It’s been a wild few years inside my head…
Just over two years ago I was on a video call with an acquaintance, writer/comedian Erin McGathy, about a TV pilot I was scripting as part of an online course she was teaching. We were in the middle of a truly ruthless critique of my ideas when she suggested to me, quite out of the blue, that I might have been unknowingly suffering from a debilitating mental disorder for my entire life. Initially we both laughed at the bluntness of her suggestion, but the more she explained the more the cogs in my brain started to turn. She suggested I should look into it, and we moved on with her shredding my precious ideas into microscopic particles.
After the call I decided to investigate it further, so I did the thing that you’re meant to do in these situations. I contacted my GP. Because of COVID the consultation had to be over the phone, and you had to pay up front, but I didn’t really mind. I wanted to get answers. He was very sceptical when I told him my concerns, but I’d expected resistance, and had built myself up in advance of the call, so I firmly asked him to refer me to the local mental health service. A few weeks later I received a letter telling me that my referral had been refused. I didn’t even know that was possible. They said that because of the waiting lists for more urgent mental health conditions, they wouldn’t add me to the list to deal with my possible condition, and instructed my GP not to send any other referrals to them unless his patient was psychotic or suicidal. In my frustration I sent a tweet (which you can see below) complaining about the experience. It absolutely fucking blew up. As of now it has been liked 9,221 times and retweeted 1,186 times.
I sort of went to ground after that, and decided to put a heavy focus on my own mental health, since the system wasn’t exactly rushing to do it for me. I pursued getting a diagnosis privately at first, but eventually got into the public system and thankfully, after a year of struggling, questioning, and self advocating, (and with the guidance of some very kind and knowledgeable friends,) I received a diagnosis confirming my suspicions. Although I’m sure my friends are sick of me prattling on about it in private, I realised that I never really spoke publicly about it. I suppose I was still getting my head around the ramifications of it (and continue to do so), as well as pursuing all the available treatment options and coping strategies. I also returned to therapy, armed with this new knowledge, and started to pick at the decades worth of knots in my brain. Another year has now passed on my journey, and I finally feel like I’m in a place to discuss that journey openly. In 2021 I received a definitive diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD.
So what? Who cares? Loads of people have ADHD. Schools are full of kids with it. It’s not a big deal.
Except for me it was a very big deal. It’s hard for me to explain how all encompassing and devastating an effect it’s had on me without my knowledge of it even existing. I could list all the ways it’s been impacting my life from childhood, through my awkward teenage years, and all the way through college and into my adult life. I could catalogue the great jobs I’ve left at the drop of a hat because I started to feel like an imposter who was about to be caught out. I could talk about the relationships I sabotaged because I couldn’t adequately regulate or express my emotions. I could itemise all of the second chances I was given throughout college to get my work in on time, or at all, and all the people who stuck their necks out to get me through assignments and work that everybody else seemed to complete with ease. I could tell you about standing terrified on a bridge at 21 years of age because I was considering a very hard dismount from it, feeling like my life was falling apart around me, unable to quiet the cacophony of noise in my head, and convinced that it was nobody’s fault but my own.
But I’m not going to go into any of that. Not now anyway. What I’ll say about my experience instead is that for as long as I can remember I’ve had one phrase on a constant loop inside my head, and that phrase is “You’re not trying hard enough”. When I wake up in the morning, when I forget something at the shop, when I’m late for an appointment, when I forget to do the dishes, when I end up going to the pub instead of finishing something I said I’d finish, when I go to bed and lie awake at night. Constantly. “You’re not trying hard enough. You’re not trying hard enough. You’re not trying hard enough.” That constant spiral of self blame has done unfathomable damage over the years to both my mental health and to the creative work that I absolutely love, initially as a musician, and more recently as a theatre maker.
On the day Erin suggested to me that I might have ADHD (which she did because she could see I was struggling to choose which script to focus on in her class), I called a friend who is a psychiatrist (but not my psychiatrist) to find out more information about the condition. He had quietly had his suspicions about me for a while, and he helped to get me on the long road to an official diagnosis. He’s also been a vital confidant while I navigate the quest for control over my own mind. On a walk with him down the Marina in Blackrock one evening, still a year away from getting an official diagnosis but very much coming to terms with the reality of the situation, I mentioned the phrase forever rattling around inside my head to him. “You’re not trying hard enough. You’re not trying hard enough.”
He stopped walking and looked at me. Looked heartbroken for me. I’ll never forget his words, spoken with purpose, as if it was some sort of binding incantation. “The problem isn’t that you’re not trying hard enough, Mike. It’s that you have to try harder than everybody else does.”
The many implications of that statement rushed through me in a deluge, and the very obvious truth was now staring me right in the face. I was trying. I had been trying really, really hard actually. But it wasn’t a question of effort. If that was the relevant measurement, then I was already putting far more in than most people need to. It was a question of equity. If it was a hundred metre race, then I was starting twenty metres behind the rest of the runners and then blaming myself for not medaling. But knowing that was the case meant that I could stop blaming myself, and start celebrating the fact that I was crossing the finish line within a hair’s breadth of the other runners, and often beating quite a few of them. It meant I could focus my attention on more effective ways that I could catch up, instead of constantly berating myself for falling behind.
An instant after my friend uttered his spell, the voice was gone. No medication, no therapy, just the honest words of a knowledgeable and sincere friend. It was like an ever-present knot in my chest was finally untied. For the past two years I can honestly say that I haven’t heard that phrase in my head one single time other than as a memory of a tougher time. It’s been a lot easier since. People who receive the diagnosis later in life often speak about a period of grief, or mourning. It’s certainly been true for me since I found out. But my main source of grief is for how I had been treating myself for almost my whole life, since I was 8 or 9 years old. Berating myself because the “cool people” in my school occasionally found me annoying. Withdrawing from things I excelled at because I didn’t want to stick out, afraid people would think I had “notions”. Dismissing every piece of praise I received and obsessing about the occasional piece of criticism. Constantly wanting to make things, to “live up to my potential”, and show what I thought I was capable of, but never quite getting off the ground.
Even though I only received my definitive diagnosis last year, I’ve spent the past two years trying to re-imagine how I can make work in a way that works with my brain rather than against it. I’ve become an advocate for neurodiversity and neurodivergent ways of thinking and making art. I’ve been working really hard to overcome the obstacles that ADHD has created for me, and leaning into the sometimes amazing tools that it gives me. Honestly, there are so many positives to the condition that I’m only beginning to uncover, and a lot of them are simply the things that have made me who I am all along, I just didn’t realise they were anything out of the ordinary. I always thought that I was weird, but I never thought I was different. Being weird felt like it was my fault. I’m ok with being different. I love things that are different.
I’m looking forward to getting stuck back into the things I’m passionate about, armed with a new outlook and new tools. I’m looking forward to writing, making, and showing my own work, as well as helping other creative friends and collaborators to write, make, and show their work. (Please do reach out if you’re working on something you think I’d be interested in. There’s nothing I love more than kicking an idea around over a pint or a coffee.) Mostly though, I’m looking forward to taking off the mask I’ve been wearing for my whole life while struggling to fit in.
Anyway, all of this is really just to say that I have ADHD. I’m neurodivergent. Sometimes it’s shit. Often it’s great. It makes me the scatterbrained, multi-faceted, boundlessly enthusiastic inter-disciplinary artist that I am. 10/10 would recommend getting a diagnosis from Erin McGathy. Still a bit raw about the TV pilot though…
Thanks for reading.
Great stuff & lovely writing, Mike. Chuffed for you and for speaking openly about it. Onwards and upwards on this twisty road. Kelly