By Jules Haden
My Neurodivergent Journey: Setting the scene
This article begins with a story about a girl at school. Just an ordinary girl, to look at her she was no different from any of the other children. There were a lot of things that the girl wasn’t good at when she was at school. She couldn’t catch a ball, she couldn’t run very fast, she tripped up and bumped into things a lot. She couldn’t add up. She wasn’t good at making friends. Often, she couldn’t think of what to say. She loved to read, and she was really good reading. So, books became her friends.
But there were other things as well. She couldn’t learn to ride her bicycle, so she gave up. She was frightened to cross the road on her own. She couldn’t tell how fast the cars were coming. She only ever crossed when there was someone else there or when there were no cars at all. She didn’t like to speak in class, she often lost her words or couldn’t get them out. She felt bad about this, the other children laughed at her. She dreaded being asked to answer questions in class and never put her hand up, even if she knew the answer. Everyone said she was quiet.
As she got older, she saw that there were lots of things the other children could do that she couldn’t do. She tried to tell the teachers that she didn’t understand. They told her to try harder. She was already trying hard. They didn’t believe her. She fell behind the rest of the class. She thought she must be stupid. She felt bad about herself. She thought that others wouldn’t like her if she knew how bad and stupid she was. So she learned to cover it up.
She made excuses not to do the things that she couldn’t do. She forgot her PE kit, or she didn’t feel well. If she was made to do it anyway, she pretended she didn’t care and didn’t try anyway. So no one expected anything from her anyway. They thought she was lazy. She started to think she was lazy.
The girl didn’t know that she wasn’t stupid or lazy. She was just different from the other children. Her brain worked in a different way. She needed to be taught things in a different way, she needed to learn in a different way. No one else knew that she was different either, not her family, not her teachers. It would be many, many years before the girl fully understood this.
I am the girl. I grew up and left school, I learned to adapt and problem solve along the way. I went to college, I went to uni, I built a successful career as a social worker, I learned to drive, I made friends and have family. Some things have been easy, others have been more challenging. There are things that I have avoided completely. I have always known that I am different from others, I didn’t know why. I just came to accept this. And then at the beginning of this this year, at the age of 53, I discovered that I am Neurodivergent.
There was a combination of circumstances that preceded this realization. A perfect storm of physical health conditions and surgery the previous year (hysterectomy), massive changes to my very demanding work role, life stage transition (empty nest syndrome) and of course, Covid 19 restrictions and the necessity of working from home (loss of routine, structure etc.). I became depressed, anxious and withdrawn. I struggled to motivate myself to do anything and felt that my brain had just shut down. In retrospect, I realize that this is exactly what had happened and that I was experiencing burn out.
I went to my GP and started taking medication (antidepressants). Slowly things got better. I became less anxious, the depression lifted and my problem-solving ability started to recover. It was a huge relief, but I also knew that I couldn’t let things get back to where they had been. I began to consider my options. I thought about leaving my job, I felt that I just couldn’t do it anymore, the cost to my mental state just wasn’t worth it.
Full circle back to myself
I sat down with myself and decided to take a good, long look at things. I had questions, why was this happening to me now? I knew it was more than depression. I did a 5 P’s formulation exercise, (assessment tool from my case work days; Presenting problem, Predisposing factors, Precipitating factors, Perpetuating factors and Protective factors) I drew a ‘timeline’ all the way back to childhood and school, college, university, thought about my relationships, career choices, strengths and weaknesses. Things started to come back to me that I had forgotten about.
Back to present day. I started to consider things. Longstanding problems: I don’t know left from right, I’m (still) very bad with numbers, I can’t follow directions and often get lost in familiar surroundings. I have very poor gross motor co-ordination and visuospatial awareness; I regularly bump into things and drop things. Learning to drive was a nightmare. I am very ‘all or nothing’ in my approach to things. I need routine and structure, yet I thrive on chaos and change. I love new projects and hobbies, I get bored very quickly, I struggle to finish things and quickly lose motivation.
More memories surfaced, connections were made, I had long suspected I had dyspraxia and I knew I had dyscalculia. I’d never done anything about it, it hadn’t really bothered me before…..but, something began to shift, an idea formed, what if it could get worse as you got older? Less adaptable to change or learn new things? I ‘googled’ it, I read about it, I found research papers about ADHD and autism, masking and burn out. It all started to fit together. Initially, I couldn’t believe it! I joined support groups; I spoke to others. I pushed it away in denial, I’m just making excuses, surely? I went back to it. I read some more, I joined the dots, I cried buckets, I laughed, it all made sense and I finally owned it. I am Neurodivergent. What a bloody relief!
I’m still figuring this out and am by no means an expert. Conditions that come under the Neurodivergent umbrella include dyspraxia, dyslexia, dyscalculia, autism, ADHD and many others. Some people identify with one condition, others have more than one or recognize ‘overlap’ between these conditions. The thing that we all have in common is that we have come to identify that being Neurodivergent creates difficulties for us in that society is designed for the majority, Neurotypical population. ND’s are affected to different degrees in different ways. Our brains are wired differently, we experience our environment differently, our thought processes are different and we communicate and interact with others in a different way. For some people, this is identified early on, in childhood when they get their ‘diagnosis’. For others, it is identified in later life, usually during a life stage transition or, as in my case, when a set of circumstances arise that throw a spanner in the works. My story is fairly typical of a late diagnosed person who learned to ‘mask’ from a very early age.
Finding a calling
So here I am now, writing and speaking about my experiences and trying to raise awareness about Neurodiversity. Do I feel vulnerable and exposed at times? Yes, I do. I worry about being judged, losing friends, being rejected and the possible negative impact on my career. Why am I doing it? Because I must. I owe it to myself and to my fellow ND’s, my “Neurokin”. I have found that there is a huge ND online community out there, they are amazing people, and I can’t thank them enough for the support and validation that they have given me. I am still at the beginning of my understanding; I have a way to go yet. I am lucky in that I am very resilient; I was able to work to my strengths, find a way forward and build a successful career and happy life. I believe that everyone should have this opportunity.
About Jules Haden: “I am a 54 year old woman based in the North East of England. I live with my partner and two cats. I have two adult children who are doing their own amazing things out in the world. I have been qualified as a social worker for over 26 years, the last 15 years working in the mental health field. At the beginning of this year, I realized that I am Neurodivergent.”