Neurotypical Sandra: a mentally ill perspective on an inspirational life

(with thanks to M.S.)

I first got to know Sandra in 2010, when she was working through her final year of A-levels. She had bravely chosen to write about The Bell Jar for her English Literature coursework; despite being generally a very happy person, she found the book “relatable and well written”. However, she was overheard commenting to a classmate, “Esther Greenwood sounds quite troubled. Maybe she should try yoga”. To ease the struggle of being neurotypical, and thus perhaps less aware of the joy, pain and complexity of the world around her, Sandra has attended meditation class twice a week since the age of sixteen.
In a world full of pain and sorrow, it’s a mystery how Sandra manages to stay so happy. Despite being neurotypical, she says “My life is really worth a lot. I feel like I can give a lot to  the world.” Yes you can, Sandra! Yes you can!
Sandra is a beautiful, cheerful individual, and I’m really writing this because I want to salute her smile. Sandra’s smile can lighten the darkest of days; like her, it is a ray of sunlight in a dark world.
We may never truly know what Sandra has been through – bad days, occasional low moods, sometimes feeling like life is a bit pointless. We can only try to relate to her struggle, but this inspirational young woman continues to smile through the roughest of times. Her parents’ divorce when she was seven has affected her deeply – “it was a rough time” she says – but somehow, she has managed to soldier on.
After completing her A-levels with a very acceptable three As, she moved to London to study English at Kings College. Sandra says she finds London “confusing, but that is normal”. She finds the tube “a bit scary”. As for her university course, she’s sometimes got “a bit stressed” at the amount of work she has to do, and put off her work to watch Bob’s Burgers instead. Even in this most difficult and unrelatable of lives, there’s room for laughter.
As a neurotypical, you would think she’d find it hard to read about the characters in her English Lit texts (most of whom have depression, anxiety or other disorders). It’s especially brave that she’s chosen to specialise in Virgina Woolf, who is well known for her severe depression. Sandra’s take on it is, “At the end of the day, we’re all human. I sometimes feel down as well, so I can really relate to Virginia.”
Amazingly, she has spent almost no time at the doctor’s office in the last three years, apart from the time when she thought she had swine flu but it was a false alarm. We can only imagine what it must be like to not be well known to the receptionist, and to be greeted by the doctor with something other than “Oh no, not you again.” As for medication, she sometimes smokes marijuana with friends, a popular ‘home medication’ amongst neurotypicals – but who are we to judge?
Sandra really loves watching Disney films, especially Frozen, Brave and Wreck-It Ralph! She feels like they are an island of calm in a frantic world. It is a mystery why some neurotypical people love watching children’s films – perhaps they feel that the films reflect their unique worldview. They feel inspired to continue by the struggle of the characters against impossible odds. Sometimes, Sandra tells me, she sings Let It Go to herself when she’s having a bad day. It’s a beautiful metaphor for a girl with a unique brain.
We can only applaud Sandra’s bravery in managing to not develop anxiety, and to navigate an increasingly confusing world without having developed any mental illnesses whatsoever.

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Anxiety & Me pt. 6, ‘Spike Milligan, dark wisdom, and getting down to work’

Personal essays on mental illness and creativity.

the Banderola

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/04/spike-milligan-statue-hero-worship Source: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/04/spike-milligan-statue-hero-worship

Written by Beth Jellicoe

[This post takes the form of six short essays on creativity and mental illness, which will be serialised in the coming weeks on Bootleg Noise and on Beth’s own blog]

1. “A little bit mentally ill”
2. “You have a broken leg? Try meditation!”
3. The stories that make us
4. Tragedy and Triumph
5. “Dad, I’m scared about aliens”
6. Spike Milligan, dark wisdom, and getting down to work


6. Spike Milligan, dark wisdom, and getting down to work

I knew that Tony Hancock, Paul Merton, Spike Milligan and a lot of the others were mentally ill, and I always somehow assumed it made them funnier – that it fed the black humour that made them special. I assumed their illness gave them insight into a kind of dark wisdom that other people didn’t have.

But then I saw a picture of…

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Abusive feminists are not my ‘sisters’

There are three things I wish I’d known when I became a feminist.
Firstly, it doesn’t matter how you dress. (Wear what you want! Fashion should be a pleasure, not a chore.)
Secondly, my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit*. (Flavia Dzodan.)
And third, a surprising number of well-known feminists – media-friendly, intelligent women – are abusive. They are prejudiced against vulnerable people, particularly trans women and sex workers. And by having a blind spot the size of Australia, mainstream feminist discourse manages to paint these feminists as victims of uppity minorities.
The power dynamic is positively dystopian.
Recently, an open letter appeared in the Observer, complaining of “a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals whose views are deemed “transphobic” or “whorephobic””.
The letter is bollocks, for reasons that have been beautifully expressed elsewhere** and can be summed up thus:

– Feminist comedian Kate Smurthwaite lies that she was no-platformed by a university for her views on sex work, Muslim women and trans issues.
– Prominent academics and journalists, including several feminists, then use a national paper to collectively complain about being silenced: JeSuisSmurthwaite.
– Media storm ensues, with a huge backlash from trans people and sex workers.
– Ultimately, many of the signatories will profit from this mess, mostly by writing paid thinkpieces on free speech. They will then use their platform to continue accusing marginalised women of being ‘trolls’ and ‘bullies’.
– At least three of the signatories crying victimhood are white, cis feminists who have previously, unapologetically expressed virulently transphobic, whorephobic views.***
– These feminists are abusive.

