I'm Neurodivergent. Will I Ever Be Okay? [Lived Experience]
Rachel Worsley | 09/03/2021
Content Warning: mention of suicide, suicidal ideation and depression. Founder and CEO Rachel Worsley shares her story of overcoming childhood trauma that has shaped her approach to developing the Resource Library today.
I don’t know if I am okay, even though I am the founder and CEO at Neurodiversity Media. But I do know that “are we ever going to be okay” is the quintessential question that neurodivergent people often ask of themselves.
Let’s retrace how I got to that conclusion. I was born in Melbourne, Australia to immigrant parents from England and Malaysia. I moved to Singapore at the age of 3 for work reasons. Dad was always travelling for work, so Mum was mostly involved in taking care of me and my older brother.
But Mum struggled to cope with my massive challenges with non-verbal autism. Quite a lot of money and resources were poured into speech and occupational therapy for early intervention. My prognosis was dire. I had failed an IQ test. Doctors said I would never have a normal life.
Still, Mum fought to get the help I needed and succeeded. But fighting the system with few resources left its scars on her. Recently, she told me she almost threw herself in front of cars on a busy road because the pressure was overwhelming.
Yes, I now live with the knowledge that I almost drove my Mum off the edge because I was such a challenging child. But I chose to see it as a turning point to develop some empathy for her.
Complicating the storyline, I had also suffered some kind of unspeakable trauma at a childcare centre that made early intervention even more challenging. I cannot recall anything traumatic at the time, but it’s plausible according to science that I had repressed the event beyond conscious recognition.
But the trauma was bad enough that a random acquaintance stopped my Mum and myself in the streets of Singapore and asked: “Is Rachel ever going to be okay?”
I had to be held back for another year in kindergarten before going into primary school to ensure I was “really okay”. Apparently, I was so dumb that I had to start school one year older than everyone else in my cohort.
On the plus side, Singapore’s education system was far more advanced than Australia’s education system in terms of coursework difficulty. I was promoted to my correct year group without missing anything major when my family relocated to Sydney, Australia in 2004.
Except the move back to Australia was traumatic for me. I had no memories of living in Australia. I had convinced myself I was a Singaporean citizen (I only had permanent residency), even though I had an Australian passport. I was able to make friends in Singapore, despite struggling with the typical social awkwardness that comes with autism. Not being able to fully process the move in my own autistic timeline was incredibly distressing.
To this day, the idea of moving house suddenly without advanced notice and preparation, or having to do so under duress such as not being able to afford the rent, is a trigger for an autistic meltdown.
But I recovered eventually, or so I thought. Turned out I had to make more of an effort to “mask” myself in a Western society that had social norms like making eye contact. In Asia, direct eye contact of your elders is usually seen as rude. So not only did I have to deal with the mysteries of non-verbal cues, I also had to deal with the contradictory cultural norms that came bundled with it.
No wonder at the age of 16, I plunged into a massive depression when my various masking strategies fell apart. It didn’t help that I was also struggling with undiagnosed ADHD, but that manifested as myself being depressed and anxious. Cue 10 years of subsequent misdiagnosis.
That same year, a popular student at my school died by suicide. He was known to some of my friends at the time and I ended up playing counsellor to my friends. I had practice from playing counsellor to my own mother for challenges that should have gone to a trauma therapist or marriage counsellor for discussion.
For a while, I was afraid of train platforms because I thought I would jump in front of an incoming train if it got all too much for me, just like it did for that popular student. It took several years to lose the anxiety around incoming trains and fear of losing self-control.
Paradoxically, I did well in school and topped English subjects in the last two years of high school. I found a strategy to cope that didn’t involve self-harm: it was to write a lot of words, whether as journal entries or fictional storylines disguised as autobiographical snippets of my troubled life.
The epitome of my fictional storyline coping strategy was my 8000 word English high school project titled “The World is Made of Stories” which functions as the informal manifesto of Neurodiversity Media through its exploration of storytelling and knowledge for identity formation.
I uploaded a lot of those writings onto a website called deviantART (dA) and made quite a few friends globally through my honest and authentic sharing of my troubled mental health and family life in my journals, as well as my fiction and poetry.
I received plenty of public and private messages from people who also shared their own stories of struggle and pain, inspired by such honesty. I even received such stories (and artistic gifts) via snail mail, collecting stamps from countries like the US and UK.
Back in 2010/2011, being part of an online community was considered weird. But dA was my safe haven from high school “friends” and parents who didn’t always understand me. I had never felt more socially isolated surrounded by people who didn’t understand the challenges of being neurodivergent.
Yet I could not have been more different online. I was organising and featuring great writing and resources for multiple groups on dA, helping new writers by leaving feedback on their work and participating in forums and chatroom discussions.
If I wasn’t online after school, I was online during my lunch and recess breaks hiding in the school library. Despite dA being banned at one point for students, I found a way to get online anyway by “borrowing” a teacher’s account login.
Through dA, I developed a community-orientated work ethic through sharing free information, resources and feedback to help others become their best self.
And so, history is repeating itself today. Since the sharing of online resources and stories on dA empowered me as a person, I want to replicate that experience on my Resource Library platform to help unleash neurodivergent potential in the workplace.
I’ve been on this journey for the past 20 months now. But I still struggle with the effects of childhood trauma on areas of my life such as my self-confidence and about saying ‘no’ to things for the sake of self-care. My boundaries were constantly violated as a child and it has been a challenge to learn how to set them as an adult.
After speaking to so many families through my work at Neurodiversity Media, I’m slowly processing that the world isn’t always a psychologically manipulative warzone and people can be kind for kindness’s own sake, not for selfish fulfilment of massive individual insecurity.
But the truth is, it’s really hard to remember those things some days. The past often comes back in unexpected ways to immobilise me. Statistically, someone like me should be homeless or in jail, but people stepping in financially at the right times in my life has meant I have avoided those fates so far.
I want you to know that a traumatic past should not prevent you from seeking happiness, however you define it. There is always a way out. The past may leave its scars but it can also provide you with the knowledge that you’ve made it out alive before, so there’s no reason you can’t do it again.
So am I ever going to be okay? I think so. I hope you do too.
P.S Just as it takes a village to raise a (hopefully well-adjusted) child, it takes a village of readers to support people like me to make a meaningful contribution to society regardless of our challenges. Support the creation of more lived experience stories like this by becoming a free member of the Resource Library today.
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