Graduate diploma of Landscape Architecture + Bachelor of Built Environment majoring in Landscape Architecture
Seeker of Knowledge
I cannot read your intentions, motivations, thoughts or emotions, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care.
Just tell me what you need me to know and don’t expect me to figure it out.
I grew up as part of a small Christian Community, where there was a big focus on peace, social and distributive justice, equality, and following Jesus by helping marginalised people. We had worship and singing and fellowship and Eucharist, but we did not have rituals and chants and repetitious phrases like traditional churches do. We had philosophical and theological discussions. Obviously, I was too young to be much involved in that, but it gives you an idea of the home and community environment I grew up in. It was a very tight-knit group of very diverse, out-of-the-ordinary people. I felt accepted there, and some sense of belonging. The other big defining factor in my childhood was a connection to nature, through gardening, bushwalking, camping and exploring. This is where I belonged, this is where I found peace.
At school I felt I didn’t belong. I think one of my earliest lessons in school was that no one wants to play with you if you are not fun and happy and chatty; no one wants to know why you are feeling down, or left out, or different. So, I learnt not to share my thoughts and feelings and tried to be what they wanted me to be so I wouldn’t be so lonely. Most of my schooling was filled with positive academic feedback (I was quiet, intelligent, well behaved, very rule oriented ‘a model student’) and negative social and emotional feedback in the form of sustained and consistent exclusion from peer groups. Once I learnt how to not be noticed, it wasn’t so bad, I wasn’t sought after but neither was I actively rejected, I was just part of the background. For many years I thought I was different to other people because of my unique Christian upbringing. I felt I was better than everyone else because I was so academic and had higher morals, but also worse than everyone else because I couldn’t do what even the stupidest kids managed so effortlessly, I couldn’t understand, communicate and connect effectively with my peers. I grew into adulthood believing with my whole being that I was broken, wrong, not good enough, unworthy of love, repellent, that I was somehow less than human.
To cope in a social world that didn’t make sense, I lost myself in worlds that did make sense. I spent whole days, countless hours reading fantasy books. Societies in fantasy books were easy to understand; the author did not expect anyone to understand a society of elves, or aliens, or prehistoric humans, and so the rules, rituals, and societal expectations were explained in the text, I immersed myself in those worlds. I felt like I didn’t belong in this world. I felt like I was an actor in a play, where every other actor had been given a script except for me.
I built a wall around myself and wore a blank mask. Behind the mask I was invisible and while I didn't attract love, nor did I attract hate. Unfortunately, I think that by not giving anyone the chance to reject me, I also didn't give them the chance to accept me. I don't think anyone knew me, not even myself, I built the wall so strong and I didn't let anyone inside. My blank mask didn’t show emotions; I viewed emotions as a weakness that could be exploited by others or used to hurt me. At high school they played the song ‘I am a Rock’ by Simon & Garfunkel to us and talked to us all about how no one is a rock or an island, we all have feelings, need friends etc. I remember thinking, and even being proud that I was actually a rock and an island, because a ‘rock feels no pain and an island never cries’, and that is what I’d tried so hard to achieve, no emotions, no vulnerability so I couldn’t get hurt, no tears, no pain, no humiliation.
For many years I have talked to Jesus and cried out to God to help me understand other people and connect with other people, and for years I felt ignored and rejected. I realised that I was unable to truly live up to the high moral standards and ideals I set myself, because I cognitively know what the right thing to do is, but I can’t feel things or do things in the ‘right’ way. I hated the darkness I saw hidden in myself. I cried to God to take it away and replace it with love, but it didn’t happen. I felt rejected by people, unable to fit into society, and unworthy of being loved. I believed there was something intrinsically wrong with me, I was broken, a mistake. I couldn’t even believe that my family could really love me, I felt unworthy, a fraud.
