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  • Writer's pictureNick Serro

THE REJECTION PROTECTION CLUB: CHAPTER 1



Welcome back, readers. After a short break, we begin our next series. 

 

You are hereby invited to the REJECTION PROTECTION CLUB: a monthly blog that will take a broad but focused look at issues which arise from high-functioning neurodivergence as well as considering novel ideas about a modern reconstruction of mental health and how we look at it. No matter whether you have been diagnosed with a specific condition or just feel that things work slightly differently for you, the RPC has a goal of both further destigmatizing our perceptions of mental health and also learning how to actually see differences in improving our lives.


REJECTION PROTECTION CLUB CHAPTER 1

“WHEN THINGS ARE NOT SO CHILL”

WHAT THE HELL IS NEURODIVERGENCE?


“Neurodiversity is not about changing people. It’s about changing society’s perception of people.” 
– Nick Walker

I can still remember the first time I had recognition that the way I looked at things was probably not the same as what I was assuming to be the majority. I was 8, running around on the playground just completely in my own world, and a classmate totally harmlessly asked the question “do you want to make friends?”


That, strange as it is to me even at this point, was the first time that concept resonated in full. I love people, I love interacting with people, I had a loving, typical healthy family structure, I even had what you would clearly describe as FRIENDS! My parents had assuredly explained and encouraged making friends, I saw examples in media, but at that point, living in my own head was more than enough, the concept of interacting with others was not seen as "expected" to me internally, and whatever 8-year-old interpretation of the idea that I was supposed to be “forming relationships” with people just did not register until that moment. It took me another 11 years before I would actualize that into the way that I view “being different” now, but that unclarity is precisely the nuance that the entire approach of this writing is aimed towards.


Now as my life developed on, there were plenty of more examples like this– strange, peculiar, beyond expected norms reactions and behaviors, sure; but certainly none that were ever seen as an indication that my brain may work differently, and given the stigma around mental health at the time, certainly not seen as a disorder or mental condition. Hell, the truth is that I probably wouldn’t have wanted to look at things that way until I did at 19.

Because things such as the fact that I cried over my first cat running away for weeks in a state of sadness so large I can still recall it as one of my most intense emotions, the fact that I immediately became stubborn and repelled by anything that I saw as “too mainstream”, the fact that I voluntarily changed high schools twice, the fact that I would have very large escalations emotionally that seemed to be more extreme than others, seemed to fall in love “too hard” with every crush, or loved skiing but had great distress anytime I went because the sensory feeling of the boots on my feet made me feel insane, or millions of other details… are not necessarily seen as issues too far off the norm.


It is critical and to be reiterated throughout this series that highlighting lesser and nuanced symptoms of neurodivergence is in no way a claim that those experiencing them are therefore special, gravely inhibited, or “equal” to more debilitating and difficult conditions. The goal is rather to highlight the very permeating ideology that suggests that because our barriers are not as marked or profound as those who need extensive and specific care, they are not actual issues. Further, any form of the statement “everyone deals with something” is often received as an invalidating approach as evidenced by the most common response being, particularly to someone who is neurodivergent, to stop looking further into what we are experiencing and very frequently, take that message as it must be our failures and flaws which makes us feel incompetent, apathetic, or any other form of self doubting. 


One of the most common misinterpretations of looking at ourselves from a neurodivergent view is that it becomes an excuse or ‘get out free card’-- when the reality is quite the opposite. The aim is to discover the areas we may have overlooked because before we can improve ourselves… We must first and foremost know where and how we can improve.


SO PLEASE… DEFINE NEURODIVERGENCE!


Assuredly, there is not one way to put it-- this is in fact a main part of my motive to write this series in the first place! But to begin, we will take this crucial approach of understanding the word in a multitude of ways.


Neurodiversity” 

is a term which applies to all humans that are currently and have ever lived. This term is referring to the fact that everyone processes things a little differently. An undeniable truth. 


However, this is also an area which has shown in both my personal and professional life to be unfortunately vulnerable to (typically unintended!) problematic or otherwise invalidating interpretation. And so therefore, there needs to be a separation.  


