“That’s just the way it is…” Dyspraxia, careers and the need to please

It’s Dyspraxia Awareness Week. If you’re aware of me, you’re probably pretty aware of dyspraxia, so rather than do a general “Here’s-what-dyspraxia-is” post, I thought I’d be more specific. If you don’t know me but know dyspraxia, you might’ve read something I’ve written about it in a paper, been at one of the same conferences as me or heard me speak somewhere about it. This is not an excerpt from my book, although feels like it could/should be. I may feed it in there when I do another round of editing after the first feedback in…eeek…4-6 weeks’ time…

When I was growing up, even before I’d heard of dyspraxia and been identified as dyspraxic at 21, I often felt negatively blamed for how I could be perceived by others. If someone wasn’t my biggest fan, it was somehow my fault for being somehow offputting. I’m sure it wasn’t always the message intended, but it’s one I often had. I don’t think I was ever directly told that sometimes other people wouldn’t take to me because they had off-days, were different to me in a neutral way, or were just tossers. Or that you just couldn’t win ’em all and nor would you want to (I was tacitly raised to avoid people with a certain worldview, although, growing up where I did, that was fairly difficult to do…). Especially as I went through my teens, if something didn’t go well, someone didn’t like me, or even was indifferent, the question was usually an anxious “What did I do wrong?” I needed to be more like this, or not like that, or do this and not that. Often me. Rarely them.

Being encouraged to self-question and please others was good in some ways, of course. It meant that despite my hopelessness at most practical, numerical or sporty things, I always tried and my efforts were acknowledged. Being able to own your part in why something hasn’t gone well is a generally valued life skill a few world leaders might like to try sometime. But it was also not good. It meant that by the time I applied to university my head was very poorly and I almost didn’t get there or stay there. It meant I took things personally more often than I should, and still do. (I still struggle not to blame myself and keep plugging away if the barest acquaintance doesn’t open up to me, or seems to be keeping a distance for reasons which may have little to do with me). It meant I put up with a lot of one-sided situations, sometimes with suspicion about why I was trying so hard to be liked. It meant a lot of bad behaviour towards me went unaccounted for. When I was 20 and a driving instructor tickled me as I was doing 70 mph on a dual carriageway I questioned my own actions as much as his. When I was in the wrong job I felt sorry for my boss even up to the point where his behaviour amounted to constructive dismissal. I let a bloke imply that it was all down to my intangible shortcomings that – although he liked me a lot – we couldn’t be together (Spoiler: The actual reasons were both very tangible and very unrelated to me…). Humble pie is like any pie – too much makes you sick.

When I was young and applying for full-time jobs in the media I did a lot of silly things but also saw a lot of bad practice, over which I got confused, angry, or blamed myself. If I ever dared object in passing to the way things were done and point out something was unfair – not only to me but in general – I was belittled and patronised and told “That’s just the way it is.” When I first wrote about dyspraxia for the national press I was still young enough to fit into the “here’s a moaning graduate for you to hate” demographic. Now, as I settle into my thirties, I can complain with a bit more authority and impunity. I can say that 90% of job specs and interview questions appear to be written by Kryten from Red Dwarf and are a hideous disgrace, let alone if you’re trying to recruit someone who can write. I can say that the “be ambitious but don’t ask for things because it doesn’t look good” attitude towards people with disabilities – visible or hidden – shuts them out of jobs they could do with the right support. I can say that competitive industries use recruitment tests to shut people out, and disabled people are often collateral. When I was younger, I never questioned why a generalist role at a magazine where only occasional subbing would be required would use the kind of subbing test you’d get for a traineeship at a national daily paper, just as a way of whittling candidates down. Now I do. I’m never going to be a chief sub at The Times but I’m a perfectly good proofreader. I fell into it while I was training for the London Marathon and recovering from a mental health dip and fast freelance work that didn’t require a lot of travel or interaction was ideal. My proofreading and editing has helped dyslexic people, non-native English speakers and all kinds of people who are not confident with language to get jobs, complete PhDs and be accepted onto MBAs. Yet I know there are proofreading tests I’d fail myself if I couldn’t squeeze proofing marks into tiny spaces with a nervous dyspraxic left hand. Things have changed a lot in the ten to fifteen years since I started working  – there is more general awareness of (some) disabilities, and more emphasis for young people on freelancing, flexible working and portfolio careers, which benefit many disabled and marginalised people. But there is still so much more to do. Too many are expected to be doubly grateful for any work or pay they can get. This is despicably wrong.

