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I Almost Died From Addiction Until I Was Diagnosed With Autism

Photo: Courtesy of Author, Artwistical, fcscafeine | Canva
Author breaking free from addiction after autism diagnosis

Author's Note: I can only tell you personally about my own experience of being an undiagnosed autistic woman. My research has been predominantly about women because I identify as female, but also because studies show that eighty percent of autistic women aren’t diagnosed until later in life.

"Having spent a long time assessing you, we think you may be autistic," the psychologist says through Zoom.

I stare in shock at the screen. It's November 2020, and we are deep into a pandemic that will leave behind a plethora of untold damage.

It's also the year I find out I’m on the autism spectrum, relapse after gaining two years of sobriety, and leave a fiancé I am supposed to be marrying.

To move toward the beginning of a recovery of the person I was always supposed to be, I must first hit rock bottom.

"Are you okay?" the psychologist asks.

"Yeah," I nod, voice breaking, "I’m just relieved."

"Lots of people say that, particularly women."

He spews forty minutes more information about autism, but I don’t hear it, can’t process it.

"Do you have any questions?" he asks.

"Do you have anything my partner and I could read?" I ask. "He never expected to be marrying an autistic person."

"I do, but nothing has changed, you’re still the same person."

My cheeks burn while he reels off a list of literature I should read. But the psychologist doesn’t understand: I did change. I'm not the same person. And my relationship is on the brink of collapse.

Two years ago, I stopped drinking. I stopped taking drugs. I stopped smoking. I changed my life for the better. My fiancé doesn’t like the person I have become, and my life is falling apart like an old cloth, thread by thread.

"Everything is going to be happy and normal and sorted now," I tell my fiancé that evening, while I snort cocaine off a microwaved plate in our living room.

   

   

RELATED: Young Woman Shares The 10 Signs Of Autism That Were Missed When She Was A Child

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a spectrum, meaning it encompasses a wide range of symptoms and levels of severity. There's much debate on the range of capabilities on the autism spectrum. Emily Paige Ballou, an autistic writer, comments that the spectrum "ranges from the non-speaking and very profoundly disabled" to the “just quirky." This description is arguably too vague.

The criteria for a person to be diagnosed with ASD are often classified as exhibiting repetitive behaviors, difficulties with social interaction, communication challenges, and sensory dysfunctions.

Addiction is a highly stigmatized complex disease that, according to research, is comparable to conditions such as heart disease or cancer due to its biological basis. Tom Hill, a Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, has said addiction is seen as a chronic brain disease and should be approached with empathy and kindness.

Extensive experiments testing on animals, such as Pavlov’s dogs and rats, identify how animals will press a button to avoid an electric shock. Our brains are not dissimilar to animals. If we can avoid pain, we will implement a means of escape.

At fifteen, I found myself hooked up to a drip for the weekend after taking an overdose of paracetamol.

I vividly remember what I felt that day as I popped pill after pill into my mouth. It’s the same feeling I had as I grew older and drank myself into oblivion: I want to disappear

One day after school, my friend and I were in our spot behind the rose bushes. "Do you want a rollie?" my friend asked.

"Yes, please." Whoever was sitting up rolled the cigarettes.

‘I only have cannabis-flavor papers,’ he told me.

"Fine," I said, sparking my cigarette. The paper had green marijuana leaves all over it and I rolled my eyes.

I went dizzy as I inhaled the smoke.

"Wow," I breathed when I inhaled again and felt a tingling all over my body.

He laughed.

"What?" I asked, a laziness coming over me. It dawned on me. "Is this weed?"

"Yes," he nodded, holding his sides.

I felt too good to be outraged. Instead, I took another drag and laid my head on the grass. Suddenly nothing mattered. The hurtful fists of the bullies earlier that day were forgotten. I didn’t feel the ball of angst in the pit of my stomach, the one that would sit waiting to burst into a screaming match with my parents or a scrawling mess in my diary.

The overbearing voice inside my head was finally silent. I didn’t feel out of place or like I had been melded into skin that didn’t fit.

I had never even been drunk and that was my first taste of freedom from my thoughts.

‘You like it?’ my friend asked. I nodded and rolled onto my back, eyes closed. Every part of me relaxed. I’d never felt truly content before, completely relaxed, totally still. There and then, laid on that brown grass, began my obsession with leaving a world that was never made for me.

I was being bullied at school and misunderstood, both factors that can lead to childhood trauma, a big indicator of substance abuse later in life. Journalist Jenny Valentish said in her book, Woman of Substances, "A toxic combination of temperament traits and environmental stress efficiently turns some people into a time bomb for addiction."