“Neurodivergence”

or “A Neurodiverse Individual” is referring to any specific person who has a brain that is processing things differently than what we would call “neurotypical”, referring to what a standard human has been deemed expected to do or be per their societal structure. This is a lifelong and permeating set of challenges– and while most humans will fall into an emotionally discrepant state after something like a breakup, someone with neurodivergence is experiencing discrepant symptoms in many or most facets of life. Environment absolutely determines manifestation, but more precisely we are referring to how an individual perceives the intensity or experience of the environment, regardless of what actually happens.


You can see this clearly when taking an obvious example such as dyslexia— the majority of people do not experience the confusion and jumbling that those with dyslexia do, but we can picture it, and therefore we can recognize exactly where the “diversion” is occurring and create a tangible and mostly accurate framework of understanding for why that person has struggles reading. It is by no means due to lack of effort, intelligence, or attention, but rather due to a differently wired system which directly clashes with the way the world is set up. Though presentation varies immensely, you can extrapolate this “differently wired system” idea to apply to all forms of neurodivergence. 


Where things get tricky— and another main focus of this series— is when neurodivergent issues are not so clear. It wasn’t until my 20s that I realized not everyone had multiple endless, unstoppable streams of thought going in their heads at all time— and turns out, some people could even stop thinking! Due to simple constraints of human understanding around sensation and perception, it is impossible for us to recognize whether the intensity and sensitivity of our emotions or sensory inputs are anywhere near that of any other human on earth by tangible, explicit measure. And just to make things even worse, there is often a great sense of judgment should someone try to explore and find these things out about themselves. 


Sometimes this is more clear than others— someone who impulsively goes to Las Vegas at 3 AM and spends their life savings is clearly displaying extreme presentation of what we call mania, and we say 'clearly' because the majority of humans, for one reason or another, have not experienced such an overwhelming sensation that they could realistically see themselves a situation where their own emotions would lead to this. But again, an overemphasis on the most extreme and discrepant examples of neurodivergent symptoms is likely a major culprit in why we have such a hard time understanding that MANY, MANY issues may be rooted in the same mechanism, just not to the extremes which we suspect them to be.


Mania to this level was probably correctly diagnosed at some point, and at the very least is pretty clear now; it is the individual who actually becomes wildly productive at work only to crash inexplicably at a routine clip that is most likely to be overlooking their symptoms of mania, and therefore leaving the untreated individual confused and exhausted. This person certainly is going to experience distress, yet is unlikely to accurately identify the root.  


In my opinion, the single best metaphorical comparison for neurodivergence to a physical condition is simply needing glasses: everyone sees things at a different caliber. Some people may just notice inhibition when reading in dim light, some may be legally blind. Some may not be too bothered by having blurry vision, others may find it to be the bane of their existence. But what separates poor eyesight from neurodivergence is stigma: we don’t think twice about who needs or doesn’t need glasses, there’s no perception of people “faking” their eyesight or “wearing glasses for attention”, but we seem to have a much more heated and undefined social norm when reacting to neurodivergence.


Imagine if you found out that a very low prescription would make your vision much improved, but almost daily, people would question “do you really need glasses? Is it really that bad? EVERYONE has some eyesight issues, I can’t see in the dark! Do you just want to be seen as ___ or ___? You could need glasses, but you'd probably see better if you just ___”. Anytime we feel there may be judgment involved in a choice, it makes for a much different decision.


In my experience, it feels that often times when we metaphorically say things are a little blurry in regards to our mental health, we assume that so long as we are not blind, we must have 20/20 vision. Neurodivergence, as will be approached in this series, should be seen similarly to eyesight. Everyone is different, some need no additional tools, some people need massive accommodation, but billions of people fall in between. 


OK, SO WHO IDENTIFIES AS NEURODIVERGENT?


