In Their Own Words – I Want My Money Back
John Scott Holman struggled with undiagnosed autism for nearly 25 years. His diagnosis has enabled him to embrace his individuality and move forward. He writes and speaks publicly about his life with autism, hoping to inspire greater understanding and acceptance. Visit his Facebook page here.
At the tender age of fifteen, I saw my first psychologist, a stern, elderly man who smelled like a second hand bookstore. His full, wiry beard, was speckled with white and gray, as if it had caught the contents of an overturned ashtray. It fell past his chest, disappearing beneath the edge of his massive, oak desk. I wondered if it reached his toes, and leaned forward awkwardly, hoping for a revealing glimpse.
“Young man,” he said, startling me. “Tell me why you’re here.”
“Do you shampoo that beard?” I asked.
“You look like Charles Darwin.”
He leaned back and stared at me, mildly annoyed, as if I was a fly he had noticed swimming in his coffee. “Your family is concerned by you behavior. I believe…”
“I commend you, sir!” I interrupted. “The world is experiencing a shortage of truly magnificent facial hair; you’ve got the best beard I’ve seen all year! You know who else had a good beard? Sigmund Freud. Are you a Freudian psychologist?”
“Young man, let’s try to stay on topic.”
“Right, beards… Nobody could beat Tolstoy’s beard. Now that dude had a beard!”
“Young man!” he bellowed, startling me again.
“Humph… Young man,” I muttered. “Just ‘cause I can’t grow a big fancy beard…”
The psychologist lifted a notepad from his desk and began scribbling absentmindedly. “I’m afraid,” he said, “that you have a very serious case of Bipolar Disorder.”
“Huh? How do you know? I’ve only been here for five minutes!”
“Trust me; I’ve been around a long time.”
“But… I’ve never had a manic episode, and the DSM-IV clearly states…”
“You, my dear boy, are an upstart!” the psychologist fumed, a fat, blue vein trembling in his forehead.
“Ok, chill dude… I’m bipolar. Whatever you say… Beethoven was bipolar. I don’t think he had a beard though…”
For as long as I can remember, people have been trying to figure me out. Other parents told my mother and father that I was clearly lacking discipline. Teachers refused me an education unless I was prescribed enough Ritalin to keep the Rolling Stones touring for another century. Pastors believed I was possessed, and prepared to wipe my projectile vomit from the pews when I trotted into Sunday morning service.
Hyperactive, precocious, and more than a little odd, I was truly a handful. Snakes, snails, and puppy dog tails? If only my mother was so lucky. Someone must have littered my gene pool with pixie sticks, happy meals, mountain dew, and an Encyclopedia Britannica.
“There’s something wrong with him,” my mother would sob. “He’s allergic to people! He won’t sit still, he won’t listen, he’s always hurting himself, and he’s smarter than my whole graduating class put together!”
I treated other children like overgrown action figures, ordering them about, an infantile Cecil B. Demille directing a playground epic. “C’mon Tina, say that line again, and this time, say it with feeling! Put down the Polly Pocket and explain your character’s motivation!” Eventually, my peers developed their own interests, and I was left to wander the playground alone, thinking of Ghostbusters, Power Rangers, and… existential motifs in Russian literature.
“Scotty’s latest obsession,” was a phrase used regularly to describe the most current of my all encompassing interests. At twelve years-old, I had forgotten more randomly collected information than most people will learn in college. My obsessions gradually became less and less age appropriate as my focus narrowed; retired barbiturate and amphetamine combinations used as antidepressants in the 50s and 60s; sadomasochistic undertones in the cinema of Joseph von Sternberg; and the impact of synesthesia on the literature of Vladimir Nabokov; to name a select few.
I wasn’t interested in girls, or boys, for that matter. My parents bought me a Mustang for my sixteenth birthday – I drove it all of three times. I wore the same few outfits day after day. I was diagnosed with ADHD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, and, of course, Bipolar Disorder.
True, I was rather emotionally volatile, but this was greatly exacerbated by the constant chaos which engulfed my family. My father had played major league Baseball for the Seattle Mariners, and was absent for the majority of my childhood. As a result of his career, my family moved dozens of times before I was ten years-old. When I was twelve, my eight year-old brother fell 31 feet from a ski lift, nearly dying. If that wasn’t enough, the routine MRI, which followed his accident, revealed a tumor in his brain. He later underwent a dangerous surgery to have it removed. My adopted sister was diagnosed with leukemia at three years-old. My father required an open heart surgery to repair a leaking mitral valve.
Though thoroughly weary of hospitals, I was typically content to find a quiet corner of the waiting room and study Italian Neorealism – “Scott, your sister is dying, no one wants to hear about Federico Fellini!”
Psychiatrists pumped me full of every neuroleptic in the book (Adderall and Celexa, medications which I am now benefiting enormously from, were withheld because they are contraindicated in cases of Bipolar Disorder). I was as incoherent as Mel Gibson at happy hour, and experienced agonizing side-effects which led me to attempt suicide.
My sister died at ten years-old, after battling leukemia for seven years. I was holding her hand when she passed. I was fed up with life, convinced that I was a waste of oxygen in a cruel and meaningless world.
I began heavily abusing street drugs, playing intravenous Russian roulette with every pill and powder I could get my hands on. I would wake up on the cool linoleum of my bathroom floor cursing my indestructibility – I was still alive.
I spent time in mental hospitals and treatment centers. Luckily, my obsession with drugs had a shelf life, as all my obsessions do. I lost interest and moved on.
At 24 years-old, my girlfriend suggested that I might have Asperger Syndrome.
“Scott,” she said, “you can recite every line of the movie Cabaret, yet you haven’t seen it since you were thirteen. You just listed every currently marketed benzodiazepine in alphabetical order, apparently for my entertainment.
“You’re a walking dictionary but you can’t remember your own address. Not only can you not drive, you can’t figure out which of the three cars parked in your driveway is mine. I think you should see a doctor.”
“I’ve seen them all.”
“Ok… ok… Wait, I’m autistic? I want my money back…”
How did I manage to live a quarter of a century without being properly diagnosed. I’m autistic – duh!
Discovering my autism has been my saving grace. I will never forget the overwhelming emotions that poured over me when I first read about Asperger Syndrome in the DSM-IV. I’m not broken. I’m not bad. I’m just autistic and that is alright! Since being formally diagnosed, I’ve come to understand and embrace myself for the remarkable person I am. In a few short months, I’ve become a prolific autistic writer, with a column appearing this week on wrongplanet.net, a potential contract with a publishing company, translations of my articles in Hebrew, public speaking engagements, and an opportunity to travel to San Francisco to help Alex Plank and crew film a documentary on Hacking Autism.
Somebody pinch me!
Even when I had given up on myself, God had a plan for my life. I now have the opportunity to use my gifts to spread awareness of autism spectrum disorders. If sharing my experiences spares other autistics from going through the pain of living undiagnosed, my struggles will not have been in vain.
My diagnosis has been my vindication and my inspiration. I want to shout it from the rooftops; “I’m autistic!”
Well, better late than never.
Seriously though, I want my money back…
“In Their Own Words” is a series within the Autism Speaks blog which shares the voices of people who have autism, as well as their loved ones. If you have a story you wish to share about your personal experience with autism, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Autism Speaks reserves the right to edit contributions for space, style and content. Because of the volume of submissions, not all can be published on the site.