Today is New Year’s Day, which also happens to be the day after my birthday. And this year, for the first time in my adult life, I’m not hungover. In fact, this is the first time in my life that I have not spent either Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve with family and friends. Whilst I could list various reasons as to why I chose not to be around other people, the simple truth is that I’ve not been feeling very cheery recently. Rather than put myself in a situation where I would, in all likelihood, end up badly sleep-deprived with a hideous hangover to contend with, I decided instead to opt out of the festivities and spend some time alone thinking about how I feel.
I’m aware that some people will be reading this and thinking, ‘That’s a bit miserable,’ and I totally understand where this comes from. In a culture which over-values sociability, the idea of spending time alone when we’re supposed to have fun with other people is almost unthinkable. However, what I will say in my defence, and in the defence of the thousands of people out there who also find the whole Christmas and New Year period a difficult rather than enjoyable time, is that sometimes allowing ourselves to feel miserable is exactly what is needed.
To those who have never struggled to manage their so called negative emotions, this may sound ridiculous. After all, the story we’re so often told is that smiling, thinking positively and spending time with good friends is the best way to banish feelings of sadness. But for some, including myself, this approach doesn’t always work. For those of us who do sometimes struggle with feelings of depression and anxiety, it’s vitally important that we acknowledge rather than hide the fact that we’re not feeling good and do whatever is needed to get ourselves through it. In my case, this sometimes involves spending lots of time alone and definitely not being around anyone I don’t know very well, as would have been the case had I involved myself in this year’s Christmas and New Year gatherings. However, in a culture obsessed with the pursuit of happiness, it can be extremely difficult to allow ourselves and others the space and the time to retreat when we need to.
The story we’re so often told is that smiling, thinking positively and spending time with good friends is the best way to banish feelings of sadness. But for some, including myself, this approach doesn’t always work.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that we should all be more miserable or that we should stop looking out for one another – I for one will always be enormously grateful for the effort that my friends and family make to include me in their plans, even when I’m being a grumpy so and so. However, feeling sad and needing to be alone is, at least for some of us, a natural and important part of both working through and overcoming negativity. Telling people that they should push their feelings aside because it’s Christmas or their birthday, or New Year’s Eve, and because these are times when we’re supposed to feel good, invalidates a fundamental and unavoidable aspect of the human condition. We simply cannot feel happy all the time, and sometimes we feel sad and solitary when we’re supposed to feel jolly and enjoy the company of others.
Whilst we may run the risk of disappointing those we care about if we choose to be alone, it is sometimes best, not only for ourselves but for everyone else, that we do just that. Some might argue that Christmas is just a few days of the year and that it’s selfish to not put our feelings to one side for the sake of those we love and care about. But does the fact that Christmas is a time of year when we’re supposed to think of others and feel happy mean that we should stop looking after ourselves? I would argue that it doesn’t.
Without proper management misery has the power to destroy us. And this is exactly why we tell each other to think positively and smile when we’re feeling down, thinking that if we pretend to be okay then we will avoid being completely consumed by our pain. But as dangerous and destructive as wallowing in negativity can be, taking a good look at ourselves and trying to make sense of what we’re feeling, even if we don’t like what we see, can sometimes help us to get back on track. So, as well as continuing to accept the support of our friends and family when we need it, it’s also important that we learn to allow ourselves and others the space to be alone and to feel miserable without guilt if that’s what is needed. This is exactly what I have done over the last couple of weeks. And I must say, I’m feeling all the better for it.
They say ‘Once a smoker, always a smoker,’ and as someone who’s given up and started again more than a few times, I’ve come to accept that this holds a lot of truth for me personally. Like most of my smoker friends I’ve been lighting up since my early teens, and the ritual of rolling and smoking cigarettes has become a long-term habit that I thoroughly enjoy at the same time as wholeheartedly wishing that I didn’t.
