In my ‘Glossary Of Terms I Won’t Be Using’, I include ‘identifies as’ as a popular term I avoid in relation to my own autism; I also mention having a few ‘personal harumphs’ about the term, so I’ll attempt to explain my thinking a bit in this article. The notion of ‘identity’ itself is infinitely complex and nuanced, and deserves serious contemplation. My own contemplations, for various reasons, have led me more to questions of what exists in the absence of ‘identity’.
In its current popular usage, ‘identifies as’ seems to imply a certain personal choice – at least in how one presents oneself to others. Observing the autism narrative evolve, I get the impression that the term has now become a way to declare oneself as a sociopolitical entity, a righteous hashtag that seems to have more to do with ideological than neurological definitions. For myself, I view Aspergers / autism as a lens through which to observe and learn, a map that points to certain features, remembering always that ‘the map is not the territory’. Simply declaring myself as ‘autistic’ does not actually provide anyone with information, and assumes that the other person shares my understanding of ‘autistic’. In my experience, it seems pretty clear that ‘most people’ still have a very limited – if any – definition of ‘autistic’.
If I declare my autism to someone, it is always in the context of the immediate situation, to explain specifically what aspect of my autistic experience is being effected. Some common examples include:
- I can’t concentrate on what you’re saying because there is too much background noise
- I need you to speak less rapidly so that I have time to properly process your meaning
- I am more withdrawn / more reactive today because I didn’t sleep well last night
- My awareness of physical sensation is acute and so my experience of pain is magnified right now
- I need you to explain clearly and sequentially what you are about to do so that I know what to expect, in order to trust you and have some sense of personal control
In this way, I am encouraging the other person to imagine something specific outside their own experience, I am giving them precise information in case they can relate to it or find a compassionate understanding. I could also call it self-advocacy, but ideally we should all ‘self-advocate’ our needs as a natural practice of honest communication in daily life. In these examples, I’m not ‘identifying as’ autistic to make an ideological statement, with the expectation that the other person will automatically understand me; I’m explaining my specific experience to the person in the hope of generating a more informed understanding together.
Of course, I appreciate that for many people, to ‘identify as’ can provide a sense of belonging, solidarity and psychological comfort, particularly when it associates them with a collective identity. But what about when circumstances beyond our control force us to give up significant or fundamental ‘identities’? The loss of a longterm career identity due to mental or physical breakdown, the loss of a partner identity through relationship breakdown, or the loss of a parent identity through separation & alienation? What do we encounter in ourselves when identity is not a matter of personal choice?
Increasingly I experience ‘myself’ as just a ‘thing that happens’. It is a state I’ve experienced many times throughout my life, but it seems to persist more often these days. In that state, identity is irrelevant; I simply do not know what I am. ‘I’ just happen.
In part I imagine this is a natural process of moving into old age, the Autumning, shedding thoughts that are no longer useful. I’m not losing my awareness, but entering a differently enhanced awareness, one of profound emptying, and of direct responsiveness to the moment. One way or another, I have been forced by life to let go the people, abilities and aspirations I love most deeply; in the face of that loss, many personal desires and definitions are redundant. It is an ongoing realisation of ‘I am nothing’.
I’m not suggesting an enlightenment or spiritual epiphany, it’s emotionally and psychologically hard work; but this process of subtraction, of emptying through grief and loss, certainly drives one deeper into the mystery of Being, and an active acceptance of what is.
Before I go further, some quick etymology of ‘identity’, and my playful interpretation: Original Latin ‘id’ meaning ‘it’ (later Latin ‘idem’ meaning ‘the same’). Late Latin ‘ens, ent-‘ meaning ‘being’ (later medieval Latin ‘entitas’). Ergot, my playful interpretation: id (it) + entity (being) = ‘it being’, therefore ‘I am’ (identity) an ‘it, being’ – or perhaps, with a nod to Alan Watts and Taoist / Zen philosophy, ‘I’ (consciousness) experiences ‘myself’ (my nervous system) as an ‘it’ in the process of ‘being’.
