On Monday the first of August 1977, between six and seven in the morning, I popped out into the world. I was a month early. This, it turns out, was one of the few times I’ve ever been early for anything. Of course I didn’t have any say in this, but neither did I for many other occasions requiring my early attendance. It seemed I lacked the proper control in time-management, and whilst my achievements have hitherto been largely ignored, I have consistently and with considerable success, failed at arriving on time most of the time.
I was, perhaps, just like many other children. My dad worked and my mum stayed home to look after me. For me, home was a static caravan on a park bordered by woods. Other oblong homes surrounded an oval green and behind our caravan the wood rose uphill to somewhere strange and unknown. Once I ventured up the path by these woods towards the crest of the hill to see what lay beyond.
As the trees whispered in my ears, I knew, there and then, I was going to be an explorer…
Curiosity and questions
As a school pupil my imagination was fired by Art and English classes. Reading, writing, and drawing, all created vivid scenes in my mind. I found most other subjects to be tedious. I would always ask ‘Why?’ to those in positions of authority – but that wasn’t allowed. The answers were often punishments, given in anger and frustration, as if I had somehow said something offensive – whatever that term means. I wasn’t meant to question – I was there to sit still and learn – and I just wasn’t very good at it.
In 1993 my school years were complete and I declared I would only ever wear a tie again if: (A) the job interview required it, or (B) a solicitor suggested it. Thankfully I’ve never had to entertain option B, however I did wear a tie once (for fun) after buying one during one of my many impulsive shopping trips.
Employment and ADHD
Now, I was entering the Job Market and soon realised how limited my options were. My highest GCSE grade was a D in English; all my other grades were lower, even in Art and Design. Over the next thirteen years I embarked on a journey that has resulted in many hours spent adding to and editing my CV.
I started off as an apprentice sign-maker and attended a college course in printing which seemed interesting and fun at first – but quickly became boring. I left without a crumb of regret. I’ve worked in warehouses and food production factories, installed ventilation pipework, and cleaned up broken glass and vomit in nightclubs. I was once an “executive”, but in telesales. All incredibly dull, but rent had to be paid.
Actually, some jobs were great. I worked for a haulage company specialising in touring musical productions, loading stage-sets, instruments, and sound and lighting equipment. My first job was for AC/DC. Another time I worked for the Rolling Stones, and I also worked for the Iron Maiden Fan Club and toured around Europe with them. I then joined a band as a guitar technician and tour manager of sorts and we travelled around England and went to Ireland – incredible fun. I worked as a theatre stagehand, constructing sets. I worked on live shows and was once lucky enough to operate Dobbin, the animatronic puppet horse, during a performance of Dr Doolittle, while Phillip Schofield placed spectacles on Dobbin’s head. Of course, I knew there and then, I was definitely going to be a puppeteer…
A SATELLITE WITHOUT COORDINATES
Some people gravitate to orbits of enthusiasm and the majority of my early adult years were spent constantly in motion but with little idea of what I was gravitating towards. I was a satellite, but without coordinates determining my navigation.
I worked in an independent clothing store in Norwich, and was invited to work in another of their stores in Glasgow…. Why not? After a year I was approached to work for an “alternative” clothing store – and embarked on my glam semi-transvestite phase. I decided to be a hairdresser. I moved back to Norwich….
Unemployed with no actual qualifications, I had no belief and no hope. I kept getting frustrated at not knowing why I couldn’t just get on with it. My mind kept racing and I kept racing around too. Another failed relationship. Another bill not paid. Another debt collector demanding repayment of a mobile phone contract, loan for an Open University course in computer programming, bank loan, overdraft…. These things would eventually get paid – and the cycle would repeat. Not this again?! Why have I not learned to manage my money? Why do I get so excited? Why am I constantly distracted? Why can I not settle down?
I did always do something else though. In my spare time I kept sketching, drawing, and painting. It was almost compulsive. I met a guy in a pub who was friends with a friend. He politely listened to my incessant ramblings, and spoke eloquently when offering advice. He was a university student at the time, and now holds a Doctorate in Organic Chemistry. We are still very good friends:
‘Dude, why don’t you make art full time? You are an artist.’
The more ideas I was exposed to through him and his lovely partner, who also went to university, the more I found that my thoughts were, in some ways, like those expressed by famous philosophers, artists, writers, musicians. Did I really have it in me to go to university too, this place where only the wealthy and the clever went?
