"Just keep working hard."
Hello all! We’re excited to share another exclusive story about disability this month — parts of it might feel familiar to anyone who has been told they are “too much.”
"Just keep working hard."
My supervisor told me I wasn't receiving a promotion. He avoided my gaze, knowing I had already taken on the added responsibility six months ago without extra pay. His boss sat in the corner behind me and elaborated, "You aren't the obvious choice to your coworkers." As I looked down at my hands, he started to mumble about how I'm distant and hard to read. I meekly asked, "What can I do to fit the role in the future?" My supervisor replied, "Just keep working hard."
I'm cold. I'm intimidating. People have a hard time getting to know me. I've heard it all before, and always too late. I'd watch the opportunity pass by, wishing they had told me sooner, then I could've tried harder. I could've been more likable. Wasn't that what they wanted?
I was always “too much” growing up. I was too loud and too sensitive. I had too many interests. I went to sleep too late. My parents put it a bit more nicely, but I knew that normal kids weren't called "quirky" and didn't need neuropsychological testing. So, I tried to be “less.” But becoming less meant becoming less myself.
I tried to be “less.” But becoming less meant becoming less myself.
I struggled with depression and anxiety throughout my teenage and young adult years. I couldn't understand why at the time. I liked my life; I especially liked the career I was building for myself. I spent my weekends volunteering at the local aquarium where I found solace in science. I could be too enthusiastic there. I had to talk too loudly over the crowds. I felt happy eight hours a week because, at the aquarium, I got to be more of myself.
I continued to struggle when I went off to college, though. My dad sat down in the corner of my dorm after moving me in. While holding back tears, he told me he was worried about me, "I'm afraid people won't understand you." I don't know what people thought of me, but I became hyperaware of how I was different from my peers. And being around them 24/7 meant being less myself all of the time.
Science no longer provided respite. I spent all of my energy trying to sit still during my lectures at the expense of my understanding. I smiled and talked slowly during interviews and worked quietly in lab. This served me well in some ways. I made friends, accepted multiple internships, and received help when I asked for it. But I sank deeper into depression and, eventually, I stopped feeling anything at all. I wasn't sure who I was anymore. I couldn't tell you my favorite movies or pick an outfit that felt most like me. I lost interest in everything, including science. Sure, I blended in but at the expense of being myself.
I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was twenty-six; this is when I learned that I've been masking for most of my life. Masking is what ADHDers do to be accepted or, often, to survive. It's when we try not to have ADHD. It takes a lot of effort and can lead to burnout. It can delay our diagnosis and be a barrier to receiving help. It can make us strangers to ourselves. Along with the ADHD diagnosis, I was told that I may be autistic and that I had complex post-traumatic stress disorder. I struggled to unmask. The messaging I heard as a child and how I was perceived was now inextricably tied to my identity. Was I cold when I didn’t converse with my coworkers or was I just trying not to get distracted? Was I hard to read or was I using different social cues? Did that “quirky” and jovial kid really become a reserved and pessimistic adult? A few years would go by before I got my answer. The COVID-19 pandemic hit and I chose to isolate myself as someone with multiple chronic illnesses. Away from the constant criticisms and societal pressure, the mask started to crumble.
I didn’t know that I was neurodivergent while I sat in my supervisor’s office all those years ago. But I did know that I couldn’t survive as anyone other than myself anymore. I went home and wrote my letter of resignation. As I handed the envelope to my supervisor, the voice of a child whispered from the back of my mind, “Thank you for choosing me.”
Fen is a disabled, queer game developer who designs worlds that inspire feelings of wonder, curiosity, and excitement. Their mission is to help people live many fantastic lives from the comfort of their homes.
Remembering Judy Heumann
Disability activist Judy Heumann died at age 75 earlier this month. Heumann was an incredibly impactful and influential American Civil Rights activist, beginning her work in the 1960s all the way up to her death. She garnered more attention in recent years when her autobiography was released and she was one of the stars of the 2020 documentary, "Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution." In 1987, NPR Reporter Joseph Shapiro interviewed her about disability rights, and she said, "Disability only becomes a tragedy when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives — job opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example. It is not a tragedy to me that I'm living in a wheelchair." You can read the rest of his article about Judy and her life on NPR.
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