I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when I was 14, by a friend of the family who was a school counsellor. I’m now 27 years old and just graduated from university last year with a PhD in psychology.
Growing up, I was always different. I was pretty isolated. I wanted friends but I didn’t know how to be around people. I was afraid of people and I didn’t know how to talk to them. My mum would sometimes have to call friends before we went to visit and say, ‘Try not to look at Harrison or he might scream and run away’.
My parents didn’t really think there was anything wrong with me. They thought it was just me being me. But I was really alone because I didn’t know any other way to be. And, over a long enough period of time, that isolation turned into depression.
It actually took a while for my Asperger’s diagnosis to filter through into something I could comprehend. I can remember the exact moment it really resonated. I was in year 11 maths class during roll call. Waiting for my name, I thought I might have a bit of fun. When my teacher gets to me, I respond with ‘Greetings earthling!’. She had this look on her face and I realised I had absolutely no idea what that expression meant. Not a thing. I thought, bloody hell, that’s a problem. Over time I tried to figure out what people were feeling based on their faces. And that took a long time. It’s been over ten years and it’s an ongoing project.
When I was younger, I didn’t really have words to describe the depression and anxiety I was experiencing. I didn’t really know how I was feeling. I just knew that I was. I would mention it on occasion in the hope that someone would listen and pay attention and that I would be seen as special. But I didn’t have the words to describe it properly until much later, after I’d left school.
Because Aspergers is really internal, I would self analyse. I would sit there and look at my own behaviour and my own personality and tear myself to pieces. I’d say to myself ‘Look at all these things you’ve done wrong, look at all these things that you’re not able to do, look at all these things that you’ve been too lazy to do or too stupid to do’.
And I thought I was doing a good thing. Because if you’re that self critical, no one else can be worse. So I would flay myself with personal attacks over and over again. And I would sit in my room for hours on end and I wouldn’t go out for days, and I became pretty much addicted to video games as an escape. I guess I was looking for mastery – where I was effective at something, and games were an easy way out.
When I have a panic attack, I feel incredibly cold and putting warm things on doesn’t help. It’s this horrible shivering feeling all up and down my chest. It’s goosebumps but almost internally, and I can’t stop shivering, my jaw starts chattering and words don’t come out. Everything just shuts down.
If you have a mental illness and you’re feeling alone or isolated, the SANE online forums are a great place to go, anonymously, without fear of judgement or stigma. Whatever you’re going through, it’s likely you’ll find someone there who has experienced what you’re experiencing, or felt what you’re feeling. It can really help you feel validated. And not so alone.