Trigger warning: suicide attempt.
Belonging is such an innate human desire that we often forget what a large impact it has on our
overall mental health and wellbeing. Newborns need acceptance from their parents/caregivers, children and young adults seek acceptance from peer groups, and adults seek acceptance through partnerships, both romantic and platonic, because it makes us feel connected and fulfilled, bringing purpose to our time on earth. So, what happens when belonging seems to belong to everyone but you?
WITH UNDIAGNOSED ADHD AND SUSPECTED AUTISM, I NEVER FELT I BELONGED ANYWHERE
With almost 8 billion people in the world, it seems like it would not be that hard for everyone to find a sense of belonging somewhere with relative ease. I can tell you that was not the case for me, and if you are neurodiverse maybe it was not the case for you either. I spent the first 33 years of my life with undiagnosed ADHD and suspected autism. As far back as I can remember I have been “weird”.
Other than with my twin sister – who is my forever best friend and the one human on earth who understands and accepts me completely – I have never felt like I belonged anywhere. Always a bit of an outsider, I never held onto friends for very long and have never been in a relationship for longer than 2 and 1/2 years. To say that I struggled in academic, social, and professional settings for over three decades of existence would be a gross understatement.
My neurodiversity dictates how I perceive and interact with the world around me but for most of my life I had no idea I was neurodiverse so most of my energy was spent on trying to force myself to function like my neurotypical peers. After all, that’s the ideal, right? Societal, social, and professional norms are built on the premise that we all “should” think, behave, and communicate in a similar (i.e., neurotypical) fashion.
NO ONE UNDERSTOOD ME. NOT EVEN ME.
When you fall outside of that very small and limiting box of expectations, your reality may be very lonely. I could never quite grasp why it seemed so easy for others to make and keep friends, to move in and out of relationships, to know just what to say and how to act so that people wanted to be around you. I tried so hard to fake it and be like everyone else, but the real me always came out and it always meant losing friends and partners because they didn’t understand me. I didn’t even understand me. I knew there was something different and I spent a very long time trying to find out what that was.
For as long as I can remember, I have been searching for answers about why I was, well, me. I have been in and out of therapy since I was 8 years old, sitting in front of licensed clinical therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, primary care physicians, teachers, and really anyone who would listen, trying to find myself. Because I knew I was not like everyone else but could not figure out how to “fix” myself, I suffered from profound anxiety and depression with suicidal ideation developing in my teenage years. I was misdiagnosed multiple times and put on so many medications for anxiety and depression with nothing really working, which only added to my despair.
UNDULATING BETWEEN F**K THE WORLD ATTITUDE AND CHILD-LIKE DESPERATION FOR ACCEPTANCE AND LOVE
The root of my challenges came from my neurodiversity and because that had not been identified, nothing improved. As a result, I undulated between hyper independence with a f**k the world attitude and child-like desperation for acceptance and love. Without an understanding of the why behind my feelings, perceptions, and behaviors, I spent my youth adrift in dangerous waters.
In an effort to cope with my very loud brain and my incredibly deep emotions, I turned to alcohol, tobacco, occasional marijuana, and toxic relationships. Not only did these things give me a pseudo escape from a reality where I did not belong and did not know why, it gave me an excuse to lean into the rough edges of myself. After all:
“Everyone gets rowdy when they drink so it won’t seem weird that I’m loud and hyper and over the top.”
“Smoking will show everyone that I am damaged and tough. Besides, what do I care if it hurts me?”
“Weed helps my brain take a break from the never-ending stream of consciousness pulling me in 10 different directions at once.”
“Love is supposed to be chaotic. Screaming at each other and getting into fights is a show of passion. I have to process my strong emotions somehow and toxic relationships give me an outlet to do that with the false sense of security that comes with being with someone, even if they’re wrong for me.”
MY DOWNWARD SPIRAL DOWN INTO DARKNESS AND SUICIDE ATTEMPTS
Shocking no one, these tactics only furthered my downward spiral. The first time I tried to take my life I was 19 years old, just a few weeks shy of finishing my freshman year in college. I had gone through a bad breakup from my first serious relationship. The breakup was a result of a mistake I made, coupled with my unhealthy coping mechanisms and general lack of knowledge about my brain wiring, I descended into a very dark place.
Research shows us that those with ADHD are more likely to use alcohol, tobacco, and illicit substances and have a greater risk of developing a substance use disorder than those without ADHD. Never in my life had this statistic fit me more accurately than during this time. I was drinking to excess back then and engaging in dangerous habits like reckless driving and other thrill-seeking activities. None of these things made me feel better and no matter how hard I tried to fit in and find that sense of belonging, I still felt deeply alone.
