A few years ago, I took part in a pen pal project. People who wanted a letter would post a “question they would ask of The Universe,” and I was one of a few people who would answer the question to the best of our abilities in a real paper mail letter. One of my favorites came from a high school student who asked, “Am I different?” They went on to express concern that they wanted to be a writer, but were worried their Differences would make nobody understand what they wrote. It was lovely, because the answer itself just poured out of the letter. “Short answer?” I wrote. “Yes. You are different. Does that worry you? Don’t let it.” They themselves had said that people read their writing and said, “I never thought of it that way.” Not, “I don’t understand,” but “I never thought of it that way,” which is exactly the reaction an artist ought to inspire. Our differences are what the world needs! Our unique voices must be raised so that others can say, “I never thought of it that way,” and visions will expand!
But this letter has been dancing through my own middle-aged mind in reverse lately. “Am I different?” Maybe it started with my ADHD diagnosis. Something about being officially labeled neurodivergent made me start looking at the way I see the world from the outside. “This isn’t what most people experience?” I thought. All those articles I read as an education major meant to explain to me how a person with ADHD experiences things differently from me-the-reader, and yet I was on the other side of that experience divide all along? What is normal? Where are the “this is what it’s like to be neurotypical” articles, as that’s apparently what I don’t know about?
It’s a bit silly, because I’ve always known I’m different, but I’d never thought of it according to labels. I wrote a whole article the other month about Labels vs. Symptoms and how it doesn’t really make a difference, except when it does, but still I found myself wondering, but what does this MEAN?
I think the part that is bugging me is not so much whether or not I’m different, but if I’m different enough. Am I different in the right ways? Can I really claim my experiences as, say, someone with an attention disorder when, unlike typical people with ADHD, I aced school (albeit while zoning out in class and regularly missing homework) and I am the exact opposite of hyperactive?
Am I on the autistic spectrum or not? When I was younger, nope, or at least I was far enough up the spectrum to be considered “normal.” But the ways ASDs are diagnosed nowadays are so much broader, and so much clearer about how they manifest differently in girls. When I was in high school, I attended a social skills group therapy thing with a girl I could tell had Aspergers, and I knew she was different from me: she was next to silent and didn’t seem to have any interests, whereas I would ramble about my interests so much that I worried I looked like somebody who wasn’t shy (and therefore didn’t belong there) to the others. Except my rambling was awkward, my interests were obsessions, and we’re not even going into my extreme aversion to loud and/or repetitive noises here.
The first I heard of autism was reading the Baby-Sitters Club book Kristy and the Secret of Susan when I was in sixth grade—before my own baby brother got diagnosed with a spectrum disorder himself. Kristy’s babysitting charge had deep, classic autism, though, much further along the spectrum than my brother. The book described it as “being in another world,” experiencing reality itself differently, and it hurt my rational brain. What was it like to experience reality totally differently? It’s like the question of whether other people see colors the same way you do. How can you know? I finished the book at recess and just sat on the hill in a daze, pondering over and over, what is it like to experience the whole world differently? As my classmates climbed and raced and gossiped around me, I already had my answer without realizing it. I was experiencing a completely different reality from my classmates right then and there.
I’ve always felt awkwardly unfeminine around typically-girly girls, but I’m hardly gender-neutral, and tend to be even more noticeably feminine around guys. I can’t claim that I don’t fit into a gender binary when I’ve never felt anything but female, yet I’m not comfortable with certain gender norms. Sexuality is also an awkward topic: I have discovered there’s an aspect of the asexuality spectrum called “demisexuality,” which absolutely describes me. But like autism, it’s a spectrum, and it feels like a “not quite different enough” place to be in. I identify with a lot of discussions in the asexual community, but I am sexual, plain old heterosexual at that—just selectively so. I’ll defend the right of asexual individuals to belong to the Queer Community (no, that “A” does NOT stand for “Ally”), but me? I feel I have no right to that label. I’ve not dealt with the discrimination and hatred some of my friends have because of their sexual identities. I’m just one of those old-fashioned nuts who believe in One True Love,* it’s hardly like my identity isn’t present in the media.