I’m inclined to think we (ie humans, being) have extrapolated this basic ‘it being’ into a very complicated organisational system, that is often far too absolute, far too divisary, for our own good.
‘What’ is ‘I’? This question is probably as old as consciousness: a primal wondering born of our human predicament – namely, that as a species, we perceive from within a consciousness that is self-aware, with the capacity to examine itself. We can only surmise that at some point there must have been a pre-symbolic, yet consciously felt, recognition of relationship, of differentiation between the living ‘this’ and a separate ‘that’. (I think of the brilliant pivotal moment in Kubrick’s 2001, when the apehuman experiences the quantum leap in conscious connection: himself as defined from the dead prey, via the dead prey’s bone, which is instantaneously transformed into meaning, as a weapon that births the identity of ‘power over‘).
Millennia down the track, we still ask the same basic question, through increasingly sophisticated lenses, and through all manner of distortions and confusions. As a species we have ensnared ourselves in a meta-web of identity structures, all of which are only ideas, but which have been so deeply reinforced over time that we believe them to be ‘real’, and therefore (apparently) of absolute importance. We forget that our beliefs are only thoughts, and thoughts are…..well, what are thoughts? If you are prepared to seriously pursue this line of questioning, you are likely to have all your ‘realities’ overturned, and the deeper you interrogate it, the deeper the domino effect.
I am wary of ‘identifying as’ because it invites limitation, and I am especially wary when the term is used as a political declaration attached to a group identity, as seems to have become popular in the ‘autistic community’ and the ‘neurodiversity movement’. Whenever terms like ‘proud to be autistic’ and ‘be your true self’ become fashionable catch-cries or platitudes, they lose their original intelligence. After all, the term ‘true self’ communicates nothing, unless we can first provide clear definitions of ‘true’ and ‘self’. And I personally put more value in a private practice of ‘self-acceptance’ than I do in a public declaration of ‘pride’ in anything.
A serious inquiry into ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ self (if such a thing exists) requires an ongoing interrogative process of deep reflection, openness to the unknowable and preparedness to question all our most habituated assumptions. As someone who has had their sense of identity dismantled many times over by life circumstances, I’ve been compelled to examine what exists in the absence of ‘identity’. Who do you think you are? Who do you think you’re not, and how can you be sure? Which ‘identities’ do you think you depend on for survival? Strip away all those tags, and what is it that remains? We all wear masks in our minds, even to ourselves, and it takes courage and persistence to admit the illusions we hold so dear. And in a society so reliant on the reference of ‘identity’, an individual who does not display any need for identity can seem confronting or confusing, a social dissonance.
Identities are ideas
I think it’s fair to make the generalisation that when we ‘identify as’, we ‘attach ourselves to’ a collection of ideas (ie patterns of thought), which we feel somehow match our experience. Of course, this ‘matching of experience’ can shift and change as we encounter new understandings of the world; so too can it remain rigid & immutable if our ‘matched experience’ is continually reinforced over time and restricted by ‘belief’.
I tend to think that all of us carry plenty of both, in what we tell ourselves about our world and ‘who’ we think we ‘are’ – we attach ourselves to some ideas of identity that seem ‘fixed’, while choosing other identities that reflect different phases of growth within a lifetime. In Buddhism and other systems of ontological inquiry, ‘attachment’ is described as the Mind trying to grasp, or hold onto, thoughts, perceptions and experiences – rather than recognising these ‘sense impressions’ as a continuous and changeable flow of moments in spacetime.
If you’re human (I’m assuming you are), it’s pretty impossible to avoid forming identities for oneself. As children we develop an ego structure in relation to our family and social set as a matter of survival, and this structure becomes increasingly complex as we are repeatedly conditioned to compare and conform. For any ‘identity’ to persist, there must be strong attachment to a set of definitions (patterns of thought). As the ‘identity’ depends on these definitions for its ‘survival’, it must defend and reinforce the definitions (= belief), and if this is sustained over time the identity (assumed ‘reality’) will ultimately become rigid.