Seven years ago, in the light of my own experience in the workplace, I started giving awareness training to businesses on how to support employees with dyspraxia, amongst other strands of freelance work. I had several referrals through one particular London organisation which trains firms – from the media to the City – in how to be more disability aware and inclusive. Three or four years ago, a well-paid in-house job came up with them. I applied, got an interview, and then the fear kicked in. Being from a mostly-freelance media background, I didn’t have the HR and legal knowledge they listed under “Desirable”.  I knew that unless I outright lied this would become apparent quite quickly, and wondered whether there might be scope for training or development, but was too afraid to ask in case I came across as too demanding. If I looked bad in the interview they might never hire me for freelance work again and I’d lose a good client. I gave them my apologies and never went. With hindsight, a lot of me wishes I’d gone for it, done my best and asked about the training in the areas I was lacking, because helping companies be fairer in their recruitment of disabled people – and everyone else – is what I want out of life as much as anything to do with writing. I’m past the age where I enjoy moaning or snarking for the sake of it. I do it because I want to help people be better.  I’ve done a lot of trying to be better. How about meeting me halfway…?

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I actually finished writing a book! And nobody died!

A celebratory hedgehog.
Not actual printout.

Eight years ago my then-boss advised me to write books and do crisis comms rather than continue in that job. Quite perceptively, it turns out. I’ve done plenty of both since. If by writing books you mean writing incomplete books, and by crisis comms you mean talking about my life.

It’s much easier to be writing a book than to have written one. Who knew!? But I’m now extremely delighted to be able to say that for the first time I’ve completed a first draft, which I intend to edit later over the summer and send out into the world early next year. You may or may not have known I was writing it, as I’ve been fairly quiet, or at least, fairly vague about it. Because previous attempts to write books have taught me writing about writing is the best procrastination there is. And getting hung up on what people think of you or it is the best way to get absolutely nothing written.

I abandoned my first proper novel in 2015 after several years of stop-starting. The concept wasn’t sellable enough anymore, I enjoyed the research more than the writing, and above all I often wasn’t in the best of emotional health for doing much at all. For various historic reasons, plus because people kept dying. The book-interrupted-by-death thing became a bit of an in-joke (my friend’s boyfriend quipped: “Have you tried writing novellas? They’re shorter. It might be safer…”) although obviously not ultimately very funny. Cumulative bad experiences put me in a permanent state of waiting for the shoe to drop. I became convinced I shouldn’t write books because it was a bad omen. Which is bollocks, obviously. Although quite fitting too, because many of my previous assumptions about both writing and tragedy have had to be challenged in recent years. I used to assume it would be easy for me to write a book. I was wrong. I used to assume wanting and being able to talk openly about difficult things was the norm rather than rare. Also wrong.

In early 2015 I took up running on my mum’s recommendation, which essentially saved me. In spite or because of it being so utterly alien, running was also immune from my usual self-doubt, to the point I believed I could run the London Marathon. Yes, while telling me I couldn’t even do my job, my brain also told me I could run 26.2 miles. Brains are such a lark, aren’t they. With my writing career seemingly stuck down the toilet, while Marathon training I fell into working as a freelance proofreader (in a very flukey and unsustainable manner I would not recommend, BTW). Marathon running taught me so much more than I’d ever have anticipated about how to approach a big project. So afterwards (with a little slumpy interlude of anger over work and politics) I fell back in love with writing and decided to approach a book like a Marathon. A writing schedule like a training schedule. c.90,000 words, from January to May. And it actually worked.

