On Being Me, as of April 5, 2018, by Cath Hopkins of Vilas, NC, USA
written for InterGifted’s ebook "Being Me: Reflections on the Gifted Person's Path to Authenticity".
NOTE: references to HEPG mean “High, Exceptional and Profoundly Gifted” as described at InterGifted.com
Most of my journey toward authenticity has involved addressing inherent conflicts between my innate nature and the dominant culture into which I was born. As a queer, eco-centric, introverted neuromaverick – with thin boundaries of mind and low latent inhibition – I find it maddening to live amid an anthropocentric, colonizing, conformist heteropatriarchy.
For 25 years, I’ve been sorting this out with a variety of therapists, but this year I’ve made even greater strides while working with a specialist in unresolved trauma. I believe that our culture continues to traumatize those who don’t fit the dominant paradigm, whether by accident of birth or by a divergence in values or priorities developed via lived experience.
Ever since I can remember, I heard that I was too sensitive, too shy, too intense, too restless, too inquisitive, too ecocentric, too idealistic, too tomboyish, and too quirky. My values and priorities often seemed mismatched to the mainstream. I was evaluated at age 7 and scored as being intellectually gifted. There was no explanation of what that might involve other than a spiky high IQ score. But in my family, my older brother already had taken the “smart” label. I got the “good kid” label. As a child seeking security in an overwhelming world, I began moving toward a camouflage of conformity.
There were some areas in which I couldn’t compromise, but these tended to look more like quirks than oddities, so I generally flew under the radar. Relatively acceptable habits included ‘fuzzing’ a blanket; restlessness; collecting molted cicada shells rather than Barbie dolls; favoring Legos and Brio trains over doll houses or dress-up; unusual levels of concern for justice, animal rights and conservation; fascination with scuba diving and marine biology over shopping and television; and a strong preference for the Amazon and Everglades over Hollywood or New York City.
On the whole, I recognized that others perceived me as hypersensitive, overly idealistic, and as asking too many “why”, “how”, and “what if” questions. I found an unusually strong companionship with nature, animals, and books. To fit in, I tried to tone myself down, and be more agreeable. This gained me approval and allowed me to feel externally secure. Yet internally I believed I must be inadequate. Therefore, I tried to modify my internal nature, values, and dreams so as to be OK in the world.
On the surface I managed to fit in quite well. Propitiously, my best friend from 1st grade on was also an introverted HEPG neuromaverick. We had an intuitive bond that would sustain us both for many years. And we had several international classmates with whom I connected easily. Yet in comparison to most of my peers, I still seemed both too sensitive and too intense. I began to believe that my general too-much-ness and divergent beliefs rendered me defective, not just different. So I masked even more.
I now see how this self-censoring practice proved as psychically crippling for me, as it is physically crippling for a root-bound plant to be trapped in a too-small pot.
An abridged version might not show it: I adapted well enough to pass for normal, got good grades all through high school, played varsity sports through college, earned a Biology BS, and landed a prestigious job in environmental protection. That was success, as I had internalized it. But I was also miserable. I’d traded authenticity for approval. I’d made some “safe” choices that backfired on me.
My path hadn’t been entirely smooth. The above summary skips past the longer back-story. When I was 9, my family closed in with stigma-related secrecy of my Mom going off to addiction treatment (but, we all looked fine on the outside). Also in secrecy, at 17, I faced internalized homophobia and self-medicating intensity with alcohol. I embraced an incredibly intense, closeted, first-love relationship with an older woman my parents were already wary of my spending time with.
I still felt a strong need for approval. So my subsequent coming out regarding my sexual orientation was terrifying, and did elicit very mixed reactions. Then at age 19, my lover killed herself, which devastated me. In retrospect, I see that she too was likely both profoundly gifted and autistic. The intensity of those experiences--especially the suicide--permanently altered me.
At age 20, I was diagnosed with clinical depression, complicated grief, and PTSD. The tenuous balance I had struck to move through life disintegrated. For me, it was like Intense World Theory crashing into Shattered Assumption Theory, while not yet knowing the redemption of the Theory of Positive Disintegration. At that time, I started on anti-depressants and some hard-core grief counseling.
