Autism and Mental Illness: a Teenager’s Perspective

Mair Elliott

Mair Elliott

Mair Elliot shares her experience of living with both a mental illness and Autism.

“Since 14 years old I have had doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, nurses, occupational therapists, dieticians, support workers, counsellors… and various other professionals poking and prodding at the psychological mess in my head. I have tried more medications I than I can count on my hands, and I have taken more pills than I’d care to divulge. I have tried talking therapies upon talking therapies, some of which I know so well I could easily facilitate a course for someone in need (but I won’t).

Some people may find my recent decision to reduce the professional help I receive currently to just a phone call once a month a bit risky or odd. But the truth is I have never been able to develop strategies to help myself by myself. Falling ill during my teenage years resulted in me not only missing a heck of a lot of school, but I also missed out on the opportunity to discover how I would live my life, how I would be me, and even who I was/am. I was told how I was supposed to live my life, or I was told what was ‘healthy’. Which was fine during the time I was incapable of looking after myself.

But now I am able to look after myself, at least at the basic level. What I find frustrating is that the generic advice given to me from almost all of the people I have met, is not actually moulded in a way I can live with. Don’t get me wrong, I needed professional help to keep me alive, and I will always be grateful for the tireless efforts of the professionals, and people who had to deal with me during a very dark time in my life. But I have encountered an illusion which I believed was real for a very long time.

Let me create a metaphorical example, I am assuming that all of you have seen circus workers/clowns/or pretty much anyone create balloon animals. Well let’s say that when I was ill I was just an empty balloon. Getting professional help and advice meant that I could fill my balloon with air. It’s better than it was before, because at least now it’s inflated, but it’s just a long thin balloon. In order for it to become a balloon animal I have to twist, turn and mould the balloon until it’s an animal like shape. The only thing is, I don’t have detailed instructions, only very brief outlines.

Over the years I have been given some helpful advice on how to live my life in a healthy and happy way, but I need to take that advice and personalise it. I need to work out how that advice is going to fit into my life, and the way I live it. I need to work out which advice I have been given is going to work for me, and which advice is not going to help me.

When I discovered I was ill, I made the assumption that all I needed was a bit of therapy and possibly a bit of medication, and then I would be back to exactly who I was before I fell ill, or even a better version of who I was. I was naïve enough to believe that I would get better and be completely 100% healthy, and my life would be amazing and sparkly. I also thought that getting better was just a straight line on a graph upwards (anyone who’s been to therapy will understand the graph of recovery comment I just made).

After 10 weeks of therapy and several failed attempts of trying medication, you’d think I would have realised that this wasn’t the case, or at least when a year had gone by and I ended up living on a psychiatric unit. But the truth is I didn’t realise that I wasn’t going to make some miraculous recovery for about 3 years.

When I had this realisation I could finally takes steps towards recovery. I understood for the first time that I was going to have to put myself out there, and pretty much expect to fail continuously until I worked out ways that I could cope with life. As an obsessive perfectionist it was not a comfortable realisation, but I knew that I was going to have to work hard, and that I was going to have to accept that I was not going to do well in every step and decision I had to make. Sometimes I was going to fall down or get sucked back into old ways, and I had to be OK with having a recovery graph that looks more like a squiggle on page than a logical and tidy straight line upwards.

And this is why I don’t believe in full recovery. I can always be getting better, I can always be improving things for myself. Full recovery suggests to me that there is an end to this journey, and I don’t want that to be the case. I will always be Autistic, I might reach a point in which I am symptom free from my mental illnesses. But that won’t mean that I won’t still face challenges, in fact I know I will definitely face challenges because being Autistic sometimes in not easy.

I have gotten to the point now where I have addressed the fundamental problems I faced when I was ill, such as not eating, self-harming and self-destructive behaviour. I had the expertise of professionals to help me get to this point. But now I have to address the issues I face with life outside of my illnesses. Issues like how do I deal with Autism and maintaining professional and personal relationships, what is it that I really enjoy and how can I make it a career, what is it that helps me be happy and healthy, and most importantly what are the things which I cannot change and how can I come to accept them.

In order to work out answers to my questions, in order for me to live a long and happy life, I believe I need space now to explore. So that is why I have decided to reduce the professional help I receive down to a phone call once a month. I know when I need to ask for help, and I understand that my journey is far from easy, but for now I know this is the right decision for me.

If I have learned anything from the past few years is to never take the simple things for granted, like the love and support from family and friends, or the ability to smile and be happy”.

Mair gave us full permission to publish this article which first appeared on her blog.

You can also read Mair’s article “Puberty and My Autism Diagnosis”.