My experience growing up autistic without an autism diagnosis was highly traumatic, a firework display of chaos up until my thirties, my teenage years being the hardest.

My teenage years are a blur of despicable behavior and fizzling red anger, a fury so great it burned anything it came near. 

I’d just been expelled from school despite a desperate yearning to be a good student. Life was grey and chaotic like I was floating on a sea of broken ground, and I couldn’t balance on land before falling into the murky depths. My home life had been happy and I was loved deeply by my mum, dad, and two sisters, but I felt thoroughly misunderstood.

"There’s something wrong with me," I remember telling my dad in one of those blurry early memories. I couldn’t have been older than six.

The beatings from my bullies were terrible, real violence that led to marks and bruises and fear and school changes. I was never given a chance and kids are cruel.

When I was twelve, we moved. I missed my home with the fierce emptiness you feel when you go through a breakup. Filled with sadness and a frothing rage towards my parents for making me leave, I would scream and shout and cry and have tantrums. It was frightening for everyone and I felt out of control.

A change like that is a huge event for any child. At eleven, I told my sister I wanted to go to sleep in a hospital for a long time and not wake up. I was frightened all the time. Then we moved four hundred miles away from the only home I’d ever had. Add to the fact I was undiagnosed as autistic, so no one knew. Change is a big trigger for anxiety and meltdowns for autistic children and adults. I can only describe what happened after our move as one long meltdown.

When I found an escape from the pain in the bottom of a bag of weed, I was stoned for years — or high or drunk or anything that would take me away from the reality of now.

I discovered oblivion could be found when I swallowed a crumbly pill with a little cherry, or a love heart pressed into its chemical surface. Misunderstandings no longer mattered. Finally, I could relate to people floating on the pink clouds of MDMA trips with me and laughing in ignorant marijuana bubbles. When I got drunk it was like being gone for a while, relief from the relentless bombardment of a world that was too bright, too colorful, too loud, too everything.

For the next fifteen years, I drank and took whatever drugs I could find to try and fill the gap where my needs were not being met. When it wasn't enough, I would chase dangerous sex, food, shopping, and anything that might fill that void. Anything to trigger that dopamine hit. Anything to make me stop wanting.

Nothing did.

Everywhere I worked ended with a fallout I didn’t understand, leading to depression, anxiety, and plans to end my life.

Being ostracized by groups of people in school, social situations, workplaces, events, and everywhere, left me with long-lasting complex trauma. We are herd animals by nature, but I have never found a herd that accepted me. 

Eventually, when I turned twenty-seven, my nights started ending with limbs splayed across my faded rug at four a.m., staving off the familiar suffocation of brewing panic.

You’re going to die you’re going to die you’re going to die, a voice screamed while I quivered and focused on pulling air into rattling lungs. Sleep, sleep, need sleep.

I'd pop a Xanax before waking up ten hours later sprawled across my bed, surprised to be alive. The overdose nights became a regular thing. Perhaps the 27 Club is a thing for a reason. It was the year I realized I wasn’t invincible, but Janis Amy, and Jimi didn’t get it in time. I'm one of the lucky ones.

   

   

RELATED: 17 Signs You May Be On The Autism Spectrum

As I touched on earlier, the word ‘autism’ to describe a vast spectrum of capabilities can be damaging. Each person on the spectrum has their unique battles. The hardest thing about being autistic and having nothing visibly ‘wrong’ with me, is that I am expected to live in the world as though I have the capabilities of everyone else.

I seem normal, so I'm expected to be. When I'm around people I don’t know well, they can find me unsettling while they try to figure out why I’m ‘strange’ or hyper or reclusive or ‘rude’. I'm constantly burnt out from trying to keep up with the pace of everyone else. I don’t fit in the neurotypical world or the autism world. I feel like I am an intruder in all communities.

Research shows the leading cause of premature death for autistic people is suicide, with autistic women twice as likely to attempt than men. Some studies suggest that autistic people are ten times more likely to die by suicide than the general population and have shown that a high rate of deaths by suicide may have had undiagnosed autism.

Imagine how incredible it was for me to find a release from all the pain of not wanting to be here when I was fifteen and swallowed my first ecstasy.

When I became sober in 2018, I changed. The person I am sober is not the same as the intoxicated version of myself — and of course, it isn’t; alcohol and drugs alter our behaviors. My fiancé struggled because I had a sudden aversion to being around people. I wasn’t the extrovert he thought I was.

