The Perks of Being a Worrywart: Accepting Neurodiversity, Anxiety and Myself
I have been handed down many mental health diagnoses over the years. As an adult, I feel that diagnoses are not all that important. I understand that this seems a bit unusual given that I am a clinical social worker supporting children, teens, and young adults with a variety of ‘disorders.’ While diagnoses are relevant for billing insurance companies, they have very little to do with my everyday work. It is most important that I understand the unique strengths and challenges of each of my clients and their families. These may relate to the DSM-5 criteria associated with their diagnosis or may not.
I myself have most recently been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. I associate several personal strengths with this diagnosis including my penchant for deep thinking about and intense focus on topics of interest, as well as an almost militant approach to time management. I find that procrastinating and disorganization are major triggers for stress and panic attacks so I make to-do lists and schedules and stick to them. These necessary supports made me well-known at school and in the workplace for my punctuality and strong work ethic. But anxiety is not all sunshine and rainbows. Sometimes the traits I see as strengths just go too far. I make impossibly long lists of things to do, I show up two hours early to something because I am afraid to be late, or I stay up too late just pacing and thinking. The challenge I face due to anxiety is simply having too much of a good thing. I sometimes feel like I am unable to relax and appreciate a job well done. However, neither the strengths nor challenges related to my expression of anxiety outweigh the other. It is a matter of being able to find a balance between the two.
Even with the challenges I sometimes face, I would not choose to eliminate these traits altogether. I have been this way my whole life and it has helped me in both my professional and personal lives.
I connect so strongly with the neurodiversity paradigm because it allows me to acknowledge and value a piece of myself that has previously been called sick, broken, and much worse.
When I first read about neurodiversity, a concept floating around in online Autistic communities, I felt a powerful sense of relief. The idea that Autism in particular was not quite as terrifying and world-ending as advertised had been on mind for many years as I saw my younger brother, diagnosed with ASD, excel in the areas of mathematics and music. I had been accused of ‘normalizing’ symptoms of Autism for years during my time working in early intervention. Why was I not more excited about physically restraining a three-year-old to prevent them from stimming? Reading about this neurodiversity thing felt like coming home. I was not alone anymore. Long story short, I never looked back.
As an adult with a lengthy diagnostic history, I feel a responsibility to act as a role model and support for children with similar diagnoses. As a clinician working with children and teens, I practice this by validating the challenges families face as a result of impairment effects while encouraging them to also value the strengths associated with their child’s diagnosis. It is my role to support the family in exploring and developing the strengths that I know exist. These have included vibrant creativity and artistic ability, an unwavering sense of justice, and a deep empathic connection with others. Are there possible downsides to these strengths? Of course but that does not mean we should employ interventions to eliminate them. Rather we should be working to help the next generation find a balance between what comes easy and what is hard, as well as helping the current generation understand that this really is the best way to support their children.
It is important for all neurodivergent people to discover, acknowledge, and celebrate the strengths of that divergence. We are not fragile, broken, or ‘damaged goods.’ We have unique strengths just as we have unique challenges.
This is the same for any human or other living creature. There is no shame in being different. These differences are a value added for ourselves, our loved ones, and our world.