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  • Writer's pictureJo Richardson Au

Neurodivergent Self-Abuse


When I was diagnosed as autistic (later on, PDA and ADHD) it opened a door in my mind to a level of self-awareness that had been beyond my reach. (I know, jumping in the deep end from the get-go) For those who may not have read any of my previous articles on I was diagnosed at 38 years old.

Like a lot of autistic women, once I found out the truth about who I am, I went back over my life; thinking through past experiences with open, fresh eyes, finally finding some understanding as to how and why certain things had happened, and why I may have done some of the things that I have done.

It’s not a quick process. It can be painful but enlightening at the same time. Certain things clicked into place where there had been an unmade jigsaw with no picture before.

I was listening to Harry Thompson – PDA Extraordinaire a while ago when he was talking about how masking can be seen as self-abuse.

This got me thinking, as I have always been a prolific masker to the point that only recently have I started to figure out who I really am, behind the mask, I started to think about self-abuse, what different forms it takes, and the effects that low self-esteem and lack of confidence cause.

When I was young (4 or 5 years old) and started school, I quickly recognised that I was different to my peers. I had no idea how to talk to them, play with them, or how to react when they talked to me. *Cue the awkward bumbling, mumbling, overzealous at times, child, whose peers either avoided, mocked, or bullied. This led me to be the isolated, anxious, and overwhelmed child in the corner. With every rejection (actual or perceived – this may be down to my overpowering and intense Rejection Sensitivity Disorder (RSD) which is exceptionally common in ADHDers and PDAers) my self-esteem and confidence plummeted further. I looked at my peers who had friends; chatting and playing with joy and ease, and, in my mind, they were the accepted and acceptable ones – the ‘good’ kids – and I was unacceptable and deficient – the bad egg.

I don’t know if it was survival instinct or if my Autistic and PDA brain just problem-solved the situation, but I realised that if I mimicked my peers (their behaviour, speech pattern, facial expressions, interests, the way they move, etc.) then they may start to accept me. I wanted to belong and to have friends; the other kids looked like they were having the time of their lives, and I badly wanted that.

So, as time went on, my mimicking skills increased, and I was accepted into a small group of friends, which felt great in that I was being accepted and ‘liked’, but a big part of me felt like shit; knowing that the persona that was being accepted and liked wasn’t really me. The real me was hiding behind the mask, wincing, and hoping that the mask didn’t falter and they get a flash of the real me; the deficient, vulnerable, incapable, scared, failure. The effort it takes to keep a mask on for any length of time is exhausting. It takes a lot out of you, energy-wise, but it is also damaging.

The more that you pretend to be someone you’re not (who is accepted and liked) the lower your self-esteem and confidence can get because each time someone likes you (the mask) or says that you’re great, or fun, or anything positive really, it can feel like a validation that your real self would be rejected as your mask is so different to who you really are.

Now imagine doing this day after day, week after week, year after year after year….

I can’t speak for all Autistics/PDAers, but I can tell you the effect that it had on me;

By the time I reached senior school, I was mentally a mess. I was depressed, and anxious, I didn’t fit in, and I had no idea why. My self-esteem and confidence were so low that they may have been spotted in Australia. My mask, however, was solid, practiced to the Nth degree, but my psyche was really struggling to deal with my negative thoughts about myself and maintaining the mask that simultaneously got me what I wanted and twisted a knife inside of me.

I managed to get accepted into a group of friends (it was a girls' grammar school) who would, seemingly randomly and without reason (that I could figure out) flip-flop between being my friends who would invite me to their houses and whom I would spend lunchtimes with, to being the group who bullied me the most. I remember hiding behind the sports building, sobbing, wracking my brain to figure out what I had said or done wrong. Over analysing every word and gesture, tonality used, body language; anything that could explain why the people who claimed to be my ‘best friends’ had turned on me so cruelly and viciously. Then the next day, I would be back to being ‘besties’ with them. I cannot articulate how much this fucked me up and still heavily affects my relationships to this day.