It follows then, that any system that becomes too rigid will naturally generate internal strain and ultimately collapse. Prolonged ‘masking’ is only one illustration of this, and our identity structures reach far deeper than merely what we project to the outside world.
Several times in my life, I’ve experienced periods of major crisis (mental breakdown, or in transpersonal terms, spiritual emergency) in which my sense of identity completely collapsed. Many things I thought I knew definitively about myself, which I believed were certainties at the ‘core of my being’, were dismantled or outright demolished. These crises forced me to feel and examine some of the deepest reaches of my Being, and directly confront an Abyss, an Unknowing in myself. I had no choice but to surrender to the pain, grief, confusion and darkness of this process, in order to ‘shed my skin’ and eventually emerge with a different sense of Being. Unable to defend or cling to the old identities, I had to allow myself to be simply, and utterly, Nothing.
In time I came to understand these crises as Initiations to Self; and while I encountered many fortuitous ‘guides’ or mentors along the way, ultimately the responsibility was my own to self-navigate these journeys into the Void. Each time I surfaced from these Initiations, I felt myself as having no identity – a state of Unknowing, of feeling newly-born and without imprint, a blank and vulnerable canvas.
I don’t know that I would equate this with the ‘ego-death’ described in many transcendental and psychedelic experiences, but I certainly emerged each time with a deeper sense of compassion and existential perspective.
Of course, while many of our identity structures are cultural & deeply unconscious (family, race, gender, social status etc), we can also be consciously creative, choose and play with identities as we explore ourselves. I’ve had my own phases of experimenting with different identities, and have ‘identified with’ a range of different ideas. But choosing an identity is an entirely different process to being forced to surrender an identity one wants to keep, which is different again to feeling oneself as essentially without identity – that is, in the sense that identity no longer has any importance in one’s life.
The ‘is’ of ‘identity’ can be very limiting, and I’ve never felt that any single descriptor has been an adequate container for All That I Am – and of course, how can it be? Any time I’ve tried to adopt one identity, I’m immediately confronted by its contradiction in myself. I experience myself as multidimensional, a paradox of opposites. I don’t know if this is somehow particular to some sort of personal ‘autistic otherness’ (see my post on ‘Otherness’), or if it’s something that everyone feels at some level but just doesn’t examine unless forced to.
Identities of what we ‘do’
Social identities put a lot of emphasis on grouping people according to ‘what’ they ‘do’. For instance, throughout my life well-meaning friends have introduced me as ‘the cartoonist’, but this often led to one (or both) of two assumptions: a) that I’m naturally a humourous person who will inevitably communicate via comedy (and therefore be entertaining), and b) that I fraternise socially & professionally with other cartoonists (by which they usually meant ‘newspaper cartoonists’). I would patiently point out that I was only a ‘cartoonist’ when I was working, and that while I do have a sense of the absurd, I’m more often of a saturnine disposition, or busy navigating depression and emotional turbulence; in other words, I’m not a comedian by nature. I would also explain that my work was more to do with cartoon illustration as a form of concise visual communication, and cartoon-drawing as an effective educational tool (in my other work as a ‘teacher’).
And of course if I identified as ‘teacher’, a different set of assumptions would surface, and I would need to further clarify that (for instance) I wasn’t a full-time classroom teacher; that I was an independent educator (without a teaching degree – leading to more assumptions) who ran specialised programs in schools; that I wasn’t just ‘entertaining the kiddies’ with ‘funny drawings’, but using an accessible creative process to teach students deeper skills in emotional communication, self-awareness and creative thinking etc. These sorts of distinctions were often hard for other people to imagine outside their usual ‘ideas’ of ‘teacher’ or ‘cartoonist’, and this made promoting or talking about my work particularly challenging. It wasn’t until a person had a direct experience, either by participating in or observing a workshop, that the actual nature and value of my work became clear, because so much of what I offered was experiential, dependent on the direct inter-relatedness I fostered in my process. The same applied to the various forms of personalised artwork I offered during the 90s (see Esoteric Art posts). Consequently, I often relied on word-of-mouth promotion to generate work, as conventional ‘identities’ (cartoonist / teacher / artist) couldn’t adequately describe the experience I was offering.