I soon discovered that typing morning until night seven days a week is not good for your mind or body, that writing can injure you worse than a marathon, and that physio is brilliant but expensive. I bought a laptop stand, enforced bedtimes and an evening laptop curfew and started being kind to myself, similarly to how running taught me to. The book is not all about running or mental health as some have guessed, although it does touch plenty upon them. Besides a lot of running and a lot of therapy, what’s really spurred me on is winning a bursaried read of the opening chapter with TLC, courtesy of the Arts Council and New Writing South. That was at the end of 2015. When I got in touch with TLC again this year with a progress update, to my unexpected delight they said I could have another bursaried read of the final manuscript. There’s still a very long road from here. As I said, I’ll be doing edits in June and July and won’t be querying until January. But under the circs, just having finally got this far without catastrophe is immense enough.

As far as my day job goes, I’m still officially a freelance proofreader but due to a lot of client heartache over the past year I’m rethinking this pretty urgently. I’d like to do more journalism again but wouldn’t everyone; I’d also like to pass my driving test first time in August and have a holiday in the tropics but I doubt either of those will happen. I would certainly like to do more copywriting and social media, either for mental health organisations, or for writing organisations that support underrepresented groups. It’s also partly because I spoke to the director of a copywriting agency who sensed I had baggage, asked about the TLC bursary I’d mentioned on my CV, then sent me away with: “Finish the book before you do anything else” that I decided to commit to it. It was as if I finally had permission.

My celebrations are being hampered slightly at the moment by a stinking cold bordering on flu and someone kindly deciding to clone my bank card last week. Soon after finishing, I had a lovely snotty, croaky ugly-cry at my mum (I swear I’ve done a life’s worth of public weeping the last few years; I’m basically a wandering cucumber). Then I listened to a song I used to play at university on the way to lectures and imagine I was in a film. (Did I just publicly admit that? Oh). But once the lurgy has bleeped off and my bank have sent me a new card, one of my treats for finishing will be going to the Comment Awards Conference and hearing Channel 4’s Matt Frei and the Beeb’s James Harding discuss Fake News. I heard about it through a journalist friend who told me she binge-read this blog, which even my mum hasn’t, so that’s nice.

Thank you all and thank you again.

One year on! Some advice for Sunday’s London Marathon runners…

Hey there April, month of ALL THE BIG FEELINGS. I’m currently busy finishing a big writing project (more on that later…) and trying to fend off some financial bother [nameless client] has left me in. I’ve just been invited to give evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee early next month on my experience in the workplace (Spoiler: My last boss advised me, without irony, to leave my media admin job mid-recession and go and write books…). Late-April is also the anniversary of when I last saw two people alive in person, in the same week of the same year. And, it’s a year since I ran the London Marathon for Mind. Which I’d solidly recommend to anyone looking for a socially acceptable outlet for obsessive tendencies and a penchant for things all-consuming. (It’s better for your mind, heart and finances than many alternatives; trust me…). 

I’ll be at this year’s Marathon on Sunday. Thankfully not running, but with my family and some of the other Mental Health Mates, to cheer on the lovely Bryony Gordon who is running for Heads Together. If you haven’t already, go and hear her Daily Telegraph interview with Prince Harry and subscribe to the Mad World podcast. 