Part of the reason I started smoking at the age of 13 was that all of the adults I knew were smokers and so it seemed like a pretty normal thing to do. There was, of course, also a rebellious element as I was totally aware of the health risks that cigarettes pose. Unfortunately I didn’t care too much about this at the time, and persevered through the initial sickness and coughing fits even though I knew that I was damaging myself. Shamefully, though, the biggest draw to cigarettes for me when I was a teenager was the misplaced notion that smoking was something you did if you were cool, which I really wasn’t back then. I was the clumsy fat kid with frizzy black hair and ill-fitting school clothes. And, as all misfits will relate to, I was made well aware of my perceived ‘otherness’ by my peers.
Disliking school for this and many other reasons, I started bunking off on a regular basis. My favourite thing to do in light of there being very little else, was to pester strangers in the street to buy me cigarettes, and then hang around smoking in the park down the road until I was eventually found and dragged back to class. Whilst the desire to bunk off thankfully subsided as soon as I graduated, the pleasure that I found in smoking has unfortunately remained very much in tact.
The biggest draw to cigarettes when I was a teenager was the misplaced notion that smoking was something you did if you were cool, which I really wasn’t back then.
In addition to nicotine, the other substance that I regularly consume and enjoy is alcohol. And like all great pairings, I can’t seem to separate one from the other: the pleasure I find in smoking is significantly amplified when I have a drink in my hand, and alcohol isn’t quite as satisfying on it’s own. The way that I’ve dealt with this in the past when I’ve managed to quit cigarettes for extended periods of time is simply to avoid alcohol altogether. Sounds like a perfect solution, right?
On the surface abstinence seems like a great idea. Not only does avoiding both drinking and smoking have immense benefits in terms of physical health, it also saves a lot of cash; I could probably buy a house with all the money that I’ve spent in pubs over the years! But dig a little deeper, and it poses some problems. I’m by no means reliant on alcohol and (unless I’m under lots of stress) I very rarely drink enough these days to become completely intoxicated. But sharing a decent bottle of wine or having a few beers with friends is something that I look forward to and that I find incredibly relaxing. Whilst I no longer feel the need to binge on alcohol in the way that I used to when I was younger, denying myself the pleasure of drinking at all ignores a large part of who I am. In my experience, and I’ve tried several times, complete abstinence only leads to feelings of isolation, loneliness and sadness. I’d much rather dabble a little and have a good time with the people I love than find myself alone and miserable.
I’m never going to be someone who enjoys sitting in the pub with an orange juice and a packet of crisps as everyone around me drinks and smokes. But rather than beating myself up about my inability to reject everything that’s bad for me, I’ve decided to accept it and relax a little. There’s no denying that smoking is incredibly bad for my health, or that drinking alcohol leads me to smoke more than I’d like to. But the more I tell myself that I’m stupid for doing it and deny myself pleasure for the sake of trying to quit when I’m clearly not ready, the less likely I am to find the determination to stop.
I’m hopeful that there will come a time when smoking feels less desirable to me. Until then, though, the best thing that I can do is savour every single cigarette that I smoke, and wait patiently for the right kind of willpower to emerge.
Known as the ‘Tree Surgeon Poet,’ Matthew Plumb is an experienced forester and increasing presence on the UK poetry scene, who’s love and appreciation for the land he lives and works on continues to provide a steady flow of inspiration for his writing. Originally hailing from the Black Mountains, he has enjoyed a life-long connection to nature, and much of his work focuses on his personal interaction with and experience of the world around him. Matthew’s personal enjoyment of writing and literature doesn’t end with his own work, though, as he also facilitates writing workshops with young people and runs an interactive writing platform designed to support new and emerging poets. With a first poetry pamphlet in the pipeline, and many more projects underway, I was excited to meet with him to find out more.
Can you tell us a little about how you first became interested in writing and poetry?
I began writing poetry seriously just before I turned twenty-one, which is quite late, really. A mate, having a clear-out about a year back, found a poem of mine in a yearbook from our little junior school. I have to say, at eight, I had it going on; I have no idea what has happened since! The poem was about a salmon and took in the whole lifecycle of the fish.
Remembering back again to school, my first unforgettable interaction with a poem was at GCSE level: ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ by Wilfred Owen. I had never read anything as visual, or felt so involved in a piece writing, and I have been trying to write my way to that standard since my early twenties.