Another example of ‘identity’ as ‘work’, or what I ‘do’: these days, I’m less inclined to ‘identify as’ an artist or musician, as I get too frustrated with the assumptions people make about both. I am certainly a person who creates visual and aural artefacts, and for half a century I have made the deep exploration of creativity my lifelong inquiry. I devote my time & attention to it as seriously as any ‘professional’, but because I’m not ‘selling’ myself via the accepted cultural mechanisms, I’m not seen to be a ‘serious’ (‘real’) practitioner. I’m not motivated by competition or self-aggrandisement. How can I explain that the artefacts I create (of ‘art’ and ‘music’) are ultimately irrelevant to me because it is the process itself that interests me? The process is a lived experience, the ‘it, being’, and I ‘do’ it (and it ‘does’ me?) simply for the direct, authentic creative contact.
Quite a few years back I stopped performing my music live because my anxiety (internalised expectation) interfered with my capacity to function on stage; instead I continued musicking at home as a means of supporting my mental health. I disengaged from the identity of ‘performer’, with its burden of assumptions and expectations, and I disengaged from its codependent relationship with the identity of ‘audience’. I remember trying to open a conversation about this with ‘professional’ musicians, asking them ‘would you still create music if there were no such thing as audience?’ I was fascinated by their reactions: the question seemed completely dissonant to their musical identity, and some even became angry. Even my oldest son, himself an experimental electronic musician operating on the fringe, insisted that any artist creates in order to state or communicate something, therefore requiring an audience. (He may not feel the same these days, but I was surprised by his insistence at the time).
Since I stopped ‘identifying as’ a musician, and let go of ‘audience’, I’ve felt a greater freedom to follow my creative impulse wherever it leads me. I don’t have to perpetuate a ‘personality’ or cater to a ‘market’ or ‘fanbase’. I am motivated firstly by the process of discovery, and the mental equilibrium it brings me, and secondly to make music that I enjoy listening to. I suppose in that sense I am my own audience, a self-fertilising / self-devouring ouroboros. Of course I would like to be paid for my many hours of persistent, dedicated, skillful hard work, the same as anyone else who seriously invests 8+ hrs a day in their job; but I just don’t have the energy anymore to shout above all the noise, or ‘cultural static’, in order to ‘justify’ or ‘sell’ my ‘product’.
Deeper identities and questions of choice
We can’t choose the ethnic or biological circumstance of our birth (unless you believe in conscious incarnation). All we are left with are choices in how we respond to these circumstances. I was born in Australia, but I have no sense of myself, no set of ideas or feelings, that I consider an intrinsically ‘Australian’ identity. I don’t participate in Australian cultural stereotypes, I don’t have any sense of roots or heritage, just because I was born in this particular part of the world. If anything, I feel more connection to the geographic beauty of this country, but geographic beauty exists all over the world. This doesn’t mean I ‘identify as’ a ‘citizen of the world’ either, I just don’t think of ‘nationality’ as having any relevance to my own sense of ‘self’. I can feel my ‘nationality’ as difference if I’m in another country, but I don’t feel it as ‘Australian-ness’.
In a similar sense, I was born ‘white’; my family lines reveal Irish, English, and German. To some people, this ‘identifies’ me as being the same as ‘all white people’. Does the fact I was unwittingly born into a ‘white’ identity mean I am responsible for all the atrocities perpetrated by other ‘whites’ on ‘not-whites’ throughout human history? No, it does not. Does the German ‘identity’ in my DNA make me responsible for the atrocities perpetrated by some Germans on other Germans and not-Germans in history? No, it does not. Or the atrocities perpetrated by the English on the Irish? Etc.