For anyone running this year, or considering it for the future, some tips for the day…

  • Look after your feet. Slather them in Vaesline before you get dressed, clip your toenails to whatever length is most comfortable for you, and wear your best running socks. I was so worried about ruining my feet that they ended up looking better after the Marathon than they do after half an hour on the Bakerloo line in summer…
  • Be comfortably early.  Your Final Instructions magazine should guide you on where you need to be and when.
  • Stash some tissues and plasters in your bra, or whatever the male equivalent is. Mine had a handy front pocket for them. (I had a cold, so I soon ran out of tissues and had to ask the St John Ambulance people for extra, which meant queuing behind a load of people clutching their legs…).
  • Have some spare safety pins on you in case your race number falls off.
  • Keep a couple of paracetamol on you, and any medication you might need This is really important, because the medics on site aren’t allowed to give you any pills. Take them out of the foil or cut the foil so that the corners are round or flat and don’t dig into you.
  • Start slowly. Everyone tells you this, but it’s deceptively hard to do, even in a crowd! Because you’ll have lots of energy from tapering, plus nervous energy, it’s difficult to tell how fast you’re going. I looked at my Fitbit after the first five minutes and saw I was running a five-minute mile. Unless you’re aiming for a three hour finish, you don’t want to be doing that.
  • Use the loo beforehand whenever you can. My dad went to a boarding school where needing the toilet at a slightly inconvenient time was considered a character flaw, so I always try and go if I see one. It’s a helpful approach at running events as the pre-race loo queues are huge. Last year, the Travelodge near Greenwich DLR opened up their ground floor toilet for runners. Don’t panic, though, there are plenty on the route where there will be less of a queue.
  • Keep warm while you wait for your start. The usual advice is to wear bin liners or some old trakkie pants you’re happy not to see again over your kit and just chuck them to the side at the start, where a band of volunteers clear them up and recycle them. If like me you doubt your ability to disrobe quickly in a crowd without panicking and whacking people in the face, just wear a thin long-sleeved thermal top under your vest.
  • Smile hard and enjoy it, but prepare to be bored at times too. New parents always say “No-one told me it could ever be so boring.” As your more experienced equivalent in this situation, I’m telling you, bits will be boring. You will run across Tower Bridge, down the Mall and all the iconic bits you’ve seen on TV. You will also run past endless chicken shops and Deptford retail parks feeling decidedly meh.
  • The pain will be awful at the time but you’ll forget it afterwards. Women who’ve given birth say it’s similar in this respect. I wouldn’t know, but if you have, this may help.
  • Think of the physical pain as a substitute for your emotional pain. Enough said.
  • If you run with music, save it until the second half, when you’ll really need it.
  • Drink your energy drinks gradually from the halfway point onwards. Before that if you need to but certainly after halfway. Don’t wait until you hit the wall.
  • Not everyone hits their wall at Canary Wharf Some do it earlier, I did it later. Canary Wharf was actually one of my favourite bits.
  • Drink plenty of water, not just the energy drinks You’ll want to balance out all the sugary glucose which makes your teeth go fuzzy. For most of the final third, I carried a small bottle of water in one hand and bottle of Lucozade in the other and took small alternate sips. There are plenty of drinks stations as you head towards the finish so you’ll never be short.
  • Don’t try and run the whole thing. If you want to save some energy for the finish line, walk for a mile or two. I had my walk at about Mile 19-20 during one of the dull bits. Kirsty MacColl’s They Don’t Know came on my playlist, and it rained…
  • Know where you’re going to eat afterwards. Everywhere will be full. I booked somewhere weeks in advance, told them I was running, chose my dish from the menu and made sure they’d have it.
  • Be proud and look forward to finding small-talk easier for the next two years.

On being thirtysomething and single by choice

I’ve hesitated over writing this because I hate the massive market for articles by people – overwhelmingly women – justifying their lives to the public. Justifying myself to other people is something I’ve done too much of throughout life and am trying to do less of. And there are about seven more important things than this I should be writing right now, including circa 37,000 words by early May. But an event last week twisted my arm. A playwright friend of mine, Nicky Werenowkska, has just written a relationship play, HIDDEN, which is about to go on tour. It’s semi-autobiographical, and centres around a woman who is diagnosed with dyspraxia whilst adjusting to being a new parent and coping with her husband’s redundancy following the 2008 financial crash. To help bring the play to life, and add another perspective, she asked me to do an informal Q&A about dyspraxia with the cast last week during rehearsals. Nicky is in her 40s, married to a former City lawyer, and has three young children. I am emphatically none of those things so my perspective on dyspraxia (and life) is a bit different to hers. Inevitably, during said Q&A I was asked about my own relationship history and attitude towards relationships. I decided afterwards, having been asked and answered that I am essentially single by decision, to put some of my thoughts around it down here in writing. Also, doing it specifically off the back of being asked professionally feels a bit less like a self-indulgent random ramble…

