Processing a late neurodiversity diagnosis
So you’ve recently discovered you’re neurodivergent! Whether you’ve been formally diagnosed, informally diagnosed, self-diagnosed, or peer-reviewed diagnosed... it feels like a pretty safe guess that you might feel like you’ve just been strapped into an emotional rollercoaster - one of the ones with the harnesses and safety bars, because you’re getting thrown for some loops. Just hang on. You’re not alone on this ride, and you’re not figuring things out “wrong”. Your tangle of emotions that seem like they conflict one another are all valid. Knowing you’re neurodivergent might feel incredibly validating; your life might make a lot more sense through this new lens, but you wish you had known earlier. That brings feelings of relief and hope for your future, but also grief about your past. If only you had known earlier, maybe things could have turned out differently. Maybe life wouldn't have been so hard.
That pervasive thought of failing to do anything right or not understanding why you’re struggling will ease over time because there are reasons (biological reasons!) for why you do the things that you do. With this new understanding, you'll discover new ways to support yourself through the hard stuff in new and more effective ways. But don't be afraid of the anger that comes up during this time. Why did you have to go through life struggling this way for so long, when the answer was right there? Why didn't the adults around you see it? Would knowing earlier have even made a difference, especially given how we approached neurodiversity in the 80s and 90s? And over it all, to top it off, there's a nice big thick layer of doubt - are you sure you’re really neurodivergent? Or are you somehow just tricking everyone into believing it? Maybe the reactions you're getting from family and friends during this time are echoing those doubts?
You've spent most of your life tricking yourself into believing that you’re neurotypical and just doing everything wrong, when in actuality you've been a perfectly proficient neurodivergent person. The doubt will come and go, but you get to keep coming back to yourself and what’s working for you. Owning your neurodivergence makes your life easier because it offers you the gift of explanation (not excuse) and tools to work around challenges in ways you hadn’t thought of before. You deserve to treat yourself with kindness and compassion. You've earned it.
But that’s not everything that comes along with a late neurodiversity diagnosis, is it? You might also notice that your symptoms seem to be worsening. It’s not uncommon that once we notice our symptoms or patterns, we become more aware of them (this is a good thing! It's the first step to changing maladaptive patterns, I promise!). You’re also beginning to find your capacity threshold for certain things, and realize you’re well past it. That’s harder to tolerate now that you know what’s going on and less likely to just automatically dissociate from your needs. There’s a HUGE re-adjustment period as you learn to recognize and meet your own needs, and realize the changes that are necessary to begin actually living within your capacity, not some neurotypical ideal. You might realize you’re in burnout (a lot of us do!) and are beginning that recovery process.
As if that's not enough, you might be working through questions of identity. “How much of me is me, and how much is my Autism/ADHD/OCD/BPD/cPTSD, etc?” or "If I unmask, who is the person underneath the mask?" It might suddenly seem like everything you do is explained by this new label. This is fine - it's part of the process of fully accepting a new identity. This process is well-known in the queer community, where someone comes out and embodies queerness, but this intensity fades over time as our new identity melds with the old. You'll always be intense - just not always about this.
Remember that neurodiversity isn’t a disorder, as much as the medical model and DSM try to convince us it is. Neurodiversity is simply a different way of experiencing the world, with neurological differences (some good, some difficult). So everything you do is both you and neurodivergent - because you are both of those things. Finally knowing that you’re neurodivergent might lead to a lot of changes in your life: how you feel about and talk to yourself, how you deal with challenges, the amount and way you show yourself grace, the routines and habits you build, the way you show up in different spaces. Regardless, you are still you. You’re just allowing yourself to live as your most authentic self after years of pretending.
There are also a lot of questions beyond yourself you’re likely asking. Who do you share your diagnosis with? Does your employer need to know, and would accommodations be helpful? Will people treat you differently, if you tell them? Are there ways you do want to be treated differently? How do you communicate that? What kinds of boundaries might you need to put in place with those around you in order to honour the capacity you’re learning to navigate? These questions are worth asking - future you will thank you. Turn to your neurodivergent community for information and support - find it locally or online. Maybe you even find out some of the friends you are already close with are also neurodivergent! Talk with loved ones. Seek support from neurodiversity-affirming professionals (like me!). Find answers that, even if you’re not sure how they’ll work out, are made with what’s best for you in mind. You can always change course.
Coming to terms with a late diagnosis of neurodiversity isn’t always easy. In fact, sometimes it’s downright hard. But change often is, even when it’s good for us in the end. I want you to know that it’s okay that it’s hard. It’s great if it feels good. And you’re not alone, however you’re feeling or navigating this new information about yourself. Welcome to the neurodivergent club. We’re glad you’re here.