And what purpose does poetry serve in your life now?
The reading and writing of poetry provide constant fascination and thrill. The writing side is all about the hunt for the right image and feel, which is set with failure and frustration. But writing things I am happy with is really satisfying. The reading side to writing is nothing but enjoyment; the experience of reading someone’s heart is life affirming.
Leaving the deeps with her voice and her coat
her singing haunts all the pretty fishies
to do as she and quit the buoyant seas.
She crams his pots with a charm from her throat,
besotted lobsters craving every note.
Shoal in the net flood the deck to a squeeze,
cool bodies and a steel quick to bellies.
Stone on stone on the scale nudge up a hope.
He lands his catch for lingerie and frock
and town steps out in a pretty rumour
of the secret he knows he cannot keep.
Her buried coat and the movement of clocks,
the netting needle and rule of weather.
Her seven years and her seven tears to weep.
Through Depths of Height
Something about night and honeysuckle,
eloping mood sighs of supple verdure,
the balm and thrill spill of nature sugar,
how right, this time of night, sky is purple;
little shimmer before each new sparkle,
nature symmetry, nature manufacture –
how deep the sea brings black into texture,
divine real time and impulses simple.
Something about love of moving father
mystery gentle, myth in my system
fable my action quietly core of core,
sensory harvest of summer nurture.
The rhythm, having no real precision,
has no after for me, from no before.
So, who/what has been the biggest inspiration to your work so far?
Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd was the first time I had experienced the English language being used in a way that I liken to Ali showboating in the ring. Hardy took the language and made it perform like a money-no-object firework display. Mesmeric. I saw in his writing a way to celebrate the language.
Specific to poetry, I always return to Blake when short of a contemporary collection, and having been born and raised in Wales, I have got some pretty serious Dylan OCD. I love Robert Frost and William Stafford, and I am regularly left elated and envious of e e cummings’ work.
More recently, I have been influenced by Les Murray’s Taller When Prone, and Alice Oswald’s, Falling Awake. Oswald’s womanliness is the womanliness of nature and her poetry has a lovely, gentle affinity, that is spare, but completely involved.
And in what ways has your upbringing in Wales influenced your writing?
Growing up in the Black Mountains meant the outdoors became a place to explore without any real aim. That freedom of wandering physically and mentally is a natural state, and that connection with nature led me to write with that freedom.
Wales is a land that literally speaks in the voice of the land; I mean the land informs the language, and I feel that informs my subconscious to want to write the land. There is so much variety in terms of subject that the challenge of capture is infinite. Nature constantly replenishes my interest in, and enjoyment of writing.
Solar Eclipse in Llangwm Hollow
Mimic of dusk trying to tip the horizon
sheathing moon instils belittling cosmos
cooling the prim hope of our celandine morning.
Purple invading blue with black that wraps the stars.
Science has no hypothesis to gauge surprise,
affinities missile their weight through thinning skies.
Egg-full birds berate the purposeful confusion,
profound security of no constants,
the poignant close to cruel of every sly turning.
How near we are when we plummet into how far.
Lazy mounds of ochre brine
shouldering and walling out –
to overhead –
a sweet suggestion
out of a lightning storm
of the hammer
of the sea
Renewal touched in a wave
all the founding ache in us our sounding form,
and in the climbing mass of the wave we are bred
and too little doubt,
while the oceans
So, how do ideas come to you – can you describe the creative process?
There is always the initial, visual prompt, but the acoustic experience, as well as the experiences of taste and smell and touch all combine. Then the dreaming process kicks in. Poems can take anything from an hour, to months and months to write and the dream process is as vital for the poems that flash out and those that have to be constantly summoned and coaxed.
And where does your tree surgery work fit in?
I love cutting and the intimacy with nature that line of work involves. Cutters are always a good bunch; aware and concerned by the pressure we have inadvertently placed on the natural world, we cut to manage and replenish. There is a lot of awareness amongst us. I like to think we are wardens of a beautiful, very vital facet of the natural world.
