This blog deals primarily with issues surrounding autism spectrum disorder. However, I often find myself referring to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Mental illness is common in higher functioning autistics, with something like sixty-five percent of people with Asperger’s Syndrome also suffering from psychiatric disorders. My own mental health issues are becoming inseparable from my autism, with the stress caused by sensory overload setting off my anxiety disorder and the shame of being irrevocably different occasionally leading to bouts of depression. Being different is nothing to be ashamed of. But I’d be lying if I said I was always one hundred percent okay with being autistic. There are so many prejudices and misunderstandings about mental illness. Therefore, I felt I should clarify exactly what I mean when I use words like ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ in my blog.
Firstly, depression is an illness, not an emotion. I constantly hear the word ‘depression’ used in trivial day to day contexts, for example: ‘my favourite tv show was cancelled so I’m depressed’ or ‘I lost my job, so I’m depressed.’ What these people really mean is they’re feeling ‘sad’ or ‘low’, which is the logical response to a disappointing situation. That is very different to depression; just like having a bad back because you’ve spent the night sleeping on the floor is very different to the crippling pain of severe arthritus. Also, no matter how in touch with their emotions someone is, it is VERY difficult to self-diagnose. I don’t recommend telling anyone you’re depressed until that diagnosis has come from a doctor.
Anxiety can be described as an emotion. We all get a little stressed and anxious from time to time and that’s a good thing because it helps us stay productive and remember what we value most. However, when I use the word ‘anxiety’ on my blog, it’s generally in the context of Generalised Anxiety Disorder. This is an illness. It’s what happens when anxiety gets so out of hand that instead of helping you stay productive, it prevents you doing anything at all. Healthy people get anxious when they have a big deadline at work or are in an uncomfortable social situation. People with anxiety disorder are likely to feel anxious constantly (even if they’re just sitting at home watching tv) and will have regular panic attacks. Once again, self-diagnosis of this disorder is very difficult and should be avoided. If you think your anxiety is becoming a problem, talk to your GP before you tell anyone you have a disorder.
Now that I’ve explained what depression and anxiety are, I’d like to tackle some of the confusion surrounding them…
When somebody sees me crying or having a panic attack, their first impulse is to ask what’s wrong. Very few people are prepared to believe me when I say I just don’t know. Occasionally this lack of a reasonable explanation makes them quite hostile. They believe I’m lying, or that I don’t trust them. Alternatively, when I reveal to someone I once had depression and now have anxiety disorder, they often respond with phrases like ‘but your life’s perfect! You’ve got nothing to be depressed or anxious about!’ Anxiety disorder and depression are both mood disorders. They often have very little to do with a person’s actual circumstances, and are not triggered by bad news or a string of unfortunate events. Both depression and anxiety have to do with how a person is thinking. Not what a person is thinking about.
For example, a person who is depressed will approach a simple task like cleaning their room in a very different way to a person with anxiety disorder. Both these approaches will differ from the approach of someone with good mental health.
Healthy Persons Thoughts
This cleaning will take about an hour. I’ll put some music on to make it go faster, then I’ve got the rest of the weekend off. I wonder if Beth’s free for a cup of tea…
Depressed Persons Thoughts
I clean the room. It gets messy again. I clean the room. It gets messy again. It just goes on and on like that until the day I die. What’s the point in this? What’s the point in anything? Oh God, I just don’t have the energy to clean or see my friends. I’m so tired.
Anxious Persons Thoughts
Look at all this mess. I’m so unclean and disgusting I hate myself. I’d better start with the bins. Oh no I need to do the laundry first. I can’t! There isn’t time! If I finish cleaning I’ll probably be late to meet Beth but I can’t leave my room in this state. Sort the bins. No- the laundry. No- clear those plates away first. Oh God! It’s too much!
Mental illness is not always related to the circumstances you are in. It just happens, in the same way cancer just happens regardless of whether your Dad’s died or you’ve just won the lottery. When people with depression and anxiety try to put our thoughts into words, we are often mocked or ridiculed. Everyone else can cope with day to day life, so why shouldn’t we? In any other circumstances this attitude would be unacceptable. You wouldn’t go up to someone with no legs and call them unreasonable for not walking. At least I hope you wouldn’t. Mental health is a very personal thing, and it can be virtually impossible to understand what someone else is going through. Please, just try to be patient.
(please note that for the next few weeks my blog articles will be shorter, as I am currently preparing for a book launch)