Earlier this week, one of my favorite actors Kristen Bell revealed that she suffers from depression and anxiety. In an interview with "Off Camera with Sam Jones", she talked about how her mother told her at a young age about a hereditary serotonin imbalance in her family and taking medication to help ease the hormone. You can watch the interview here:
It was shocking to me to hear this from Bell. She's known for being a very bubbly and positive personality, which makes her one of the most likable personalities in Hollywood. To hear she apparently has purposely worked to cultivate this to compensate for her mental illness is something I would've never expected. But it ultimately made me love her more for her honesty and willingness to be open about herself.
And it particularly hit home for me because aside from being autistic, I too suffer from chronic depression and anxiety.
I don't quite know how long I've had depression and anxiety. Like Bell, both these things run in my family. My late grandmother and her sisters had varying degrees of depression and my father has displayed anxious tendencies throughout my life. (My father is currently not so anxious due to a combination of medication and his dog, which he cuddles with whenever he feels down.) What I do know is that both of these things seem to be much more extreme in me than anyone else in my family.
I can remember my first depressive thought pretty vividly. I was about eight years old and had already figured out I was very different from my peers. I was aware of my meltdowns, my frustrations with simple socialization skills everyone else seem to have figured out, my overall lack of friends, and how negatively other kids and adults regarded me. I had began to believe I was a problem, especially noting my parents' frustration every time a school official told them about my bad days. And so I found myself sitting alone at a table during lunch one day and a disturbing thought crossed my head - if I died at that very moment, people would be happy I was gone. It's a horrible thing for a child to conceive, and it's never quite left me no matter how hard I've fought it.
Anxiety manifests itself in a similar way for me. Being aware I was different meant I had to try a lot harder than everyone else to fit in. I was taught to think about every action I took, every word I said, and how to present myself in the best possible light. All this thinking made me pressure myself to be as likable as humanly possible and the moment I started to get any negative feelings, I would fight it until it spiraled out of control and I'd explode. And to this day whenever I plan something or faced with tough interactions, I'd meticulously count for every detail that could go wrong and if a wrench is thrown in the mix it's hard for me not to lose it.
So what does this have to do with autism? Numerous studies have shown that autistic people are extremely likely to have various forms of mental illness, most common of which are anxiety and depression. While I'm not the first person to question studies concerning autism (as it often lacks autistic involvement), I have to give it some validity because I see it in real life. Many of the clients at my agency receive mental health counseling and have expressed issues of low self-esteem and perception of self. This should give me some kind of comfort in feeling less alone, but the reality is that depression and anxiety makes you feel isolated from everyone else. And knowing other people have it too doesn't erase that gut feeling of being solitary in your particular brand of funk.
My mother says my autistic symptoms get exasperated whenever I'm in an anxious or depressive state. I don't know how much of that is true but here's what I do know: when I'm depressed, I isolate myself from everyone. I will want to do things but I get so physically and mentally debilitated that I can't do them. I won't want to see anyone lest my mental state brings them down with me and spend my time crying or sleeping. And whenever I'm around people in a depressed state, I either shut down entirely or spiral into negative thoughts that I end up exploding in front of everyone. As for anxiety, I end up riling myself up to panic attacks and become unable to process anything both physically and mentally. Both are incredibly distressing for me, let alone anyone else who catches me in those states.
My personal treatment for this is three-fold. My life-long therapy visits have turned from play and behavior to addressing my overall mental health. I've had such distorted thoughts throughout my life that need addressing that they can best talked about person to person. And like Bell, I'm on various medications to level out pre-existing chemical imbalances in my brain. They've changed over the years but the current combo seems to work for now in keeping me going day to day at a level state. But probably the most telling strategy I employ is trying to keep myself as busy as possible. I read, watch videos and movies, go out with friends, see family - anything I can to keep myself from spending time with my thoughts. It's distraction and not necessarily healthy, but it works until I find myself completely alone. I'm trying to fix that in self-reflection but it's a hard process - lifelong negative messages don't get defeated easily.
Mental health is not something that gets addressed when it comes to autism. More often than not people treat autism as all encompassing and any other issues, particularly possible co-occurring mental illness, get left by the wayside. When I first received my diagnosis in 1990, the doctors didn't even think of recommending addressing mental health needs outside of behavioral therapy and that's still true in the wider world today. Autism isn't a catch-all diagnosis that negates any other issues one may have - everyone is inherently complicated and multiple diagnoses are not mutually exclusive. And both are so heavily stigmatized that anyone dealing with them are shamed in wanting to admit they have them, let alone address them.
Last Week Tonight did a piece on mental health last year and emphasized that we cannot stigmatize it and those who need it treated. In the same way, we cannot ignore nor stigmatize any mentally ill autistic person. If anything we need love and support so we can live our lives happily and healthily.