For several years, I thought that talking about abuse by women (including the power dynamics between feminist communities) would be letting the side down. To discuss it would be to invite sexism, to perpetuate negative stereotypes of women and feminists as bitchy harpies. Of course, this reflects my position as a white, cis woman: this discomfort with seeing any woman in a bad light. I reasoned that although abuse by women was awful, it wasn’t a structural problem; that women hating each other must be ultimately down to patriarchy, and internalised misogyny. If it weren’t for that, we would all get along, as Feminist God intended us to.
Still, I wasn’t satisfied.
2013 brought more answers. After reading through the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen****, I researched. I read about slave owners’ wives. I read about violence committed by white women against women of colour, particularly black women. I researched modern-day violence against disabled women, which is often committed by female carers, and violence against trans women and non-binary people.
The ‘sisterhood’ narrative ignores structural violence, power structures and everyday labour relations between women. It ignores the propensity of some people with a little bit of power to kick down, hard.

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Why I love sad stories

“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.” – Lemony Snicket

The thing is, I don’t really… get positivity culture. I have a spiritual resistance to mindfuless books, daily positive reminders and inspirational quotes. They make me want to scream “Oh, screw you.”
It’s not always been this way. In 2011, when I was newly diagnosed with OCD, positive quotes helped me. It was only as I worked on building a new, clearer worldview that I realised constant positivity just wasn’t… enough. So much positive advice – go for a walk in the woods! If you have a toxic, negative person in your life, cut them out! – seemed to be written by, and aimed at, people who were able to switch the world off.
I found myself skipping from recovery websites to news feeds: refugees, wars and revolutions. I started reflecting on childhood trauma. Positivity culture felt empty and escapist, in a way that Trudy’s tweet* put into words for me.
In day-to-day life I’m optimistic and cheery, but on a deeper level I understand gloom. I suppose I don’t really think in terms of ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ any more, and instead I try to see interwoven qualities and nuances in the world around me.
Where positivity culture gets interesting for me is its intersection with storytelling.

There are two arguments I’ve come across, which frequently overlap. The first argument is, ‘I want positive representation of minority characters, who are often poorly represented in media’ – which I absolutely want. Argument two is, ‘I want the stories I consume to be positive and optimistic, rather than presenting a cynical worldview’. My feelings on that are more complex.
Some art provides both these things. When Pacific Rim came out, back in 2013, bloggers celebrated the film’s optimism, (along with its diverse, positively represented cast), and contrasted it with the bleak, grimdark aesthetic** of films like The Dark Knight. (Grimdark: “an adjective used to describe a setting or situation in a fictional work that is considered dark, depressive, violent or edgy.”) On Tumblr, people have been crying out for years for optimistic stories.
In a discussion between Melissa Harris Perry and bell hooks, hooks talked about 12 Years A Slave and said:

“one of the things I stand on all the time is that film does not exist for the purpose of giving us reality. If my life is shit, I don’t want to go pay $10 or $12 to see it displayed. What I want for us all the time is a pushing of the imagination…”

hooks was speaking specifically about the representation of black women in film. After hearing her incisive comments, I found myself reflecting on this, and on what people want from stories in general.
My own view is that some people need positive stories, for many excellent reasons – both personal and political. But that doesn’t mean there is anything intrinsically wrong with creating art that is realistic, dark or cynical; art like this can be a deeply validating reflection of depression, melancholy and terrible experiences.
I know it’s not a popular view. But as someone with cyclical depression, I really do love art that expresses dark, difficult emotions, and acknowledges structural issues. I identify with seeing that shit validated and displayed on a screen, or in a book. And if you are struggling, feeling left out of a culture that tells you to surround yourself with positivity you can’t relate to, here’s your permission to opt out. To decide what you want, not what you think you should want. You are not alone.
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“Made-up American disorder”: being an adult with ADD

