This week has been poignant in many ways, one of them being my little sister, who’s a decade younger than me, and many of her friends, acing their degrees. And in a pandemic of all times. She isn’t neurodivergent, but it got me thinking, reflecting and to some extent ruminating over what I could have done, should have thought about or just shouldn’t have done, and of course the might have beens, as a 21 year old dyspraxic and undiagnosed ADHD young woman going out into the world. I have many thoughts so as is typical for me, I’ve decided to write them down for any young person, neurodivergent or not wondering what am I supposed to do with my life now? And that confusion you’re feeling right now, as much as it makes you feel lost, is normal. No one really has all of their life mapped out. And if they do, they’re probably harvesting their own demons.
I went the kind of state school that if you got as far as sixth form, university was the norm. The expectations I had of life have always been from the day I turned 18, to just get through the next thing. I was always good at writing, so used that to my advantage to get through so many degrees and letters of complaint I’ve ended up having to write in the last decade, because people just didn’t get me, mostly. I didn’t want the big house. or the car. or the family and nice job. I just wanted to feel okay. And at 21 I really really didn’t, so I travelled half way across the world to India to try and feel better. I didn’t even consider that one day when I want to learn to drive, I’ll be so scared to start, because I might not be able to do it. The world terrified me, when most young people were beginning to understand the world we live in and moving away from home, I was still trying to understand myself. Understanding that didn’t come to me until the age of 31 after an ADHD diagnosis, and even now there’s still far too many things that have me baffled.
So at the age of 21, when I opened those university results, what do I wish I’d allowed myself more than anything? Time. I spent years following that day leaping from one bit of education to another. I still try to do too many things at once, and then burn out. Hello ADHD. I wanted to be a teacher at one stage, failing to get onto a PGCE because my maths is awful, to then training as a youth worker, and finally a journalist. I’m now quite happily working in charity media and comms. My idea of what I was good at or could do changed, and it took time for that to click, and thousands of pounds in Masters tuition fees. Time is of course a privilege and some people simply do not have time. Time for a neurodivergent young person can mean everything. There are some things I wish I’d known or done then that would have made the following years less painful. Some of these do of course come with age, and I’m now lucky to have a select few friends who are great, and take me for me. It means the world when you’re not feeling judged by those closest to you. If I was 21 again, being told the following might have helped:
- Don’t rush into things because everyone else is doing it.
It’s so easy to just run along with the crowd. I did. We all do. My school screamed university once they realised I had capabilities that until then were unnoticed. What post uni? A Masters? or a Grad scheme? or maybe some traveling? But you don’t have to. You don’t have to do it all now. You don’t have to apply for hundreds of jobs, and feel more disheartened with every rejection accompanied by “needs more experience.” If you’ve done well in your degree, and even if you haven’t a masters can wait. Likewise you don’t need that relationship, driving lesson or to move to the desired city if you’re not ready. You don’t even need to move away from home. One of my greatest annoyances when I was younger is people, usually friends saying, “you haven’t moved out yet?” or “Don’t you think it’s time to move out, Alice?” without really understanding all of the deep rooted reasons why. Similarly saying, “Oh your just a bit awkward,” whilst it was meant in a supportive, endearing and encouraging way. It was not. It diminished difficulties I had with moving onto the next thing and chronic struggle with change. In my 20’s I struggled to verbalise those difficulties. I’m 32 and just thinking about moving out on my own for the first time. it’s terrifying now, so I definitely would not have been ready then. Accepting that things might take longer for me was an important life lesson. Your time will come.
- Listen to your body. It’s okay to say no
My 20’s were full of busy. They were also a time when my anxiety was at it’s highest, with no proper mental health support. I always wanted to be doing something, trying something new or travelling. I spent more time on trains than I did at home. I also experienced a lot of fatigue because I didn’t recognise when my body needed time alone to recover. The image sold to you at freshers weeks was to have a big group of friends and to do all of the things. I tried. I went to social events even though they made me feel incredibly anxious and I couldn’t find the words to tell anyone what was wrong. I often ended up just getting mothered or big bothered. This just made things worse. I didn’t want that, I just wanted a friend. I broke down in tears at a friends house once because I was overwhelmed by all of the people and constantly being on the go. I couldn’t find the words to tell him what was going on, and felt guilty for not going on the pub crawl. You should never feel that your mental health has spoiled someone elses night. If your body is telling you to get an early night, or to avoid all of the people and get stuck into a good book, do it. You’re not weird, or awkward or antisocial. You’re normal. And you certainly haven’t let anyone down by giving yourself time to recover.
