The Self-Erasing Self: Reclaiming the Neurodivergent Identity

Throughout ‘Movember’ and its immediate aftermath, the university has put on a number of events for the sake of Mental Health Awareness. But for those of us who have suffered the ravages of mental health stigma for years on end, it’s a real struggle not to be cynical.

Neurodivergents – i.e. anyone whose psychology lies outside of expected societal norms – have been told our whole lives, implicitly and explicitly, that we should keep quiet about it so we don’t cause problems for anyone. To finally be spared an hour or two to be open before being pressured back into silence for the rest of the year feels like a backhanded compliment.

Of course, they encourage this temporary openness to be a permanent change. We are told it’s “all in your head”, we “just need to reach out”, that we’re “not alone”; rhetoric that evaporates when we actually try to reach out and our would-be-confidants completely distance themselves from us. Frustrated with us for disturbing their peace and wary of our difference, they typically reward our openness with abandonment. The best reaction we might expect from a neurotypical – i.e. those whose psychologies lie happily within the bounds of societal norms – is a degrading pity. We are treated as either freaks or charity cases, but never as normal.

But sure, we’re not alone.

These pithy maxims dismiss the reality of our concerns as just being “all in your head”. When our voices are shut down at our own events, the stigma against neurodivergents is only replicated. We are seen as helpless lost lambs in need of a neurotypical shepherd to guide us back into the flock. But we are not lost. The flock ejected us, and will only do it again.

Neurodivergency is constantly framed as an individual misfortune, when the real source of our suffering – the stigma far more than the neurodivergency itself – is an omnipresent societal blight.

This is why I avoid the weaponised language of ‘mental illness’. Neurodivergency occurs naturally; studies have shown the physical make-up of our brains differ from the neurotypical. Our brains differ just like skin colour or height or gait or sexuality. Yet the clinical approach to neurodivergency persists despite the fact there’s no ‘curing’ a physically different brain. Why? Because it serves to mask the stigma that it perpetuates – that there is a ‘right’ kind of brain, and if you don’t have it, you’re defective.

The categorisation crushes our identities and silences our voices. Who wants to be defective? A running trend in my conversations with neurodivergents is a long period of denial. Even when one accepts their neurodivergency, we cling onto the belief that we will ‘get better’ one day if we try hard enough. When we inevitably fail, it is of course all our fault, and our self-hatred only escalates.

We endure it alone. We never tell anyone because admitting to neurodivergency would crush our hopes of ever fitting into neurotypical society, and the alternative is total isolation. So we become complicit in the systemic destruction of our identities. We erase ourselves.

Often completely.

One million people a year choose death over abnormality. That’s the severity of the stigma that we internalise and that eradicates us from within.

But we are given an hour or two to talk about it a year, so it’s fine.

The situation is grotesque. But what can we do? All the help offered reinforces the stigma by taking us to the doors of neurotypicals who try to fix us. Nor will neurotypicals ever change their way of life to accommodate us when they have no incentive to. As things are, we will never stop hating ourselves.

Then it stands to reason that we should have plenty of incentive to help ourselves.

According to Young Minds, a whole 25% of young adults in the UK suffer from mental health issues. If our pain is grounded in our isolation, then instead of trying to force ourselves into a society that hates us, why not create an alternative? The only obstacle to building a neurodivergent counterculture that accommodates our sizable chunk of the population is this self-erasure and consequent inability to find each other.

So we have to be open about what we are, unashamedly, uncompromisingly, and uncaring for what the neurotypicals might think about it. Our meagre places in their world will certainly be shaken, but if you want to speak openly without rejection, to be yourself without judgement, to be around people who genuinely understand you, then leave behind those humiliating half-lives and help us create real communities together.

It’s as easy as sending me an email, at rorymckinley@hotmail.co.uk. I don’t care how well we know each other; if you’re neurodivergent, get in contact.

We can’t let ourselves be erased again.

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