The only explanation that I could come up with was that I had gotten so comfortable with the mask, that it was slipping without me realising and when they turned on me, it must be because the real me had popped up momentarily.

I was hurting and confused. So I began to act out to try to feel something different than the car crash in my head. I have never been able to understand or identify my emotions, so I was flooded with these intense feelings that I didn’t understand; I just needed them to stop. So I started chain smoking on weekends from the age of 12. I started to physically self-harm.

My GP explained that I was chronically depressed and anxious, so I was put on anti-depressants at the age of 12.

I became an avid people pleaser and fawner – anything to try to prevent myself from being rejected. Which, honestly, makes you feel like a pathetic loser with no backbone or integrity.

By the age of 16, I had started using cannabis to self-medicate. Anything to escape my reality. It’s very common for Neurodivergents (NDs) to self-medicate/abuse alcohol or drugs.

After that, it was pain medication. Then came alcohol.

When I reached college (my first mixed-gender educational setting) I was suddenly confronted with sexuality and the whole new social minefield that comes with it.

I met and dated my first love (to whom I am now married), but when we split up after several months, I had no skills to deal with the heartbreak. I started losing control of myself and started lashing out physically at people, doing things that I knew were wrong; pushing the boundaries with no care for the consequences if they broke.

I tried to take my own life a number of times as I couldn’t cope with how I was feeling and the wrenchingly low opinion I had of myself.

At the age of 18, I had a nervous breakdown. I just couldn’t take it anymore. My grip on who I really was, was slipping away and I just felt utterly lost, damaged, and broken. I screwed up royally and narrowly dodged a prison sentence over car maintenance and paperwork (I was not in my right mind) and the only reason that I didn’t go to prison was that my GP wrote to the judge to explain that I had several mental health issues that were best treated and supported in the community. I was given a 7-year suspended sentence.

This, of course, made me feel even more like a failure.

I’d look at other people and I couldn’t understand how they could do the things they do with such apparent natural ease. Even day-to-day things regularly brushing their teeth, having a chat with a friend, get on with a task that they need or want to get done. I still struggle a great deal with these things.

It’s easy to understand why the general public, and many undiagnosed autistics, see us/themselves as defective, or ‘lesser than’ the general population. There must be something ‘wrong’ with us. The DSM-5 sums it up perfectly using terms such as ‘disorder’ ‘impairment’ ‘disability’ ‘deficit’. This is exactly how professionals and services (including mental health services) define and characterise us when they talk to us, our parents, teachers, other services, etc.

Imagine how having most people, professionals, parents, and services, all telling you that, or treating you like, you have ‘impairments’ or a ‘disorder’ or a ‘deficit’. How do you think that will make you feel about yourself?

Words have power.

A 21st-century Jewish Rabbi once said: “Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively use words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.

Imagine living in a world where you struggle with things that others find easy, or having to hide who you are in order for people to not look at you like a lower being.

Self-harm is prolific in the ND community, as is suicide, sadly.

When your self-esteem and confidence take a battering, constantly, over the space of years, you will inevitably start to have a very low opinion of yourself. This can turn into feelings of self-loathing, that you’re not good enough, or that you don’t deserve to live anymore. Everyone would be better off without you.

Often, when you fall into the downward spiral of these negative thoughts about yourself, they can grow so intense and unbearable that you just want to run away and hide or find a way to make the thoughts just shut up and leave you alone. Anything to stop you from feeling like this.

Self-harm, however damaging and dangerous it is, provides an escape from those thoughts and feelings; even if only for a very short time. It can provide an endorphin release or an escape from reality that your mind desperately needs but has no idea how to deal with how you are feeling other than harming yourself or getting so drunk or high that you can’t think straight anymore and the thoughts quieten. Because when you are in that spiral it can be easy to think that it doesn’t matter if you hurt yourself – because you’re not worth anything.

Self-harm, however damaging and dangerous it is, provides an escape from those thoughts and feelings; even if only for a very short time. It can provide an endorphin release or an escape from reality that your mind desperately needs but has no idea how to deal with how you are feeling other than harming yourself or getting so drunk or high that you can’t think straight anymore and the thoughts quieten. Because when you are in that spiral it can be easy to think that it doesn’t matter if you hurt yourself – because you’re not worth anything.