For the second time in my life, I overtly overthrew an internalized norm: I dropped out of college and went for a long slow walk on the Appalachian Trail. It was an incredibly healing experience, though not a permanent cure. Living out in nature soothed my soul. About a year beyond the suicide, I also did a stint in a mental hospital, changed meds, and got sober in Alcoholics Anonymous. I achieved an old childhood dream of scuba diving and started teaching it to others part-time within a year. And I finally completed my BS in Biology 7 years after I started it.
Then I made what I believe was a pivotal choice: I accepted the conventional wisdom that taking a scuba-related job path was too risky. And I accepted the conventional wisdom that living in forests full time had become unsustainable. Those were the settings in which I felt most fully myself. But I went for the next best option; working a stable job with benefits in environmental protection, since it would be ‘safer’ long term. The irony? For me, the ‘safe’ choices can be lethal.
The higher I rose on the career ladder, the less connected I was to the natural areas I worked to protect, and the more I was immersed in office bureaucracy. I pinned a map of the Southern Appalachian Mountains to study while fantasizing about living full time near the Appalachian Trail. At work I got accolades, I had a lovely home and looked quite successful. But I felt trapped. I persisted until I felt suicidal. I finally resigned, believing I had failed. Ironically, this would free me to try something totally new and once deemed off limits by virtue of being ‘too risky’.
I had also sustained internal damage. In my effort to conform, I was overcome by disabling mental illness. By straight-jacketing myself into conventional living, I’d added more diagnoses to the earlier list (of depression, complicated grief, and PTSD): Now I was assigned Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Agoraphobia with Panic Disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified. I had no idea at that point that PDD-NOS was atypical autism, or what that even meant. I still hadn’t even identified, for example, that I have extreme sensory processing issues.
After getting relatively stable again with counseling and medications, I moved to a remote forest in the Missouri Ozarks. I rebuilt an abandoned 400 sq ft cabin with no running water on a 500-acre forested land trust. I swam and bathed with turtles and crayfish in the pristine river; wandered among the oaks and hickories with a beloved dog and cat; and chopped wood for heat. I developed a newfound sense of integrity, living an eco-centric life with a far lighter footprint than before.
This, I know now, led to another turning point. The one in which I decided I had to try again to ‘work’--not just at home-steading--but conventionally once more. This time, though, I no longer had youthful energy or the extra bandwidth to pull off mainstream functioning. While forcing myself to act ‘normal’, I acquired these new diagnoses: OCD, ADD, tics, and various personality disorders.
I found I could only summon adequate social and mental energies periodically to function in ways that people expect. In between stints of socially-acceptable functioning, I would disintegrate into states near catatonia. I became unable to tolerate leaving my forest sanctuary. My final employment attempt ended with another stint in a mental hospital, followed by several months of desensitization practice to regain the ability to complete basic tasks like grocery shopping.
I finally accepted at that point that I truly was unable to function “normally” on a consistent basis. It was just so baffling, because when I could, I did so with such apparent aplomb that people believed I exaggerated my functional difficulties.
I also found the disability qualification process in the US to be humiliating and degrading. I realize it is set up to deter potential abusers, but it’s tough to maintain self-esteem in a boot-strap culture while documenting one’s inability to function. By the time I obtained Social Security Disability Insurance approval, on paper I looked like a burden to society – though I literally earned my SSDI benefits. Yet I was honoring the Earth, caring for animals, restoring a cabin, chopping wood for heat, carrying water, and growing and eating fresh vegetables from my garden.
After a couple more years of ecotherapeutic cabin living in the forest sanctuary, I explored reconnecting with humanity. In 2008, I was most extremely fortunate to find Melanie, whom I feel privileged to call my life partner. Meanwhile my Ozarks retreat was becoming far less of a sanctuary due to encroaching development. I began spending more and more time with Melanie in the Southern Appalachians. We celebrated a Holy Union with family and friends and found a cozy home on a relatively quiet dirt road, situated along a little creek at the foot of a mountain.