- It’s easy to feel you have to justify yourself to others but you really don’t have to
I spent a lot of time trying to impress a lot of people post university. I’ve also found myself in situations where I’ve felt I’ve had to explain, and ended up oversharing. It’s common for neurodivergent women to look up to others, and want to be liked, or wanted and even needed. I’ve had jobs where people have made assumptions, some friends have jumped to conclusions and people in all areas of my life just haven’t “got me”. It’s tough. But when you’re still trying to understand or work yourself out, explaining yourself to others is even tougher. You don’t have to tell anyone you’re neurodivergent if you don’t have to. Dyspraxia and ADHD comes up quite naturally in conversation for me now, but it never used to. The ground swallowing me up would often be more preferable than explaining to someone that I have dyspraxia. I could have done better than I did in my degree, but I don’t have to justify that to anyone. I wish that second year didn’t make me almost completely lose the plot, but no one needs to know those details if I don’t want them to. I really wish I understood the concept of boundaries sooner. You don’t owe anything to anyone.
- Think about what you can do, rather than what you can’t
If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably spent a lot of time being told what you can’t do. You only have to look at a diagnostic criteria’s to see that. If I wasn’t explicitly told, I worked out that I would probably struggle more than most in most “normal” jobs. I’ve never had a job “just to get by” because I can’t. I wouldn’t last long in a bar, or a restaurant or a shop. My skill set doesn’t allow me to be an allrounder, and allrounders are generally what employers look for. Getting “just any job” terrified me when I used to claim job seekers allowance because I knew that I would spectacularly fail. But if you want me to write a winning complaint letter to put people back in their place? Or something so emotive it’ll make you cry? I’m your woman. It took me a while to recognise what I could do, and that that piece of paper with some letters signalling a degree, no matter how important it was, it did not define me. I took up running, not because I’m ever going to be an elite athlete or that I’m any good at it, but because it was on the list of things people told me would be impossible. I now run three times a week for myself and my mental health. It took me a while and it’s still a work in progress, to recognise what I could do. I rarely disclose in interviews or on applications unless it comes up naturally for this reason, because I don’t want anything (even if it is just thoughts in my head) to get in the way of what I can offer to that particular organisation. I disclose once I’m offered a job these days, careful to frame it as “this is what I can offer you, and this is how you can support me”, but it’s taken years to develop the confidence to get here. “What can we do for you?” is the hardest question to answer, and sometimes the only answer I can find is, ‘I don’t know, and sometimes I just want you to recognise that I won’t know what I need.” We have an uneven pattern of strengths and weaknesses for a reason, use these strengths to your advantage. Oh, to having a spiky profile.
- It’s normal to feel guilty for doing nice things for yourself but you really don’t have to
I’ve written the above but it’s something I haven’t quite worked out myself yet, and it’s a good example of your 30’s being just as confusing as your 20’s sometimes. I lost a friend in my 20’s and don’t know if some of this is feeling guilty that I’m doing things, he wasn’t able to. Several of my friends have got married or had children recently, and I often wonder what his life would be like if he’d been around. But grief or not, we all at times feel guilty for stopping, buying a nice thing or taking some time off for ourselves. I’m currently on two weeks annual leave, and finding it very hard to switch off from all of the work that will be waiting for me when I return. So in the words of advice others have given me; “YOU totally have a right to nice things too.” So there I said it. Go and treat yourself. And if you’ve just got through a degree in a pandemic, you have even more of a reason to celebrate.
- Ask for feedback from those job interviews you think you “failed.”