You may even think that you deserve to be punished as you believe that you have caused yourself to feel this way, or that you are a failure.

Self-harm isn’t always obvious or visible. It can be anything that either could or will have a negative impact on your mental, physical, or emotional well-being. It could be causing yourself physical harm either internally or externally, putting yourself in dangerous situations where you are likely to come to harm, reckless behaviour that can lead to you being harmed, self-sabotage or self-destructive behaviour.

Drugs and alcohol are an easy to get hold of self-harm tactic. It’s also more ‘socially acceptable’.

**NOTE: I am not encouraging anyone to start taking drugs or alcohol. I am just explaining the mindset behind their usage in this scenario**

It can be a way to quieten your thoughts and feelings, to hide behind the behaviour induced by, or the effects of, either drugs or alcohol. The fact that these things are hurting you (especially under 25s whose brains are still developing) may not even factor into your decisions to do it. Part of your brain may be thinking ‘so what if it hurts me? I don’t want to be here anyway’.

When you self-medicate/abuse with drugs or alcohol, aside from the obvious health dangers, being a habitual user/drinker makes you far more vulnerable to stumbling into dangerous situations or relationships. Though; having both terminally low self-esteem and confidence can make you so vulnerable that it is almost guaranteed that you could end up in either a dangerous situation or relationship.

For NDs, a major contributing factor to why we can have feelings of low self-worth and a lack of confidence is not being accepted for who we really are. That we are viewed as and told repeatedly that we are damaged and impaired and will be for the rest of our lives, especially by professionals - can you imagine the effect that has on young, vulnerable minds in crisis???

Society is still years, maybe decades, away from true understanding and acceptance of NDs. Professionals (especially within mental health services) NEED to change the way they perceive and describe us.

When I was 22 years old, I found myself in an abusive relationship (physical, mental, and emotional) for 2.5 years. Looking back, years later, I can see just how vulnerable I was. I was so desperate to be accepted and loved, and had such a low opinion of myself, that it was easy to believe it when I was told that it was my fault when he abused me. He had convinced me that I would never find anyone else who would put up with me and that if I wanted to be loved then I had to stay with him but that I had to put more effort in to please him, or he would leave me; as he often threatened to do. I honestly believed that I deserved how I was being treated and that if I tried just a bit harder or became more passive and pleasing to him, the abuse would stop. It was my fault and I wasn’t being a good enough girlfriend. I was brainwashed, and I was wrong.

2 decades and 3 diagnoses later, I can look back at that time in my life and see it for what it really was. That it wasn’t my fault. But there is still that voice in the back of my mind that tells me that it was. I have terrible imposter syndrome. I never have faith in myself or feel that anything I do is good enough. That no one will like me - the real me – whoever the fuck she is; I have no idea. I am starting to figure it out, but there are over 40 years of masking to dig past first.

But every day, things seem a little clearer; a little easier to understand my past, my mind, and who I really am. I feel more comfortable in my own skin and my self-esteem and confidence are growing again. I am starting to like who I am and learning how to switch off the mental autopilot that instantly throws up a mask whenever I am around other people. It’s hard, but I’m worth it. I’m starting to believe that too.

I am bloody proud to be PDA and ADHD and I recognise the strengths, talents, and beautiful minds of my fellow NDers. I’ve spent my whole life thinking that I am broken and inferior, but now I can see more clearly that there is nothing wrong with me. I’m just different, and that’s a great thing. If everyone was the same, we’d still be in the dark ages pushing stone wheels up hills. Difference sparks innovation, creativity, technological advancements – we should all be celebrating it.

For those NDs who are reading this; being different does not mean that you are broken or that there is something wrong with you. Being different makes you a glorious unicorn in a grey and drab world, a shining star in a still and dark sky. Don’t let anyone make you feel like you are ‘lesser than’ – their opinion is based on misunderstanding, ignorance, bias, and a societal false narrative.

The world needs to change and adapt – not you.

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