‘My mom bought me pink shoes. ‘Those are for girls!’ When she asked if I’d rather be a boy, I said no.’: Non-binary, autistic person with ADHD shares journey

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Trigger Warning: This story contains mention of suicidal thoughts and self-harm that may be triggering to some

“My mother once told me when I born, the doctor said something was different about me. I believe he said something along the lines of, ‘You’re going to have your hands full with that one.’ It turns out he was right (though that’s not really a nice thing to say to new parents, is it?). My parents always knew something was different about me. To them, it felt like they couldn’t always get through to me; they didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand them. It wasn’t just them, though. I just didn’t understand the world around me in general. I would often get very angry and upset because I felt misunderstood. I had a huge vocabulary for my age and spoke like an old soul. I took things literally, and I couldn’t stand it when plans changed. I was very different from other kids my age and it puzzled my parents.

Fortunately, my parents were determined to get to the bottom of this. They weren’t afraid of me getting a label, not if that meant they could help me deal with whatever was going on. So, when I was 5 years old, I finally got my autism diagnosis, and shortly after, at the age of 6, I got the label ADHD as well. To my parents, it came as a relief because there now was an explanation for my behavior. But at the same time, it added a new layer of worry: what would this mean for me and my future? What would my life be like? I’m happy to be able to say everything turned out perfectly fine, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a bumpy road.

child smiling
Courtesy of Anna Everts

Growing up autistic and with ADHD wasn’t particularly easy. I don’t think any kid wants to be different, so knowing I was, in fact, different from the others (and having the papers to prove it) made me very upset. I don’t have many vivid childhood memories but I remember crying to my parents on multiple occasions about how I didn’t want to be different. I was hyper-aware of my labels and it made me very insecure around other kids. I didn’t really have friends in primary school, except for my best friend, with whom I’m still close. The other kids in class accepted my presence, but that was about it. They did know I was different because I gave a presentation about autism once, but that didn’t really make them any more understanding. I was often just considered weird, so my best friend and I kind of kept to ourselves.

What didn’t help me was I was pulled out of class once or twice a week to work on my social skills with a student counselor. It just made me feel more different. Now I’m older, I realize I was basically told from a very young age that my way of socializing was wrong. So on the one hand, I’m grateful I was given the tools to fit into neurotypical society, but on the other hand, it just feels kind of messed up the way I was back then apparently wasn’t good enough. Autistic people aren’t the problem; it’s the world around us that needs to learn that there are multiple ways of communicating. We’re taught from an early age we need to change to fit in. It destroys a child’s self-esteem, and that translates to mental health issues later in life. But in my case, I’ve always had mental health issues. I have a piece of writing from when I was 5 where I told my mother, ‘I didn’t like life anymore.’ That was before my diagnosis, so after that, it only got worse.

person standing in the sunlight, smiling
Courtesy of Anna Everts

When moving to middle school (similar to high school in the UK/US), I was on my own. My best friend moved to Germany, just across the border, so I didn’t have any friends in school anymore. Once again, I was accepted in class but didn’t really fit in. I’ve had people take advantage of my gullibility and eagerness to fit in, which meant I was sometimes manipulated or made fun of. It wasn’t really bullying, as you see in the media, but it was more… subtle. People knew I struggled understanding jokes and thus would involve me in them, only to laugh when I didn’t get it or took it literally. When I got my first boyfriend, a couple of classmates almost cornered me to interrogate me about my relationship. They were acting nice, but anyone could tell they were just making fun of me. It’s a different kind of bullying that slowly creeps in and eats away at you. Because of those experiences, I still feel like strangers are out to get me and make fun of me. It’s also those same experiences that made me spiral down to a path of depression.

Around the age of 15, my mental health issues first began to significantly affect me. I remember a moment where I came down from my room to find my mom. When I did, I was in tears. ‘I’m afraid I might hurt myself,’ I said. I had never felt like that before, and it was terrifying to me. Luckily I’m really close to my parents, so I knew I could talk to them about anything. My mom especially is great at giving advice, and my dad gives the best hugs. Both my siblings are autistic and have AD(H)D too, so while our family was often chaotic, it’s also a place where I’ve always felt safe. I feel understood and wanted around them. Our family is very tight-knit, and I have massive respect for my parents. Raising three neurodivergent kids isn’t easy, but they never gave up on us and always fought for us. They still do.

family portrait outside
Courtesy of Anna Everts

My mental health issues continued to worsen as I got older, especially towards the end of my teenage years. I began having suicidal thoughts, and I sometimes bit myself as a form of self-harm. I had some friends at this time but I still often felt misunderstood by them. In hindsight, I think while they were trying to understand me, they never actually managed to do so. This is also why I was often talking to friends online. I created a Twitter account at the age of 14 and over the years, I found many online friends with the same interests and ideas as me on that platform. A few of them I even met up with in real life. Those were the people that made me realize I’m not weird or wrong, but I just hadn’t found my people yet. They gave me hope I could have meaningful connections with others without constantly feeling like I was a nuisance to them. The only person who I’ve felt safe and accepted around from the start was my best friend. But because she moved, I couldn’t see her as often as I liked, so most of my meaningful conversations happened online. Many people listened to me talking about my problems, and I listened to them in return. Talking to people helped ease my depression a bit.