One night sitting in my dorm room, it all became too much and I made the decision to end my life. I texted all of my “friends” to say I loved them and took an entire bottle of pills with a liter of vodka. One of the people I texted was suspicious of my wording in the message and found me on the floor when she came to my room to check up on me. She called for help, and I was taken to the ER, and given charcoal to neutralize and expel the poison in my stomach. I spent a night in the telemetry unit to make sure my heart was not damaged, evaluated by a psychiatrist, and sent home with my mom and sister, who had driven almost 6 hours to get to me when they received the news.
At first I felt like a failure and the feeling of “I don’t belong here” and wanting to end all the pain did not recede immediately. Most days it was a fight to find a reason to stay, but I kept fighting. As time passed, the reasons to stay became more and more powerful. The journey hasn’t been easy, but it has absolutely been worth it.
INTERPLAY BETWEEN MY EXPERIENCES AND MY NEURODIVERSE MIND
I did not know it at the time, but my experiences are directly reflective of the neurodiverse mind. I have an extremely hyperactive brain, so I talk a lot. I also have a tendency to be impulsive, and constantly struggle with executive functioning like task initiation and working memory challenges. I always seek out dopamine and get bored easily when there is not enough novelty or excitement. I am plagued by rejection sensitivity dysphoria and ruminating negative thoughts, and have difficulty maintaining healthy relationships with romantic partners, finances, food, and physical activity.
Despite fitting the picture of a combined-type ADHDer perfectly, I did not receive an accurate diagnosis until I sought one out myself after my young nephew was diagnosed. At that time, I also dove into researching neurodiversity and was blown away by how much I related to the experiences of those with ADHD and autism. I found a local professional who diagnoses adults and made an appointment with her for assessment and on-going care management.
CORRECT DIAGNOSIS ENABLES ME TO LOVE ALL THE PARTS OF ME I TRIED TO EXTINGUISH FOR SO LONG
The diagnosis changed my life because I was finally able to put a name and a frame around my
experiences. It helped me to stop feeling broken and start feeling unique in a powerful and profound way. It has allowed me to find answers and explanations for so many of the things that made me hate myself.
I can now lean into my strengths and find ways to love all of the parts of me that I have tried to hide or extinguish for so long. Having undiagnosed ADHD and suspected autism meant that I walked through so much of my life trying to force myself to be anyone other than me. Wearing a mask every day and feeling like the real me would never be good enough was depressing and defeating. The lack of belonging led me to a point where I attempted to take my own life. Thankfully, I was not successful. “Failing” at that has allowed me to flourish in my purpose of creating a sense of belonging for so many others who have spent their lives feeling alone.
For me, life changed when I stopped trying to be everyone else and figured out how to work towards being the best version of me. Next time you feel like you don’t belong here, make sure you are seeking belonging in your “here” and not someone else’s.
Our heartfelt gratitude to our guest author this week, Gwendolyn Janssen MHA, MSN, RN, for courageously sharing her story with such vulnerability and bravery. In the words of California's former Surgeon General, Devika Bhushan, who thrives with a bipolar diagnosis, "stigma festers in the darkness and scatters in the light." By sharing our stories, we humanize our struggles, removing bricks from the wall of stigma and letting light shine through. Those struggling step out from the shame and silence and reach out for help; and, are empowered to come into their own surrounded by their inner lights, self worth and self love. We all deserve to be seen, heard and valued. Thank you for this reminder Gwen. You will always belong. Shine on mighty warrior, shine on.
Despite the abundance of dating opportunities, finding love has never been more challenging. We’ve come so far with technology and cultural progress, yet we still struggle with dating burnout. Finding love should be simple now, but it’s become a complex and emotionally draining journey. We strive for security, independence, and growth in our relationships, yet the search for love seems to bring on feelings of anxiety, insecurity, and heartache. We want to protect ourselves, but it’s becoming harder.
Dating World ChangeD But Our Humanity Remains the Same
The feelings of unworthiness and shame individuals with mental health challenges experience when dating are often overlooked. Asking for an emotional connection right away can feel like an imposition, and waiting too long can leave us with doubts. Despite the turmoil, we still have to play the game and losing sucks. We hide our feelings, put on a facade, and are afraid to show our vulnerabilities. We seek validation and send panicked screenshots to our friends for the next best reply. We’re constantly second-guessing and navigating with care, yet we dare. But sometimes, in the quest for love, we shove our emotions to the back of our minds, choosing solitude over relationships and self-discovery over love, believing that we must love ourselves before we can love others.
Navigating My Highs and Lows In Pursuit of Love
I have struggled with my moods for a long time, especially in what some would say are my “hot years.” I’ve woken up on many days with the vow of not pursuing relationships altogether, feeling unworthy and overwhelmed. On other days, I would feel ambivalent, deleting dating apps and re-downloading them frequently, exhausting my very little energy. I would be hot and cold, asking for space one moment and as little space as possible the next. If I really liked someone, I’d freak out. What if they could see through me? Sometimes, I would reveal too much too soon, and I always wondered, why was that a problem?
