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.