As well as being a writer and tree surgeon you’ve also done a bit of voluntary work. Can you tell us a little about the time you spent with refugees in Calais?
Calais was a little while ago now. I spent my time over there cutting log for fuel and building bases for shelters. I ran a poetry workshop at the theatre in the Jungle. The last time I went over the authorities were demolishing the camp and it was a distressing experience; the derision and loss of hope was very sad.
How would you describe the situation as you saw it?
It was a very tense place to be. Being vocal about our reason for being there was not a good idea; you had to be careful who you spoke to, and how much you said. That was not something I had thought about. A friend of mine put up a sign outside her partner’s office here in the UK encouraging people to drop clothes and bedding there, which I then took over in my van. There was no way you could do that in Calais, the place would have been smashed up and torched.
Poetry Workshop in the Jungle
Drawing together a crazy oscillation of feelings after visiting a refugee camp and creating a rational, cognitive response, I think, is something I am always going to struggle to achieve.
The first thing me and my two companions saw driving into The Jungle, was a tall and very beautiful black woman, mid-twenties, with a load of swagger. She was attracting the lewd attention of every man who passed her and the sexual charge was the last thing I was expecting. I have no idea what her gig was, but I assumed she was a refugee. My companions had been asked, well, told by female volunteers at the warehouse, to dress in nothing that would encourage the male refugees to make advances, and they moved around the camp easily enough. This first perspective, the behaviour of those men, was for me, a massive negative.
Leading a poetry workshop in the Theatre was manic. My fellow writers were early to mid-twenties, male, mostly Afghan, and were all over me straight away, touching my hair, hugging me, laughing. The theme of the workshop was 'journey', but they mostly wanted to write about love, the sky, and a better life, which I expected.
One participant, who I could tell was going to be really good, did one in the first five minutes and came back towards the end of the session with a lovely clutch of poems he had gathered from other people in the camp. This one stood out as a tight little haiku:
Four men on four chairsTalk through life with lofty airs.Four chairs left empty.
In just over an hour a lot of life experience and aspiration was laid down and then it all stopped. The lads gave me back all the pens and paper I had provided, grabbed a hacky-sacky and went into this really energetic game of mass piggy-in-the-middle! job done!
Moving about the camp is probably the most harrowing and evoking experience of my life. The main drags are stoned, and there is a basic level of sanitation; plumbed in water at set points, portaloos that hum of decomposing shit, and the reek of piss that has ensconced itself the latent smell of the earth. Shops, of the stores variety, and the coffee, all of them shanty. The school was awesome, the bookshop, the youth centre. The Ethiopian church with its gable-end mounted cross gave the sky line an unforgettable composure. Everything shanty, everything low, in a low, level expanse of industrial wasteland with a high fence against the highway, and banked up earth ringing the rest of the perimeter. Virtually out of eye sight. Activity everywhere, and a strange, gnawing sense of boredom and frustration, and exhaustion, dragging through your body as you walk through the madness of abandoned tents, or not, ripped open, clothes strewn about, food scat over the ground, faeces here and there, and the utter disillusion of traumatised people coming down on you like a sleep you really need to take.
People want solutions, or just a solution. I think it is ludicrous to expect that there can be a solution to a situation that is worsening. I believe individual European societies have to view themselves as a singular entity, as does the European Union as a whole. Society in terms of oneness, society as an individual with emotions and a psychology that can be affected by action. I believe how we treat refugees now will affect how we behave as a society in the future. How we respond to hardship or threat, or the opportunity of prospect or good. I believe that if we do not consider human beings to be composed of potential, to inherently veer towards kindness, and that we treat people appropriate to these factors, we are likely to damage ourselves.
Originally published on Plumb Poetry, 26 FEBRUARY 2016
You also run a literary organisation called Poetry Pulse. Can you tell us a little about this?
Poetry Pulse is about getting emerging writers engaged with developing their writing through sharing their work with each other. The project is a cooperative; poets supporting each others’ poetry through participation. I felt dislocated from the poetry coming out of universities, and the often political writing of the underground. I hoped Poetry Pulse would fill this void.
Finally, do you have any advice for new/emerging writers?
