Wrestling with an Unexpected Mental Health Diagnosis
After suffering a nervous breakdown, mountain-bike photographer Matt Wragg received a surprising opinion from his psychologist
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This article was first published by Pinkbike.com.
In my head I think of these pieces as my annual mental health columns. With that kind of timeline I usually spend some time trying to shape my thoughts into something that makes sense—a beginning, middle and end. Where I started, what happened, how it ended.
For the past few years that has happened naturally—my first was a year out from my nervous breakdown, so I had enough time to get through the worst of it and attempt to offer some hope from the other side. My second and third years were a continuation of the same theme, steps towards what I hoped would be going back to a life that didn’t look too different from before. They were milestones about which I could hopefully make a point and try to leave the reader with something to think about.
This year I have been staring at a page trying to write something for months, but nothing comes. Right now I don’t know how to talk about what I’m going through, how to package it all up in 1,500 words and tie it off with a bow.
Last Autumn, a month or two after I wrote my last column, I found out that I am probably autistic.
Blindsided doesn’t start to cover it. It is not underselling it to say that I had never seriously thought of myself in those terms. After all, using Google MD, it is too easy to convince yourself that you have at least four cancers and a malignant personality disorder, and as someone with a diagnosed anxiety disorder I know to stay well away.
High-functioning was the word my psychologist used. Reading a little, I guess I would probably fall into what used to be called the Aspergers camp, although I also identify with many of the traits that would once have been codified as Pervasive Development Disorder, today I believe it is snappily referred to as Pathologic Demand Avoidance. I don’t like the urge to micro-classify things, it feels dishonest to me, so I tend to think of it as simply “autistic,” or “on the spectrum,” if you must.
The one thing I am sure of is that when I try to explain this to people and they say, “Oh, you have light autism,” that does not feel right. There is little light about some of the moments from the past few years, but maybe that is unfair to the autistic people who can’t function in day-to-day life like I can.
Truth be told, I don’t even have a formal diagnosis. My (now former) psychologist did a good job of convincing me that there was no point in getting a diagnosis at my age. Because I don’t fit the criteria to be considered disabled, it was tough luck bucko. She did something of a number on me with this—dropping an atom bomb of a revelation on my life, then leaving me to pick up the pieces without so much as a pamphlet to guide me, and the fixed idea that there is not help coming.
How are you supposed to deal with the idea of finding out something like this near your 40th birthday? How do you reconcile this with half a lifetime of experiences?
One of the big differences I have found between anxiety and autism is that there is a lot more material out there for anxiety, practical resources to help you deal with the day-to-day. There are a lot more people talking about their experiences, and that does make a difference—I would love to have found a book, blog or podcast by someone who I can relate to. It would be nice to have a template for how to try and deal with things, rather than having to invent something each time.
Since my psychologist told me that she thinks I’m autistic, it has uprooted my whole world. It provides an explanatory narrative to my nervous breakdown, it explains so many events from my past that hurt me, it even explains things that I didn’t realize were hurting me. It may sound silly, but feeling like I have permission to admit that I find people confusing, to know that in social situations it is normal for me to struggle, has been such a weight lifted from my shoulders.
In the past, when a social situation went badly or stressed me out, I took responsibility for it. After all, if everybody else seems to know what is going on, it must be my fault things are going badly, right?
The narrative of autism feels like it is going to be enormously helpful in the years to come, because one thing I have learned over the past years is that learning more about how I am wired has helped me reshape my life in a positive way. But that comes at a cost, reassessing your life is no light or easy thing to do. The past year has been very tough and it is not finished.
On my weaker days, I hate the idea of being autistic. Because I see anxiety as a problem, one that I felt like I was on my way to solving. Stupid or not, I honestly believed that I could beat anxiety and get past it. Being autistic is permanent, there is no solving it, and I want to throw try my toys out of the pram in protest.
I try not to dwell on what I am dealing with in these pieces, but feel like I am falling down that trap because I don’t know what this is all going to mean for me. I don’t know how I am going to feel about it or how to explain it to anyone else. It’s just tough—but maybe that’s the point?
It would be nice to think that mental illness is a nice, clean thing like a broken bone. You visit the hospital, get the X-rays and cast, and a few weeks later (with a little luck) you are whole once more. For me, I struggle with the idea that there was a simpler, happier state somewhere in my past that I want to get back to, but the truth is this is probably little more than a lie my brain is telling me.
Progress does not come in the shape of a nice, clean trajectory where you feel better as the journey goes, the reality is that there will likely be phases where things get tougher again. What I do not buy into is the myth that mental illness magically conveys strength to its sufferers. I can only speak for myself, but throughout my tribulations I have never felt strong. The only thing I have ever done is put one foot in front of the other, take one day at a time. And that is where I am today, one step at a time, focusing on the process, not the goal.
On my better days, I see that my idea of a happier past is rose-tinted bullshit. I have been speaking to a new therapist and have found some connections who can help me get a formal diagnosis, but quite honestly I am afraid of what that process may bring so have been putting that off. On those better days I know that I need to keep going, because the evidence of recent years shows me that if I can keep learning more to deepen my understanding of how my brain works, then maybe, just maybe, the real happier days are yet to come. Although where I am today may not be much fun, I am closer to that goal than I was last year.
Matt Wragg is a longtime contributor to Pinkbike.com. Originally a full time event photographer, Wragg followed the Enduro World Series on contract for many of the world’s biggest brands. In more recent years he’s traded the traveling circus of event photography for quieter spaces, and has focused on sharing stories and perspectives from his years in the industry. He lives in the South of France with his partner Mary, and still picks up a camera occasionally.