When I started this blog the intention was to have a purely financial focus. I wanted to write about my journey from being an employee of a large corporation to someone who was financially independent. I came to realise that the “what” and the “how” were not the only factors here. The “why” was also important.
As my blog evolved I have written more frequently about my mental health. Regular readers will know that back in 2020 I had something of a mental breakdown. I don’t want to go into the specifics of what triggered this; think of it as a lot of separate things with one specific event being the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The point is that my “why” is my mental health. That is the point I’ve come to realise in the last year. For a long time I had dealt with stress, anxiety and depression through a series of coping mechanisms whether that was getting engrossed in computer games, books, exercise or gambling. I have a tendency to throw myself into projects and then get burned out as they become less an outlet for relaxation and more an obsession, or in the case of gambling, an addiction.
On March 15th I celebrated 600 days since I placed my last bet. This is the longest I have gone without gambling since I first placed a bet in 2007. It’s a good feeling. I am still angry at myself for how much money I wasted in those years, but I console myself in the knowledge that it could have been much, much worse. I did not get into serious debt to fund my gambling, and I came out the other side with a better understanding of the industry and the futility of the act of gambling.
My struggles and experiences over the years have been hidden from the world through other coping mechanisms, with one typical example being my general sarcastic attitude. I tend to use humour as a defence mechanism or when I’m nervous.
There is a term I have recently become aware of in respect of mental health; masking. This is where a person hides their true feelings behind a mask of other feelings they are essentially faking. We all do this from time to time; for example pretending to be happy with a gift that is utter rubbish, or pretending to like your co-worker. The thing that differentiates this type of masking, to the type of masking that I’m going to talk about, is that pretending to be happy with a gift you don’t like is a fairly easy thing to do. You don’t have to pretend for long, and it does not cause a lot of mental strain. The same applies to pretending to like a co-worker you see for a few minutes at the office each day. It might cause some stress, but it is infrequent and you can remove yourself from the situation quite easily. Masking mental health is an entirely different animal though.
I first came across the term masking in regards to autism and the ways that autistic people mask their symptoms. Autism is a developmental disorder, although the exact definition is the subject of heated debate. There is also a lack of consensus over the causes and accepted symptoms of autism. There is a quote regarding autism, that if “you meet one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” This quote explains that every autistic person is different, with a unique combination of symptoms. I have learned a lot about autism this past year.
Some of you will know that my father was diagnosed as autistic a few months ago. This came after a long period where he knew he was autistic but just needed the official diagnosis. We both suspect that there have been other instances of autism further up the family tree.
When I had my breakdown last year, it was suggested that I might be autistic. I have looked back over my life and armed with more knowledge about the symptoms and effects of autism, I think this could be a possibility. I am waiting for a formal assessment, but although this was requested a few months ago, the waiting list still has a few more months to run.
For a long time I have masked thoughts, feelings and behaviours. I’ve never felt fully at ease with myself in social situations. Many people I’ve developed a relationship with, be it romantic, platonic or professional have said something along the lines of “you’re actually pretty sound” or “I thought you were an asshole”. Some still think I’m an asshole, but that’s ok; I know I am at times. The point is, I don’t make a good first impression. I often look angry, but that is just my face. I also have bad eyesight and have to furrow my brow to concentrate on what I’m looking at. I have been told this makes me look like an eagle.
In recent months I have been thinking a lot about my school years, in particular secondary school and sixth form. For a while, I thought I was happy. I had a large group of friends and had a succession of girlfriends. I was playing regularly for the school football team and competing in the school athletics team. I always felt like the outsider on the inside of my friendship group though. I used to put this down to the fact that all my friends lived on one side of the city, and I lived on the other side. They had all known each other for a long time before, having come from the same group of primary schools, whereas I had come from a different school. It was around this time that I started to notice the first signs of my declining mental health.
