Your Mental Health is a Life Long Journey, Not a Quick Road Trip

Updated: Jul 25, 2020

Life's like a road that you travel on

Tom Cochrane

Music is a big part of my life. I can’t play an instrument or sing, but I almost always have something playing and whether I want it to or not, sometimes the lyrics spark something in my brain.

Today was one of those days.

I was driving north on the highway when the song Life Is a Highway came on. The opening line (in bold above) started me thinking about my mental health journey and how its been like a really long cross-country road trip with a lot of breakdowns along with a few good moments.

The beginnings of my mental health journey are kind of muddled. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s at age 47, but as you know, you’re born autistic, so one could say that my mental health journey began the day I was born in 1965.

In kindergarten I was identified as ADD. You had to be climbing the walls like Spiderman at that time to get the ADHD diagnosis and I wasn’t a wall-crawler. Did it start there?

At the beginning of fifth grade I was molested by a trusted individual and quickly pulled from public school and put into Christian school where I was repeatedly called, “weird,” “stupid,” and “lazy” by my new fifth-grade teacher. She did it both to my face and in front of the class. Did my spiral into low self-esteem begin that year? That seems as good a place as any, but I’m still not sure.

FYI, I had no recollection of the molestation until my mother brought it up to me six months ago, so I don’t know if it was screwing with my subconscious all these years or if I was just blissfully unaware of it. I guess that’s something we’ll never know.

The taunting and name calling from teachers kept going through high school where I was told I was extremely bright and not living up to my potential, that I was not smart enough to be in a private school that sent the majority of their students to prestigious universities, and a journalism teacher who said I should give up writing because I would never be good at it.

Keep in mind that I was out of high school for a dozen years before they started diagnosing kids with autism and another three before they diagnosed anyone with Asperger’s, so I didn’t have the luxury of finding out in my younger days that I wasn’t stupid, but rather that my brain was just wired differently from the rest of my classmates.

The journey could have started in my early twenties when I earned a medical discharge for the Navy for psychological reasons. Reasons we now know were related to my being autistic but undiagnosed. It definitely could have been later in my twenties when I was diagnosed with severe depression and social anxiety disorder.

And we haven’t even talked about the trauma. I’ve felt rejection throughout my life. From the things the people closest to me in my life have said, to the things they’ve done or let happen, to random people in my life letting me know how worthless I was and what a piece of crap I am.

Most of my memories of childhood are of these moments of rejection. I know there were good moments in my childhood, but they’re not the things that instantly pop into my head. I never saw the rejection as trauma until I was sitting down with my therapist one day and she asked if these moments felt traumatic to me. That’s when it clicked, and I saw it for what it really was.

From elementary school until as recently as three days ago, people I care about, or cared about, have said or done things that reject me as a person, reject my good qualities, reject my abilities, disregard or lessen my accomplishments or simply list all the reasons I’m not a good person and then email them to me.

Did I bring this on myself? That’s a good question without a simple answer. The first one that comes to mind is, “No.” I’m wired different and that either scares people, or it makes them feel so uncomfortable or inadequate around me that they have to feel better by making sure I know that I’m less than a person.

On the other hand, because this has happened so often and from a variety of people, one could argue that I do bring it on myself. There are times that I believe that argument and let it get me down, but most of the time I remind myself that I’m simply different and that different isn’t necessarily bad. They’re the ones with the problem. Not me.

When it started doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I’m now 54 and my mental health has been an issue as far back as I can remember. Further back than that, I’m sure.

The journey has been laced with embarrassing moments, such as being discharged from the Navy for psychological reasons when there was no diagnosis of autism available at the time. After the discharge I was homeless for a period of months. My best guess being that they were too embarrassed to have someone in the house with psychological problems. But that's pure speculation.

There was the boss I had who the entire four years I worked for him called me Forrest Gump every single day. He said it to me face, in meetings and in front of the employees who worked for me. That undermined my credibility like you can’t believe and lowered my self -esteem deep, deep into the toilet bowl.

Why didn’t I quit and get another job? I was working as a sales manager at an auto dealership (where my Aspie brain could calculate numbers faster than anyone there) and being an a-hole is just part of that industry. If I quit, I’d just end up with someone else who would do something equally as cruel.

It’s easier to deal with the devil you know.

The highlight of my mental health journey probably came when I was so depressed and down on myself that it was difficult to make any money. Being broke and making some money coaching youth ice hockey and giving lessons, For six years I was forced to live in a filthy 8X10 room in the garage at my brother’s industrial building. It wasn’t sealed properly, so the wind blew in and I constantly had leaves on my bed.

There were rats in the garage, though thankfully I never had any in my “hovel” as I lovingly came to call my home. I cooked on a hot plate and when it rained, the whole garage flooded. There were mornings I would wake up and end up standing in two or three inches of water. I can’t even count the number of times I seriously considered standing in the water and dropping the space heater in it.

Obviously, I didn’t.

A few years earlier I had come to realize that working for someone else just wasn’t cutting it for me, so I started freelance writing. At first it was great. I’ve been published in over a dozen major daily newspapers and have had over 120 pieces published in 30 different magazines.

Then things started going digital, magazines started laying off their writers and hiring them as freelancers and paying work dried up for a lot of people. That led to more depression and I started spiraling once again.

Three years ago I decided I needed to get out of Southern California, if for no other reason than to rid myself of the sensory overload that was overwhelming my autism and to try and see if a new location would offer me a fresh start and a chance to go somewhere peaceful and quiet.

That brings us to the present and my log cabin in the Ozarks of Missouri. I’m near three lakes, have plenty of nature around me, made a handful of good friends, and have found more opportunities for autism advocacy than I had in Southern California, I feel like I’m getting the chance to help people with all sorts of developmental disabilities and that’s more satisfying than you know.

There has been rejection, two major instances, and long spells where my depression and self-esteem kick into high gear, but all in all this part of my journey has been good. I’ve had the chance to speak in front of a huge crowd at the State Capitol Rotunda, self-published a book, been asked to be on the board of two nonprofits and was asked to apply to be on the Governor’s Missouri Developmental Disability Council (still waiting to hear).

The journey isn’t over yet, but I seem to be on a good combination of medications, and I like my therapist, so I’m optimistic that the worst part of this lifetime journey down the highway is behind me.

There have been moments I desperately wanted to give up, but somehow, I’m still here and I know that however tough your journey is that you can make it to the finish line. You can’t do it alone, but there are people out there willing to help you. If you’ll open up and let them.

Like Tom Cochrane (and Rascal Flatts) sang:

There's no load I can't hold A road so rough, this I know I'll be there when the light comes in Tell 'em we're survivors

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