Actually, I’ve always thought that I have done the best thing that circumstances have let me, when you consider my trouble was not one you could cure in a few weeks or months. In fact, I so often wished all I had to do was to go into hospital, have an operation and be better.
Pip and I saw a lot of Grampa growing up and were genuinely fond of him. Curiously, in spite of having no relationship with her, I have developed a similar fondness for Elva.
The sixteen-page tirade she wrote Grampa has saddened, amused and comforted me in equal measure and although our experiences were different, I sense a kinship or emotional cross over with my great aunt, knowing all too well the anguish of feeling (imagined or otherwise) like some sort of family anomaly.
I am around five years old and hiding under my bed. I know I am in trouble. Pip will have dutifully snitched like she threatened, and I am sure Dad will seek me out as soon as he’s home. There is no plausible excuse for what I’ve accidently done but when he finds me, I’m relieved he is in his firm but fair mode and not super level smack angry as I’d feared. He has something for me. I emerge coyly from my hiding place. It’s not exactly a present. It’s more of a solution but I am pleased none the less to be presented with a pencil case.
‘Now sweetheart!’ he says as he passes it to me. ‘This is for your felt pens, and you absolutely must use it from now on.’ His gaze sets on my own, drilling his point home and with his unique mix of serious and gentle he explains that he really, really does not want to have to tell me again about being careful.
Perhaps a bit unlikely, his thinking is at least logical. I am supposed to have only one colouring pen out at a time and replace its cap before returning it to the case and selecting a new colour. That way there should be no more accidents or unnecessary ink lines or blotches on my face, clothes or our Army quarter carpets, sofa’s, walls or bedsheets. I nod enthusiastically and assure him that I understand. Which I do. I know I have been granted a reprieve and I am sincere as I promise to be more careful going forward.
‘Good girl chuckles’ says Dad with a reassuring kiss on my head.
All is forgiven. All is right in the world. I have a special new pencil case and I’m eager to fill it with my pens and pencils. I scribble away contentedly. Dad’s instructions have fallen on deaf ears and my room is soon littered with unlidded felt tips. Unable to explain my disobedience I receive the (always last resort) wallop I’d previously feared.
I am anxious not to give the wrong idea here and make no claims of abuse or favouritism, but this wasn’t an isolated incident and I earned quite a few smacks in my younger years for repeatedly ignoring instructions. Pip on the other hand had no problem toeing the line and just didn’t frustrate in the same clumsy way. Tell her once not to do something and she wouldn’t. Simples. Also, I am talking about the 1980’s when it was still largely considered appropriate parenting to discipline your child with a hand.
It was an entirely different era and four decades of research later our attitudes have altered significantly. Smacking is now frowned upon holding no truck with early years practitioners and gentler techniques are encouraged for correcting negative conduct. Addressing the reasons behind challenging behaviour is now best practice and although there are many reasons why a child might act out, a common culprit is the underlying existence of a neurodivergence like ADHD, described on the NHS website as ‘a condition that affects people’s behaviour.’
It is much more than that though. It is also a condition that if left undiagnosed can wreak havoc in later life. Having only recently been diagnosed with the condition myself, I can attest to this havoc, and know I am far from alone. Historically a label reserved for hyperactive boys, there has been a sharp rise during the last 20 years in the number of women being diagnosed in adulthood. Girls tend to exhibit less hyperactivity and have been largely overlooked in the past. The majority of such girls seek help later on for stress, depression, anxiety, sleep disorders or other mental health difficulties, and, left undiagnosed girls will most likely carry their problems into adulthood and their lives often fall apart.
I am a textbook case.
How is this important to my chase for Elva? I hear you ask It’s important because the more I learn about how my own brain works, the more The Tirade screams ‘Elva was neurodivergent too!’ It does after all run in families.
‘You rush about too much and overheat your blood’ her mother had once chastised, ‘It was never you work too hard and sit too long over it’ adds Elva sulkily.
Not the only ones, these comments are weighty clues.
Firstly, sensory discomfort is a recognised feature of ADHD or neurodivergence and heat sensitivity is a common and uncomfortable symptom. At the Slade Elva found her life drawing class so hot, claustrophobic and agitating that she regularly didn’t attend, preferring instead to work alone on sculpture or painting in oil. Headmaster Professor Schwabe flagged her truancy, but Elva found it too difficult to articulate her feelings which made her ‘unpopular through being misunderstood once again.’ (Happily, over the course of time, she did manage to ‘more than impress’ the professor, and with spring in step left with a glowing reference.)