Interestingly, my family lines also reveal Aboriginal and Maori. Does that then somehow redeem me for my ‘whiteness’? Does this element of ‘black’ identity give me justification for, or claim to, anything? No, it does not.
I don’t ‘identify as’ any of these ethnic types, although at times in a metaphysical sense I ‘identify with’ certain characteristics of these types as they surface in my sense of self. Whenever a governmental document asks me if I ‘identify as’ an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, I answer ‘no’ because I don’t see any benefit in jumping through all the bureaucratic (and political) hoops to justify an official claim of ‘yes’; but I definitely have a deep private relationship with aspects of myself that I feel as linked to Aboriginality. These are aspects of myself that dwell beyond any claims of political ‘ownership’, and have more to do with states of Being that are outside of time, ageless, universal and transpersonal. I don’t believe racism is justified in any group, and the historical fact remains that Australian Aboriginal ancestors were not exclusive in time, they were a continuation of pre-existing human cultures moving all over the planet – our ancient shared humanity. Not a popular view, but one that might eventually help us move beyond the persistent divisions of ethnic ‘identity’ – divisions based solely on habituated ideas, created by all of us, humans in time.
In a similar vein, the word ‘gender’ once simply denoted the biological sex of an organism; it has now become such a hopelessly tangled mess of personal & political identity ‘isms’ that the word seems redundant. My hope is that eventually all the genderisms will cancel each other out so we can just get on with being human. Ursula Le Guin interrogated questions of identity beyond gender in her brilliant novel Left Hand Of Darkness, in which the residents of the planet Gethen are ambisexual – of no fixed gender. They enter cycles of ‘heat’ during which they physiologically morph into either a ‘male’ or ‘female’ state for reproduction, but have no control over which state emerges each time, and the remainder of the time they are genderless. Le Guin uses this central device to deeply examine how an entire culture might operate differently, where gender-bias was not an intrusive social mechanism.
As a boy growing up in 1970s ‘hippy’ culture, I received extremely mixed messages about ‘male’ identity from both sides of the gender fence. Part of my cultural conditioning was that the ‘Aussie bloke’ stereotype – belligerently macho, territorial, misogynistic, emotionally inarticulate etc – was bad; in my culture, the men were trying to be more receptive, more emotionally open, more creative and sensitive – which was good; except that often this looked more like men who were needy, lost, tantrum-prone half-adults…which was not really so different from the other kind of maleness they were trying to escape. In my formative male childhood, there weren’t many of the much-idealised ‘male role models’ who demonstrated dependability and responsibility, with an emotionally warm but solid presence, leader-figures who inspired respect etc. With adult hindsight I can understand that the 70s were a tumultuous time, an atmosphere of experimentation, testing all kinds of freedoms and boundaries, and a natural invitation to all aspects of the human Shadow – so no wonder it was messy.
Another aspect of the messy Shadow of those times was how the initial ideals of feminism had become a distorted excuse for indiscriminate angry man-hating. Throughout my boyhood I had it repeatedly reinforced (by the many divorced ‘hippy’ mothers, and their daughters, who naturally learned it from their mothers) that ‘all men are bastards’. This was hammered into me so aggressively that throughout my adolescence I hated my maleness and genuinely wished I’d been born female. I don’t mean I wanted to be transgender or to emulate femaleness, I had just learned to hate my natural biological state by having it repeatedly criticised. In my autistic sensitivity, I had internalised these messages as deep self-negation. Despite its necessary emergence in the human story, I still feel that ‘feminism’ is by definition sexist, and at its worst, negates the basic personhood of many good humans, including many women who have their own ideas of female ‘identity’. Feminism’s angrier distortions have contributed to generations of social damage: countless family breakdowns and fatherless children, resulting in lives lost to depression, drug abuse and suicide. Naturally I make that observation having been directly exposed to those experiences myself, as a child, as an adult and as a parent – and I’m not suggesting there is ever only one cause. Any ‘ism’ calcified into ‘identity’ is a set of ideas that can be distorted and abused by human stupidity (or lack of imagination).
