A friend and I talk about this idea often, particularly pertaining to a certain subject. We go back and forth and weigh the pro's and con's and try to find the helpfulness in each.
I always land on the same answer.
I am a firm believer in that whatever experience makes it way into our path whether good, bad, wonderful, terrible, and everything in between can have meaning if we transform it into something of value; something we can be proud of.
You're probably wondering where this tangent is leading and I promise, I'm getting there.
This year will be my fourth journey to Fresno and the fourth time I have earned the honor of representing a part of this beautiful state. This time though feels like the very first time. There are moments that each one of us will experience during our lives that will change the trajectory forever. This is the story of mine.
In 2015, at 20 years old, two weeks before heading to compete at Miss California for the third time. I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, or Asperger's. As of 2013 Asperger’s is now included in the Autism Spectrum, and is considered the highest functioning diagnosis within all ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) forms. I had faced anxiety, OCD, depression, and had “quirks” my entire life, (aka watching all three recently released Pirates of the Caribbean movies back-to-back on a loop from when I got home from school until I went to sleep. This continued for three years. I knew there was something different about me but after years of seeing therapists I was thrown into a slew of misdiagnoses from clinical depression to PTSD to extreme social anxiety. The list just went on. I knew deep down that there was more to my story. I knew with every new diagnosis that more was going on in my head than the categories I was being slumped into. I recognized some of the aspects were present, but many were not. I let time pass, and I continued to go through life.
While I was away at college, I really started noticing that I was struggling more and more to do what seemed like “the norm.” Life seemingly came so effortlessly to the people around me, but I felt like I was always living my life a few seconds behind. I struggled to connect, I struggled to feel like I had a place. I started going to a new therapist and she started leading me towards the only thing I'd ever really wanted: an answer. In this meeting she asked if a few specialists could come in and listen in and participate in our session and that it would be a little different. A group of four people came in. We talked, we talked, and we talked. I was asked to take written tests and a lot of the questions had to do with how I viewed the world around me, including how I viewed myself as well. I was convinced I was going to be told again I was just “very anxious and quirky.” They asked if they could excuse themselves from the room for a moment and discuss privately. When you’re waiting for answers and you have to wait it feels like you’re sitting for centuries. But I sat quietly staring at her painting on the wall that hung just a little too far to the left. To this day I still wonder if it was ever corrected.
When the specialists returned they delivered news to me that stopped my world for a moment and life was forever changed. They explained that I had Asperger’s Syndrome. I was initially overjoyed. It was the first time I felt it all kind of made sense. But then they told me that this condition is considered on the Autism Spectrum. I stopped dead in my tracks. How? How am I 20 and this is just being figured out? I thought they had to be mistaken. If this were true how could I communicate the way I do? How can I interact the way I do? They explained that although it is on the Spectrum, there are stark differences between both ends, and there are many things within that diagnosis that are tied to my high adaptability and ability to mirror people and conversations, but the experiences and way I navigate this world all point directly to one diagnosis.
I left angry. I left confused. I took all the information and handouts they gave me and stuffed them into my center console and convinced myself I'd never look again. I thought they were wrong. It was in my early moments that I now look back on and see that my lack of education lead to so many misconceptions, and common misunderstanding is something I look forward to changing.
I competed at Miss California that year but I knew I was not in my right mindset. I felt empty. It almost felt like myself had been taken out of me.
It was about two months into my senior year of college and situations kept arising that I thought could be attributed to ASD did I open that center console. For the first time, I read through the crumpled abandoned paperwork with an open mind. Suddenly everything I read made sense. Every possible symptom was something that I experienced daily. Every. Single. Day.
Shortly after my realization my journey really began. I started cognitive behavioral therapy. and I chose to immerse myself in the ASD Community. I wanted to know it ALL. Every possible facet of the Spectrum. I was aware that with the great differences between both ends of the spectrum. I wanted to take the hard moments that I've lived every day for 20 years and advocate for all of us. Though my struggle will admittedly never be as hard on someone on the opposite functioning end of the spectrum, I can do my part in advocating for understanding and education. As far as the Spectrum goes, I know that my diagnosis is “easy” in comparison. I live independently, I am able to communicate, I am able to build relationships. But, that does not deter from the immense struggles and the constant bumper to bumper traffic in my brain.
As you can imagine, pageants were the furthest thing from my mind. I was still figuring out “me” for what felt like the first time. When friends and family would ask what I thought about ever competing again, I would say that if I could do it authentically, as wholly myself, then yes. But – it would take time to get there.
Last year, I sat in the audience at Miss California and had a very seldom quiet moment in my brain where I realized that this was something I wanted to do once more. I wanted to tell this story. I wanted to be vulnerable. I wanted to provide strength to those who felt different, who felt like they were the odd man out. I wanted to serve as a role model. I found the strength in the struggles to want to stand on a platform and proudly proclaim that Yes, I am different, but it doesn’t mean that I am any less capable of being Miss California.
I developed my Platform “Authentically Blue, Authentically You” on the merit of just that. I serve as an Autism Speaks Volunteer Advocacy Ambassador and I see first hand the beauty of this spectrum. The advances in the medical field, the advancements of occupational, physical, and speech therapies. There isn't a cure, but the world is starting to open their hearts and minds to what the Spectrum actually is. Advocacy is one of the best ways to spread awareness and shine a light. My platform was also developed to have a universal element to it – for anyone who has ever felt different like they didn't quite fit in like they aren't good enough – this journey is for them as well. I've been.. I am that woman. I want to be the light to someone, be the role model that stood up and was relatable in the differences, not on a pedestal.
Is competing while on the Spectrum hard? Yes, but it was also hard when I didn't know I was on the Spectrum. Will I have challenges during my year as a titleholder? Yes, but I had them and overcame them when I didn't know my diagnosis. Will standing on a stage and sharing the interior of your heart be worth it (crown or not)? Absolutely. As cliché as it may sound if I could change one person's mind about the intricacies of the spectrum, if I could make one person proud to march to the beat of their own drum, to be proud of their quirks, or even someone wanting to explore their own diagnoses' further, then again, Yes. All of this will have been worth it.