‚…but you look totally normal!’

Aug 14, 2016 · 5 min read

Following up on my last piece there is one aspect of mental disorder I wanted to focus on in more detail. It’s about prejudice, misconception and the way people and friendships change once you open up about things. It’s something I have experienced myself and something I have heard numerous times from other people as well. I dedicate these few lines to the lovely person I’ve had some rather exhilarating late night conversations with recently, you know who you are…

A few years ago I found out that I live with a condition called Asperger’s Syndrome, which itself was a revelation and took quite a while for me to come to terms with. It gave me the chance to put some things into perspective and to look at things in a different way, but that’s another matter I’m not going into right now.

Getting diagnosed however helped me to become more aware of what it is that sometimes puts me out of sync with the people around me, why there is something that feels like an invisible wall between me and my environment at times. I could finally see things in my behaviour and personality that can cause irritation and misunderstanding, a kind of glitch in communication on an emotional level perhaps.

Experiencing such a change in self-awareness comes almost naturally with the wish to tell people you are close with about it. Hope is that it could lead to a better mutual understanding and maybe more honest and closer friendships. However things don’t work that simple in most cases.

‚You don’t look as if you’ve got Asperger’s’ is the one sentence I’m frankly sick of hearing now. I’ve heard it countless times though. It’s usually the first reaction when I tell someone. Maybe it’s an attempt to suggest a kind of normality, a kind of reassurance it can’t be that bad with me, that I do appear ‚normal’ enough to go unnoticed — as if that was a qualification to be friends with me. It only shows how little people know about the condition and maybe it’s just a deeply human reaction to brush it aside, probably out of fear for the unknown.

Being an ‚Aspie’ in my late thirties for me means I have developed numerous coping mechanisms in order to adapt to different settings and circumstances and to minimize stress and anxiety. I have learned quite a range of facial expressions and phrases that are deemed appropriate in any given situation. In public I tend to come across a lot happier and more upbeat than I feel on the inside. I guess it’s my way not to attract attention and to manage everyday life and usually it works surprisingly well. I get on with a lot of people on a superficial level, yet it’s very hard for me to establish real and deep friendships. Social awkwardness is one thing, it’s the ubiquitous sense of being different that makes life very difficult. I think herein lies one of the most obvious correlations between my chronic depression and having Asperger’s Syndrome: the longing for acceptance and the wish to fit in more seamlessly, yet sensing it won’t ever be like that. During the diagnostic process I was told that most autistic people of my age suffer form depression and anxiety, partly because of living with an unnoticed condition that is integral to character and personality for so long.

Very often the inability to pick up on social cues causes a subliminal feeling that something is wrong, yet I can’t quite figure out what. I simply don’t have the right tools to analyze a situation correctly in real time. Self-doubt is my most loyal companion, it stays firmly by my side even when everyone else has turned away. In social interaction I can hardly rely on my gut feeling, I often misinterpret nonverbal cues and tend to get misunderstood myself. Therefore I think it is absolutely crucial to open up to close friends and tell them what it means to live with Asperger’s — if only to find out who really is on your side.

There’s a lot of misinformation and misconception about autism spectrum disorders. People know the clichés and only too willingly put a label on you without really knowing you: apparently all people with Asperger’s are mathematical geniuses, they do not have feelings and want to be alone all of the time. Things would be way too easy if they were really like that. We are all different, just like every person on this earth is different. I’m incredibly bad at maths and I would consider myself to be a very emotional person, I am only not particularly good at showing it. I like to be among people, but probably not as much or as physically close as others — but what does it matter? It hurts to be reduced to a stupid cliché. It hurts when people encouragingly tell you that you look totally normal, but start treating you slightly different than before. Because they assume you are devoid of feelings they become more reserved and reduce talk to more banal things. They start excluding you from certain topics they think you wouldn’t understand. But thankfully you look normal enough not to cause them too much embarrassment. Looking back now I am glad that some of my old friendships have more or less fallen apart after revealing more about myself. They have hardly been worth it after all.

All it takes is a little bit of time and interest to get a clearer picture of what living with that condition really is about. The right friends do care and keeping an open mind strengthens the relationship on both sides. Thankfully I have a few people in my life that don’t care about the facade of ‚normality’. They understand that getting a diagnosis doesn’t turn you into a different person over night, that it is more of an opportunity to get to know you better and to focus on the positive aspects that it brings, rather than fixate on the negatives. But it is essential to keep talking, to keep asking questions and giving answers and to experience things together in order to reduce barriers.

It would be helpful to have a more differentiated presentation of mental issues in the media. Certain characters on TV paint a rather comedic picture of a condition like Aspergers, which doesn’t do justice to the complexity and seriousness of the matter. And it doesn’t help that people with mental disorders are often being pushed into a corner. Having depression or an autism spectrum disorder doesn’t mean you’re more likely to inflict violence upon others, as parts of the media want us to believe — in fact generalization like this couldn’t be further from the truth.

It is more important to focus on the individual and to bear in mind that even though we might appear happy and up on the outside, there is a lot going on beneath the surface that even we don’t fully understand. Mental disorder can evolve into different directions like crippling self doubt, a tendency for self-injury or increased risk for suicide, so it has to be taken absolutely seriously. It is crucial to have support from people who really care, and it’s equally important to keep people at distance that aren’t good for us.

Speak with us, listen to us and take us seriously. We all do our best in life, just like anybody else does.

‚…we all follow our own way.’


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