In 2007 I prepared a portfolio of drawings and went to an interview for a place on the computer game design course at Norwich University College of the Arts. Of course, I knew there and then, I really wanted to be a computer game designer. The interview was a disaster. Every question put to me was answered with ‘No, I’ve not done that.’ I went home dejected but, as my interviewer advised, immediately searched for a college course that would help me get into the university and onto the course appropriate to my abilities and interests.
focus! focus! focus!
I got a last minute interview at the college with Brenda Unwin, and nearly burst into tears when she told me some of my drawings were very skilled and that she would be very happy to offer me a place on the Access to Higher Education course. I’d never felt so happy in all my life. At the end of year exhibition I dropped off my paintings, one still wet, and popped to the lavatory. When I returned, a note was attached to the still wet painting informing me it had been purchased by the principal and would be included in the college’s collection. I couldn’t believe it. My friends came to the show and my PhD friend bought a self-portrait. I had it framed for him and it hangs in their living room today.
I went on to do a degree – and had the time of my life. I was spoken to as an adult – and I was offered support and kindness during the difficult times. I still kept going from one thing to another, but when you’re creating something, this can be useful. However, though my grades were okay in the first year, they plummeted in the second, mainly down to the self-directed element of the coursework. My tutor remarked it was not uncommon, but as the third, final, and important year approached: Focus! Focus! Focus! The third year began and I was in the unhelpful position of not being able to think clearly about anything. My mind was saturated with ideas, possibilities, and doubt. How could I know so much and yet not know what to do? I have kept a sketchbook from those awkward terrifying weeks. Soon the degree show came around. I’d been awarded a prize for painting, the university bought a work for its own permanent collection, and the late actor Sir John Hurt bought one too. He spoke to me. Not the other way around! My tutor, Brenda was there, looking at my work whilst I was interviewed about my successful degree show. I let the tears flow this time. I was so thankful, and I still am. Very thankful. I’m thankful because some strangers listened to me and helped me on my way.
Having a degree didn’t open many doors though. For the next four years I carried on as a practicing artist, exhibiting work in London (including two major art fairs), Bath, Cambridge, and Norwich. To support my art practice, I worked cleaning a pub and a private home. I was helped by friends, and now a wife, whose empathy and understanding of what mattered to me carried me through some very turbulent times. I was grateful for the kindness, but I was frustrated again. I didn’t understand why it was that I still could not be or do what I now knew I had, wanted, and needed to do. I kept tripping over myself. I tried and tried to concentrate, be professional, etc.
MY FIRST NHS APPOINTMENT
During 2015, I’d really had enough. I’d had enough losing my phone, spending money without any consideration, being distracted from my own ambitions. I attended an NHS psychiatry appointment and was told I was Bipolar. So I read up about it. Perhaps I had cyclothymia, a mild form of Bipolar as some of the symptoms matched my experiences and I had considered suicide many times and nearly successfully completed it in 2014, but, I was never regularly low and high, so I wasn’t completely convinced.
My wife has been incredibly supportive towards me. In fact, she is incredibly supportive towards anyone. Ever since we met she knew something was different about me, but at the same time knew, and knows, it is the thing that makes me interesting. I still find it absurd that she wilfully and honestly chose me to be her husband However, my continuing failures to act responsibly, to manage money, to do what I said I’d do was such that by then it inevitably led to an explosion and caused a huge problem between us. It wasn’t just my moods – there was something more. I am now doing a postgraduate degree in Art History and Theory at the University of Essex. Throughout my studies I knew something wasn’t right. I’m interested in the material presented. I’m interested in the ideas presented. I’m interested in the diverse student population. I’m very interested in the fact that sometimes I’m in the minority. I’m exceptionally interested in the reality of not knowing things. I’m interested in research. I like writing. I like reading – but I struggle to read more than a few paragraphs. How can it be that I’m struggling to concentrate on topics I’m hugely interested in? How can it be that I feel awkward or anxious in a class full of people all with interesting ideas?
It was this that led me to try and face my issues, and discover what was at the root of my spinning-top personality. Suddenly, I was very aware of my inability to actively and coherently do the things I wanted and enjoyed. So what could I do?
I knew that I did not choose to struggle day in and day out. I did not choose financial instability. I did not choose to do those jobs that didn’t fulfil my ambitions. I want to do what I want to do. But why can I not do that? What was wrong with my brain? Then I read an article – and it clicked….I then had to find out if the possibility of being ADHD was in fact a reality.
