Why do you want a label?

Sometimes, people dismiss psychiatric and neurological diagnoses as “labels”. This is curious. Conditions pertaining to parts of the body are rarely, if ever, dismissed as such. Since when are stomach cancer, diabetes or high blood pressure ever called labels?

But labels, or, to use the proper term, diagnoses, can be enormously helpful.

Firstly, labels are useful for treatment. If you have Borderline Personality Disorder, but don’t have the official diagnosis, then it’s unlikely you’d be referred for Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, and unlikely that you’d get your condition under control. The case is the same for OCD and Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy, depression and cognitive behavioural therapy, and just about every other psychiatric and neurological condition out there. When diagnosed with OCD, therapists taught me more about the condition, and after a while, I knew which thoughts were part of my illness and which thoughts were part of me. I was given the right medication, and with it, managed to get the incessant, intrusive thoughts somewhat under control.

Secondly, labels are helpful on an emotional level. The relief I felt when I was diagnosed with OCD was enormous. I had known for quite a while that I had the condition, but when I was officially bestowed with it by a psychiatrist, quite suddenly, I knew I wasn’t the only one who was plagued by intrusive thoughts and ruminations. Now I can connect with other people who happen to also be autistic, obsessive, compulsive and/or Tourettic, without feeling guilty that I do not have the official paperwork to back up my suspicions.

On a day to day basis, people don’t tend to announce their medical conditions. But online, some wonderful people decide to open up. I don’t have any real-life friends with autism or OCD or Tourette’s. But the fact that I can share similar experiences with people across the globe makes me feel less alone, and that, I would argue, can only be a good thing.

University wasn’t the place for me, but I’m determined to go back

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University wasn’t the place for me. I’m not saying it was bad. I’m just saying it wasn’t good. I didn’t care about the Mexican Revolution, religious symbolism in the work of J. L. Borges, or the exploration of the self and form in twentieth-century France. Likewise, I did not care about the difference between the pronunciation of “vu” and “vous”, “pero”, and “perro”.  I did not care about getting an F in a relatively unimportant presentation. I did not care that my tutor declared my essay on feminism to be “decidedly mediocre”.

Instead, I cared about evenings in pubs, walks in the park and sessions at the gym. I cared about staying up all night watching films and reading books not on the syllabus. I cared about cycling from a bar to my friend’s house at 1am on a Monday morning. I cared about going to gigs, visiting photography exhibitions, and rummaging through Spitalfields market on a Sunday.

When it came to studying, I tried, but only sort of. Half an hour before class was due to start I would open my workbook and frantically scribble something down. In the evenings, I would read novels of my own choosing before embarking on (and then later abandoning) the set texts. As for the presentations, I would usually just miss those classes and carry the fail. Invariably, I would turn up to every class utterly unprepared, having no idea about what was about to be discussed, and caring very little.

At the end of my three-year degree (which took me five years to complete), I received a transcript of my results, telling me that I had received one fail, two thirds, 2:2s, 2:1s, and firsts – all of which averaged out into the most meaningless 2:1 the uni must have ever given.

What the transcript didn’t say was that, during my studies, I had experienced debilitating depression, unrelenting OCD, one terrible coming out, one terrible relationship, one terrible break up, and the onset of Tourette’s syndrome.

OK, maybe university was bad.

This year, though, I have a place on UEA’s Creative Writing MA, and I’m determined to go back to my studies.

But if my undergraduate was so tumultuous, why am I doing this?

The answer is simple: university is, for me, unfinished business. I need to go back: get consistently OK grades, stay on an even keel for the duration of the course, keep my depression and OCD at bay. There’s not much I can do about the Tourette’s, given that it’s both chronic and incurable.

It’s going to be hard. I have the stereotypical swearing kind of Tourette’s. I will be yelling out “fuck” in lectures. I will find it hard to concentrate. I will inevitably be a distraction to myself and others.

But, unlike my BA in French and Spanish, this course has been a dream for a long time. I will spend a whole twelve months doing what I love: reading and writing. Reading helped me through depressive episodes before, and getting my writing published since leaving university has given me a much-needed self-esteem boost.

And if mental illness has taught me anything, it’s to do what you love, and do it a lot.

