I have been Ambiguously Mentally Ill for my entire life, and I’ve been very consciously aware of it for almost as long. It’s not something I’m ashamed of, or afraid to tell people about – quite the opposite in fact. I’ve been known to get uncomfortably into the minutiae of Exactly What Is Wrong With My Brain to near strangers in the most casual of conversations. In fact, this is possibly a symptom of my mental illness itself, as, it seems, are most of my personality traits.
My Mental Illness is like an amorphous, omnipotent Eldritch abomination which looms over my daily life, and which, if I get too close, can conjure feelings of existential dread and seismically rupture my day-to-day functions. But I’ve named it something silly, like Fluffy. And when I catch a glimpse of it loitering ominously over my shoulder, I just roll my eyes and hope it gets bored and goes and enacts eternal torment on someone else for a change (not that I really wish it on someone else).
My Mental Illness and I have a complicated relationship.
It hangs out in my peripheral vision tapping me on the shoulder when I’m trying to concentrate, and suggesting that instead of writing this article I should watch another episode of Degrassi, or learn everything there is to know about the zodiac, or clean the entire flat. Sometimes it possesses me and I find myself lying on the sofa for a solid hour, only to come to my senses when I fall off. It takes over my mind and body and when it leaves I have no memory of why my keys are in the fridge, they just… are. Again.
Fluffy has been a mainstay of my life as long as I can remember. My mum tells me that in nursery, if I heard certain songs playing, I would get up and spin in circles. There is an existing video of a ballet recital in which I stand on stage in a chicken costume and mindlessly pluck feathers off my canary yellow leotard while the other children follow the choreograohy. I have vivid memories of sitting in maths being shouted at by my teacher for staring off into space when I was supposed to be learning how to tell the time.
Fluffy’s favourite tricks include, but aren’t limited to: making it unbearable for me to sit still for longer than about 45 minutes; filling my mind with static; causing me to blurt out everything that ever comes into my head; making me irrationally angry, or sad, or panicked; and making me crippling afraid of being revealed to be an idiot. It’s only recently that I’ve realised that the majority of those things aren’t actually normal. Only recently that I’ve realised the extent to which Fluffy has gotten its insidious inky tendrils into my brain.
Fluffy has another name, which I only learned about a year ago. Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. With a side helping of Auditory Processing Issues, Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, and Executive Dysfunction (which are all offshoots of ADHD). Of course… I don’t know for sure. I’m self-diagnosed, to which the (understandable) reaction is probably: *audible gasp* Quelle Horreur! What a special snowflake!
I get it – I’m not a mental health professional. But I’ve been through all the Spotter’s Guides trying to classify Fluffy’s exact taxonomy my entire life, and never before have I come across an explanation not only feasible, but that made me feel so understood, as though maybe all along I’ve not just been stupid and annoying simply due to my character. It’s been a lack of certain neurotransmitters this whole time! No wonder all those different attempts at talk therapy and CBT always left something lacking. Because ultimately, the anxiety, and social paranoia, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and anger issues, and, and, and… they were all offshoots of a much deeper issue, one that explains away practically every struggle I’ve ever had.
After I made this life-altering realisation, I figured the next step would be to make it official. I did all the research, wrote down my symptoms, and even discovered that I had a higher likelihood of having the disorder due to other conditions which exist in my family. I understood fully that the diagnosis process could take years, and that I could be faced with doubt every step of the way, but I’m nothing if not determined.
I went to the doctor and told him everything in a rush, forgetting half the things I wanted to say, and all the while practically vibrating out of my chair (I’m pretty sure I looked like the poster child for ADHD). He listened, nodded, and immediately put through a referral to psychiatry. For the first time, it felt as though Fluffy was no longer a nebulous impression of a thing that only I could see. It became tangible and coherent, a thing that could be fought because it could be seen.
So when I received a call back from the GP saying “Psychiatry at Stirling Hospital are unable to assess you” it felt like a sucker punch to the gut.
I took me a while to work up the courage to follow up on this, but eventually I made another GP appointment and mentally prepared myself for the worst, while also steeling myself to fight for my diagnosis.
It was a different doctor this time, so I went through my whole spiel again, and asked to find out why I was turned away. He pulled up the email and read out the clumsily worded missive. It took us both a few minutes to chew over what they were trying to say, but once we decoded it, it essentially said: “We will not treat any university student for Attention Deficit, as the fact that they are at university shows that they are not struggling.”
I wasn’t surprised, to tell the truth, but disappointed all the same. What did surprise me though, was the way the doctor looked at me, completely helpless, with sincere apology in his eyes. He said: “Basically NHS cutbacks means that there is no way to get your diagnosis. I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do. But I can ask you how you’re doing?”
I opened my mouth to say, “It’s tough, but so am I”, but for once the words in my head stayed in my head. I just sat in his office and cried.
It’s a funny thing, finally knowing what’s wrong with you after a lifetime of uncertainty. You’d think it would be reassuring, but really it just feels like repeatedly flinging myself against a wall. At least when I was still figuring it out, there was the possibility I could find a magic cure. And for a few months, I thought it was in reach, that I could bounce between the GP and psychiatry for an excruciatingly long time, before finally getting an official diagnosis, and trying out a series of medication which would help clear up my brain static for the small price of irritability, physical tics, and sleep deprivation (no one could ever accuse me of not being realistic about this).
For now though, I have to be content with downing my body weight in coffee (it’s a stimulant, like the medication the NHS won’t give me), adhering to a very strict personal schedule so that I appear to be functioning as a human being, and informing everyone I speak to that the NHS won’t give me speed (it’s a great ice breaker).
Statistically speaking, I have a 15% chance of graduating university with my disorder, which is an incredibly scary statistic. I’m trying not to let it get to me though – I’ve always denounced numbers as witchcraft, so there’s no point paying any heed to them now. And it’s frustrating that there is basically no chance that I’ll get any assistance during the two years of my life that I’m going to need an attention span the most (I’ve heard all the 3rd and 4th year horror stories).
But now I have the added motivation of being pissed off at the system (more so than usual). And my general belligerence will probably be an asset in the coming years, as it has been in getting me this far.
I refuse to feel sorry for myself, and I absolutely wouldn’t want anyone else to. Instead I hope that by talking openly and shamelessly about my mental illness and neurodiversity in general, maybe some progress can be made. Or maybe people will just think I’m a crazy lady who shouldn’t be telling someone she just met at a party about the exact imbalance of chemicals in her brain.
I’m learning to embrace the crazy.