Read. Read poetry, read novels, academic journals, newspapers, crisp packets. Read the books your friends tell you you will like. Reading the dictionary is fascinating. Read poetry in languages you cannot speak and see how timing in writing is the music of the word and voice. Write to enjoy the privilege of being able to write and to read. I think this is the way to write poems that you are satisfied with… Perhaps even proud of!
About the Author
Matthew Plumb has been writing poetry for over ten years and has decided to get on the viral spiral, well, give it a go. He is a City and Guilds ticketed Tree Surgeon, and was recently accepted on the Writers of Wales Database.
Before my dad died a few months ago, I had never experienced the loss of a close relative. I had, of course, been exposed to the grieving process through friends and family members who’s loved ones have passed away, but never had I felt the full weight of loss myself. Something that I’ve come to understand over the last few months is that, profound and consuming as grief is when it hits, it is by no means easy to articulate in words.
Part of the reason why grief is so difficult to talk about, I think, is that death itself is something that many of us are scared of, and that most of us try hard not to think about too much. And, unlike other emotional experiences such as love and joy, which are always welcome and even yearned for in their absence, grief is something that we hope to encounter as little as possible.
When we do think about death and losing those we care about, our thoughts tend to focus on feelings of sadness. But grief, I now understand, encompasses many other, sometimes conflicting, emotions. When I found out that my dad had died, and when I was told how it had happened, I felt deeply sad and disappointed that he’d decided his life wasn’t worth holding on to. On the other hand, however, I felt a huge sense of relief, not only that he was finally at peace after years of emotional turmoil, but that his often careless words and behaviour could no longer hurt those who loved him.
Unable to fully articulate my feelings in words, I’ve had to find other means of tapping into and expressing my grief.
Along with these conflicting sentiments came additional feelings of guilt, anger and shame, and to rationalise all of this was and still is incredibly difficult. Unable to fully articulate my feelings in words, I’ve had to find other means of tapping into and expressing my grief. One of the most powerful tools that I’ve discovered so far is, perhaps unsurprisingly, music.
Lebanese-born poet and philosopher Khalil Gibran famously describedmusic as ‘The language of the spirit.’ Only now can I fully appreciate this assertion. Feeling particularly low whilst travelling from Bristol to my dad’s wake in London last month, I remembered a piece that was first introduced to me during a yoga class last summer. I don’t often attend yoga classes, and I wouldn’t describe myself as an overtly spiritual person. But the first time I heard ‘The End of Suffering′ (produced by Gary Malkin) in the tranquil setting of the Pyrenees I couldn’t help feeling both soothed and enlightened by its gentle percipience. Listening to it through my headphones on the crowded Megabus that day, its effect was just as evocative and enduring.
Where the words to articulate how I feel about my dad’s suicide often escape me, this piece of music speaks a language that my heart understands, mirroring through its poetry the complexity of grief to open, reach in and draw out of me all the pain that rationality can’t understand.
Like my dad, I’ve always held a deep appreciation for music. Never did I imagine that I would find such comfort and catharsis in a single piece.
Those interested in guided meditation can listen here to a second version of ‘The End of Suffering’ featuring additional spoken word by a Buddhist monk.
Like most, if not all, people I know, I was raised to believe that being in a loving committed relationship is something that I should not only want, but actively seek out. And, like everyone I know, I have experienced a great deal of joy and pain in both the pursuit and attainment of romantic love. A few years ago I entered into my first serious relationship with someone I cared deeply about. However, like many couples I’ve known over the years, our love didn’t last, and just four years after getting married we decided to break up.
Before entering into this partnership I had been single for several years, and I was very independent as a result. With only myself to think about, I did whatever I wanted whenever I liked, and enjoyed spending time with whoever I pleased. But rather than appreciating the independence that being single afforded me, all I could think about at the time, and all I wanted in fact, was to be somebody’s girlfriend.
