Yesterday while looking through my desk for a tax form I’m pretty sure I lost four months ago, I came across a stack of unopened mail from February. I stared at the unopened envelopes for somewhere between a few minutes and an hour, playing the mental game of doom that I play in my head every time I see a piece of mail that might require some sort of action on my part. Opening mail is really hard for me, not because I struggle to physically open the envelope but because of the overwhelming sense of dread I have associated with mail.
Will this mail ask me for money I don’t have? What if this mail is a collection notice about a bill I forgot to pay in 2012? If I don’t pay the money, what will happen? If I pay the money, will I later regret using this money to pay that thing because I could have used the money for some other more important necessity? What if the mail asks me to fill out a form? What if the questions the form ask are confusing and I end up having to call someone for clarification? What if my returned form gets lost in the mail? How will I mail this when I can’t remember where my stamps are? What if this mail ruins my life?
All kinds of thoughts like these and more run through my head at approximately 500 miles per hour every time I see I have mail. Saying that mail gives me anxiety is probably a major understatement. And my anxiety sucks badly. Because the possibilities of what’s in the mail will run through my head while I’m trying to sleep at night, every night, until I eventually forget that the mail is still in my desk unopened.
The obvious question running through your head right now might be “Wouldn’t it be easier to just open the mail and deal with it as it arrives?” I have asked myself this question many times and the answer is probably yes. But the answer is also no.
Because my anxiety leads to such bad executive dysfunction that I can’t logically process anything or do the thing that needs to be done. But most people don’t see my invisible struggle. All most people see is the pile of unopened mail from February and think “Wow, this person is lazy.” I’ve thought it of myself, too.
I recently realized that I’ve spent more than 30 years mistaking my executive dysfunction for laziness. Mostly because when I was young, the adults in my life assumed I was lazy and told me so. As a kid, it didn’t take me long to internalize this. Those adult voices became my inner voice on the subject. I remember at 9 years old I would yell at myself for being lazy. I still catch myself doing that today, even though I now know that executive dysfunction and autism and anxiety go hand in hand for me.
Internalized ableism for me is like an old skin I’ve outgrown but can’t ever seem to fully shed.
Internally I still beat myself up over something that isn’t my fault. I’m not actually lazy. Most autistic people aren’t actually lazy, in my honest opinion; we just have these invisible struggles that we can’t talk about without someone calling us lazy.
I’ve had people, especially parents of autistic kids, ask me if executive dysfunction in autism is a thing all of us experience. Judging solely based on myself and the other autistic adults I know, executive functioning difficulties are common but that doesn’t mean that all autistic people experience executive dysfunction or that we all experience the same struggles in the same way. I can really only speak for my own experience.
My executive dysfunction status changes day to day, based on a variety of factors such as how overwhelmed I am. Some days I feel super functional and can do my own taxes. Yesterday, I opened my mail from February. Today, I stood in the shower wondering whether I just washed my hair or not and ended up with only one armpit shaved.