Very recently I saw a prominent writer and journalist tweeting about trying to get a diagnosis for a neurological condition often found under the same “umbrella” as dyspraxia. My first thought was: “Cripes, here we go. She’ll be accused of doing this for attention;” the standard trolling line thrown at any well-known person who discloses anything personal. My next: “Well, isn’t she lucky she got to write about plenty of other things before she had to tell anyone about that…”
That probably came off as more snarky than I want to sound. I have nothing against the writer at all. I really like her writing on some subjects, and I empathise with what she was tweeting about how her condition affects her (it’s not the same as dyspraxia but there are overlaps, especially around the effect on mental health). A neurological condition or mental illness doesn’t stop when you’re on top, as I well know having met a few prominent writers in the same “league” as her who live with various ones and struggle the same as anyone. And we all know that – tragically – “successful” people can take their own lives (some of whom in any case probably didn’t have quite the careers they portrayed…). “You can’t suffer from X because you’re rich/famous” is an ignorant and dangerous belief. But it’s also important to point out that not everyone with a health condition has had the chance to build a dream career before they have to tell others about it. For some, a full disclosure to Occupational Health is the only way they’ll ever hold down any job. Many more never disclose for fear of losing one.
I went public about my dyspraxia, not when I became a famous writer with millions of Twitter followers (you’ll notice…) but because of an experience in my first full-time job, which had been advertised as a writing job but was 95% admin, i.e not my best suit. Whilst I was hanging on in there, I contacted a firm who specialise in career coaching and workplace needs assessments for disabled and neurodiverse employees; mostly in government and big biz. The director said that under the circumstances I seemed “a very together lady” (I didn’t feel like one whatsoever, but was grateful). A year later, she asked me to speak about my experience of dyspraxia in the workplace at a conference in London she was giving to some managers of large organisations. From there, very gradually, came more speaking and writing gigs. Selflessly I did it because I wanted to help others not go through what I did. Selfishly I also needed money and experience, and after two years in a well-paid admin job it was the only way I could get paid to write. When I applied for staff jobs (the few that there were at the height of the recession) the response mostly amounted to: “Lol, no, you’re in what’s basically an admin job and you’ve hardly done any journalism for two years; get lost, love.” I think having a good education and training, plus work experience going back years followed by admin made me seem more suspicious somehow. My CV seemed to be asking: “Aye aye, what’s gone wrong here then?”
I tried to write out-of-hours as much as I could during my full-time job (often for free, even though I was 25 at the time and had been writing for audiences since my late teens). Unfortunately this had the unhelpful consequence of irritating my boss by strengthening his belief that I was in the wrong job and should leave and do what I was actually good at, rather than cocking up admin and threatening his Belsize Park mortgage application.
After I left the job, I wrote a piece for the Guardian about dyspraxia, and a few more for the national press. Consequently, I am “the lady who writes about dyspraxia. And sometimes mental health.” I’m very honoured to have been given this opportunity; to have family and friends who are by and large understanding and have supported me emotionally and financially through difficult times. It’s heart-warming to get an email from a stranger saying I’ve helped them or made them feel less alone (just the other day, a Westminster PA told me sincerely she thought she recognised dyspraxia in herself). I wouldn’t swap what it’s done for me for the world. I’ve met lovely, fascinating people everywhere from assembly halls to the House of Lords. Surreally there was even a thread about me on Mumsnet – a nice one. As I’ve said recently, in the light of events of the last few years, I specifically want to move my writing more directly into the mental health field.
But all this is not how I planned my life. I would rather have written about dyspraxia, or anxiety, or depression, after becoming a theatre critic, or a political correspondent, an education correspondent (one of the most interesting and life-changing things I’ve done in journalism is write for my uni’s alumni mag), or goodness-knows-what else I wanted to be ten years ago when I was 22. These days, if I apply for anything not disability or charity-related, I’m usually politely told something which translates as “You write well but your experience doesn’t fit with our brand.” If someone wants an article about dyspraxia I can reasonably expect to be chosen to write it. If I pitch a general piece about – say – relationships, consumer issues or careers; well, there are plenty of better-known writers who can do that. So, I can only move about within the quite small and cut-to-the-bone sector I’m in. I did manage to break the mould for a while back in 2011 (my freelancing glory days…) and do a bit more arts/generalist writing, but the shock of my friend’s suicide halfway through the year took me away from that. The only way I feel I’ll ever become more versatile now is by turning my media experiences into a book and trying to make it as darkly funny as my life will allow (Someone else agrees with me: I won an Arts Council/New Writing South/TLC bursary just before Christmas and am working on it now). Meanwhile, the trollumnists who occasionally like to bemoan people getting rich out of “the disability lobby” or “the social justice industry” might like to have a look at my bank statements from last year and see where I live.
Bottom line: Talking about conditions that affect me wasn’t something I did after I’d achieved enough in life to do it safely; it came from trying to do the best I could under limiting circumstances. Celebrities and public figures absolutely should raise awareness of neurodiversity and mental health, and it’s fantastic that they do. But we should remember that the less-famous sometimes talk about it because we have to as much as want to.