It’s generally thought that there are various “windows” in life for finding love and if you don’t manage to succeed in one, never mind, there’ll always be a next one. Unlucky as a teenager? Well, aren’t we all, dear. Wait until you get to university. Nothing good going on there? Never mind, you’ll meet someone at work. Or try online dating. Forget running bores; online dating evangelists are the worst. “Have you tried online dating? Everyone does it these days!” they chirp, as if its existence might have escaped your notice. Yes, thanks. I spend half my life online but there are plenty of things you can do online that I don’t want to. I know people who’ve met partners on Tinder/Match/Soulmates and whatnot. I know people who’ve met their partners on dearest Twitter, but my own impression is that it’s basically a dating app for people who are too dysfunctional to be in relationships, already in one, or both.  Through my twenties I progressed – if you can call it that – from unrequited boarding school-type crushes on people I didn’t so much want to be with as be like or be fixed by, to mutual but hopelessly messy attractions to larger-than-life but vulnerable men. The bottom line is that at pretty much every life stage I have consistently attracted people in the wrong circumstances or for the wrong reasons, and now, at nearly 33, I’m just too, too tired of it. As a teenager I used to look at single people in their 30s or 40s and think “What’s wrong with you?” Now, I think: “What happened to you?  And who are your might-have-beens?”  

There was one time, one little window, in my late twenties – this time about six years ago in fact – when I felt on the verge of something big, which might eventually include a serious relationship, along with other watershed-type things. I was newly-freelance, work was progressing rather well and certain people who appeared at the time felt like an affirmation of that. It prompted a lot of big questions, but, you know, my mum defied the Berlin Wall to marry my dad, so big questions are rather in the genes. With a heritage like that, I suppose I was never likely to make things easy for myself and fall for the boy next door. Suffice to say, unlike for my mum, there was no happy ending here. There really is such a thing as an extraordinary meeting in the wrong universe…

As things currently stand, I don’t want a relationship where someone sees themselves as my carer and me as a person to be micromanaged, or where I’m a carer for someone, and vice versa. Hypocritical as it may sound, I no longer want to attach myself emotionally to men with mental health issues. This is not because I believe they’re unloveable, have nothing to offer or anything offensive along those lines – quite the reverse. Most halfway intelligent and empathetic blokes are somewhere on the spectrum of anxiety or depression. But it’s a pattern that hasn’t previously served me well, and I don’t want to get into a repetitive pain sequence where each reminds me of the last. I’ll always be a passionate mental health campaigner. I will lobby, letter-write, chat, tweet, run and walk for the cause. And the affected friends I have will always be dear ones. But I now step back from situations where I’d have leaned in before. It’s not selfishness; it’s self-care. I prefer the word “decision” to “choice”, incidentally, because choice is complicated. Choice suggests complete autonomy, and nobody really has that. “Decision” is more about reacting to circumstances you have varying amounts of control over.

It’s very hard to feel this way at the exact point in life when you are assumed/supposed to be feeling the exact opposite, and society is organised around that assumption, with little empathy for those who are going off-script. Even if you’re not the sort of person who’s planned your wedding, named your kids and can picture your future partner like an e-fit before you’re 25, you probably don’t picture what not being with someone when others are will look like. There are various forums and support groups for the infertile, disabled, divorced, widowed and all sorts. But I don’t fit neatly into any of their tragic boxes. The fact that I actually like and would like to have children is another complication. But if life so far has taught me anything, it’s that growing up and into yourself is about so much more than the accumulation of people and stuff. I haven’t grown or matured by having things. I’ve done it through losing things, or not having things. Or dealing with David Lynch outcomes in a society of Disney aspirations. And maybe the root of preferring to be alone is in what I said at the beginning: “Justifying myself to other people is something I’ve done too much of and am trying to do less of.”

