I have two fairly ‘conflicting’ conditions – autism and bipolar disorder. Apparently they are rarely found together, and I’m pretty sure I’ve even heard some say you can never have both. (Nb. for info, you can and I do.)
Whilst being two very distinct disorders, with different roots and causes, they do interact. When I’m manic, there’d be argument for saying I’m not autistic – or at least some of the outward ‘symptoms’ melt away. My autism and bipolar wax and wane in salience at different times in my life, and it can result in a highly tumultuous relationship with my sense of self.
I think it may be slightly controversial within certain parts of the autistic community to say I consider my ASD a disability, but at times I do. Both autism and bipolar bring disabling aspects along with the beneficial ones. And by beneficial, I mean more the things that I accept as making up part of who I am. As an autistic individual I am honest, kind and loyal. As someone with bipolar I am creative, with a wild imagination and big ideas about the world. Together they make up part of what makes me unique – I don’t follow society’s unspoken rules (because I don’t care for them, and because I don’t actually understand them), I think ‘outside the box’, and I don’t act in any way other than that which comes naturally to me.
The problem for me comes when they do collide, and the fight in my head can become noisy and challenging. At the moment, I’m struggling to decide what I want in life. Spring has sprung, the sun is starting to creep through the clouds and my summer-induced hypomania is slowly coming into bloom. All I can think about is big ideas of refinding myself as an artist, reinventing my whole career plan, blowing all my money on art supplies and turning my house into a studio. But with these big creative plans tends to come a tricky conflict between what I want to do and what my autism allows me to do, as well as where my strengths lie as a result of it.
As part of my job, and my degree, I’ve completed a lot of career-based self-assessment tests. A selection of variations on the kind you probably took at school that told you that you should be a farmer or fence erector (- those are supposedly genuine examples people have told me by the way. Mine came out as librarian). These types of self-assessment tools are designed to help you identify and align your interests and your strengths in the workplace. For me, these always result in a very obvious mismatch – what I love, and I’m energised by, is not what I’m good at, nor what comes easily. My interests say teaching, helping and coaching, and a love for all things people-focused and creative. My skills say numbers, logic, data and tech – and to absolutely avoid all things involving human contact. Whilst some may disagree, for me I identify this to an extent as the fight between my bipolar self and my autistic self. The spontaneous, art-loving carefree (perhaps too much) manic self, being anchored to reality by the social anxiety ridden, logic-driven autistic self. My mind changes day-to-day – some days my dream would be to run an art gallery, complete with lively events and exhibition openings, others it would be to manage detailed archives, where the only contact I have is with things and not people.
I’ve been feeling more and more lately that I don’t know how to accommodate for this misalignment. For example, there are very few careers which are creative, artistic, methodical and logical but not data heavy, focused on helping others but without too much actual social contact, and completely structured and secure without being dull … There’s very little I imagine could fulfil the needs of both my floaty head-in-the-clouds self and my feet-placed-firmly-on-the-ground self, especially as which one is in control rarely stays the same for any length of time.
The title of this post is a clumsy attempt to sum up how I feel. My heart yearns for people and creativity and playfulness, when my head seems stuck in a need for isolation, facts and routine. The very things that energise me make me anxious, and the things I’m comfortable doing bore me, or leave me feeling unfulfilled. I’m grateful that the two sides work in tandem, particularly as I’m sure my autism keeps me far more grounded than I might be without it (although medication also has a part to play in that of course). However there are occasional times like this that I wish they would just get on a little bit better, if just to keep their home in my brain a little more peaceful and harmonious.
PS. There can certainly be a very fine line between personality trait and symptom, and you’re welcome to argue that all of this is just a result of a muddled up personality. All I can say is that I’m the first person I’ve come across in my career studies who has such a misaligned sense of interests vs abilities – but if you feel the same please get in touch and tell me how you manage!