My life is infinitely enriched by my relationship and life with Melanie. I value her perspective on the world, and I have found being with her helps bring out the best in me. She is wired in a way to better tolerate our culture, yet she too sees its shortcomings and works towards challenging what is deemed “normal”. Living in a setting civilized enough to offer her opportunity to make a living also means, for me, more frequent exposure to mainstream society, which exacerbates my struggle with self-esteem.
I’m around swimmable rivers and watchable wildlife less, and mainstream culture more. Almost everyone appears more at home than I am in such settings. People try to be busy, efficient, and productive. I require 12 hours of rest, and abundant downtime between events or engagements. I need my time in nature the way many need TV, alcohol, or coffee. Despite holding opposing values and knowing that mainstream life was counterproductive for my neurotype, I continually have to remind myself while in civilization that I am not defective, and not a failure.
I am now living in the area of the Southern Appalachians highlighted on my old wall map. I live with an incredible life partner, a beloved dog and cat, on a creek, with a garden. I am exploring ways I can advocate for systemic and small-scale change. I don’t always get the balance right. A few years ago I overextended and triggered some combination of depressive episode and/or autistic shutdown. To recover, I returned to the Appalachian Trail with our dog, and we completed my earlier pilgrimage attempt. Melanie and our parents were invaluable supporters.
Each time I’ve had a breakdown--and there have been many--it paradoxically can be a blessing in disguise. My psyche periodically busts through the internalized constraints I once believed protected me. Then, the restrictive framework I use to fit-in shatters. The process is usually excruciating. But each time I manage to replace some amount of damaging internalized expectations with life-affirming authenticity. I now understand this phenomenon as part of the Positive Disintegration process.
My neural wiring and core values remain ill suited to the culture I inhabit. So while such shifts are liberating, they can seem alienating because they further distance me from society. I don’t fit in as well. Such a social cost was too high for me when I was younger; but now the cost of masking my true self is what is too expensive. So partly by conscious choice, partly by neurological mutiny, I’m in the process of becoming more myself now.
Some days it’s all I can do to get out of bed and walk the dog. Other days, I do much more. Within the last few years I had some shutdowns, hiked 1,300 miles, had a photo in an art show, built a shed that withstood a mudslide, restored the denuded slope, installed gutters, and helped establish a social justice group.
I am particularly grateful that I also came across Intergifted (IG) this year, which has led me to an expanded sense of community. And thanks to IG, I also learned about Silver Huang’s Intrepid Integrity, which became for me a sacred sanctuary of self-exploration. As a pioneering participant of Intrepid Integrity (an authenticity incubator), I broke through some major creative blockages toward invaluable insights. And I rekindled hope via true kindred spirit connection.
This year has afforded me much deeper understanding of my life’s trajectory that has confounded mental illness, spiky functionality, and extreme giftedness. Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration was new to me, and it matches my own life experiences in ways nothing had before. Of even greater impact perhaps, was the recognition at age 45 of undiagnosed Asperger’s with HEPG giftedness, not just vanilla giftedness.
Long-term issues I’ve noticed separately I now see as interrelated and part of an autistic with HEPG giftedness constellation. These include overwhelming sensory input and strong emotions; intense special interests; odd sleep patterns; extreme creativity and spatial intelligence coupled with impaired executive functioning and substandard housekeeping; difficulty in social gatherings, time management and communication; and uncanny connections with animals, nonverbal humans, and the natural world.
Looking back at my life with these new lenses is like going from black and white to color, or from 2-D to 3-D. Though it’s of course unrealistic, I can’t help but wonder how the trajectory of my life might have been altered by earlier awareness and celebration of who I was innately, rather than trying to conform.
Yet, finally now at age 45, I recognize that I am not a defective version of a neuromajority type person. I am embracing a new identity as an authentic – and valuable – neurominority of one. Despite all the obstacles, and at whatever age, I aim to stay on this invaluable journey toward celebrating greater authenticity.
"On Being Me" – written by Cath Hopkins 3/31/18, updated 4/5/18 (self-portrait, below, was included too).