I think that most of us probably place great value on our freedom, but we may have only realised how important it is to our wellbeing in the past months when we have had to temporarily lose much of it to avoid the spread of COVID 19. We are not used to living in a way where we are restricted by law from going where we want to go and doing what we want to do, other than being prevented from committing offences, of course. But hopefully one positive to come out of this difficult time will be a newfound appreciation for many things we take for granted.
There are many types of freedom – freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of choice and so on. But for me, the freedom that has made the greatest impact on my life is the freedom to truly be myself, at least some of the time.
I spent most of my life wondering what was wrong with me. I felt so different, I did not and could not behave or react in ways that other people thought normal in many situations, and I was regularly put down, belittled and bullied at home, at school and at work. The only way I could find to try and make it stop or at least ease a little was to pretend to be somebody else. To play the part of myself as a “normal human being” as I thought of it at the time.
The trouble is, I’m really not much of an actor and I get so passionate about so many things, particularly if injustice is involved, that the thin veneer of the pretence quickly and regularly slipped. It just didn’t work – the real me kept breaking through.
True freedom came in two ways. From a new partner who loves me exactly as I am – quirky, as she likes to describe me – and from being diagnosed as autistic. It wasn’t the label that made a difference, it was the affirmation that this is the way I am. That Mark is an autistic person, not someone who just doesn’t know how to behave and goes out of his way to be a pain in the backside. It explained so many of my struggles and made it just that little bit easier to believe that there was nothing wrong with me and nothing wrong with being myself.
Freedom to be me also meant finding my tribe – being able to speak to other autistic people who faced similar struggles, who asked the same questions as me, and who also accepted me as I am. Freedom to realise that the problem was not me, but that the world is just not set up or used to people like me. That there is nothing wrong with me, I am just different.
I still can’t always be my true self, especially at work. For all the talk of diversity, many workplaces still broadly want their staff to be clones and to play the game using the rules they make. Diversity of race, gender and so on is improving, but diversity of thought and how you choose to get the work done is still not acceptable. It is safe to challenge as long as you don’t challenge anything significant or important. So my true self stays at least partly in a box when I am at work, or the grief I get is just too much to bear.
But the most important freedom is the freedom in my head. The freedom to accept myself as I am instead of trying constantly to change into the person that others told me I should be, even if I do still have to pretend to be somebody different some of the time. The freedom to be secure in my own identity, proud to be autistic. Freedom to be proud and happy to be me.