“Kids: if anyone tells you you have ADHD, pay no attention.” – Sickipedia

I really wish I didn’t have to write this article. Believe me, given the choice I’d be sitting here writing a cheery short story, or a song about my cat… But circumstances have crept up on me, and now writing about my experience of ADD* (attention deficit disorder) feels unavoidable.
I write out of a sense of frustration. On its worst days, being the way I am is like having a tangle of wool for a brain; you’re told that you have to untangle the wool, but you can’t let anyone see what you’re doing. You can’t let anyone see that you’re struggling.
People often assume that I am better at life than I actually am. They tell me I seem calm and together, and wonder how I manage to pursue so many things I love. Actually, my life feels like a crazy balancing act sometimes – like juggling spoons on a tightrope.
I have always seen myself as a naturally visible, colourful person. But as an adult with ADD, as a multiply marginalised adult, I feel invisible sometimes, left behind by my inability to concentrate. I expect myself to be brilliant at everything, to have time for everything and everyone I love. Then I end up feeling burned out and inert, skipping between websites or activities at random, constantly late for everything, unable to do basic tasks. It is hard to do things that you love.
To be honest, when I see articles or blogs about children with ADD or ADHD I sometimes feel a slight surge of jealousy. These children, bright and brave: I don’t envy their struggle, which is one I know all too well, but I wish I could have got help at their age. I slipped through the net. I wasn’t diagnosed with ADD until age twenty-one, after turning up at the university student services offices and saying “I just can’t work. I want to work, I just can’t.”

Previously, my life had followed a pattern, which I noticed at age ten or eleven but felt unable to prevent. At the start of the school year I would be organised, proud of my new school books, determined not to make a mess of things this time. Eventually (usually by about December, sometimes even late September) I would slip into a hazy mess. A teacher once described me as “absent-minded professor.”
Books, pens, rulers and letters went missing, I seemed to scatter chaos wherever I went. In class, the teacher’s words buzzed around me: I ended up staring at the Kings and Queens chart on the classroom wall, while inconsequential thoughts rushed through my brain. Homework was handed in late, or went missing.
When things had truly descended into chaos, I would get told off by a teacher:
“What is going on? I know you can do so much better than this, if you just worked harder and got organised…”
I would apologise over and over, driven to contrition by the teacher’s concern. Then I would do an excellent run of homeworks or turn in a great project, partly out of guilt, also to prove that I wasn’t lazy.
I did not feel left behind. In the lessons I loved I sometimes felt I was speeding ahead, flying from A to Z while my classmates used the normal, plodding method to get from A to B. Yes, their method was correct, but if you flew you got a much better view.
Probably if I had been seen as a complete dunce, something might have been done earlier. But thanks to my mother – who had fought for me to be seen in the best way possible – I had gone down at an early age as a gifted child, which complicated things: everyone knows gifted children are different. Gifted allows you to be somewhat weird, whilst also raising everyone’s expectations.
When I went on to grammar school, my skill in some lessons (and the fact I was always reading) allowed me to slip the net again. Grammar school is a diffuse place in some ways, where it is easy to feel that no one is particularly concerned about you unless you fail spectacularly. For people who fail, quietly and consistently, in some areas of their lives and studies, it is easy to escape the radar. I was a quiet student, outspoken in the lessons I liked, daydreamy, and did not fit any stereotype. I passed my exams, sometimes doing very well.
Whenever the “organisation failure” did get noticed, I was blamed for allowing it to happen. (“The problem with you,” a teacher told me, “is that you don’t think properly. You jump to conclusions that amount to complete lunacy.”)

There is a laundry list of things that frustrated me then, and continue to exasperate me now: my inability to concentrate on things that aren’t immediately gripping. My distractibility. The fact I find it difficult to complete a project, after an enthusiastic start. The initial burst of energy, and the tailing off. The underachievement. I am painfully aware that I often start books and don’t finish them, that I usually can’t sit through a film, that I am not as good as I wish I was at any of the things I love. These days, I envy other people their persistence and ability to learn and retain information. I sometimes still feel this is all my fault, even though ADD is recognised as a disorder.
At twenty-one, I was sent to see a kind psychiatrist, who confirmed what the student office thought. He gently explained that he dealt with many talented young people who had struggled with these same symptoms, and that there were ways to cope with it.
Afterwards I spoke to my doctor, who looked sceptical. “We don’t really comment on ADD,” he told me, looking at my non-clinical report. “Plenty of doctors think it’s a made up American thing.” Other people said the same thing, more or less. A Google search results in “is ADD a real disease?” (New York Times), and “ADHD does not exist” (New York Post).
It’s odd, to live in this world. To know that there is a coherent explanation for the way you are, but to constantly see that explanation questioned or snatched away from you.
But, I have hope. Not so long ago, dyslexic children (like the novelist Sally Gardner) were being labelled “unteachable” and accused of laziness. But now, thankfully, dyslexia is much more accepted. Someday ADD will be accepted, too.
Perhaps that’s the reason this article has been nibbling at my brain: I want to prove that the way I am is real, that it matters.

*My official diagnosis is ADHD (inattentive type – not hyperactive) as a specific learning difficulty, not a medical diagnosis. As I am not hyperactive, I prefer to use the term ADD to describe myself. More information on the difference between ADD and ADHD here.