I suggested it to my GP. I’d read up about it and unlike the symptoms of cyclothymia, all of the symptoms fitted the picture. It was a composition I knew, but had never painted. This one fitted the frame. The more I read, the more recognisable it was. Not only did some things fit, all of them fit.
The NHS is one of the most beautifully democratic institutions the world has ever seen. Irrespective of one’s religion, lifestyle choices, sexual preference, gender identity, racial beliefs, political bias, there is a place where anyone can receive medical attention. I am angry at how this institution appears to be being dismantled by politicians. Health is not a political decision. Medical attention is not only for those considered worthy. Yes, it must be paid for. But who would refrain from contributing an extra few pence or a pound to keep it? Sadly the NHS is unable to provide many mental health services in a timely way. It was not able to give me access to a specialist psychiatrist to explore whether I had ADHD.
There are too many reports of people who have ended their lives because treatment wasn’t available quickly enough. I am sorry to say that my sister-in-law took her own life aged 24. She was bright, funny, articulate, and a joy to be around, but mental-health problems were too powerful. Her estate was taken care of and my wife received some money and suggested to use some of it towards discovering what my brain was up to; out of sadness, something positive. I made an appointment with Psychiatry-UK LLP, an online, CQC registered, psychiatry service. I wondered why their service wasn’t available on the NHS. I was apprehensive, obviously. ‘Are these people qualified?’ ‘What do psychiatrists know anyway? When I looked at the website and saw some of the profiles of the professionals, I decided I had no choice. My wife and I sat in bed one morning and watched a webinar hosted by Dr Andy Montgomery in which he gave a talk to GPs about ADHD in adults and its symptoms, causes, effects, and if they could spot a patient with the condition.
MY ‘HYPERFOCUS’ FINALLY MADE SENSE
My own interest was really piqued when Dr Montgomery presented a slide on ADHD high achievers who’d gone on to university education but when faced with the rigorous demands of university experienced difficulties which brought their condition to the surface and presented an uncomfortable truth: I can’t do this, not because I don’t have the ability, I do, but because I can’t keep up with the pace, I can’t read the material without being distracted, I can’t think without a million other thoughts screaming for my attention. He talked of hyperfocus; being engaged by something so much that nothing else was considered. I once spent six weeks writing an essay and wrote at least 8000 words with another 2000 words of footnotes and references. I couldn’t stop. I got the same mark for that essay as I did for one I wrote in 13 hours the day before both had to be submitted to deadline. It’s not a good way of working.
I made an appointment for the first available person and days later was talking to Dr Stephen Ilyas. I was very excited to talk to such a clear professional. He was very interested in what I had to say and, afterwards, I felt relieved. He then spoke to my father and wife in order to get a wider picture and a few days later I prepared received the news.
I was diagnosed with ADHD in the first week of April 2017. I’ve been prescribed medication. I felt relief, but also a sense of grief. Have I wasted the last twenty years of my life? Perhaps. What could I have achieved if…. Would I still have a relationship with my mother if… Could I have…?
These thoughts are to be expected. Of course the past is the past and it serves no benefit to lament possibilities. We all have possibilities, but now my possibilities are achievable. Medication isn’t a magic wand, and I still struggle with some things – but now I only really struggle with reading difficult texts and this may be resolved by my upcoming appointment to see if I have some form of visual stress, which many ADHD people also have. Because of my diagnosis, I understand myself a little better.
With medication, I can drown out the peripheral noise…
I’m researching PhD possibilities because medication helps me focus when I need to. I can choose not to take it, and certainly there’s no point taking medication if you want to spend a day at the seaside, or cook a meal for friends, or go for a walk in the woods, or do things that do not require concentration.
As far as I’m concerned, having ADHD is great. I do lots of silly things and they often make people laugh. I like that. ADHD is only a problem when it causes them. Some things that society demands are not compatible with the condition. Some things greatly benefit society because of the condition.
Because of my diagnosis and medical prescription, I’m now in the position of being able to use ADHD when I want to. When I leave university my options will be as limited as they were when I left school. The difference now being my options are limited to my interests and ADHD now has less influence in the things where it is not needed.
This was kindly written for our blog by a patient of Stephen Ilyas.
Images are the patients own artwork.
If you would like to talk to us about ADHD please contact us on 033 0124 1980 for an informal chat.