Oh, God, I know. Everyone's neurodivergent these days. Which, as someone who likes to do things in their own precise/logical/inventive/repetitive/perfectionistic/sporadic/dysregulated/high-speed/creative/hyperfocused/improbable/limitlessly curious/easily distracted/interest-motivated/recklessly impulsive/all-or-nothing/independent way, is really quite galling. It's like being back in the 80s, when you couldn't move for deely-boppers and product tampering.
And really, I wasn't going to bring it up only I thought you might find the route to my recent self-discovery interesting, possibly helpful and, in all likelihood, entertaining as I am nothing if not brazen in pimping out my struggles for likes.
Because it all came about through meditation. Yes, the thing I keep promising clears a little space in our cluttersome minds. I remember bolting up in bed one night – must have been coming up to Christmas last year – struck by the notion that, holy guacamole, it was obvious. I was one of them. A neurodivergent.
Let's take a wander down a side alley to contemplate the awfulness of the word. Neurodivergent, urgh. It's very Trekkie and, as a Trekkie, this pains me. And while we're at it, "neurotypical". Seriously? One sounds like an emotionless cyborg, the other a depressed line manager in a pencil factory.
Back on the high street. The conclusion, while seeming sudden, had come off the back of two years' reluctant enquiry via said meditation, which I had hoped would work like hurt-digesting enzymes on my stubborn brain. In turn, this enquiry had been prompted by a lifetime of feeling an awkward fit with the world, having misplaced the rules to join in. I wanted answers, dammit!
I started with a couple of meditation workshops, nothing unusual in that only these had a somatic focus. At the first, I thought, "Ooh, interesting. I guess I may have some childhood issues to deal with." (Pretty standard stuff.) At the second, I thought, "Ooh, interesting. My body has frozen and I can't move but as soon as I can I'm outta here even if it means leaving a me-shaped hole in the door."
Have you ever had your freeze response triggered? I imagine we're all au fait with the fight/flight response, most of us have flown Ryanair after all. But the freeze response is something else: it doesn't come out swinging or sprinting; it locks you to the spot. It feels as if you are being inexorably set in cold concrete. You cannot move, not even your eyes. Your breath slows to such an extent that you wonder how you can remain conscious. Tears run down your cheeks but you're unable to wipe them away.
Yikes. The horror didn't even stop when the meditation did, for the facilitator intoned those dread words familiar to workshop participants everywhere: "Now partner up to share your experience."
Oh, no. No, no, no, no-no-no-no. But sadly yes.
The young chap had a faraway look so impossibly blissful that I first put it down to really good drugs. He had loved it, the bonged-out bastard! I had nothing in my pile of scripts that covered this turn of conversation. There's me, scrabbling to pull my horrified edges back together, nodding at him encouragingly while thinking, "Shit. It's me. It is actually me. I'm the issue not everyone else."
Because right up until that point, I felt sure that everyone in the room would have shared my reaction, that what felt to me as "the ghastly melodrama of reliving a forgotten experience" was kinda the point of the exercise. So very nope to the highest degree of wrong. Mercifully, we then took a break so I could float my thoroughly dissociated self off to the café down the road where I could ground myself with pastry and bitter coffee.
"Blimey O'Reilly, I didn't sign up for this," you're thinking. "I only get a ten-minute break, bring out the gags already." Patience, dearest Reader. In the words of the best TV detective of the 70s, just one more thing.
While not optimal, the above event did confirm my suspicions that something was off. While I wasn't yet on the right track of neurodiversity, it was nudging me towards it. Fast forward through two years of head-rummaging and my inner sat-nav finally got me on course.
I've always referred to my son as my mini-me. We enjoy a never-ending stream of enthusiasms that burn bright before we inevitably drop them. We are endlessly curious, we love a debate, we favour meaningful conversations over chit-chat and one-to-one connection over many, we have heightened bodily awareness, digestive issues, sleep difficulties, have a need for fairness, for authenticity, get tripped up by wobbly emotional regulation, experience anxiety, sound sensitivity, find interpersonal dealings exhausting, default to logic and reason and, when we can't, either melt or shut down. Oh, and we possess an innate need to refuel on solitude and nature ...
"At the next junction, turn left, and your son is autistic on the right."
(SFX: SYNAPSES EXPLODING)
This is what jolted me to full wakefulness last year. Why did I not put this together earlier? He has a first from Cambridge in natural sciences and decided to teach himself software engineering while taking up advanced maths – wait for it, you're gonna love this – as a hobby! Mothers are supposed to be omniscient. All I can offer in defence of my blindness is I've never belonged to the School of Helicopter Parenting.
My research bent now thoroughly engaged, I read that neurodivergence is very heritable.
