Looking back at my life, across three decades, I can say only two things with some certainty. The first, that I have always suffered with depression and anxiety, or at least I have suffered for as long as I can remember. The second, that I have always felt this sense of being 'different',of being 'the other'. Though if you asked me how or why, I couldn’t tell you. I just wasn’t like other people. I’m still not, but now after literally a lifetime of soul searching, I have the answer.
I have very clear memories of standing in a corner of the classroom fighting back tears for no reason other than I was worried that my mum or dad may be upset. I realise now that this isn’t a normal thing for a 9-year-old child to be thinking when it’s 10 minutes to play time.
I could write a book to rival War and Peace’s girth (heh, girth) based on the million little horrors that my mind concocts within everyday interactions. I have felt the Hall of Mirrors closing in on itself. I have stared into the abyss and let me tell you Nietzsche was wrong, the abyss does not stare back, it is cold and black and ruthless and entirely indifferent to human suffering.
Of course, over the years I have had numerous “answers” from mental health professionals in the form of various hypotheses, but until 31st May 2018, I had never been given a jigsaw piece that fit the rest of the puzzle.
But I am starting this story at the end and writing about all this backwards and jumbled (story of my life) which is kind of a habit that I’m trying to break. So, back to childhood…
I’m an only child born in 1987 to two parents who had tried to have children for quite some time before I came along. I was very much wanted and I grew up in a household filled with love. I had a close relationship with my extended family consisting of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. My parents are still married and, although they irritate each other in that way couples who’ve been married for 40 years always inevitably do, they are still very much in love. I recall a friend once said that my parents’ marriage was their benchmark for a relationship.
My point is there was no trauma in my early childhood. No abuse, no divorce, no serious illness, no death, no drama or any variation thereof. None of the usual obvious negative events that unfortunately can have such a huge impact on a person’s life further down the line.
Sure, I was bullied (quite badly at times) while at school, which at times made me deeply, but privately, unhappy. Yet looking back across my timeline, the mental health problems started before the bullying. That numbing seed of darkness had already been planted and began to sprout long before I encountered anything really unpleasant in life.
In fact, this lack of trauma is something that, in later life, has reinforced that feeling of otherness that I have. Sitting in therapy groups, reading blogs on mental health, talking with other sufferers online, they all too often have some trauma in their childhood. Me? I could think of no good reason why I have lived most of my adult life like a man on the edge of a cliff, gazing into infinite blackness and willing myself not to fall in.
Again, I have digressed into to writing about the present. Focus, Ross. Back to the past…
Throughout my school career, I cannot recall a single school report that deviated from one specific theme: “Ross is pleasant, well-behaved, very bright and a fast learner. He participates in discussions but is lazy when it comes to his written work. His work output is negligible and he needs to learn to apply himself to the task at hand instead of daydreaming”.
Of course, this was in the 90s when the human race knew less about the world, so to my teachers, my peers, my parents, my extended family, I was just a lazy boy who needed to try harder. After all, I could ace any spelling test, had a natural curiosity for science bordering on obsession and was a well-behaved, polite, shy boy so I couldn’t possibly have a learning difficulty or a behavioural problem. I was just lazy and I would just have to try harder. It was that simple.
The term 'Parents’ Evening' never failed to fill me with a sense of dread, one that I imagine is only exceeded by that which is felt by prisoners on Death Row. Okay, so I’m talking in hyperbole, but as a child it felt like a lead weight around my neck. Certain doom, inevitable and inexorable.
I would like to point out that I am not lazy, I am incredibly hard-working when I consider something to be important. I have always found it a physical impossibility to do a task that I do not want to do and I have difficulties in starting things.
As a child I would spend 3 hours sitting on my bedroom floor putting off tidying the toys that would take 5 minutes to clear away. I have zero tolerance for boredom and I have never completed a chore and felt that sense of accomplishment that people so often talk about.
By the time I reached secondary school, teachers became less concerned about moulding young minds than they did about exam results. I began playing truant and drinking or smoking weed while at school. It was only at this point that I was assigned to the “learning mentor”, a lovely lady called Ann who was truly the only person at the school that saw something other than the eyeliner-wearing, long haired lazy boy who just needed to try harder. I will be eternally grateful to Ann for fighting my corner and not writing me off as a lost cause. She arranged for an assessment and I was told that I had dyspraxia. Based on this new diagnosis, they gave me the option to drop some subjects. As a result, I sat 5 GCSEs.
I began self-harming and now my left arm and inner left leg are latticework of scars that are still visible 18 years later. I then appeared on the radar of the local CAMHS team and was assigned a CPN, an impossibly effeminate and incredibly caring man called Dave who came to my house weekly and tried his best to nonchalantly ask if my problems were due to my sexuality and could it be possible that I might think I could maybe possibly be a little bit gay. Of course, he was right and I’m a monumental whoopsie, but in 2002, little old me wasn’t ready to admit that.