I would try to keep up with my old life in bars with my fiancé and his friends, but I hated it. The psychologist was wrong when he said I wasn’t a different person during my diagnosis. I became a different person overnight.

I did not like this person. Everyone around me seemed to want a version of me that didn’t exist anymore. I sunk into depression and went on medication for the first time. My fiancé was bored, and I became hopeless as two years passed, and it became clear our relationship was breaking. I tried everything: Therapy, medication, meditation, yoga, exercise, the list goes on. No matter how I tried to mold myself into the person I thought he wanted, I was never right for him. It was making him miserable and me desperate.

One day I decided I couldn’t continue sober. He refused to get couples therapy and I didn’t know what else to do, so I decided I would start taking drugs occasionally to escape the internal pain I was in.

The day I found out he cheated on me, I bought a gram of cocaine in the morning and spent the day taking it in various pubs around the city.

When I was diagnosed as autistic, he abandoned me when I needed support. I left him on New Year’s Day and all I could think about was cocaine. I moved into a house alone, with no family anywhere nearby and barely any friends, amid a winter Covid lockdown. I quickly spiraled into cocaine addiction, stopped eating, and engaged in a highly dangerous activity for months.

One day my mother jumped on a train to where I was living, bundled me into my car, and drove me five hours back to our family home. I was severely underweight and making plans to end my life.

RELATED: 7 Devastating Truths About Loving An Addict

Finding peace

At home, under the care of my parents, I started the slow journey to healing. There were bumps in the road and despite the fact I wanted to stop taking drugs, I had relapses. I wanted to be able to do the things other people did. I wanted to socialize and go to bars.

I went to a rave, one of my favorite things to do sober, with people I didn’t know well, and at the last minute I bought cocaine because the thought of socializing was ruining the prospect of a night of dancing. Despite the drug culture at raves, I am never tempted by seeing drugs. I feel a need for drugs when I am forced to talk to people. (I resolved to give up drugs once and for all when I was assaulted during a cocaine binge.)

I finished my degree and started a part-time job with a friend who was aware of my diagnosis and made accommodations for me. I went to my first rave sober since my relapse and was overjoyed to find something I could do where I was near people but didn’t have to socialize. I was far too busy jumping around to music so loud it drowned out all the other annoying sounds and frightening thoughts.

Soon I decided the joy I felt at raves was too good not to be around more often, so I bought some beginner decks and taught myself how to DJ. My passion for drum and bass music grew so fast that soon I was learning how to produce it.

I started seeing a therapist who worked through past traumas with me. She specialized in clients with autism and helped me to get to grips with things like burnout and how to recognize and respond to it.

My mum made sure I ate every day by cooking me meals.

I started to feel something I’d never felt before: a stillness, an ability to be quiet, an uncoiling of limbs that had been cramped for too long in awkward positions.

I felt like little wings were growing on me and tentatively asking to be spread. There was space for them and space for me to be unapologetically me, goofiness, stims, obsessions, and all. There was another feeling inside me, too: An ecstatic joy to be living. I woke at five a.m. every morning and couldn’t contain my excitement to get up and write music, write my book, and DJ. I felt manic, the same feeling I had when I was on drugs, but I was giddy about life.

A year ago, I had my last relapse. A year ago, I knew it would be the last time.

For the first time in my thirty-two years of life, my needs are being met. I’m not being forced to work in jobs that don’t suit me. I've finally learned to only work for myself and will never put myself in a situation where I have to work with people I don’t trust or know well enough to be myself around.

I am not with a man who doesn’t understand me, or surrounded by people who want me to be someone I’m not.

The void I was trying to fill with drugs, alcohol, and sex is now content with music, raves, and writing.

My dopamine triggers are hit every day when I create, achieve, and survive.

Photo: Author Today/Hannah Cross

If you or someone you know is suffering from addiction, there are resources to get help. The process of recovery is not linear, but the first step to getting better is asking for help. For more information, referrals to local treatment facilities and support groups, and relevant links, visit SAMHSA’s website. If you’d like to join a recovery support group, you can locate the nearest Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings near you. Or you can call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-799-7233, which is a free 24/7 confidential information service in both English and Spanish. For TTY, or if you’re unable to speak safely, call 1-800-487-4889.

RELATED: I Got Sober — And Had These 8 Life Epiphanies

Hannah Cross is a writer, music producer, and DJ. She currently writes for Freja’s Reproductive Health Stories, Exceptional Individuals, and Medium.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.