I spent a couple of hours on World Mental Health Day 2017 crying in Morrisons’ Cafe, a favourite place of mine for intimate conversations. The reason? Overwhelm – something that happens with me often and around which I have spent half a century carrying shame. I didn’t see it coming. I never do. Although I can recognise cognitively that I am overloaded, I still go through the familiar cycle of illness (tonsillitis this time), convalescence/euphoria and finally tears, before emerging full of good resolutions into a period of intense creativity. And here I am, writing.
With sincere respect, what I don’t need right now is advice, so please tuck it away if it’s coming to mind. I don’t need therapy either – and I certainly don’t need medicating. I can promise you that I have tried strategy after strategy in pursuit of becoming ‘normal’ – and still I fail. Yet I am undeniably privileged, beloved and fortunate. I am forced to conclude that society does not fit me rather than the other way around. What I need from you, reader, is your attention.
I am rejecting a label that I was never formally given – that of ADHD. I was never given it, because complex factors in my childhood made me obedient and because I grew up in the 1970s, when it wasn’t a thing. During the 1980s, when I was unknowingly self-medicating with amphetamine (aka ‘Adderall’, US friends) it was only a thing for boys. Later, it was just a thing for kids. By 2001, when I burst into resonant tears at the back of a classroom, observing a microteach session about ADHD, the notion that the brain of someone as high functioning (and high earning) as me could be wired in an ADHD pattern was literally laughed out of town because a) I was bright and compliant and b) I didn’t act like a teenage boy*. But I knew. I knew the battle that raged in me constantly, living life on 25 TV channels all at once.
So I sidestepped the label rather than rejecting it and because of this no-one tried to put me in a remedial class, or stop me from studying even when I started to go off the rails, though I was denied certain privileges for being ‘highly strung’. I was lucky to escape the ‘help’ I might have been offered and after all the speed gave me spots so I weaned myself off that too. And I zigzagged through life, ricocheting between fitting in and living on the margins, channelling my intellect into street smarts until that day when I recognised my ‘symptoms’ in a powerpoint presentation, forgot all professionalism and cried and cried.
It’s possible then that I found a little solace in victimhood. For a while. There was a lot of stuff I needed to face up to around that time and my wiring was just a part of that. I knew I was a Linux in a world of Macs and while I might have fronted it all out pretty well I thought for a while that it wasn’t OK to be me.
What liberated me was the concept of neurodiversity, introduced to me by my friend @abilearning. Tomorrow I celebrate #WMHD2017 with a webinar for @mhfenetwork entitled ‘Rejecting the Label’, about what neurodiversity means to me. Join me here at 12.30 on 11th October or check back for the recording.
And what of the future for ‘people like me’? Frankly, I think the world needs us. After all, we are currently at the mercy of the neurotypical. Mental illness labels are literally no help when it comes to challenging abuses of power as Trump and Kim Jong-un make painfully clear. What if we stopped with the deficit labels and accepted that, for whatever reason – genetic, chemical, neurological, environmental – we were all wired up differently? What then for diversity and the future of the world?
*though I do confess to having the sense of humour of one.
Seriously recommended further reading: Thomas Armstrong – The Power of Neurodiversity.