Around these late teenage years, I was really struggling with myself in general. I had come to terms with my autism and ADHD but still didn’t fully embrace those labels. On top of that, I was confused about my sexuality and gender, so there was a lot for me to deal with. Even from a young age, I never felt like a girl. My mother told me she bought me pink shoes when I was little, to which I responded: ‘But those are for girls!’ When she asked me if I’d rather be a boy, I said no. My parents just saw it as me being me and accepted me that way, but I always wondered what was ‘wrong’ with me.

person standing in forest in a flannel, red hair
Courtesy of Anna Everts

It was online, amidst my Twitter community, I first heard about the term non-binary. I think I was around 16 at the time. When I looked into what it meant, I instantly felt a sense of relief. It described how I had been feeling my whole life. So to know there was a word for it made me feel much better. At the same time, I also found out I’m asexual and attracted to multiple genders. It seemed like two question marks on my identity list could be crossed off. Little did I know my new identity would only just create more question marks later on. It turns out being non-binary in a gendered society is quite difficult and confusing.

In the years that followed, from age 17 to about the age of 21, I went to a psychiatrist and later, to a therapist to deal with my depression and my social anxiety. I got prescribed antidepressants, to add to the meds I had been taking since the age of 6, and my life seemed to be more positive. I started experimenting with my clothing style and tried figuring out who I am and what I like. I studied at university, moved to a new city, and made some friends there I’m still very close to. I remember throwing a birthday party where I invited all of them. During the middle of the party, I caught myself thinking: ‘Wow… All these people are here for me. They came to my party because they wanted to… because they care about me.’ Maybe to some people, that’s a strange thing to think, but to me, it was truly special to have so many people around me who just fully accepted me. Having such a group of friends close by really helped.

person outside crouching on grass in front of multi-color building
Courtesy of Anna Everts

Around this same time, just before I moved, I came out to my parents as non-binary. I didn’t have to come out as not straight to them, because they had always made it clear to me they didn’t care who I came home with, as long as I was happy. Knowing they would accept my sexuality also made it a little easier to come out as non-binary. At first, I just dropped some hints here and there about my gender before finally telling my mother how I felt. She said I had never conformed to anything anyway, so nothing would change. I would still be Anna the way she knew me. I think in hindsight, I had hoped she would tell me she accepted my identity because, for me, something did change. But I also know my parents love and accept me no matter what, so I never felt the need to get her (or my dad) to specify their acceptance.

Coming out to my friends felt easier because they were kind of in the same circles as me. Many of them are queer so I knew they would most likely understand it a little faster. They were also the first people I asked to use gender-neutral pronouns for me.

person in rainbow shirt outside
Courtesy of Anna Everts

After graduating from university I got a full-time job at a marketing agency. The job itself and the colleagues were fine, but I soon felt like I was walking on eggshells. I had to work 40 hours a week to pay my bills, but in reality, I couldn’t handle that. Being in an office and having to socialize all day meant I was constantly masking (hiding my autistic traits). Masking is very exhausting, but it’s what a lot of autistic people are taught to do so we ‘fit in.’ It’s harmful and can lead to an autistic burnout, and that’s pretty much what happened to me. In February 2020 I broke down at work and afterward I cried for 3 days straight. I was exhausted and I just couldn’t go to work anymore, not full-time at least. But going part-time wasn’t really an option either. Eventually, my mental health plummeted so fast I called my parents to come pick me up. I lived alone, and I got to a point where I didn’t trust myself to be alone. I didn’t want to do anything bad, but it’s really hard to trust yourself sometimes when you’re that far gone. I had been on this mental health rodeo long enough to recognize when it was time to call for help.

My parents came to pick me up and I stayed with them for a few days. I got to clear my head and eventually decided I wanted to quit and become a freelancer. Being my own boss had always been my goal, but I first felt like I needed some work experience. But my mental health was suffering from working for a boss, so I felt like becoming a freelancer was my only option. I became a freelancer part-time in March 2020 and full-time in May 2020, so at the start of the Covid crisis. It was a risky move and it was stressful, but it was the best decision I ever made. In the past year, I’ve managed to come to terms with myself. I learned to love and accept myself and I even got to quit my antidepressants. Being my own boss gives me a sense of peace because I can work whenever my energy allows me. If I need a mental health break, I can just take one without explaining myself to anyone.

person in hat smiling
Courtesy of Anna Everts

I’m now trying to focus on creative writing, such as comics. Last autumn, a short comic of mine got published and more comics are currently in the works. It’s an absolute dream come true and I couldn’t be happier! In my work, I try to write different autistic characters. The autism representation in the media is actually quite bad and full of harmful stereotypes. If I had been given a proper autistic role model as a child, I think I wouldn’t have been so hard on myself. So now I want to create authentic autism representation for anyone who feels like they have no one to relate to.

I’m very happy with where my life is right now. I have a lovely apartment, a loving family, and a whole bunch of amazing friends. I recently figured out I’m most likely aromantic, which is why I’m not really interested in having a relationship. I enjoy living by myself and I enjoy my own company. So right now, I have everything I could ever want. That doesn’t mean my struggle is over, but I’m finally able to breathe without feeling like everything is falling apart. So to that doctor who told my parents I’d be a handful: yes, I might be, but I’m also resilient. I’m autistic and proud and you can never take that pride away from me.”

Courtesy of Anna Everts

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Anna Everts from Enschede, Netherlands. You can follow their journey on Instagram, Twitter and their website. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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