In an attempt to address this social fracture, there was a renewed interest during the 90s in redefining masculinity, with the emergence of the ‘Men’s Movement’; its mix of Jungian archetypal myth & traditional indigenous wisdoms aimed to cultivate a more mature and integrated model of ‘manhood’. I explored this zeitgeist at the time, encountered many powerful rites of passage, and learned that as a ‘man’ I could be both beautiful and strong in my own way; overall these experiences helped me regain some much-needed self-acceptance and confidence in defining my ‘maleness’ for myself.
However I still observed a certain ‘standard’ of ‘male identity’ among these updated ‘men’, a ‘measuring up’ that was expected, drawing as they did on warrior traditions from times when physical prowess and feats of endurance were of high survival value. Until recent years, my own tests in life have had much more to do with psychological and emotional endurance than physical; my focus is more on my inner life. Perhaps it was my ‘autistic otherness’ doing its thing, but in these particular ‘male’ settings I still felt myself as not fitting their ideal, felt myself more as a ‘person’ than a ‘man’. I embrace the dynamic flux of both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ qualities in my psyche, the continual motion of yin and yang. I am much more at peace with the biological fact of my gender, and have no desire to change it, yet it does not define my most ‘authentic’ self. I am simply as I am, and I respond best when others can meet me in that.
When a fundamental identity is denied by others
There is a clamour of voices in the autistic narrative describing the many ways in which their fundamental ‘identity’ (autistic) is denied by society. Of course this is justified, as are the same claims from many other minority groups on the planet. Here I’m defining as ‘fundamental’ any identity that is a biologically intrinsic and inescapable fact. This might be thrust upon us at birth (ethnicity, disability, gender), or later in life (disability, becoming a parent); either way these identities are bound to our Being, and our only choice in the matter is in how we respond to living with them.
As a matter of perspective, I suggest you zoom out for a moment and consider the many who are – regardless of neurology – being denied their fundamental identity of ‘human’, through horrific sexual abuse, degradation, imprisonment, enslavement, and torture. This is human horror, happening to children and adults all over the world, right now, and in every moment – from government institutions to suburban bedrooms. By comparison most of us, regardless of our perceived minority, are in a position of incredible privilege.
And zooming back in, we all still have our individual and deeply personal battles – equally real for us in our tiny bubbles of experience. It can be difficult to make any sense of this stark paradox in life.
One fundamental identity I have been forced to relinquish is that of ‘father’. I am father to three (now adult) children and love them more than anything in my world, more than they can even understand; yet through circumstances beyond my control I have been forced away from them and denied my rightful opportunity to fully experience the depth of parent-child relationship so many take for granted. I have endured decades of grief, despair, depression and breakdown, in trying to navigate a situation that just feels fundamentally, biologically, wrong. My sense of ‘parent’ in myself is primal, a fierce fire and a love beyond words – I cannot pretend it doesn’t exist. And yet I’ve had to find a way to live as if it were not there.
Over the years I’ve known many other fathers in equally distressing circumstances and worse, all good men who love their children profoundly. Often they are dealing not only with the ongoing grief of separation from their children, but also the prolonged abuses and alienating behaviours of their childrens’ mothers.
These are men who desperately want to enact their fundamental biological identity of ‘father’ but are forced by others to accept either a severely compromised & constricted version, or complete denial of their ‘father’ identity altogether. Society still makes harsh judgments of men in these situations, assuming them to be at fault, and so-called ‘support’ systems such as Family Law continue to demonstrate obvious bias favouring the mother, despite claims of ‘equity’. Entrenched idealised notions of ‘mother’ identity ignore the fact that many ‘mothers’ are equally capable of abusive, manipulative & selfish behaviour, of perpetuating conflict rather than seeking mature communication, and of deliberately working against the well-being of their children in order to maintain control. For those men who genuinely want to embody their ‘father’ identity, but are denied it by such complicit societal ignorance & prejudice, the dissonance can be unbearable. Not all fathers can afford the legal help, or can sustain the emotional & psychological fortitude needed to continue fighting for their biological right. These scenarios are rarely straightforward, and when the children suffer longterm emotional damage it can take decades to repair the relationship, if ever. Many good fathers literally die trying, or become dead to themselves inside.
