GUY RAZ, HOST:
That's writer Andrew Solomon. He'll be back later in the show. First though, to the story of 23-year-old Alix Generous. It's a story which may make you rethink your assumptions about mental health. Here's Alix on the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
ALIX GENEROUS: I am a very visual thinker. I think in pictures not words. You might have noticed that I don't have much inflection in my voice. That's why people often confuse me with a GPS.
GENEROUS: So this can make basic communication a challenge unless you need directions. So...
GENEROUS: A few years ago, when I started doing presentations, I went to get headshots done for the first time. The photographer told me to look flirty, and I had no idea what she was talking about.
GENEROUS: She said, do that thing, you know, with your eyes, when you're flirting with guys. What thing? I asked. You know, squint. And so I tried, really, I looked like I was searching for Waldo. There's a reason for this, as there is a reason that Waldo is hiding so...
GENEROUS: I have Asperger's, a high-functioning form of autism that impairs the basic social skills one is expected to display. It's made life difficult in many ways and, growing up, I struggled to fit in socially. My friends would tell jokes, but I didn't understand them. My personality switched from being shy and awkward to being defiant and cursing out a storm. Needless to say, I did not have many friends. I was also hypersensitive to texture. The feel of water on my skin was like pins and needles, and so for years I refused to shower. I can assure you that my hygiene routine is up to standards now.
RAZ: Alix can joke about all this now. It's sort of how she copes with it. But it wasn't easy for her to get to this place. Opening up about what's going on in our minds is hard for anyone, but Asperger's is a condition that, by its definition, makes it really hard to communicate your feelings.
GENEROUS: And a lot of times, there were a lot of incoming feelings that would come that I wouldn't understand where they'd come from or why they were there. And how I reacted to them varied, and most of the time it was tantrums or meltdowns, and other times I just stood in solitude and felt sad.
RAZ: When Alix was a kid, doctors looked at all these symptoms and they came to a conclusion - not Asperger's, but bipolar disorder. And that was a misdiagnosis.
GENEROUS: I keep all of my journals in one drawer at my house from throughout my life, and I opened one that I had when I was 8 years old and the prompt was, what do you wish for? And I wrote, I wish I didn't have bipolar disease. And I don't think any child should have to be writing that at the age of 8 years old. And I started medications, I think, when I was 6 years old - or, give or take a year. I don't quite remember.
GENEROUS: In all of the pictures you see when I was a child, I have kind of squinty, like, tired eyes all the time. And I don't remember a lot of my childhood, even from 6 to 11 or 12. I have friends that I would talk to that I went to school with in that age range, and they would tell me all these fun memories they had with me, and I didn't remember any of them.
RAZ: At 8 years old - you're 8 years old and you're thinking, I'm bipolar and I'm depressed. I mean, that's a lot for an 8-year-old to deal with.
GENEROUS: Yes, there's this quote by William Gibson - before you diagnose yourself with depression, just make sure you're not surrounded by [expletive] because a lot of times people feel depressed and feel this way because people are telling them these things and making them feel that way.
GENEROUS: And I did have some pretty awful teachers and peers in my life. I was bullied. And so in that way, environment determines a lot.
RAZ: Yeah, it made it worse.
GENEROUS: It did, it pin-holed me to that specific feeling that something's wrong with me because people are treating me this way.
RAZ: Throughout her childhood, Alix was in and out of treatment centers, and she had a particularly bad experience at one place when she was 12. She had to do chores that she thought were unfair. But Alix couldn't quite express it. She couldn't communicate her feelings about why she thought that.
GENEROUS: And to the doctors at the treatment facility, that was viewed as defiance, and to address that, they gave me an L-dopa medication that induced me medically into a psychosis. I started to see things that weren't there and I became very paranoid. Like, I thought the people at the school poisoned my food so I wouldn't eat. I thought that I couldn't go to sleep because they would kill me while I was sleeping. I saw, like, things come at me, and I thought I had to do certain things in order to live longer, like wear certain colors. It was a very bizarre experience, and it was because of those medications. My family and I developed a code word that I could say to them, and they'd come pick me up, no questions asked.
RAZ: What was the code word?
GENEROUS: I think it was watermelon.
RAZ: And that was it, they came?
GENEROUS: Yes. It was a very stressful time, and I was only 12 years old at the time.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
GENEROUS: I transferred to a new treatment center that understood my aversions, my trauma and my social anxiety. And I - and they knew how to treat it, and I got the help I finally needed. And after 18 months of hard work, I went on to do incredible things. At 19, I won a research competition on my research on coral reefs and I ended up speaking at the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity presenting this research. And at 22, I'm getting ready to graduate college, and I am a co-founder of a biotech company called AutismSees.
GENEROUS: Thank you. One of the things with Asperger's is that oftentimes, these people have a very complex inner life, and I know for myself I have a very colorful personality, rich ideas and just a lot going on in my mind. But there is a gap between where that stands and how I communicate it with the rest of the world. And this can make basic communication a challenge. So many people with autism are being overlooked every day and they're being taken advantage of. My dream for people with autism is to change that, to remove the roadblocks that prevents them from succeeding.
RAZ: You know, it's really incredible to hear how far you've come after what you've been through. I mean, you were a kid that was convinced you were bad and mean and weird because that's how people treated you. But you are a nice person. I mean, you care about people, it's obvious.
GENEROUS: Thank you.
RAZ: I mean, right? That's how you thought of yourself.
GENEROUS: I did. And sometimes a lot of my insecurities are based off of that. I'm always questioning if I acted appropriately, or if I was too odd or whether that person liked me or not. Like, it doesn't matter how much success you're deemed to have achieved, sometimes these things are carried with you. And I'm trying to work through it now that I'm aware of it. And you do that by actually interacting with the world with the person you want to be rather than what you think you are.
RAZ: Alix Generous. She's also the co-founder of AutismSees, where she's working on technologies to help people with autism communicate better. You can see her entire talk at ted.com.
Coming up, how fruit flies could reframe the way we think about our mental health. I'm Guy Raz. Our show today, Headspace. And this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
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