Working on Your Mental Health is Kind of Like Reparenting Yourself

A friend came to visit the Professor Haus the other day….

(sorry we have been power watching “Letterkenney”)

It was a delightful visit. I got to introduce her to some things that I love in Detroit (including dinner at Mugly’s) and we also had fun discovering new things together. 

However, I wasn’t planning on learning so many lessons. 

So, in case this is your first time reading or you have forgotten who I am as a human, I will give you a refresher:

I am Jacki. I am autistic and OC(D). I have something called aphantasia which means I am unable to form mental imagery. I also have something called SDAM, which stands for Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory. And then there’s more stuff that acronyms don’t quite yet exist to describe.

It’s fun living in my brain, y’all. 

And that fun is subjective. 

Now, most of these diagnoses are new-ish to me, in the last three or so years. However, I have suspected I was on the autistic spectrum for a big chunk of my adult life. 

The first time I had an inkling about something being different about my brain was a parent telling me to act “normal” so we “didn’t have to go to the doctor again”. 

Then I promptly forgot about it for 20+ years. 

Then I met Max from “Parenthood” and saw a lot of myself in him and his new diagnosis. My friend group also saw a lot of that in me and picked on me about it repeatedly. I laughed along at the time, but it was very hurtful. Again, I simply wanted to fit in. And laughing along at the things that hurt me was the easiest path to that. I knew that after years of being shut down for simply being myself.

Side note: I’ve tried to rewatch “Parenthood” again multiple times, but the magic didn’t stick. So, I’m just keeping my happy Max memories and thanking him for helping me to untangle the first of many tangles in my brain.

While I did suspect my autism early, I didn’t feel safe enough to unmask it until the pandemic hit. 

Even then, in the safety of my home with people I felt to be safe or even when it is my own goddamned self and absolutely no one else, it was near impossible to unmask myself. 

It still is. I beat myself up for a long time because, I mean, I turn it on, right? It should just be that easy turn it off. 

Except, it is not. In fact instead of like a Halloween mask, I feel like my autistic mask is made out of permanent makeup. Like, it’s tattooed on. 

Which sucks, because I do feel infinitely better on the inside when I’m not wearing it. 

Then something happens to trigger the mask again and it’s a while until I feel safe enough to let it down. 

Lately, this has been my greatest mental health struggle, because once the mask comes back on, the negative self talk and OCD loops come roaring back.  That’s a really difficult train to stop in its tracks, let me tell you. 

Now, of course, with all the work I’ve been doing on my own damn self lately, I’ve been more successful in untangling these loopy times much more quickly than I would have before. 

In the interest of keeping myself honest, I will tell you that it used to take days to get out of one of the loops. Now, I’ve got it down to mere hours, and in some cases when I am not overwhelmed in other ways – minutes!

But the quickness of minutes didn’t happen until after my friend’s visit. 

Simply observing the many gentle ways she parented her elementary-school-aged child made me aware of the many skills I never learned myself. 

The main one being that it’s important to feel your feelings and work through them. 

I mean, that’s obvious, right? But what I didn’t have, which I so desperately needed, was a model of how this works in real life… in real time. 

I watched my friend and her child go through the gamut of human emotion: extreme excitement to frightened fear, out of control happiness to unexplained sadness. 

The thing that blew me away the most was how quickly they were both able to navigate these emotions. 

It was like a miracle and after a few days of watching this in action, I recognized a pattern and started adapting to my own grown up life. 

(it helped that I got to watch the mom navigate a fair amount of emotions on her own, too)

Here is the pattern I observed and adapted:

Step One: Have a feeling. (Yes, it is okay to have a feeling.)

Step Two: Acknowledge that feeling. The way this sounds most often is, “Hey, I see you are feeling -insert emotion here- because -insert thing that happened-.” (this part takes place in my own head, obv.)

Step Three: Pay attention to the actual way your body feels. Are you sweating? Did your heart rate quicken? How is your breathing? Your palms? Your pits? Are you feeling hot or cold? Pay attention to your body, basically. 

Step Four: This is the important one that I never learned. Tell yourself that it is okay for you to have that feeling, good or bad. Accept it. Do not try to ignore or shove it to the side or turn it into the opposite of what you are really feeling. This is something that I have to actively fight against, particularly with negative emotions, because I was taught that it was awful and wrong to have those, ever. 

Step Five: This step has been the most helpful to me in navigating my own emotions. Remind yourself that you are safe. Repeatedly, as much as possible. Because what I am realizing is that a lot of my body’s instantaneous reactions are based on old situations where I was actually unsafe. So my body and brain trying to protect me from something… that they don’t need to protect me from any longer. (Of course, I make sure I am not in any actually danger, first.)

Step Six: Feel the emotions, but at the same time, figure out if there is a solution to remedy the thing that triggered the emotion in the first place. If there is, act on it!

Step Seven: Finish feeling your emotions. However that may look. If it’s gonna get ugly, it’s okay to remove yourself, respectfully, so that you can work through the emotions fully. Sometimes this looks like crying, sometimes this looks like raging, sometimes this looks like jangly limb dancing. It varies. 

But if you don’t work through them fully, they’re just gonna sit there and nothing will ever change. 

Since I’ve adopted this system in my brain (it goes really fast sometimes, almost instantaneously), I’ve found myself able to slow down and be more honest with myself and those around me about what is actually happening inside my brain. 

It’s hard, but greatly rewarding. However, I feel like a big fraud even typing this all out as a blog, because I still feel very much like a messy fraud inside my head.

Despite all this progress, my brain is still pretty mean to me. But we’re working on it. Together.

 

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