Not for another 2 years at least, when one Easter at the annual family gathering a decided to confide in my Auntie that I was gay and in a relationship with a man. “Darling, I’ve known you were a faggot since you were 2 years old. I told your mother you were a fruit at your second birthday party, trust me when I say it’s really not an issue and nobody in the family will bat an eyelid when you tell them” was pretty much her response. She was right, of course. I’m blessed with a wonderful family.
More digression, are you seeing a theme here?
I was attending school less and less. When I did attend, I was in less and less sober states. Eventually, the school decided to put me on study leave early. My memories of this time are a little hazy, but I stopped seeing Dave the CPN at some point and was discharged from mental health services. Presumably with the absence the pressures of school, my mental health improved.
Since then, I have had numerous reoccurring episodes of depression and eventually a diagnosis of bipolar disorder II. I’ve had various forms of therapy, but never found the root of the issue. Nothing that a therapist has uncovered ever felt like an epiphany. Nobody ever handed me a missing puzzle piece. I have had therapists attempt to relate my mental health to my sexuality – I have no shame or regret about being gay, I am completely at peace with it. I am very much of the opinion that if you’ve got a problem with it, the problem is entirely yours. I guess I have just met a few therapists who go for the obvious.
I have maintained a job, but it has been a test of endurance. Every day has been a constant battle to just do my work instead of getting absorbed in my own thoughts or joining in a conversation. I frequently have no idea what I have done for most of the day because I am so distracted that I have no sense of time. Turns out time doesn’t fly when you’re having fun, it flies when you’re distracted. Add into that ever-present assumption that I am just lazy or incapable and you’ve got the perfect recipe for despair.
Frustration. Shame. Embarrassment. Anxiety. Boredom. Fear of judgement. Dread. These are the nutrients that small seed of darkness needs to grow into a mighty oak whose broad boughs block out all light beneath them, leaving all that lives there stunted.
Though last year, I met a therapist called Stephen. Stephen apparently also moonlights as a tree surgeon in the dark forest for a bit of extra cash. He certainly took a few branches off my mighty oak. He suggested that in his opinion, I might have ADHD and suggested I speak to my Doctor. So I did.
I got referred to the local ADHD service (who were somewhat useless but that’s another story) who said that they did not believe I could have ADHD as it would have been picked up by mental health services when I was in my teens.
I did my research on ADHD, I listened to people with the disorder, I contacted the ADHD Foundation, and I spoke with a local contact at a school for ADHD children. I looked into the mental health patterns of adults with undiagnosed ADHD. It fit. Not just the list of diagnostic criteria, a short list with all nuance and humanity removed, but the stories and experiences of people with the disorder. All of it. A perfect fit.
I have since learned that that strangely intangible but very real feeling of othernessis an ADHD thing.
My workplace, very generously, put me through screening which resulted in a report by a chartered psychologist stating that in their opinion I had ADHD symptoms. I decided to get a proper assessment, I saw a wonderful consultant that actually listened to me. He told me it was quite clear that I have “ADHD-predominantly inattentive type”. It turns out there’s inattentive type, hyperactive type and a combination of the two. Hyperactive people get identified straight away because they’re the stereotypical 'naughty kids', but the ones like me grow up believing they’re worthless, lazy and will never amount to anything. A failure, in other words.
I’ve been taking amphetamines for about 6 weeks now and I have to say that after a slightly rough start, it’s been transformational. You hear all these horror stories of drugged up kids. So I expected to feel high, drugged up. I expected people to look at me weirdly and that I’d have to explain that I’m not taking illegal drugs, but nobody has given me so much as a sideways glance. If anything, I feel a sense of stillness that I have never felt before. My mind is focused instead of being pulled in a hundred different directions.
After a lifetime of being stuck, of feeling unfulfilled and that life was a slow trudge towards death, I feel very different. One thing’s for certain, I wouldn’t have written over 2000 words on a Friday night without medication. I’d be sat rewinding the same bit of TV over and over again because I got distracted and missed it.
I have finally been handed a puzzle piece that fits, not a piece borrowed from someone else’s puzzle. I feel like maybe now I am not all I will ever be. I still attend a therapy group weekly and I still need antidepressants, perhaps I always will need these things.
I also still feel like the other, but I know why now and I feel something else, too. I feel hope.
To the future.
We think you'll agree, this is an incredible piece of work from Ross, strikingly honest sharing his profound experience on his own journey. Is there anything wthin his story that you can relate too? Have you ever felt like an 'other' (but not in a Lost sense!). Let us know in the comments below.
You can keep up-to-date with Ross on Twitter, where he's @RossLewisBrown