy autistic and neurodiverse community: unashamedly proud, living authentically, and in supportive solidarity with each other.  The gift of an autistic perspective was denied from me for many years, because the world was going to stigmatize me and tell me my accomplishments would be limited due to autism. We are here at Neurodiversity YMM to show our community and the world that there is no basis for stigma against autistic and neurodiverse people.  Together as a community of neurodiverse self-advocates, we will combine our voices together to push for adequate social supports for us based on our individual needs, so that we all have equal opportunities for health and success.

No comments:

Post a Comment