There have been many autistics speaking out against the pathologising language used by clinicians and health services to describe and define autism, and it is an important dialogue. But I also wonder how much autistic self-description unwittingly tends toward a kind of self-pathologising, by identifying too strongly or habitually with certain learnt descriptors. In particular I’m thinking of impressionable younger generations with an early diagnosis, who grow up absorbing these descriptors, and can never know themselves without them. ‘Socially awkward’ is one that comes to mind – a term that has dominated a lot of media representations of autism & Aspergers. At first it was useful as a point of reference, and validated what many autistics experienced, but often media overuses or distorts these terms, all the while feeding it back into the culture (autistic and otherwise) so that it becomes a meaningless trope, a feedback loop that diminishes public understanding rather than educates.
Is it helpful to identify oneself as ‘socially awkward’? I would rather see people articulate their specific experience in context than parrot a popularised, generic term. I know for myself that whether or not I feel ‘awkward’ around other people is entirely contextual, and as much the product of other people’s behaviour as my own. For instance:
- I may not feel like talking that day
- I may not feel a response is necessary
- I may have a very definite response that is not what the other person might prefer to hear
- I may feel empathic discomfort because the other person is feeling uncomfortable
- I may simply prefer to interact in a different setting, in a different context
None of which are a deficit on my part, or a fault on anyone’s part. Awkward feelings may arise in those situations, but the responsibility is with everyone to choose what they do (or don’t do) with the feelings. If ‘socially awkward’ is meant to describe complications in communication, then call it that, and explore it as communication, remembering that communication takes many forms. In a social interaction (ie any interaction of two or more people), the responsibility of choice still belongs to everyone.
Of course there are other examples of autistic descriptors that may inadvertently self-pathologise. Attachment to a blame-focused (and self-victimising) ‘Us vs Them’ thinking can become pathological – I’ve observed myself doing it, and sooner or later I feel like I’m just buying into another lazy group identity, when I could be thinking for myself.
My point is that we can trap ourselves in pathological identities if we identify too much with our physical or mental health conditions. I have lived with depressive tendencies on and off since adolescence, it’s simply a fact of my experience. Usually I navigated the process myself, choosing non-conventional therapies, techniques and approaches that fostered self-reliance and personal responsibility. I learned a lot about myself, and how to experience depression from a transpersonal and holistic understanding, through deep observation and reflection. I gained insights in order to live with it, rather than dispel or ‘cure’ it.
I didn’t approach a mainstream psychologist and receive a medical diagnosis of clinical depression until my mid-40s, during a particularly severe breakdown. In fact, the first clinician I saw was a psychiatrist, who wanted to immediately book me into a psych ward, which I refused. Instead, I allowed him to prescribe me anti-depressant medication – the first time I had ever engaged with that kind of treatment before. From there I was referred to a psychologist who diagnosed me (identified me) as ‘clinically depressed’ and ‘mentally ill’. Despite my state of breakdown, I was lucid and knew I needed supports, and so sought out whatever was immediately available at the time. In Tasmania, even 15 years later, these supports are still very limited in scope. While I received much benefit from working within the mainstream clinical framework of diagnosed depression, I wasn’t prepared to accept the identity of ‘mentally ill’. It just felt too dissonant in my understanding of myself. I knew I was in chaos and pain, but I had been violently expelled from my home and severed from my two very young children, so my despair was hardly an unreasonable response. I was a human experiencing severe grief, alone and without an adequate means of processing it.