Applying and being rejected from jobs is disheartening, and not getting feedback or knowing where you went “wrong” is confusing. Most organisations, if you get to interview stage will offer some form of feedback, but often you have to ask for it. A lot of the feedback I’ve had is that they “really liked me but I need more experience”, or that “another person had more of what they were looking for.” There was nothing I could do about this unless I literally became that person. I once had an interview at the guardian, wasn’t successful, but the feedback from a top editor in a national newspaper, that she “really liked my style of writing” meant the world to me. It meant that I didn’t give up, and worked my arse off in my final few months of the journalism MA to get a distiiction. I genuinely think that I was only able to do that because someone gave me the feedback that I was good, and wanted to keep in touch once I’d graduated.
- Pick your battles
Learning to pick my battles earlier, would have given me back so much time. When I was younger I complained about literally everything, the comment made by a teacher at school “Alice has a strong sense of justice and fairness,” stuck with me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a characteristic my friends love me for now, but it has got me into a fair bit of bother and lengthy complaint letter bingo. Much of the complaining I’ve had to do has been a direct result of someone taking exception to my Neurodiversity. Not understanding me. Although at school it was more down to being annoyed at the litter on the school grounds, because I was a very angry hippy. But now that would be applauded, look at the climate activists and Greta Thunburg. Sometimes I just needed to learn that I’m not going to change this person or organisation on my own, and as long as no one else was in danger, (with exception of one complaint I can think of), to walk away. I was always set on changing the world, often with the detrimental impact on my mental health. Some battles are totally worth fighting for so do fight those ones, but don’t think that you have to take on the whole world like a one woman army.
- Education is only the start. Your worth more than a piece of paper.
This is a tricky one, because for a while education was the only thing I could do well, I’ve toyed with doing a PHD and still do sometimes because collecting pieces of paper to say I could do something was all I thought my worth amounted to. When you’ve spent all of your life being told things will be harder for you, it’s only natural for that piece of paper proving you can to matter more than most people will understand. That degree, how much it matters I got through it, was only the start for me. I’ve learned just as much through friendships and from different employers as I did at uni. Life has a very strange way of working itself out. Everything that you can do will not be outlined in your degree, and that’s why neurodivergent brains are bloody brilliant. Likewise don’t let anyone tell you your degree isn’t worth what it means to you, you’ve worked hard for it, harder than most, and deserve to be proud.
- It might take a while to find the right therapist, but persevere.
The one thing I wish I’d done at a younger age, is to accept my mental health difficulties and seek support sooner. I mean NHS talking therapies have a lot of room for improvement, and it’s taken me a while to find the right one, eventually funded through access to work. It seems easier now with so many more people talking openly about their mental health than when I essentially had a breakdown, but whether it is 2008 or 2021, it still takes time to work out what you need. Therapists are a bit like relationships, some of them are shit, and some will be good. It takes time to find a good one. Bare that in mind.
- Be honest if something just feels too much
Linked to mental health I’m learning to be more honest both at work and with my friends. If people have been around me long enough, they can read me like a book, and I find it increasingly difficult to hide how I’m feeling. Honest conversations, not always specifically about neurodiversity, have helped me to form friendships that mean more than I can find the words for, and develop good working relationships with colleagues. “I can’t right now, can I have more time?” or “This is how I’m really feeling,” are two of the most empowering phrases I’ve learned to articulate to others.
- Aim high for yourself and because you love what you do
And finally, looking back, I did my degree in history and politics, not because I was ever going to be a politician, but because I naively wanted to change the world. I was good at the subject, and felt so strongly that both history and politics were the foundations of our lives. I wrote passionate, strongly worded essays because I loved the subject. I had no idea where it would take me, and I haven’t used the degree since, but at the time I loved learning about the world. I sometimes wish I’d knuckled down more, and not let so much affect me at the time, to get a better degree than I did, but I don’t regret choosing something I enjoyed. if you are receiving your degree results this month. Aim high for yourself and no one else, do what you do because you love it, not because you have to. If you love what you do, it’s much more likely to lead to something rewarding, exciting or take you somewhere positive. It may take time. But you will get there. We all do in the end.