Finding (my) Autism – Part 1

What my therapist had just suggested took me completely by surprise. I think I was too stunned to answer, so she asked a second time, “have you considered dropping out of the master’s program?” and waited patiently for an answer. 

I tried to explain that not only had I not considered that option, that thought had literally never crossed my mind. “Of course not.” was all I could form in terms of a reply. Of course not. I was sure she could see my confusion.

She pressed on, “If you stopped the program now, are you worried that you’ll have to go home earlier than you’d planned?”

“No, that’s not it. I can stay here in Barcelona with or without this master’s degree.”

She continued: “Is it a legal thing? Would your visa be revoked if you dropped out?”

“No, my papers are already sorted. I can stay here legally until August regardless.”

She went on: “Can you afford the loss of the tuition you already paid? And the living expenses you’d need to stay?”

“Yes, I paid for the program myself and it wasn’t too expensive. It’d be a waste but it wouldn’t put a dent in my finances. And I have enough money to stay comfortably.”

“I see,” she nodded, “so technically… if you dropped out of the program you’re so clearly struggling with, nothing truly bad would actually happen, would it?”

I pondered her question, flustered. “But like… I’m already halfway through the entire program. I only have one semester until graduation. I’ve invested a lot.”

“But you’re here seeing me because the first half was so hard to deal with and so unenjoyable for you that you’ve developed agoraphobia and you keep dissociating and having panic attacks and being completely unable to go to class…”

“I know…”

“And that doesn’t sound like it’s sustainable. Are you worried that if you drop out your mum would be disappointed?”

“A little. A lot. She’s a perfectionist with high standards.”

“From what you’ve told me, she’s a very understanding person who loves you a lot. She might not take it the way you think. Plus, you just finished your first master’s program just last May and already have one master’s degree. This one was just supposed to be another addition to your academic arsenal. You never actually needed it, did you? You called it your “passion degree” as opposed to the previous more practical ones. But are you actually having any fun? Do you actually feel passionate about it? Are you learning anything? Are you finding the course content enjoyable?”

My head was spinning. What she had just suggested to me was nothing short of blasphemy. I am the perfectionist daughter of a perfectionist mother who had never ever (been allowed to) quit. And there I was, contemplating dropping out of a prestigious program at a prestigious Spanish university after having completed more than half the hours I’d need to graduate. 

All I could say back to answer all her questions was “No. It’s been awful.” 

“Well, then think about it. Just weigh the pros and cons and try to imagine how it would feel to not continue putting yourself through all this pressure. And if you want, we’ll talk some more about it next time.”

This conversation with my therapist took place in February 2020. I had just finished my first master’s program in May of 2019 and then immediately started my second master’s program in September of 2019. I was superwoman, you see. Plus, I wasn’t ready to leave my beautiful Barcelona and go home just yet, so this was an exciting solution to my dilemma. By June of 2020 I would have my second master’s degree in hand, then stay out the rest of my visa until August and then finally go back home. It was a solid plan. I’d be welcomed back an intellectual hero. My mom would be so proud of me. And then I could get my pick of jobs with my 2 graduate degrees in hand, find an apartment and live independently, learn how to drive, and I would live happily ever after. 

And then I burnt out. Hard. Halfway through my second program, I was no longer able to leave my apartment to attend classes. I was severely depressed and deeply anxious. I was never at university long enough or after class or at mixers to make any friends. I wasn’t able to complete assignments without panic attacks followed by hours of dissociation, and I felt my professors growing annoyed with my flakiness and perceived lack of effort. So I dragged myself to an English-speaking therapy clinic close to my apartment and met the aforementioned therapist and asked her to write me some kind of note I can present to university to explain my many absences and short-comings. “I’m really depressed and I think I’m becoming agoraphobic and I need to explain that to my professors” was how I think I started our session. 

When, by our second session, she gently suggested to me that dropping out of my program might be something I’d want to consider, I was confused. Mostly because I had never registered that as an option (me? a drop-out? never!), but also because I couldn’t understand the train of thought that led her to make that suggestion. 

Let me explain. She wanted me to quit something because it was hard for me to continue doing it and because it was causing me physical pain and mental anguish. But for me, that was the case with almost everything in the world all the time ever. If I had to quit something every time it was hard or caused me physical pain and mental anguish, I’d never leave the house. What she didn’t understand at the time was this: I experience almost every thing with a tinge of pain and discomfort. And no one had ever told me that was enough reason to just stop.

But I took her advice and I did. I wrote to my university to tell them that even though I was due to graduate in 3 months, I wanted to drop out immediately. And no, I didn’t want to claim the credits I already completed. They had questions and wanted me to know a refund wasn’t possible. I said I knew and didn’t care. They asked if there was anything that could be done to make me stay. There wasn’t. My mind was made up. I couldn’t possibly face going back to that place again. 

I dropped out of my program in February 2020. You know exactly why this is relevant. The plan was, I would spend the remaining 6 months of my visa learning to relax. My friends and family would continue to visit me with consistent regularity and I would fill my time with rest and the company of my loved ones and maybe even explore my creative side again. 

I graduated from my bachelor’s in 2015, and then immediately started working full-time after graduation. I worked in advertising and strategy – and excelled, to a certain extent – for 3 years before deciding to pursue a master’s abroad on a whim. I applied, got accepted, and left my hometown. The day after I arrived in Barcelona, my program started. And so I faced my own limitations in a new city for the first time. 

What I didn’t know when I dropped out of master’s program number 2 was that covid-19 was right around the corner. And the resulting chaos that ensued and the forced solo quarantine I was about to face would bring about changes and epiphanies that would have been impossible without that kind of profound isolation and alone time. What I didn’t know was that I was about to face myself – my real self, my alone self, my unmasked self. The self who I’d kept hidden from everyone up until this point, even myself.

It was a period that I now lovingly refer to as: The Great Unmasking.

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