I met and married a Catholic man, and started attending masses with him. Over the years we have attended mass at a number of different churches, but while I enjoyed the services, I never felt a sense of belonging. We had our first child a year after we were married and he was baptised in the Catholic Church. He was bright, but had some play habits and anxieties that raised a few red flags for me. However, we figured he was managing alright in all areas of childhood development except social/emotional growth, and we could just help him with that. It took me years to realise that my own lack of social and emotional understanding made me woefully ill equipped to help my son develop his skills and understanding. We had three more children. By the time the youngest girl was born, my eldest boy was almost 9 years old, my eldest girl was 7 years and my youngest son was almost 3. By now I had realised that none of the eldest three experienced the world like their peers. Like me, they were all academically bright, but like me they struggled to relate to peers, regulate their emotions, and execute executive function skills. It still did not occur to me that I might be autistic myself, but I had started to research autism and various behaviour difficulties in an attempt to help my children. When my eldest was 11, I read a book for teenagers on unwritten social rules, intending to give it to him when he was ready, and realised that I hadn’t known about most of the rules explained in the book. It finally occurred to me that I might be autistic myself.
On Valentines Day 2018, at the age of 39 I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism. I finally knew why I was different, why I felt unable to understand or connect with other people. Cracks appeared in my wall and I started reaching out to a couple of friends and letting them see inside the wall. I expected them to reject me when I let them know what I was really like, just as my peers had throughout childhood, however, they embraced me and my differences. I started discussing things with those two long-term friends that I had managed to connect with. We talked deeply about our lives, families, depression, love, and tried to answer the question of ‘who am I?’ I found the courage to reach out, both to our parish priest and to the woman who runs the Alpha program at our parish. I reached out with questions and then with parts of my brokenness. I expected contempt, rejection as unworthy; what I received was acceptance and love. Over the following months I cycled through growth, trust, sharing, panic, despair and repair over and over again; and each time I reached out, no matter if it was in hope or despair, I was met with acceptance and love.
But there was still something missing. Where were my emotional feelings? I have always experienced emotion as conscious thoughts rather than responsive feelings. I knew the feeling of frustration, fear, guilt, shame, all the reactions for the fight/flight/freeze response. But where was compassion, empathy, love, grief?. Part of my autistic expression is a reduced ability to identify the feeling of emotions within myself or their expression in others, and any I do identify I often don’t understand how to respond to. My anxiety over social interaction, the guilt from all my failures and the fear of rejection gets internalised and perpetuates the cycle of depression. I had this perception of rejection by God also. I knew he loved me, but I felt rejected as unworthy because I didn’t know how to ‘feel’ love.
I read many books on Autism, especially in girls and women, I joined Facebook groups and read many stories about the experiences of other women. I found women whose experiences felt like mine and I started to feel less alone, less broken, less of a mistake and more of a unique person.. Through book recommendations and written communications with friends I learnt what love means, and how it can be expressed in different forms of emotion. I have learnt to identify the feeling of affection in my body and can now extend that feeling to encompass other people, even those I thought I could never love. I feel closer to my family, more loving and understanding. I have read books that opened my eyes to the connection in love of all creation, to each other and to God; I can almost see the lines of light like threads in a fabric running between individuals, connecting everyone. I can look at a person and see an individual with the bright spark of love inside them; and know that they have hopes, fears and dreams that are different to but no more or less worthy than my own. I have reached out and created bonds of love with more people and formed deeper friendships. I have welcomed the reaching out of others and met them with love and acceptance. I am no longer afraid of the words ‘I love you’; I can say them and hear them without shame and only a little fear. And I have learnt that I can give love, affection, time and service for the sake of the joy it gives me and not because I expect anything in return.
Two things have brought me to peace with my identity. The first was the formal diagnosis that finally allowed me to stop feeling ashamed of who I am as a person, to know that I am not broken, I am just different, that some of the things that make me unique are gifts that I can use in service to others. The diagnosis set me free to stop constantly trying to be invisible, free to express myself, to BE myself. I am still figuring out who I am, but at least now I have the chance to find an authentic picture of myself. The second thing was the acceptance and love of a faith community who embraced me just as I am, with all my differences. A number of individuals within our Catholic Parish have become particularly close, and have helped me to know that I am loved just as I truly am, to know that God made me as I am for a purpose and that He loves me unconditionally.
I am still overcome by anxiety and fear at times, I still sometimes wish I could escape this world, I still get overwhelmed by social situations and the noise and closeness of a crowd of people, and sometimes I give in to self-pity. But I know I have come a long way on my journey to freedom. I can let go of my expectations of myself and others, my need to lay blame and responsibility, my need for self-control and my fear of rejection. I can dare to be myself.