If someone accurately self-identifies as “neurodivergent”, it is essentially signifying that the barriers, challenges, or struggles that they experience in life are predominantly rooted in issues derived from processing the world differently than how is typically expected. Autism is often seen as the predominant condition, and that makes clearest sense when considering again it is one of the most clearcut ‘mismatches’ to neurotypical society– but even when things are not as obvious, the same principle applies.


I can’t tangibly prove that my desire to seek novelty and restlessness is more or less intense than anyone else’s, that is true. But I do have some sense of ‘hard evidence’ in the receipt of a lifetime of feeling like others could find fulfillment and satisfaction much more easily than I, observing across ages and cultures that others do not appear to have nearly as much motive to seek novelty as I do, and just the fact that not many people I know voluntarily went to three different high schools nor have lived in 4 major cities with intention of continuing to move throughout life. While these examples may not directly seem to connect to my irregularities in dopamine processing– and if they do, it might hold a judgmental tone to it– this is the dry and scientific truth, and has objectively shaped my life in many ways, for the better and for worse.

And for the things I can prove-- if anyone has ever said they noticed I was ADHD, it has perhaps obviously nearly exclusively been because of my external symptoms, such as body movements, talking speed, or excitability.


Neurodivergence– again, as we will define it in this series– covers basically anything which we were born into: autism, ADHD, OCD, Tourette’s, Down’s Syndrome, CP, bipolar, schizophrenia etc, etc– but also anything which may have been trauma-induced yet still manifests in lifelong effects, such as personality disorders, C-PTSD, and similar. Something such as an acute anxiety disorder-- for example, someone feeling very anxious in their 30s after not experiencing much prior-- would not be considered neurodivergence because the individual does not have a lifelong history of the same issues stemming from what appears to be the same source. But if this was a longterm pattern of anxiety that had created difficulties in similar situations in the past… we would consider that neurodivergence, as the individual has always struggled to manage life due to a different way of processing. 


A good example to show where discernment can become tricky is grief: it is entirely true that grief creates a change in perception and cognition permanently, but the nuance in this situation is that grief will occur to all humans. In fact, more than most things on earth, all humans are equally vulnerable to grief. Symptoms of grief are not considered neurodivergent because of the typical expectation around the progression of the behaviors, but if someone experiences grief in a profoundly difficult way that involves some kind of unprocessed traumatic feature that becomes a functional barrier for the rest of life, it has developed into C-PTSD, and could now be considered neurodivergence should the person experience significant issues stemming from this trauma for the rest of life. 


And to some degree, it’s a matter of personal preference. If someone wears glasses just to read, do we debate whether they should be considered an eyeglass wearer or not? If someone wears eyeglasses at all times, is that the foremost thing that we define them by? If I went to go get an eye test and it was determined my vision was not totally perfect, would I be hesitant to explain this to someone? While we will eventually cover the unfortunate factors that have seen self-identification of neurodivergence become misinterpreted, misunderstood, or even weaponized, it is first very clear to indicate how the nuance of the old saying “EVERYONE’S GOT SOMETHINGcontradictingly brings both validity to the statement and invalidation to many who identify with the statement.


 A better reframe? Everyone has their own set of challenges, and though we do not understand the specific struggle of another, there is solidarity and unity in the idea that everyone must understand how to work in their own personalized way that tailors to their specific struggle, most crucially acknowledging there is no way to compare or even understand how much relative pain we are experiencing.


Admittedly, not as easy off the tongue.


DOESN’T EVERYONE HAVE SOMETHING, THOUGH??


We go back to NEURODIVERSITY– certainly. Everyone’s brain works differently. But is everyone therefore neurodivergent? It's a tricky nuance.


Clone my brain identically, send it to be born and live in Yemen, simulate 30 years, and that brain is going to work a lot differently than my present one. But here’s where the similarities remain: that brain IS likely still going to seek novelty, still going to fidget uncontrollably, still going to struggle with emotional regulation due to the way the brain is set up. All environments will be differently suited than one another, but there is no environment where my natural brain setup nor intrinsic needs change. In reality, I am working as a therapist because I had not only the opportunity and privilege to get to this point, but also due to the struggles from being neurodivergent that I constantly experience as well. 