Part of the problem with being single is that we’re constantly reminded how undesirable it is. And this is especially true if you happen to be female: if you’re a single woman having sex then you’re likely to be thought of as a slut, a sexual conquest, or a ‘home wrecker.’ And if you’re not, the chances are you’ll be perceived as sad and lonely, or labelled a frigid spinster (God forbid you’re a cat-lover too!) One has only to think of popular films and TV shows like Bridget Jones’s Diary, Love Actually, How to be Single, and Sex and the City to realise just how pervasive these stereotypes are.
Everywhere I turn there seems to be some hint to the idea that single people are not as happy or content as those lucky souls who have found ‘the one.’
Some might argue that single women are beginning to be portrayed in a more positive light in the media. And whilst this is true, it’s also fair to say that there’s still a lot of work to be done. Bar a few examples, including (suprisingly) the 2012 Disney Pixar film, Brave, in which teenage Princess Merida saves herself from being married off against her will, the ‘damsel in distress’ and ‘happy ever after’ tropes that we’re all so familiar with are, unfortunately, still very much the norm.
However, the perceived undesirability of singledom isn’t only strengthened through our engagement with films, TV shows and books; it’s also reinforced by certain friends and family members who persist in asking whenever they see us whether we’re seeing anyone yet. In fact, everywhere I turn there seems to be some hint to the idea that single people are not as happy or content as those lucky souls who have found ‘the one.’
But being single isn’t always an unhappy experience. For some, including myself at the moment, it’s a perfectly worthwhile and valid choice. Since coming out of my last relationship I’ve been hugely grateful for the freedom and autonomy that being single offers. It isn’t a sad or lonely experience, nor is it characterised by an increased appetite for casual sex with strangers. For me, being without a partner is an enriching and stress-free experience which offers a multitude of learning opportunities. And, most importantly, it’s exactly what I need right now.
And this isn’t to say that I don’t hope to one day meet someone who enjoys my company enough to want to share their life with me—being in a happy and healthy relationship would, of course, be lovely at some point. However, for the time being (and potentially for the rest of my life if this never happens) I’m perfectly content being single, getting to know myself, and learning to feel adequate and complete just as I am.
Should you happen to find yourself wondering whether your single friend or family member has found someone yet, I beg you to reconsider whether this is an important question to ask.
Having never broached the subject of hidden disabilities before writing this article, I really wasn’t sure of the best way to approach it. Nor was I confident about the appropriate language to use having very little in the way of other articles to refer to. However, I was also very excited to share my story because, whilst diagnoses of dyspraxia (the hidden disability that I am affected by) is on the increase, it’s still relatively unknown compared to other specific learning disabilities. Until fairly recently, in fact, children with dyspraxia were commonly referred to as having something called ‘clumsy child syndrome’—a rather simplified term to describe a complex and wide ranging set of difficulties.
The response I tend to receive when I tell people I have it is, ‘Ooh, what’s that?’ So, for those reading this who don’t already know, dyspraxia can be defined as a common developmental disorder affecting fine and/or gross motor coordination, as well as speech and language in both children and adults. For me it’s a condition characterised by awkwardness, muddle-headedness, and an inability to play group sports. And like all specific learning impairments, it also comes with its fair share of anxiety and embarrassment.
Like many people affected by specific learning disabilities, school was a bit of a challenging environment, made even more so (I can gather now) by a lack of diagnosis and appropriate support. Despite being good at English and the humanities throughout my school career, I have vivid memories of desperately trying to sneak a peek over the shoulders of those sitting in front of me in class, having failed to fully grasp the task at hand and feeling too scared to ask for help for fear of looking stupid in front of my peers. In particular, numbers were and still are my nemesis, proving so alien to my way of thinking that tears still begin to well at the thought of having to undertake anything more than very simple calculations.
However, as a rather hot-headed and rebellious teenager with a complicated home life, I never associated my difficulties at school with anything other than disengagement. It wasn’t until I began studying for my degree in English literature years later that I realised there may be something else going on. Whilst being fully engaged and working hard to complete my coursework on time, I felt completely overwhelmed by the workload and soon became aware that I was struggling more than my peers to keep up. At the end of my first year I sought out an assessment and was finally diagnosed with dyspraxia at the age of 26. As well as receiving a grant for specialist equipment, including a laptop installed with software to help with the planning, execution and revision of essays, I was also offered coursework extensions and extra time in exams. I strongly believe that without all of this access support I would have completed my studies with a grade well below my level of ability.