Secondly, the ‘working too hard and sitting too long over things’ quote hints at hyperfocus. This is another trait of ADHD which ADDitude.com describes as the ability to zero in intensely on an interesting project or activity for hours at a time.
There are other snatches of information which help underpin my armchair diagnosis.
‘It was all she wanted to do’ said Dad of her painting.
‘She was happiest just doing her own thing’ claimed Dereck.
I suggest too that The Tirade is itself a product of hyperfocus. Which I say because of its length and the trouble she took over three tries at making it perfect. Oversensitive she will have been agitated, fired up, and focused, focused, focused until finish.
Your chosen informant for childhood symptoms (your sister Pippa) recalled that you were a tomboy and boisterous as a child. You were bright academically but struggled to adhere to boundaries. You were chaotic. In your late teens you appeared to be more disorganised than your peers. One of your father’s names for you was fidget midget because you couldn’t keep still. Self-reported symptoms, clinical observation and scores on DIVA were consistent with a diagnosis of ADHD.
Dr O – Consultant Psychiatrist
My diagnosis is a relief not a surprise. I have aced the assessment process and achieved a high score on the ADHD DIVA scale. Whoop whoop. Go me.
I test my feelings about my new label. ‘ADHD’ I say out loud to no one. ‘Neurodivergent, different, other’.
My mind shifts instantly.
Tears sting the backs of my eyes.
I hug my arms to my waist, and fold to the floor in sobs.
‘It’s just a label’ friends will say kindly as if my news is of no significance. ‘You’re still the same Bexi so what difference does it make. We love you anyway’ etc.
They will be right of course. I am still the same person and haven’t had a character change overnight, but labels do matter. They matter very much and wouldn’t exist if they weren’t helpful. They enable understanding and I wish wholeheartedly I had been rubber stamped with mine decades ago. Life might be very different if I had. I might even still be married.
‘It is impossible to exaggerate the misery I’ve endured’ grumbled Elva of her life and I find the statement oddly comforting. Like receiving a written hug from beyond the grave that says ‘there there girlie, I understand. Me too.’
I seek no sympathy here. My motivation in weaving my story through Elva’s is to raise understanding about neurodivergence amongst those who aren’t, and reassure those who are, that they are not alone either. But, like Elva, I cannot exaggerate the depths of misery I have periodically endured over the years as a result of ADHD. Regrettably, my left arm bears fading but still evident scars.
Organised and hyper focused on something to the exclusion of all else one day, I can be disconnected and dreamily vacant the next. Purposeful and organised or messy and chaotic I’m either owning my proverbial ball or running hopelessly after it. Knowing it will roll smack into a wall and pop if I don’t catch up with it.
My failure to regulate these peaks of urgent energy and troughs of useless exhaustion has, (like for the majority of the undiagnosed) led to underachievement, failed tasks, depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse and a catalogue of disaster; all down to my overwhelm at the normal pressures of life. Ones that the majority of my friends and contemporaries find largely straightforward to balance.
My passion for discovery has meant multitasking which doesn’t comes easily for someone with ADHD. Too many hours spent online or in a book for research is not time spent productively. For an established author yes, but not for a middle-class housewife who looks to have it all and has plenty else to be doing. Really exciting things like dusting between the gaps of the venetian blinds for example.
I give it my best shot and start life hacking my way to information. Books and the internet are out. Films, documentaries, drama series’, audiobooks and podcasts are all in. All of them great ways to learn more about the past and how our ancestors may have lived. Viewing can be done at the ironing board. Listening can happen doing the physical chores like cleaning, gardening or driving. Not so much whistle while you work but learn.
With my head in the Far East, I google ‘drama’s set in WW2 Malaysia’. Tenko looks to be interesting, so I purchase it on Prime and set about smoothing out my husband’s work shirts. It follows a group of women through their time in internment under the Japanese and I am hooked from the start.
Tenko is a marathon binge watch which means a lot of ironing. I flatten everything I can think of including for the first-time pants and tea towels which normally just get thrown into a drawer straight from the dryer. A particularly misshapen shirt collar needs a particularly heavy press. I push firmly and am pulled back to the tv. Absorbed, I only look down at the whiff of burning.
It also means a lot of ruined suppers.
One eye on the cooking, the other still stuck to the screen I put a pretty sketchy supper on the table that night for my hardworking, hungry, well providing husband. One who ultimately, found me as difficult to manage as my father did.
Currently, all I have to show for my hyperactive Elvering, disorder and inability to conform or cope with myself is a drinking problem and Decree Absolute.