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Burning Out Toward God
Be Not Conformed: On Autism and Faith (Part 1)
This is the first installment in a new series - Be Not Conformed - about the intersection of autism and faith.
We have forgotten that Christianity is a dream.
And a weird dream at that. A dream like a sunbeam; once you step inside of it the whole world is transformed. It is a transformation that invites us to step closer to the marrow of reality, strange as it is.
And, I contend, it is a dream to which the autistic mind is particularly drawn. There are sympathetic resonances, reaching like the spiraling tendrils of a plant’s root system, between a life of faith and the autistic mind. In future installments of this series, I will be exploring these resonances more deeply.
But first, let us begin at the beginning.
As a child living in the immediacy of childmind I thrummed in tune with the vast weirdness of the world. But there were messages that pulled me away from this attunement, wicked and barbed. There was one I heard with particular drumbeat regularity: “You aren’t living up to your potential.”
It was sometimes said with encouragement and it was sometimes said with frustration, but it was said again and again by teachers throughout my time in school. It was not the cruelest message I recieved from adults during my childhood, not even close, but it underscored a knowledge that permeated my life: there was something fundamentally wrong with me. I was, above all else, a disappointment.
It was known by teachers that my IQ had been tested by doctors and found to be in the genius range. This fact was related to me in tones of awe by adults who acted like they were bestowing a gift upon me. But this knowledge began to feel like a lead weight slung around my neck, something I could never quite grapple with properly. It meant that all of my shortcomings were entirely my fault, either I was lazy or obstinate or just bad.
As I got older, things got harder. Life as an undiagnosed autistic, with OCD and CPTSD, can be fraught. I suffered debilitating panic attacks, had a breakdown, and even left school for a time. At every turn, I was told that I was to blame.
Once I graduated and began my adult life, these issues followed me, but I never understood them. Instead, I blamed myself. Every shortcoming – my inability to work, to socialize “normally,” to withstand the sensory onslaught of the world – was my fault.
I assumed that everyone felt like I did. These struggles were normal to me so I assumed they were normal for everyone. That meant the only thing about me that was different was that I was the one who couldn’t cope. I had no choice but to accept that the messages I had received from others throughout my life about being lazy and worthless, an utter failure, were accurate assessments of reality.
And then, about seven years ago, a wave of difficulty swept across my life.
There were deaths and grief and volcanic anxiety. I lost my ability to function. Similar things had happened when I was younger, but while the wreckage was devastating, eventually the smoke cleared.
This time, though, I didn’t bounce back. Months passed and I was still disoriented, trapped in the vice grip of my implacable brain. I went to see a psychiatrist and it was this that led to my eventual autism diagnosis.
It turned out I had been experiencing autistic burnout. This is a condition brought on by periods of high stress or by the cumalative effects of a lifetime of pushing too hard to maintain neurotypical standards. It is typified by a collapse in functioning, a loss of skills, depression, anxiety, difficulties with executive functioning, increased sensory sensitivity, and exhaustion.
Autistic burnout precipitates many high-masking autistic people finally getting a diagnosis. We spend our lives racing to keep up with what is “normal,” blaming ourselves for our so-called failures, until everything falls apart. It is only then, in moments of darkness and fragmentation, that some of us find answers.
In the wreckage of my autistic burnout, something else happened.
It was something I could have never predicted, even though there had been signposts dotted throughout my life. During those many months of misery, my world was so thoroughly upended that I was able to hear a voice that had long been calling out to me.
As a longtime agnostic/atheist who had been taught to disdain Christianity above all other religions, being irrevocably drawn to the God of the Bible was the last thing I thought I wanted. But it was undeniable. My yearning was wild and profound and clarion clear. And so I took the first steps on the journey that would eventually lead me to faith.
Initially, learning I was autistic was an intellectual exercise. It was something I spent years researching, exploring from an analytical perspective, acknowledging that it explained so much of my life. But that was where I drew the line. I did not allow this information to leave the realm of thought and move into a daily lived reality. And I definitely did not make allowances for myself or soften the self-critical voice running on a constant loop in my head. Yes, autism is a disability and yes that is valid for other people – but not for me.
The patterns learned over a lifetime are deeply ingrained: be normal, keep up, don’t let yourself relax, don’t let yourself be lazy. But, slowly, very slowly, I began to understand that these were patterns that were instilled by the world. These were not the patterns that emerged when in relationship with God.
I don’t remember the first time I heard or read that God does not love us because of our worldly accomplishments, that he loves us because we are his children, but I am certain it flattened me. What a strange and novel concept this was for me - to simply be loved for who I am.
As an atheist I thought Christianity cruel, that it made a petty God who relished keeping track of our demerits. My understanding of Christianity was really no understanding at all, based as it was on strawman arguments put forth by the New Atheist movement.
In reality, it is the world that relates to us in this way, keeping track of our failures and our successes, judging us on what we accomplish, like what job we have and how much money we make, and refusing to offer us grace or compassion for our missteps. It was in relationship with God that I began to first understand in an embodied way just how flimsy and temporary these benchmarks of “success” are.
Be not conformed to the world…
This phrase from Romans 12:2 has always resonated with me, but it took years for the truth of it to begin softening my heart in regards to myself. All my life it was societal success that was the measuring stick of a valid life. Now, though, I have learned that as an autistic person when I try to keep up with what society deems normal, it leads to my unraveling. And that’s okay, because the measuring stick of the world is really - as hard as it is to believe - of no ultimate importance.
I admit, it is not easy to unlearn a lifetime of hard lessons, wrong as they may be. It is not easy to let yourself be vulnerable and small and loved in spite of it. I was always told I had to hide who I really was, that my real self was fundamentally flawed and unloveable. God’s message is the opposite of that; we are loved beyond belief.
I am only beginning to unravel all of the ways that autism and faith are connected, just starting to appreciate the many ways that autism can prime a brain for transcendence. One of the first connections I began to make between the two was around the issue of how to frame my approach to being autistic.
Looking back, I can recognize that my experience with autistic burnout was an integral part of my journey toward God. Autistic burnout didn’t just expose the neurotypical norms of the world to be largely arbitrary, in my case it exposed my atheistic beliefs to be just as fragilely constructed. On multiple levels, I had been living in falsehood.
Now, in moments of prayer, I sometimes find myself falling once again into the dream of childhood, humming in attunement with a different way of thinking. I am a newcomer here in this strange new dream of Christianity and it is a place I am only beginning to map out, and yet I am finding it to be not at all like the shadowlands I left behind. The metrics of the old way of life don’t exist here, that much is certain.
In the dream of Christianity it is apparent that God is not just in the big, splashy things, but in the small, seemingly inconsequential moments of our lives. He saturates our existence entire. I forget this fact on a regular basis as my mind drifts back into the patterns of the world that tell me success is based on external ambition and showy victories, that to do something worthy of God it must be epic.
And, of course, epic is good. We need heroics, maybe now more than ever.
But it is humbling and enriching to remind myself that God is right here, right now, in the small decisions of our daily life.
In our decision to be patient, instead of harried, God is there.
In our decision to say a kind word, instead of a cruel remark, God is there.
In our decision to stand up for what is right, instead of remain silent, God is there.
In our decision to meet ourselves - in all our wondrous noncomformity - with grace, compassion, and good humor, God is there.
God is there, God is there, God is there.
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