What people can’t see is the absolute dread I feel when faced with certain tasks and the big bully that lives inside of my head and tells me over and over how stupid and incapable I am.
As an adult in full-time employment, the problem I’m currently faced with is how and when to disclose my difficulties to employers. Is it best to tell them at the interview stage so that they’re aware of my access needs, or should I wait until after I’ve been accepted for a position in case my impairments work against me somehow? Well, in a recent role within the arts industry I decided not to say anything at all, until I was finally forced to disclose when my manager became frustrated and angry with the mistakes that I was making. Being invisible, dyspraxia has a habit of making those affected seem rather careless and lazy, and this can cause employers to doubt potential and, in many cases, withhold opportunities for progression. I can’t help wondering whether this would still be the case were it a visible impairment.
Part of the problem with having a hidden or invisible disability, whether it’s schizophrenia, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, anxiety, or a specific learning impairment like dyspraxia, is that you don’t necessarily look like you’re experiencing difficulties. So, as well as people asking me to explain what dyspraxia is when I tell them I have it, another common response is, ‘But you don’t strike me as having those kind of issues.’
And here’s where the heart of this article lies.
Being articulate, well-educated, and able to hide a lot of my awkwardness and anxiety means that from the outside I often appear confident and capable. However, what people can’t see is the absolute dread I feel when faced with certain tasks and the big bully that lives inside of my head and tells me over and over how stupid and incapable I am. Whilst I understand that these insecurities aren’t necessarily unique to people with learning impairments, I’m certain that experiencing difficulties with tasks and activities that other people seem to find easy does magnify the feelings of inadequacy that I experience on a day-to-day basis. And, whilst I can also appreciate that most people don’t feel confident all the time, it’s clear to me that some individuals, including myself, are far more affected by insecurity than others, whether visibly or not.
The reason I decided to focus this article on the issue of hidden disability denial is that, as well as having personal experience of having to explain and justify my own difficulties, I have recently become aware of a wider belief—which seems to have roots in the wellness community—that specific learning disabilities do not actually exist. A few weeks ago I came across an article related to this theory, and it left me feeling pretty angry. The condition it dealt with was ADHD and (without going into too much detail) the argument it tried to put across was that most cases of the condition are purposefully misdiagnosed in order to generate money for Big Pharma through the dispensing of costly medical treatments.
Now, it’s very likely that there is an element of truth to this; we all know how much money and power is tied up in the pharmaceutical industry. But what I absolutely cannot get behind is the idea that so many health care professionals across the globe are implicit in this corruption, or that the majority of people diagnosed with ADHD are merely imagining their difficulties and the benefits of the medication that is prescribed to treat the symptoms. It’s true that the numbers of children being diagnosed and medically treated for ADHD is on the rise (I’m not going to deny that medication being the first port of call is problematic), but rather than being wholly due to a money-making scam, this could also be because we now understand more than we ever have about the condition and are therefore more able to diagnose and treat it.
A shared experience amongst many of my friends is being told by their school teachers to stop being stupid and try harder in class.
This is of course an issue that will continue to be hotly debated, and I’m certainly no expert. But I strongly believe that if a child or adult is experiencing difficulties and has sought out a diagnosis then no one has the right to invalidate this by claiming that the condition doesn’t exist. A shared experience amongst many of my friends is being told by their school teachers to stop being stupid and try harder in class. Had more been known about the impairments they would later be diagnosed with this may have been a different story.
As well as invalidating the experiences of those affected by the symptoms of ADHD, the other problem with the article I read was that, whether intentionally or not, it implied that those who choose to take their medication are somehow implicit in the wrongdoings of the pharmaceutical industry. When asked, a close friend told me that after reading the article he felt guilty and ashamed to continue paying for and consuming his tablets.