In which I try to write a book. Again. Hoping nothing awful happens. Again.

Oh, hello, blog. I feel I’ve neglected you somewhat. For a change, this is a blog post about writing. Not about Brexit, or putting my body through ridiculous things for charity…

Seasoned Max Watchers will know that two or three years ago, I was writing a book. I’m no longer writing that book: I stopped writing it at the beginning of 2015 and am still having to grit teeth and explain why; as if I’m going through a divorce…

“Oh, God, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to…I didn’t realise you two had…”

“Oh, no no, it’s OK! You know… c’est la vie. Che sera sera. Mange tout Rodney, mange tout…” 

There’s a different book now. Well, there will be, soon. At the end of last year I was awarded a New Writing South bursary for a TLC free read of the first few pages of a memoir I’d started. Fed up with weaving bits of my life into bits of fiction writing that nobody ever seemed to be getting excited enough about, I’d wondered whether it would be better to remove the fiction altogether and write openly about my early attempts at doing journalism. Chapter One’s about the first ever journalistic interview I did, back in 2002, when I was still in my last year at school. The rest’s about where that led: A bit later, 280 miles North; and, very much later, 26 miles around London. Together with the very unique-to-me stuff are the standard experiencees every twenty and thirtysomething can nod along to. You know the ones…

Why do it? The usual reasons people write about experiences: To appeal to people who can relate to them, laugh at them, and help myself move forward from them. I sent the chapter to New Writing South, basically asking: “Do you think this is any good and should I carry on with it?” 

Having won the bursaried read, which basically meant “Yes”, I immediately set about…not writing anything. So far this year I’ve been busy Marathon running, tin-shaking, learning to drive (I meant to blog about that as well didn’t I. Oh. I will, promise!) and getting upset over Brexit. In September I decided that as I started the year with four months of the London Marathon I’d end it by finishing my first draft by Christmas.

Then, there was a death. Another one. People I know seem to keep dying whenever I’m in the middle of writing books. (Friend’s OH: “Have you tried writing novellas…?”) This time it was my dear grandma. Not as horrible and unexpected as the others, clearly, but still family life went pineapple-shaped. Writing did not happen.

It’s now late-October and there are two months (or, 66 sleeps, as e-marketers who still live in 2009 insist on describing it) until Christmas. I don’t even know if it’s physically possible to write about 75,000 words in two months and do anything else, but I would very much like to get something resembling a book written by then. And for nothing else horrible to happen. Obviously….

In other news, yesterday I saw Bryony Kimmings’ A Pacifists Guide To The War on Cancer at the National, a musical about cancer (singing patients! Dancing cells! Inflatable tumours!) which, in her words exactly, tries to make us, Society, suck a bit less at talking about illness and death. Some criticisms of the play, though understandable, remind me a bit of times I’ve felt judged for being open about mental health, or dyspraxia, or bereavement. I think the therapist I see at the moment has sometimes felt I can’t grasp that not everyone feels as comfortable as I do talking/blogging/tweeting about those sorts of things, and that it’s her job to try and make me. It’s not that I don’t understand their reluctance, but I sometimes find it hard not to take it personally because of my stupid brain, which is sort of the whole point of therapy. I must admit I had reservations around Bryony’s earlier play, Fake It Til You Make It, based on her relationship with a depressed man (sour grapes, really, because the way some men handle their depression is not conducive to any lasting relationship at all) . But having seen this play, I’d like to have caught that too. I went with someone who has supported my writing for a long time, and had cancer recently, which made it particularly moving. Thank you!

Unrelated to-anything footnote: For those who read my brief post last month, I wrote to the hospital trust about the person concerned, with recommendations. Thank you to those who persuaded me it was worth doing, and helped with it.