Me: Whoa. We're very alike so could ...
Also me: Nah. That would be mad.
Me: But I do that thing with the feather cushion ...
Also me: Absolutely not.
Me: And I eat my food in order of preference ...
Also me: Please, stop trying to be fashionable. It's embarrassing.
Me: Yeah, but that time at those busy Edinburgh traffic lights when I just got out and left the car?
Also me: Normal reaction to a tricky drive, stop it.
Me: My humming, and fake opera singing?
Also me: What d'you want me to say? You like music.
Me: (whispers) Very few songs. And on repeat. Forever. Until the frayed end of Time.
Also me: So? You have picky ears.
Me: How I rehearse conversations.
Also me: :You're simply prepared.
Me: Okay, my need to pace.
Also me: Go girl, getting those steps in!
Me: Mm, what about when the doctor came and I didn't even say hello but just dropped my—
Also me: No doubt being considerate of their time.
Also me: ...
Me: And how I—
Also me: Bloody hell and lawks-a-mercy.
[COLUMBO EXITS, SILENTLY CLOSING THE DOOR BEHIND HIM.]
And like every thorough researcher, I turned my clipboard towards my daughter - my beautiful, brilliant girl who hated the restrictions of school but fought her way to a first at uni, who is teaching herself Spanish, Portuguese and French, and who lives in Barcelona without the slightest intention of staying there because the world is big and wide and calls her to explore.
My funny, fire-and-ice girl, who never liked to be hugged, whose eye contact – like her brother's – slid away like a minnow under foot, who walked on her toes, who can hear a song once or twice and remember the lyrics yet has the working memory of brain-damaged panda, who was thought by her teachers to be dyspraxic, who battles executive dysfunction, who chats non-stop and drifts away mid-conversation, who is quickly bored, fiercely determined, whose emotional wisdom guides me when I can't steer myself ... My very best lesson whose stormy nature makes my heart both delight and ready to break.
On to my father, my brothers. Autism, dyslexia, ADHD. Zigzagging through the bedrock of our DNA like a seam of quartz. Never noticed or explored because it was our normal.
These last six months have been a lot. But also they haven't.
My son is getting married next month to a wonderful woman who gently prompts him when social convention demands he gives a little more, who creates the space he needs to explore his interests and recharge away from the world. He has a successful and fulfilling career as a software engineer where his ASD is a powerful advantage. He is happy, healthy and deeply in love.
My daughter, while considering getting a formal diagnosis for ADHD which could help her access accommodations at work for when motivation and paralysis issues strike, has an online job creating content for a language app which appeals to her creativity, love of language and need for novelty. It enables her itchy feet to keep moving around the globe, embracing new people and experiences as she becomes ever wiser and kinder than I will ever be.
And me? As you can imagine, ASD/ADHD weren't really the letters after my name I was hoping for. At first, I was delighted to put my finger on why life has often been a tricky ole dance. For a couple of weeks I felt nothing but giddy relief. But then the grief rolled in: for my bewildered young self, for my incomplete education, for my lack of career and economic reward, the frustration of knowing you're bright but being unable to make it work for you. If I'm brutally honest, for a life not lived.
I'm coming out from under that now, I think. I'm optimistic that all this and the subsequent conversations have broken a familial cycle, so that going forward no one else is left without armbands. Despite my worries, my children tell me I have been and am a good mother. I know that if they choose to have children of their own, they will be — whether neurotypical or neurodiverse — sparking forces of nature too.
Personally, I don't see the need for a formal diagnosis. I feel the recognition in my body, and that's enough. I love teaching yoga, I love making words pretty. I've been with a wonderful, supportive, beyond tolerant man for almost 37 years who still tries not to laugh when I burp the National Anthem. I live in a beautiful part of the world surrounded by sea and sky. There's something out there yet for me, and now I hope to be in a better position to manifest it when the time is right.
The thing is, when you discover later in life that you're neurodivergent, it will mess with your head. But only for a bit. Then you'll realise, hey, I've got this far. I managed. Congratulate yourself and try to appreciate your quirks and traits. Call 'em superpowers. I'd say mine was noticing patterns and details that others miss. Plus, discovering beauty in the mundane, spotting laughter in the sacred. Yeah, that's pretty cool. I would never want to be without that.
Besides, ASD, ADHD, ADD, ND, NT ... They're just letters. At the end of the day, we're all messy ole humans muddling our way through our short time on this tiny rock whizzing about in space. But if it's still a letter you're after, how about B?
A, you're adhdorable
B, you're so beautiful ...
I am so sorry. (I'm so not.) Now play this. LOUD.
If any of this resonates with you and you would like to share your experience or just would like a little cheerleading, please leave a comment or send me an email. T x