In matters of the mind and heart, I am always compelled to self-educate, especially in my darkest moments. I began reading books on neuroscience and brain function, and I gained a clearer understanding of the biochemical relationships involved in emotional states such as depression and anxiety. I learned that the deeply-focused attention of Vipassana meditation (which I had practiced in the past and was revisiting as a daily routine), activates & strengthens the brain’s frontal lobe, which tends to shut down in depressed states. I learned that playing a musical instrument stimulates the entire brain, and so is also excellent for mental health. I complemented the neuroscience with books that offered a more transpersonal or archetypal view; in particular I found Thomas Moore’s ‘Dark Nights Of The Soul’ offered a deeply poetic reflection of my inner journey. Through these diverse lenses I could remind myself that I was the navigator of my own experience, that I would not be reduced to a merely medical (pathological) ‘identity’.
Over the ensuing years, if I identified myself as ‘living with depression’ I noticed the various ways people often brushed over it or pulled away completely. Very few people were prepared to enter into an open conversation about it, unless they had lived experience of it themselves, either directly or through someone close to them. In those cases it was very heartening to feel their compassionate understanding. I continued my research into depression and deliberately spoke openly about it, as I wanted to cut through the stigma that was (and still is) clearly so pervasive in public perception. I wanted to normalise conversation about it beyond the identity of ‘depression’ as ‘negative’ or something you just ‘get over’, to encourage people to develop a more compassionate approach, or even to consider that depression can provide important insights and a deeper view of life. I ‘identified with‘ depression in order to develop a deeper understanding of my experience, and in so doing, further deepened qualities in myself such as compassion, patience, and self-acceptance. By engaging with my depression as a learning process, I also learnt to recognise the subtle indicators of it in others, and could approach them with far more understanding.
I came to accept depression as one of many living processes that shape my internal landscape and my character, but which never describe or define all of ‘what I am’, and I apply the same perspective to my autistic experience.
Like but not like
A few years ago, in an effort to ‘reach out’, I participated in a 2-day Peer Support Group ‘training’, thinking I might at least experience a sense of acceptance among other autistic people. Everyone there was autistic, including the trainers and yet, because I was so far removed from the group’s shared reality of mainstream culture, I came away feeling even more misunderstood and isolated than I had been already.
It was evident that being in a room of other autistics – ‘peers’ – was no guarantee of ‘belonging’ or even shared understanding – and in being prepared to ask more difficult questions of the group, I did not fit with the group’s desire to keep things within the superficial parameters of their middle-class values – and their familiar autistic ‘tropes’. I was abruptly reminded of my primary social dissonance: that I have grown from a culture of asking deeper, more challenging questions in order to access a deeper experience of life, and that in general, that way of being is still too foreign for people who have grown from a mainstream culture – regardless of their neurological profile. Mainstream culture maintains superficial expectations in life, and naturally autistic people within that culture will still adopt its points of reference – even while feeling their own dissonance.
In scanning the autistic ‘landscape’, I get the impression that the ‘autistic community’, as a group identity, is still largely intolerant of any autistic voices that question, critique or deviate from certain accepted ‘autistic identity’ frameworks. Given that often autistics can demonstrate impressionability, naivety, rigid thinking, fixation and acute identification with what a thing ‘is’, I feel it’s all the more relevant to encourage healthy, thoughtful interrogation of autistic experience beyond identity, to continue dismantling our own notions of ourselves so we don’t restrict or limit our points of reference.
Autistic or not, my core impulse is to communicate as a human being, and to appeal to the shared human experience beyond any social constructs. We are all biological units, consciousness housed within a nervous system, complex beyond comprehension. Whatever realities we subscribe to are held tenuously together by symbolic representations – ie whatever assumptions we choose to agree to. What if we were to communicate from a sense of ourselves in which the delineations of identity no longer matter?
Personally, I feel that if we can resist the temptation to politicise and ideologise autism into rigid beliefs, the greatest gift of autism currently is that it is forcing humanity to think more consciously about shared human experience. I don’t mean inclusivity, or social justice, or better services. I mean core choices that benefit all human beings – how we communicate together, how we treat each other, how we live together. We don’t need to ‘identify as’ anything in order to practice better ways of sharing life together.