Five years.

Saturday was the fifth anniversary of a dear friend’s suicide. I still winced slightly typing that word and it still feels slightly as though I shouldn’t by now. The last time I saw him in person – in the same week that I also last saw a separate friend who more recently died the same way – means more to me personally, but as we had quite a few mutual friends, I go along with others. I had to go to exactly the same charity AGM I went to on that Saturday five years ago, which felt a bit Groundhog Day-ish, in the worst manner. I wouldn’t have gone, had there been a choice, and for the first hour I was fairly desperate not to be there, but by the end I was glad I went. I’ve also written to his parents, which I hadn’t since the first Christmas. They’re probably the last people on earth not to know I ran the Marathon and it seemed like they should…

According to received wisdom (and the writer Julian Barnes), five years on is a milestone in wanting and acquiring distance from any significant or traumatic event. It makes sense; I can remember feeling this way during my graduation year about things going back four or five years then. A smattering of people have affected me probably more than they’ll ever know or would wish, and grief is the very ultimate manifestation of that. My feelings ebb and flow. There are good and bad days, weeks and hours. At best, I make big plans, run long distances and remember how to go out just for fun or buy something just as a treat, which had become vanishingly rare since 2011 until about the end of last year. At worst, I worry the good stuff isn’t tangible enough, worry about money, doubt myself to the extent I need reassurance that past events took place even when I know they did, and take other people’s distance personally when it turns out their reasons aren’t personal at all and they’d probably think I was loopy if they knew I’d thought so. But running the Marathon taught me the importance of always having something to aspire to, which in the post-Brexit hellmouth of news I’m trying my damndest to keep in mind.

Some Good Things…

First: I’m quoted and pictured in this month’s Glamour magazine, for the lovely Bryony Gordon‘s piece about how she started the wonderful Mental Health Mates, which has introduced me to a group of fantastic, galvanising women. I slightly regret mentioning that I’m single, which makes me sound as though I’m pathetically desperate for a boyfriend and went to the group to try and pull someone – not at all the case and not at all going to happen, FYI. They’ve printed my occupation as “Proofreader” because having too many writers and journalists in it would’ve made it look too incestuous, but I’ve done more proofreading and web-editing work than anything else this year because it fitted best around Marathoning and running a fairly large house virtually single-handedly, so I can’t really argue. I was also in Grazia back in May with some of the other girls from the group. I blogged briefly here about the very first MHM meetup back in February and have been meaning to write/blog about it again for a while but I didn’t want to look as though I was trying to steal Bryony’s thunder – as if I could – so I will hold off on that a bit longer…

Second: I was commissioned by a health and public sector comms agency recently, along with a researcher from a leading UK university, to write an online pamphlet on how to support a friend or colleague who has been affected by someone’s suicide. This was in line with wanting to use some of my insight and experience from the last five years in my paid work and, as they say, Give Something Back. The brief was to highlight why the right support is so important, and give suggestions of what to say or do (and what not to); backed up by quotes from interviews the researcher has done with bereaved people. Her research bears out some of my experiences in terms of how a suicide can affect those left behind. Mental health dips in the aftermath are quite common in those with a predisposition to anxiety or depression, and even those without. I’m very lucky, though, that people around me have generally been very supportive and said and done the right things. Sadly, this is the exception more than the rule. I hope the leaflet will be useful to those who want to support someone they know but aren’t sure how to go about it. It should soon be available online as a PDF though relevant agencies like Cruse and The Samaritans – I’ll link in due course…

Third: I want and hope to be able to go abroad alone for the first time this summer, even if just a city break for a day or two. I have my eye on a boutique hotel somewhere that would annoy Nigel Farage. The family atmosphere post-Brexit is still fairly awful but that’s a whole other post…

Thinking of everyone who misses someone. Xxx

End-of-week rant: Not everyone can wait for “success” to disclose a health condition

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.