In this post, I am describing a particular attitude that happens to work very well for me. I expect that this culture will be useless or even harmful for many neurodivergent people, because neurodivergent people are actually different from each other. But I think it is interesting that this culture works so well for me, because it is different from the most common discourses I see about neurodivergence.
I think the attitude has two components: normalization and self-improvement.
Normalization means not seeing neurodivergence as a qualitatively different kind of thing than neurotypicality. Of course, some people are capable of doing things that other people are not, and some people have experiences that other people do not. But it sees depression, suicidal ideation, eating disorders, executive dysfunction, and delusions as not somehow different or Other, but as part of the ordinary space of things that happen to people sometimes. “Can you come over to my place, I’m agoraphobic today” is not fundamentally different from “can you come over to my place, my car broke down.” When you find out someone is neurodivergent, you don’t have to freak out or act like the person is a chaotic evil orc or a fragile and easily shattered teacup. It’s okay to make jokes.
A normalizing attitude treats diagnosis labels as sort of like “I’m an extrovert” or “I’m high in machiavellianism”: a fact about people’s brains, useful for predicting things about them, and shown by psychological research to have a better evidential grounding than, say, “I’m a Gryffindor.” A diagnosis label does not mean that the person is sick or broken.
A normalizing attitude acknowledges that people are different from you. It abjures the typical mind fallacy. While it doesn’t assume that everyone accurately reports their own experiences, it defaults to assuming that people do; when someone says that they experience something, the assumption is “you might be wrong about what causes your feelings, or the framework that you put them in, or what I need to do because of them, but I think it is very likely you are trying to put into words a real thing that happened to you.”
In my experience, the normalizing attitude often applies to odd behavior that isn’t associated with a diagnosis; people who have this attitude are generally polite to other people’s tulpas, respectful of other people’s desires for service submission, and curious about other people’s self-identification as a wolf.
The other aspect that is super-useful to me is what you might call self-improvement or– given the community I interact with– tsuyoku naritai. To quote the essay:
Tsuyoku naritai is Japanese. Tsuyoku is “strong”; naru is “becoming” and the form naritai is “want to become”. Together it means “I want to become stronger” and it expresses a sentiment embodied more intensely in Japanese works than in any Western literature I’ve read. You might say it when expressing your determination to become a professional Go player—or after you lose an important match, but you haven’t given up—or after you win an important match, but you’re not a ninth-dan player yet—or after you’ve become the greatest Go player of all time, but you still think you can do better. That is tsuyoku naritai, the will to transcendence.
(As far as I can tell, “Japanese works” means “anime”, because Eliezer Yudkowsky.)
Tsuyoku naritai is normalizing. Having difficulty remembering all the rules of Go is not a fundamentally different thing from being the greatest Go player of all time but knowing you can still do better. We are all here, trying to become stronger, whatever that means in our particular context.
That means there is also no fundamental difference between my recovery and other people’s self-improvement. It’s true that I have certain problems (suicidal ideation, delusions) that other people don’t. But it’s also true that many of our problems are similar (excessive shame, excessive anxiety, procrastination), even if mine are more dramatic. And of course many neurotypical people have different problems from each other as well– a person who is having a hard time finding a romantic partner has a different experience than someone who is having a hard time buckling down and studying math.
An attitude of tsuyoku naritai means that people expect me to have set personal improvement goals, to be willing to try different strategies to reach them, and to share what worked for me with others. This unspoken background assumption makes recovery a lot easier for me. Other people might suggest techniques that turn out to be lifesavers for me (pomodoros!). I’m not going to fall victim to crabs in a bucket syndrome. If someone doesn’t exercise, I expect that their response to my exercising is going to be “I’ve been having a hard time getting motivated, do you have any advice?” or “it’s good that you’re doing that” or “the tradeoffs of exercise don’t work for me, but I’m glad they work for you” or “*shrug*”. I don’t have to respond to someone denigrating me for exercising with “exercise prevents my depression” and then half the time get back “but exercise doesn’t ACTUALLY improve people’s depression, unless you’re a fucking neurotypical.”
Conversely, if a strategy doesn’t work for me, I can say it doesn’t work for me without people pushing it on me. And if a goal is just unreasonable for me at this stage in my life– for instance, working full-time– I can tell people that it’s unreasonable and have that accepted. I’m the Go player who’s still learning the rules. It’s not reasonable for me to try to become a professional Go player yet.
Someday? Maybe, perhaps. I think the meme expressed in “yet, growth mindset!” is helpful for me. It is really good for me to be able to say firmly “I can’t do that right now” and have that respected, while not closing off the possibility that I can perhaps do that at some point in my life.
Medication is a specific case here. Many of the neurotypical people I know take some sort of drugs to improve their brains: modafinil for focus and energy; creatine for the IQ points if vegetarian; melatonin if they have trouble sleeping; psychedelics for insight and self-improvement. That means it is normal and unstigmatized to take drugs if you are unhappy with the way your brain works. It’s also normal and unstigmatized to choose not to take drugs; many people find that the tradeoffs of modafinil simply aren’t worth it for them, so of course I might find that the tradeoffs of antidepressants aren’t worth it for me.