However, my biggest problem with the article wasn’t so much to do with the implied misdiagnosis as it was to do with something far more insidious: the outright denial of the symptoms by which ADHD is commonly characterised. According to the author, symptoms such as lack of concentration, mood swings, hyperactivity, anxiety, and forgetfulness are not specifically related to ADHD, but a normal part of everyday life. What the article failed to grasp is the fact that it is not simply one or even a couple of symptoms that are experienced with ADHD, or any other specific learning disability. What is generally experienced is a complex set of mental and sometimes physical challenges that can have an enormous impact on an individual’s personal and professional life.
I can’t help wondering whether this article would have been accepted by the online community in the same way had it stated that wheelchair users aren’t really impaired and don’t really need their access equipment. Whether it’s a mental health issue, a neurological condition, or a specific learning disability, the impairments that hidden conditions bring can have an enormous impact on an individual’s quality of life. Rather than contributing to a positive and inclusive discussion about disability, articles like this one openly discriminate against those affected by suggesting that invisible impairments are not as complex or as valid as those that are visible.
This is just one example of the many ways that hidden disabilities are minimised and invalidated in contemporary society. And without more open discussion on the subject this sort of denial is never going to diminish. The important thing to consider when thinking about this issue is that things are not always what they seem. A person may very well look and seem as though they’re managing, but this doesn’t mean they’re not fighting an internal battle.
A documentary exploring the nature of ADHD and the neurological affects of the condition is available to view on BBC iPlayer. Those interested can watch here.
When I relocated from London to Bristol earlier this year I wasn’t expecting to end up claiming benefits. With a bit of money in the bank, some festival work lined up, and several job applications underway, I genuinely believed that I would be able to support myself. Had my reasons for leaving London been different (I’ll save the details for another time) then I would have done the sensible thing and made sure that I had a permanent job lined up before moving. But with my circumstances being what they were, the most important thing to me at the time was returning quickly to where my family and friends are.
Had I realised just how little support would be available to me when I failed to find a job as quickly as I’d hoped, I may have done things a little differently.
The first problem I encountered after applying for Universal Credit was the unexpectedly long processing time. Having to wait over a month for my claim to be approved meant that I completely ran out of cash before my first payment arrived. Aware of how unhelpful this is for people with no money, Universal Credit offers advance payments to cover living costs during this time. Desperate for cash a few weeks after applying, I borrowed £300 under the agreement that this would be repaid out of my forthcoming allowance over a period of six months. So, before knowing how much money I was entitled to, or if my application had even been approved, I’d already accumulated a substantial new debt with the very system that I’d turned to for financial support. Great.
I’m extremely lucky to have an understanding landlord, and family and friends who are able and willing to help.
Six weeks later I received notification that £559 would be paid to me every month until my circumstances change. With my rent alone coming in at £650 per month, this news came as a bit of a shock. When I called the contact centre (charged at 45p per minute) to question the decision, I was told that nothing could be done to help. Why? Because people under the age of 35 are expected to live in shared accommodation, and are therefore not eligible for full housing support if they choose to live alone, as I have.
Lacking enough funds at this stage to cover my rent, let alone any bills or food, I found myself in bit of a pickle. Little did I know things were only going to get worse.
Part of the deal with Universal Credit is that a percentage of any earnings you make from employment is deducted from your monthly allowance. Whilst I was aware of this and think it’s fair, at no point did I consider that the processing of deductions might be delayed. Instead of accounting for the the bit of work that I did a few months ago straight away, Universal Credit has only just processed the deduction, several weeks after the wages were paid into my account. With no other income coming in until the end of this month due to unexpected illness and subsequent hospitalisation, this delay has had an enormous impact on my finances, leaving me with just over £100 to cover all of my outgoings.
So, how have I managed with so little money over the last few months? Well, I’m extremely lucky to have an understanding landlord, and family and friends who are able and willing to help. But it’s scary to imagine how many people must be struggling to make ends meet right now. Without the hot dinners and financial help that I’ve received from my nearest and dearest I would currently be very hungry and in hundreds of pounds worth of debt with my landlord, if not homeless. For those who aren’t so lucky and don’t have anyone to turn to, the outlook is pretty bleak.