In a worse alternative environment where I am never able or allowed to come to acceptance of this, I may mask symptoms my entire life and present as a raging asshole, a defensive douchebag, or perhaps even manifest into a different disorder, oftentimes more severe to manage. In a better alternative environment where the world was set up with the majority of people thinking the way that I do… well, I would no longer be the divergent one in that case, and at least in theory, the people who are currently considered “neurotypical” now would become the ones who would face barriers due to processing the world differently.


I can find the humor in the situation of a very punctual neurotypical person trying to stay sane in a workplace full of neurodivergent and timeblind coworkers, but the truth is that I also find empathy, because something similar to the opposite situation is happening every day for someone experiencing neurodivergence.


Another good metaphor that I once heard about neurodivergence was that our existence in this current societal structure is like “Superman but reversed”-- it is as if a human went to Krypton and, understandably, felt that we must be flawed and incompetent by comparison when realizing that the norm there was to be able to jump over buildings in a single bound. This is obviously not true, we just possess a separate set of skills and overlook that we have strengths they do not have until we metaphorically see our value in being immune to kryptonite. 


Now, if you were to read through the DSM, almost all disorders end with the same final and required criterion: “if and only if present for 2+ weeks and inhibiting the individual’s quality of life.” While this is not a disagreement, perhaps just an addendum, I think it is crucial to consider that this question– ESPECIALLY for those with a variety of specific neurodiverse symptoms– is a lot harder to answer from the individual’s perspective than the DSM was likely intending. To use my own personal and similar anecdotal accounts from many dozens of clients, most of the issues that I would now describe as the true core pillar, pain in the ass barriers I face most frequently have always been present, they just were not accurately identified until I was in my 20’s.

I may never have recognized them as anything more than my own failures and negative consequences if I never acknowledged how my specific set of symptoms could actually be seen in patterned and similar experiences of others, but at the same time I would be very confused if I expected my prognosis or whatever label may be describing my cluster of symptoms to be easily understood.


Rather than looking at a diagnosis as written, I actually like to ask these questions:


  • Is the idea that other people can do things more easily than you, whether emotionally, cognitively, or perceptually, something that you have thought consistently in different areas of life?

  • Do you feel that you have more “brainfog”, anxiety, sadness, depression, paranoia, worry, restlessness, or similar emotions than others that can take up a lot of time and mental energy out of every week?

  • Do you feel a near-constant underlying feeling of guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, sadness or fear of abandonment, even if just at a barely noticeable level? 

  • Do you feel you have any heightened sensitivity compared to most others, whether it is physical sensation, criticism, rejection, excitement, or other “high energy” emotions?

  • Do you feel that it is more difficult to relate to others than what seems to be expected? Do you find yourself having a hard time understanding why many people like something that seems to be commonly enjoyed, engage in a popular activity, or use strategies a certain way? Do people often comment that you do things “differently”, “weird”, “strange”, or similar? Are people often surprised, questioning or confused by your habits?

  • Do you feel that your environment is easily lived in and suiting? Do you tend to find that the norms of the social construct naturally line up with your own values and experiences? 


While I have been trying for decades now to find a concise way to explain neurodivergence-- and may spend decades more before I find one, it is the purpose of writing this series, after all-- I can say firmly that one important clue to that answer which may not be readily apparent is a connection to counterculture.


SO WHAT IS THE ACTUAL POINT OF IDENTIFYING AS NEURODIVERGENT?


If you abstract things just a little, someone identifying as neurodivergent is in earnest trying to state that by accepting and considering their perceptions are not aligned with the predominant culture, they are going to have to create a way to “counter” that. This therefore inherently, but not necessarily with intention of opposition, defies the existing norms and practices.


This might look like someone doing math problems a lot differently than how the teacher instructed, might look like someone who is living nomadically in the woods, might look like someone with dozens of piercings and hundreds of tattoos, might just look like depression if internalized, but most importantly includes billions of examples in between. It is no stretch to see where the foreboding feeling around neurodivergence may be strongly connected to the taboo and stigma that comes with counterculture itself. We certainly cannot prove it, but I really can’t imagine too many of those punks, thugs, weirdos, hippies, recluses, and far worse labels had brains which processed things like the typical ones of society. 