So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m determined to go back, and I’m going to smash it.

This blog post was originally published on the Student Minds Blog.

It’s OK to Hate Being Chronically Ill

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There are a lot of disability advocates out there promoting how disability and neurodiversity can be an excellent addition to the world, enrich our lives and be a boon to society.

This is, in my opinion an excellent conversation to be having.

After all, there is so much negative language surrounding disabilities and neurodiversity. We talk about people being “confined” to a wheelchair when they might as well see themselves as being liberated by their wheelchair. We talk about people “suffering” from autism when, I for one, do no such thing.

I don’t see my autism as an illness, it’s a condition I happen to have and it makes me who I am – the good bits and the bad.

But the same doesn’t go for my Tourette’s. I see my Tourette’s as an illness. It’s a chronic and incurable pain in the arse. I hate it. It’s done me no good. It’s made it hard to find work and keep work when I’ve got work. It’s made life awkward, embarrassing and oftentimes physically painful. It cost me one relationship when an ex decided to tell me she thought I was “putting on” my tics because I’d read about Tourette’s somewhere.

Opinions differ across the community. Some people with Tourette’s wouldn’t want to do away with it at all, saying it makes them who they are. Other people go through extensive treatments and therapies to try to rid themselves of their most problematic tics.

What I’m trying to say is, it’s all right to embrace one aspect of your neurodiversity and dislike another aspect of your neurodiversity. It’s all right to hate being chronically ill. It’s all right to love and hate your difference at the same time.

Being neurodiverse in a neurotypical world is difficult. All opinions and feelings are valid.

Things People Actually Have Said to Me About My OCD, Autism, Tourette’s and Depression

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  • That a vitamin could cure my depression
  • That I couldn’t be autistic because I was in a relationship
  • That I couldn’t be autistic because I used to work in a bar
  • That I couldn’t have Tourette’s because I used to work in a bar
  • That I was ‘putting on’ my Tourette’s because I had read about it somewhere and was imitating its symptoms
  • That my OCD was a ‘good thing’
  • That everyone is a little bit OCD
  • That everyone is a little bit autistic
  • That everyone gets depression
  • That if I really understood my Tourette’s I would be able to control it
  • That I should just “think the bad word in my head” instead of saying it out loud
  • That I should just ‘calm down’ when having a literal tic attack
  • That my depression was ‘all in my head’
  • That I didn’t deserve my depression 

Actually Autistic

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I’m autistic, actually. This not a sentence I go around telling anyone and everyone, but what the hell, it’s out there now.

My silence was for a number of reasons.

Firstly, a silly part of me thinks I’m too high-functioning to deserve the diagnosis. A spectrum disorder, some people need a lot more care and support than I do to make their way through life. I’m largely independent, can hold down a job and relationship, and, having lovely family and friends, am not half as isolated as some people on the spectrum.

Secondly, people’s perceptions of autism are, well, usually wrong. So often, the stereotype is of a male maths whizz who is socially awkward, aloof. I already have to battle with the stereotypes of Tourette’s. To battle with more stereotypes seems a bit too much of an effort I just don’t need.

Thirdly, I don’t want autism to define me. It makes me who I am, of course. But I don’t want to be labelled as Alice the autistic woman. I’m just a person who happens to be on the spectrum. My personality is bigger than the diagnostic criteria for ASD.

But I am, most definitely autistic. I have the “right” comorbidities: Tourette’s, OCD, depression. I get obsessively passionate about subjects: music mostly, but also ads and TV shows. I take things literally, hating metaphors such as “it’s no skin off my nose”, because I literally think of skin coming off a nose. I also can get overwhelmed by loud sounds and crowds, have an excellent memory and an eye-for-detail.

One doctor said he didn’t believe I had autism because I was previously a bartender: a job he deemed impossible for autistic people to do.

That’s crap, of course. An excellent memory for cocktail specs is a boon in the bartending industry, and interacting with drunk people is the easiest thing in the world (hint: you can say anything).

So, I’m autistic, and I’m going to be talking about it more from now on. Because, if every high-functioning female on the spectrum were to remain silent as I have been, then society’s stereotypes will never change, and that, of course, would be a terrible shame.