The Tell-Tale Heart

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“What do you look like under stress?” I’ve never been asked that in an interview, so it threw me. What do I look like under stress? I kicked off my answer with a bit of initial rambling, um, yep, well I probably talk less, work longer, eat more chocolate… But actually? However you’re seeing me, is how I look under stress. I live in a fairly constant state of anxiety. So, stress doesn’t feel like an event for me, more like a lifestyle. If I ever get asked that specific question again, I’ll probably pull out the duck metaphor: Gliding smoothly on the water, paddling a million miles an hour underneath. But for neurodivergents, this actually represents a huge part of surviving neurotypical life: projecting an effortless-looking front, as our insides spin and sparkle. Also known as: Masking.

Fluffy yellow duck considering coming out of a surreal purple and pink rocky cave.
A peeking duck.

Fluffy yellow duck considering coming out of a surreal purple and pink rocky cave.
Peeking duck.

Over time, (as a long-undiagnosed neurodivergent), I have trained myself to hold in anything that people around me would flag as weird. Things like a bouncing head, twinkling fingers, any kind of wriggling, face-pulling, talking to myself… all things that I now know can be stimming* behaviours for people with neurodivergent brains. But little me didn’t know this, so as a kid I got really good at hiding my stims. So good, that even now, grown-up and armed with the knowledge that they help me, I struggle against years of pushing my instincts down, holding myself neurotypically together. And sure, I look still. From the outside. But I’m actually so fired-up internally that the device that registers my heart rate, steps, and stress, recorded an eleven-minute zoom call (where I appeared calm, still, and together) as “intense physical activity.”

Jolene looking calm, but her wrist device is flashing with text that says
Me and my tell-tale heart

Jolene looking calm, but her wrist device is flashing with text that says "Abnormal heart rate"
Me and my tell-tale heart

Unfortunately, the masking that protected me from being “found out” also kept me from owning the understanding and identity that could help my brain regulate and de-stress. Many neurodivergent brains are designed to move. We’re the ones scribbling drawings in a meeting, fidgeting, pacing, interrupting, twiddling, spinning our chairs, we’re the ones looking everywhere except at the speaker. We’re doing things that can come across as “distracted” and “inattentive,” or people will assume that we’re just not listening.

But what if neurodivergent wiring is designed to use movement as a way to focus, to listen, and to be fully present? How much about our workplaces, education system, and personal expectations, would need to change? (Spoiler: SO much! But we will get there!)

Ideally, stress would be an event, not a lifestyle. But while we figure that out, exploring the ins and outs (and needs and gifts!) of neurodivergent brains is how we can all level up.

*Stimming: Short for self-stimulatory behaviour, stimming can be physical, visual, or tactile – a stim is a repeated, feel-good sensation. For neurodivergent brains, stimming is an expression of joy and a method of stress-relief. Stims can be specific to a person and can include singing, fidget toys, combinations, textures, smells, tastes, etc.

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