While broad, I do believe that a paramount signifier of neurodivergence is actually the contentment and sustainability of an individual’s relationship with the social construct. Someone who is upbeat, energetic, fast-processing, and thinks abstractly is objectively going to look like they have ADHD as a symptomatic condition, but if that individual ultimately can regulate to a normal degree afterwards, functions independently, and does not feel significant guilt, shame, inadequacies, or frustration in connecting with the world as a byproduct of their behaviors, I might not actually consider that neurodivergence.


It is a fool’s errand to try and connect every single pattern of symptoms to an emotional condition, and that is why communication and clarity around our individual barriers is a far more effective way to actually have a full and thorough understanding of self than just saying “I am this condition, so these symptoms and barriers are what determine my life.” Even if this was advantageous, symptoms can look WILDLY, WILDLY different from not just condition to condition, but individual to individual within each condition. It is a specific and permanent struggle involving either emotions, functioning, or cognition which is somehow disallowed or worsened by the social construct or contract which I believe can ultimately summarize all of the word “neurodivergence” in context of a mental health definition.


Now this is where I will reiterate that the nuance of having high-functioning symptoms seems to result in the creation of a lot of intersectionality and therefore unaddressed and unknown barriers– if neurodivergence was prevalent enough to profoundly and unavoidably restrict our quality of life, we would have known long before. But at risk of sounding redundant, the entire aim of this series is to look at the massive crack in between “fully, truly neurotypical” and “neurodivergent to an extreme and unavoidably debilitating degree” without it getting overly specific, clinical, or compartmentalized.


Here’s one more analogy to look at: food allergies and sensitivities.


ONE MORE REFRAME ON MISCONCEPTIONS


Let’s say you are a server at a restaurant and it’s particularly important to know if customers have any food allergies.


Many of us have probably experienced how this gets handled: the server typically will ask the table, “does anyone have any food allergies or preferences I should be aware of?”, and patrons will then say, “I have a nut allergy”, “pork doesn’t sit well with my stomach”, or “I don’t like pinot noir, what other wines do you have?” 


It’s a pretty good system in my opinion, the server then has, with some effort, but certainly not overbearingly so, been able to adequately accommodate everyone best that they can and avoid any potentially escalating situations such as a food allergy. Straightforward.


Now let’s say we’re in a parallel dimension, same premise of you being a server. Except in this dimension, we look at food allergies and preferences not as individual symptoms, but as a pre-setup combination. A customer with Nick’s Condition #F.45 is allergic to gluten and doesn’t like spicy things, and a customer with Serro’s Disorder will get explosive gas with dairy and also is very allergic to shellfish. It is seen as rude to just assume things about a customer, but it is also not going to be very, or in any way, apparent from baseline interaction that a customer has one of these conditions. We now have ourselves a much more difficult situation than if the norm was as is, just to ask 'a la carte'.


We can make assumptions at risk of offending, obviously not a great approach. We can just ask, but then when someone has Serro’s Disorder and is also allergic to nuts and gluten, we get confused because it breaks our preconceived schemas of how these combinations are supposed to work. This customer is assuredly run ragged in this area from having to explain their special exception to this arbitrary grouping for the 634,090th time in their life. Our response is now at greater risk to make the customer feel invalidated, but it is concurrently not unreasonable to see why it may then become angering and even combated by the server who is relying on their preconceived conceptions which are now not making sense. 


Ultimately, I would hypothesize that this system compared to how we actually operate in restaurant waiting would result in more frustration of both customers and servers, would see a lot more allergic reactions due to overlooking nuance, and overall would certainly create doubt, polarization, and debate over both restaurants and food allergies/preferences in general. The system we have in place now, at least from this angle, looks far superior-- and some of these issues still even exist within it!


