I thought I would never be happy. For a good portion of my life, I believed that some people just didn’t have it in them to be happy and I resigned myself to the story that I was one of those people.
I have a very vivid memory that plays on a loop in my mind of my high school art teacher reviewing a particular sketch of mine with concern because of the deep sadness it contained and this narrative that I somehow deserved that sadness. Even at 16, I was using art to express things I couldn’t yet process or fully understand.
What I would give for 16-year-old Christina to catch a glimpse of present-day Christina, truly happy for the first time, surrounded by the love of true friends - both of the furry and human varieties. Maybe the context I have now, given to me by an autism diagnosis, would allow her to breathe a little lighter, walk a little taller, and smile a little more; but that is not how this life works.
Three times in my life did this concerning sadness darken my door. The first time it seemed to bash that door in using a sudden onset of insomnia I couldn’t shake for over two years. It is hard to be happy without sleep. I spent so very many nights awake and alone in my basement room when I was 16 and 17 years old. Back then, I didn’t even have streaming services to fill my nights with binging shows that made my mind feel less alone, less filled with dread at the coming dawn when the world would wake and I would walk it like a zombie next to the true living.
Only the insomniacs can understand the true fear that sets in when you realize that you won’t be able to fall asleep, forced to watch the hours pass with ever-straining eyes. The panic. The defeat. The frustration. It turns out that sleeping problems are one of the many symptoms I was experiencing related to autism.
My insomnia ebbed and flowed throughout the years, exacerbated during times of stress and transition. It was a major player in my subsequent depressive episodes, one during my second year of college when I was 19, and another when I was 23 and 24 years old. My sleeping problems along with my depression went untreated until the fall I turned 24, when my doctor noticed a drastic change in my attitude. She played it cool, asked me to return in two weeks to follow up, and effectively soft-launched my depressive mood disorder diagnosis. We, of course, needed more data to make it official, but I guess the depression was so glaringly obvious that she started a treatment plan for me immediately.
Treatment is no easy feat for the mentally ill; it involves far too much trial and error, with a very great risk of getting much worse before it ever gets better. One of the first antidepressants I tried made my suicidal ideation exponentially more present and more difficult to ignore. While an attempt on my own life moved me up to the top of the waitlist to see a psychiatrist who found a cocktail of medications that did seem to work, I would never wish this experience, this trial and error until maybe you feel better, on anyone.
Those two years of my life are still a fog of angst and despair, muted by the fleeting escapes that tv and movies, and sometimes alcohol, offered. It was all entirely too much and yet somehow not enough at the exact same time.
I came out of that fog on a mission to find my happiness. I was no longer willing to sacrifice joy in order to remain noble, loyal, or good in the eyes of God and church (a story for another time). The decisions I made from that point on were made for the sake of my own happiness, for the first time in my life.
Fast forward through years of deconstructing my evangelical Christian faith, the loss of my job in ministry and the community attached to that role, and so very much time spent in therapy while still religiously taking the medication that gave me a somewhat regular sleep schedule; we bought a house in 2016 which meant that for the first time in my adult life, I could have pets. I stole Lacy, our yellow lab retriever, from Ben’s parents the weekend we officially moved in and we have been falling asleep back-to-back each night ever since.
The following March we brought home a tiny, spunky orange tabby, lovingly naming her Miel. She solved our recent mice problem within her first few weeks with us, proving to be a solid investment and an excellent life choice. In the summer of 2019 we adopted Brie, a shepherd crossed with a black hole (she consumes far too many non-edible things to be just a dog…); in October 2020 we brought home Chianti, aka Chichi, our crosseyed, long-haired, tuxedo cat and resident diva; and finally in July of 2022, our latest baby joined the ranks, or rather the charcuterie board we’ve been creating - Prosciutto, aka Prupru, really completes our little furfamily.
It felt necessary to highlight my furchildren because they have brought me more joy than I could ever have imagined. I like to joke that I have five emotional support animals because I just need that much emotional support.
I found my "happy" and it really was as simple as unapologetically surrounding myself with the people and animals and things that bring me joy, and yet as complicated as unlearning all of the hateful and harmful narratives that have attempted to consume my life.
Understanding autism has brought context to so many of my lived experiences. What I thought were depressive episodes, were probably autistic burnout. My sleeping problems have always been rooted in the anxiety of performing (see masking) well as a human. My passion, my sensitivity, my empathy, and my very strong and very obstinate sense of justice could all be linked back to autism. And while there is no “treatment” and the entire concept of “curing” autism is ablest as fuck, this self-diagnosis has brought me so much relief.
I am truly happy for the first time in my life, and while I can’t go back in time and give this context and relief to 16-year-old Christina, I can allow it to inform how I see her, how I speak to her. She did the best she could with the information she had and I will never fault her for that because she helped me get to the happiness we have now.