Moving Mental Disorder into the Light

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Mental Illness/Disorder has long held a stigma and shame around it that has always baffled me. I know the effects, and more importantly the SHAME associated with that stigma, however it’s always eluded me exactly why that even exists to begin with.

This week my anxiety and shame around the stigma of mental disorder has reared it’s head in a rather unlikely place: my Christmas cards for 2020.

No one has called me out or made any feedback that would trigger this shame — but rather my own anxiety and shame has bubbled to the surface by doubting what I shared in this year’s Christmas Card update:

“…Pandemic aside, there were lots of changes, transitions and blessings: Two new furry additions: Mojo and Muffin, a new house, a new school for S, learning the gifts and challenges of Autism for M, a RE-launch of Shaya’s counselling practice, continuing to run a thriving business despite the Pandemic for P….

It’s THAT line: “ Learning the gifts and challenges of Autism for M”.

It seemed to very succinctly summarize the epic challenges and journey of our past year, beginning with 5 months of school refusal, getting my son assessed and then finally diagnosed in July with Autism Spectrum Disorder. However something seemed to “bother” me that I even mentioned this to begin with. Suddenly the Ego was jumping in with:

“That’s not anyone else’s business”

“Why do you need to even say that?”

“Would M want everyone to know that?”

Well to the first question — my feeling is this: Why do I need to hide it? What’s the purpose of keeping his diagnosis private/secret? I’ve heard many a reasonable argument to this:

  • in order to keep him from feeling like he’s different;
  • in order to preserve his right to privacy;
  • So that the “label” doesn’t define him.

Except the bottom line is, he already FEELS different anyway, and the “label” of Autism need not define him anymore than him being “short” or “curly haired” or Canadian-born Chinese/Filipino/Swedish does. All of those are attributes that make M who he IS.

As for the right to privacy — that’s one that’s a little more complicated. This one does tug at my heart and I honestly do question whether I’ve overstepped a boundary here. However my INTENT is one of love and if I’m truthful, a desire to unabashedly own that he is Autistic because there is nothing to be ashamed of about it. Would we say that it’s shameful to talk of my child’s cancer? To talk of my child being Diabetic? Or that my child is gifted?

It’s worth noting that in the cases of any of those, that is relevant information that would impact how one interacts with them, calling for a need to be mindful of the impact of cancer, diabetes, or giftedness would have on one’s ability to live and function. The same goes for Autism. If you didn’t know he was Autistic, then the expectations one would have of M would be different. You would assume his emotional/social age would match his chronological age. Except it doesn’t because he is Autistic.

In high stress situations my chronological aged 8 year old becomes a tantruming 3 year old.

M is getting 8 hours of therapy a week to “catch up” his social/emotional age to his chronological age — this takes time, a support village and hours of hard work. This, I would say, is part of his challenges with Autism.

On the other hand- as I said in my Christmas card- there have been gifts, which call for celebration- not to be kept hush hush and unspoken. See if you can find Waldo as fast as M can, have the capacity to beat gamers 1.5x his age in Roblox, or rattle off more dinosaur names than you could even imagine existed. M and Autism have brought PLAY back into our family — the antidote to two family systems steeped in a relentless work ethic (at a historical cost to family members’ mental and physical health). We are closer as a family and have weathered many a storm from difficult dynamics between siblings. At any givenmoment it seems as though M and his sister might just do each other in, and then in the very next minute they’re rolling on the ground laughing.

Our house is loud and messy — the signs of life being lived at full volume.

I may offend some with what I’ve included in this years card- however if I have, I regret that I have assumed that our shared connection would meet this part of our lives with openness and compassion. I am sorry to cause offence as I imagine that offence touches some core wound or shame about mental disorder. Except that’s exactly what keeps the the stigma and shame of mental disorder alive- secrecy and silence.

My mention of him and Autism is a small way to bring Autism into the light. To undo the stigma and shame that may be associated, not just with Autism, but any mental disorder in general. I remember what a cliff it felt like to jump of from when I started to openly own my history with major depression and attempted suicide — there was a huge dose of fear that came with my want to release myself from the shame. The same has come up here with this Christmas card.

I pray that my share will be met with compassion and respect. This path may not be everyone’s which I can also respect. However at the end of the day I wish M to know how amazing he is because HE IS Autistic and how proud I am of him for being who he is in a world that too often wants everyone to be the same. As Dr. Seuss so aptly put it:

“Why fit in when you were born to stand out.”

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A Registered Therapeutic Counsellor, Mom, Wife, Sister, Daughter, Friend, Seeker and HUMAN.

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Shaya Sy-Rantfors

Shaya Sy-Rantfors

A Registered Therapeutic Counsellor, Mom, Wife, Sister, Daughter, Friend, Seeker and HUMAN.

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