Claudia Van-Nimwegen is a non-binary Theatre Artist and Motivational Speaker who has a passion for helping people reach their true potential through the power of creativity. They are committed to eradicating stigmas surrounding mental health and learning disabilities, believing difference should be embraced.
What is it like to have a diagnosis of both a mental health condition and a learning disability? I’m Claudia and I have Autism, Anxiety, Depression and OCD. As you can probably figure out, I’m a complex human being.
I’ve always been different, and have been aware of that fact since around the age of 6 when I started to be able to consciously make decisions for myself. I couldn’t understand why people didn’t accept me for the way I was and soon fell into a place of anger, depression, anxiety and confusion around why I was so ‘different’ from everybody else.
‘Just a naughty kid’
At school, I started to be labelled as ‘just a naughty kid’ and ‘attention-seeking’. I got through it by covering up the emotional scars I hid well. Countless therapists told me that because I seemed to be coping on the outside, my negative thoughts, feelings and emotions were obviously ‘not serious enough’. Very helpful.
After numerous efforts to reach out for help and being denied it (and even kicked out of anger management therapy for being ‘too angry’- yes that really happened,) I went into meltdown mode and saw no point in living. If my differences were seen as weaknesses, I was clearly a burden on the world.
‘Once I received this diagnosis, I felt things all fall into place’
This self-loathing and depression grew and grew until it reached the point where nothing mattered anymore and I felt that I couldn’t cope with living. So in 2014, just before my 17th birthday, I attempted to take my own life. Luckily, I was found holding onto the railings of the top storey car park by the emergency services and was sectioned for 6 months in a psychiatric hospital.
After this hospital admission, I went to be tested for various mental health conditions and was finally diagnosed with high functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder, also known as Aspergers Syndrome. Once I received this diagnosis, I felt things all fall into place. I realised that my differences were just because I processed the world in a neuropsychologist-diverse way. I threw myself back into life with this new-found confidence and, at the age of 19, decided to live life to the fullest, embrace my difference and go to university.
‘I felt I didn’t need to prove anything anymore’
University was full of individuals from all walks of life, and I found myself accepted for my difference, which was really great as I’d never really known what it felt like to be accepted for just being me. I did have a relapse towards the end of my second year at University in 2018. At that point, I was then diagnosed with anxiety, depression and OCD on top of my Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Just after getting a double diagnosis of a learning disability and various mental health conditions, I felt I didn’t need to prove anything anymore or live up to the stereotypes and stigmas of these labels. I could be who I really was and be 100% authentic to myself: so I came out as non-binary and asexual.
Flash forward to where I am now; I’m proud to say that I graduated uni in Summer 2019 with a First Class Honours Degree in Theatre Technologies and am now training to become a Performing and Production Arts teacher in further education. I still struggle to come to terms with how these conditions went unnoticed for so long, and how I spent years being labelled as ‘naughty’, ‘different and ‘attention-seeking’.
‘We should all embrace difference’
But I now realise that being different isn’t a bad thing… in fact, we should all embrace difference.
Despite my learning disability and mental health conditions, I don’t let anything hold me back from achieving my potential. In fact, my diagnosis enables me to inspire others and change perceptions surrounding individuals who also have my conditions. I speak about my struggles at events, blog regularly, and I have found myself at the centre of an amazingly strong community of mental health advocates all striving to change the way society views emotional wellbeing.
My advice for anyone who feels different or is struggling to come to terms with their diagnosis would be:
- Find what makes you happy. Don’t worry about what anybody else thinks… if it helps, it helps. There is no one size fits all.
- Go at your own pace. If you don’t feel ready to do something, don’t rush yourself.
- Talking is powerful. Even if you say very little, it’s better than suffering in silence.
Embrace what makes you different, one step at a time.