A librarian blogger I follow, Bryce, has an occasional guest-posting series on Accessibility in Libraries, written by people who identify as “disabled/neurodivergent.” When she first put out a call for submissions, I ignored it, because what do I have to say about how library life is accessible to me, even if I am neurodivergent? Do I even count as neurodivergent if I don’t notice having any particular accessibility needs? Then I saw this post in the series: “A Lot of Librarians are Spoonies.” Oh. I was a bit of a Spoonie, though (as usual) I didn’t identify with the theory exactly. But I do have chronic depression, and it has drained me of Spoons on more than one inopportune occasion. So, do I count, then, after all? I wrote to Bryce to ask what she thought of me writing on the topic of simply accepting that I do have special needs, invisible as they might be, simple as they seem. She was all for it. I started to write.
That was six or seven months ago. I didn’t finish. For one thing, I’m not currently depressed. I still take my meds to keep me from crashing again, but I’ve been on an upswing lately and doing great. I’m well aware this is as temporary a state as my lows are, that I’m prone to crashing, that I am a chronic depressive who just happens to be managing it really well at the moment. But who am I to talk about depression while I’m not depressed?
I don’t know why I’m so disinclined to claim any sort of alternate identity, no matter how true it is for me. It’s like I imagine if I say, “This is how it is,” everyone who feels some aspect of that identity more strongly than I do will counter, “That is NOT how it is!” So how is it? Where do I fit? What right do I have to claim any sort of identity at all?
I saw a “Check Your Privilege!” quiz thing on Facebook the other day. I know I’m a pretty privileged person: white, middle class, highly educated, mainstream-Christian, (basically) heterosexual, native-born American. But because I only checked off 45 of 100 points of privilege, the quiz came back and said I was “Not Privileged At All.” Uh, that’s not how privilege works, quiz. Being a neurodivergent female who has experienced (relatively brief) financial hardship doesn’t erase all my unearned benefits.
I mean, I don’t feel discriminated against because of my differences—at least, not anymore, now that I’m not just the weird nerdy kid who failed to fit in at elementary school.** I’m just me, good at some things, bad at others. Different. From everybody.
Why should I worry if my voice can’t represent anybody’s experience but my own? Doesn’t that make it irreplaceable?
As usual, A Wrinkle In Time has an answer for every one of my big questions. I’m suddenly remembering Meg worrying about something Charles Wallace said about her earlier. “Charles says I’m not one thing or the other, not flesh nor fowl nor good red herring.”
“Oh, for crying out loud,” Calvin said, “You’re Meg, aren’t you? Come on and let’s go for a walk.”
*I do not actually, with my brain, believe in One True Love, but that’s the easiest way to describe my brand of demisexuality. When I DO feel attracted to a person, THEY ARE MY ONE TRUE LOVE. It’s an all-or-nothing sort of thing. I have had about, um, five or six One True Loves over the course of my life. I just married the one who reciprocated it.
**Which is not to belittle the emotional scars these experiences have left on me. I still struggle with them, yes. It’s just that currently, I’m not being bullied.
3 thoughts on “Am I Different? — On Claiming Identities”
Can we get a copy of this to every high school kid out there? Because I really do think we all ask this question at some point. Some people are hoping that YES THEY ARE different, and others are hoping that NO I CONFORM, but I think your article shows both sides within one wonderful Amy. 🙂
Love and miss ya, we need to get our geeklings together soon and have a huge old alphabet soup party.
Who is to say what’s normal? Gramma used to say “You 5 kids were so different but so much alike.” So true. Example, Chris and Bob.
I’d buy different color Barbies because I thought all Blonde Barbies were boring. Someday we can learn to like ourselves.
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