I did the expected thing and went to university where I was removed from my familiar surroundings and established friends and support networks. It did not go well. I lasted a few weeks into the second year before dropping out. I just could not cope mentally. It was a bad idea to go to university at that time. I just was not mentally right for it. I came home, and got a job working for Natwest who were unbelievably shit. I lasted about six months before getting a job with Norwich Union Healthcare who were great. I really enjoyed my time working there. It was a good office and an interesting job. The people were great and although I left in 2007 I am still in touch with a few people from the office. The company treated me well and it was a tough decision to leave the job and go back to university, but I felt like I needed to finish what I had started.
My mental health was mostly fine at UCLan. I did very well with my studies and made some great friends. I met my girlfriend there and thirteen years later we are still together. In October 2009 I had a mini mental health crisis. I hid it from almost everyone but I was a complete wreck. I do not know how I managed to drag myself through it, but I did. I worked my ass off and completed my dissertation, for which I was awarded a first. This is one of my proudest achievements.
Looking back, I should have stayed on and completed a masters but at the time I felt like I needed a break from studying. Hindsight is great but ultimately unhelpful. I finally settled on my current employer in 2011 and they have been extremely supportive regarding my physical and mental health problems. It’s almost as if my body was an older iPhone model that Apple decided to stop supporting. One problem after another has hit me since I turned 30. I came to realise that there was no way I could continue working in a typical workplace until my 60s. It just could not happen.
As my physical and mental health has deteriorated and my medical history started to resemble a sixty-year-old’s (an actual quote from one of my doctors) I believed that there must be something linking all these problems. The chances of an otherwise fit and healthy man in his thirties coming down with so many different and unrelated problems was extremely unlikely. When I started looking into autism in more detail, I realised that autism is associated with a vast range of other health problems. Establishing a causal relationship is often difficult but simply having something that links many of my health problems has taken a weight off my mind.
Conditions Comorbid to Autism
– Anxiety ✅
– Depression ✅
– IBS ✅
– Sleep disorders ✅
– Tinnitus ✅
– Vitamin deficiencies ✅
– Joint pain ✅
There are also theories around other health conditions being linked to autism, such as thyroid and neuroimmune problems, both of which I experience.
Maybe I am autistic. Maybe I’m not. I personally believe I will be diagnosed as autistic when I eventually have my assessment. The people close to me that I’ve discussed this with also believe I am autistic. It doesn’t bother me. I’m not beating myself up about the possibility of being autistic. If anything, it will be something of a relief to have an answer as to why I feel the way I do. It will help answer why I have always felt like an outsider and why I’ve often felt a sense of unreality or detachment about life.
I need to get to FIRE as soon as possible. I honestly believe that my health depends on it. The stress I feel at having to work a “normal” job is not sustainable. It’s difficult to explain just how mentally exhausting masking can be, but now I realise that is what I’ve been doing for most of my life. This probably explains why I have so many headaches and migraines.
Some of this may come across as a “first world problem” with some people thinking autism is a new, trendy thing. It’s not. Autism has been around for a long time and the way autistic people have been treated is horrific. Just look up how Nazi Germany treated autistics, for example.
I’m not in any danger of suicide, despite my nihilistic approach to life. Many autistics are at risk though, and many do succumb to the struggle of living in a neurotypical world that is fundamentally designed against autistics.
As a people we need to realise that a one-size-fits-all approach to life is not helpful to anyone. At the same time, the practicalities of existing in an interconnected society mean some standardisation is necessary. The key is to find a balance that supports neurotypical and neurodiverse people.
So I’m not really sure how to wrap this up. This post, or something like it, has been on my mind for a while. I didn’t know whether it was something I should make public or not, but there is so much misinformation and misunderstanding out there about autism. Although there are many factors that prompted me to write this, a major part of my decision to post this was the disgusting behaviour of Sia, and the film she made called Music. I’m not going to talk much about it, because everything that needs to be said has been by people much more eloquent and informed than I. I will just say two things; the film is hated by almost everyone I’ve spoken with who has real life experience with autism. The second point is that the movie has 8% on Rotten Tomatoes at the time I write this.
If I am autistic, and I suspect I probably am, it does not change who I am. It does help explain my past though, and that explanation helps inform my future.
Thanks for reading this extra post and in the next part of Mortgage Advisor on FIRE I will talk about the numbers involved in the different levels of financial independence.
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