But this secondary example is in fact EXACTLY how we see mental health when we look from the current DSM-driven perceptions on the topic. The general view on mental health tends to look at any symptom, even if it is the equivalent of hating the taste of cilantro or noticing we get mild heartburn when we eat tomatoes, and saying well, unless it is Celiac’s Disease, it’s not actually something we are entitled to do something about. And on the other end, while clusters of these symptoms may very well be usually connected to one another, the variance and complexity of the brain makes that not just moot, but detrimental as a point to focus on.


While unrealistic, I would say that in a magical reality where things could just fix… turning discussion of mental health accommodations into “are there any sensory/emotional/cognitive differences I should be aware of?” while somehow removing the perceptions of these questions being patronizing and condescending would theoretically create a truly neurodivergence-accommodating world. 


Realistically... we can start by asking these questions to ourselves.


CHAPTER 1 IN REVIEW


The most common thing that I will hear in apprehension to the idea of people identifying as neurodivergent, or any condition for that matter, is something along the lines of “but when people identify strongly with a set of symptoms, do they not then run the risk of overlooking other factors or using these symptoms to avoid accountability?”


While counterintuitive in some ways, the end goal is actually to understand what is happening to have an explanation, not an excuse. While I fully understand the intention of the question, it ironically contradicts itself-- it is our emotions which we do not view as discrepant or connected to a larger condition which more often have a maladaptive and problematic "excuse" reaction. When we can understand how additional, previously unseen neurodevelopmental factors are influencing our cognitive reality, we actually can take further accountability than we would be able to prior. This can be seen clearly in the difference someone who can connect their anger to a traumatic history and have better self awareness, even if they still present large emotions, and someone with an extremely angry temperament that denies any kind of trauma occurred and therefore must blame outwards.


When I look at the entire scope of my life today, at 30 years old with the last 10 being hyperfocused on trying to figure out why my patterns, emotions, and behaviors are how they are to the point that well, I made a career out of it, one thing has become abundantly clear: if I did something, it was likely for the dopamine. If I failed to do something, it was probably in some way connected to a heightened rejection sensitivity or executive dysfunction. I have never had any issues with knowing, creating, inventing, scheming, or assessing– it’s the execution, assertation, and initiation part which has created the struggles of my life. And trust me-- none of this is an excuse saying I've never overcome or I can't do things or I don't take responsibility, I'm just stating that I both suffer and celebrate around these factors every day that I live, and the awareness of that has made all the difference.

While this example of a “quieter” ADHD may just be one example amongst possible billions of different manifestations of neurodivergence, the end goal here is to highlight how understanding these little ‘quirks’ might just lead to a much fuller existence that can maximize our quality of life. I don't define myself as an ADHD person foremost or in any way other than my neurotype, but I could not adequately define myself as a person without deep understanding of how ADHD has influenced that definition.


To finish with one of my favorite parallels to look at why someone would even want to better understand their own mental health, there is always going to be danger, fear, or similar negative feelings when we encounter a bear. There is no possible way to remove these emotions entirely, nor is there a way to 100% guarantee we can leave the situation unscathed. But to encounter a bear with awareness of its nature, understanding of how to interact, and as many proactive preparations as we possibly can have... is a lot different than coming out to our living room in our pajamas and discovering an 800-lb aggressive animal with massive claws and teeth that we've never seen before has broken into the house.



NEXT MONTH: THE REJECTION PROTECTION CLUB CHAPTER 2

“INTENTION DEFICIT DISORDER”

What We Know About the Neuroscience Behind Neurodivergence

Next month we will continue to explore a more thorough and defined way to look at neurodivergence through what we presently understand from a scientific level, including new ways to view differences in our brains that may be quite counterintuitive to the ways that many conditions are generally perceived. 


MORE ABOUT 

CONNECTED ROOTS


At Connected Roots, our three core pillars are connection, grounding, and confidence. 


We share dedication to creating nonjudgmental and safe spaces where clients can 

express themselves authentically and reach their goals.


For more information on Connected Roots or Nick Serro, please visit our website or contact us at 720-593-1062.


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