I have searched for stories like mine in books, TV shows, movies, and other people, hoping to find a way to make it to the other side. But to avoid heartache, save energy, and keep other aspects of my life stable, I have denied myself the opportunity to date on several occasions. I’ve also been in failing relationships where the guys would gaslight me, twisting my words and actions to make me question my own reality. And when I dared to speak up, they would blame it on my bipolar disorder, making me feel like the villain. They would use my mental health as a tool to manipulate and control me, making me doubt myself and my own experiences.
It was a constant battle, trying to navigate the confusion and uncertainty they created. I felt like I couldn’t trust my own mind and that I was constantly walking on eggshells, trying to avoid their wrath. My condition felt like a burden, and I thought I must be wrong after all. It was cruel and left me feeling isolated and alone.
“Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am”
I had to learn that my bipolar disorder is not something to be exploited or used against me and to trust my own mind. I had to learn to dig deeper into my intuition and virtues, always align my actions to my moral compass and walk away when needed. This guided me in all types of connections I made over these years. I have slowly started speaking up about my mental health. Among friends, coworkers, and at open mics because pretending that I was not crumbling on the inside was getting exhausting.
A friend once suggested the third episode of the show “Modern Love,” in which Anne Hathaway plays a character who navigates the dating world while struggling with bipolar disorder and balancing her professional life. That hit me hard. I must have cried throughout the episode. The title “Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am” is not just for the world but also something I have had to ask myself to do.
I feel my feelings very deeply. Lately I’ve had to dig a lot deeper to uncover what I am running away from, discover what keeps me from moving forward, and how I can avoid this back-and-forth in my decisions and actions. These promises of self-protection would keep me isolated and spare others from hurt, but they also burnt bridges and left some perplexed. What followed eventually was regret.
With goals achieved, self-care maxed out, and passions no longer filling the void, this dust would settle, leaving me alone with my desperation staring back at me. But I do often catch a break which gives me a chance to breathe as a human — a messy, vulnerable, magnificent human who is very well capable of love.
LET LOVE FLOW BY EMBRACING YOUR VULNERABILITIES AND INSECURITIES AND PASS YOUR LOVE ON TO OUR CHILDREN
This is not just a story about seeking love in romantic relationships but about preserving the very essence of it. A story about love that:
As I delved deeper into my emotions, I discovered a hidden treasure — a superpower I never knew existed. Embracing the ebbs and flows of my moods made me incredibly attuned to the feelings of others, and empathy began to flow naturally from me. I recall a moment when I was feeling particularly low and witnessed a woman crying on the subway, ignored by all around her. Without a second thought, I followed her off the train and gave her a comforting long hug until she said she felt better, and was ready to go on with her day. It was then that I realized the true power of empathy and how it can transform the lives of those around us as well as ourselves. It makes us brave to show up.
It’s also about learning to receive empathy as well. My friends who understand my condition show me endless grace and compassion when I feel unworthy and when my thoughts become stuck in a cycle.
Let’s pass this love on and assure children who’ve endured the bitter pain of growing up in an emotionally abusive environment, where love was a distant dream, that it was never their fault. They have every right to feel the hurt and the pain. Indeed, allowing themselves to do so is the truest form of love. There are those among us – coworkers, friends, and even strangers – who will listen without judgment and hold you tight as you cry. That is love. And, when your friends are too burdened to reach out, you must reach out to them with tenacity and openness and, when they finally open up, that is love.
We all seek love in our romantic relationships, but we can’t limit it to that. It flows freely. Love is everywhere, in every person we come across, and in every moment. We have all felt denied of the love we so deeply crave, but let that be the driving force to create more of it. We are love; we are it. Do not take my word for it. Go out into nature, sit in a garden and truly relax. Take in every detail around you, and you will see it. You will feel it.
DO NOT LET YOUR MENTAL HEALTH LIMIT YOUR ABILITY TO LOVE
To those battling their mental health, please hear this: your capacity for love is not limited by your struggles. It is often through the darkest of days that we learn to love with the deepest of sincerity. You have felt the pain of life’s harsh realities, and in that pain, you have found the strength to love with a ferocity that others can only dream of. You understand the importance of compassion and empathy: of truly seeing and understanding another person. You have been to the depths of despair and have emerged with a heart full of love and the courage to give it to the world.
You are capable of loving in ways that others can not imagine; your love is pure. It is real and it is what the world needs. You are the light in the darkness, the hope in the despair, and the love in pain. Believe in yourself, in your capacity to love, and let that love be the beacon that guides you through life’s journey.