Last night my blog went live. When my website went live I was excited. I was nervous but it was a calm kind of nervous. I had this hope and longing that I would get work out of it. I hoped that a flock of hungry admirers would reach out and hire me for their conferences, school mental health days and universities would hunt me down and ask me to speak to hundreds of students about the realities of living a life with a mental illness and a physical issue combined.
Before the blog went live I didn’t ask anyone if it was okay to do this, just as I didn’t ask anyone if it was okay for me to speak out about my mental health. Maybe there’s a difference between telling your story in a professional capacity as opposed to airing the dirty laundry of your past for all to see across the entire world.
I’m pretty much an open book, I stopped hiding behind the wall of normality years ago, this was made easy because the wall was never there in the first place. I’m happy to answer questions when people want to know what it’s like to poop from your tummy into a bag, when people ask me about being Bipolar its usually because they think they might have it and they want to gage whether they should be knocking on a psychiatrist’s door or if they can sit back and express a sigh of relief because their situation isn’t as bad as they thought.
I tell people I was a self-harmer, I confess I’ve planned to end my life more than once but there’s one thing I don’t talk about. And that’s my cognitive impairment. I don’t talk about it because its so hard to explain and I guess its kind of unbelievable because to look at me you’d never know of the difficulties I encounter, some of them you’d never believe were even possible.
People want to know why I don’t drive, believe me its not by choice! In simple terms I say I’m not allowed to. People automatically poo poo this as a valid reason because somewhere in the universe they know someone with the same diagnosis who frequently drives some form of vehicle on wheels. Trust me, they’re the lucky ones! They drive because they can process the world around them in a nano second, they can react to a situation automatically, they just know what to do and that’s not because of practice, it’s because their brain works the way it needs to in order to safely navigate the roads. Sometimes it takes me thirty seconds to work out how to tie my scarf around my neck.
I can’t drive a car because I can’t piece together the world around me… What’s going on to my left? How do I deal with what’s happening on my right and what the hell do I do if a fire engine is up my jacksy and needs to get past me pronto?! People would die if I was let loose on the roads, I would die if I was let loose on the roads. I’m not trying to be funny, I’m trying to explain that in my everyday life there are vacant spaces that I can’t fill in.
When I say I have a cognitive impairment I’m not sure what people are expecting to see. They sometimes laugh and say, “don’t put yourself down,” but I’m not. They tell me I’m intelligent and maybe I was once but these days I don’t feel it. These days everything I do feels like a test. A test to see if I can pull off the façade of looking intelligent because who wants to actually look as stupid as I feel?
When people ask me what my cognitive impairment is I usually start off by saying I have a terrible memory. They laugh because they too have a terrible memory, everyone forgets things so everyone must have a cognitive impairment so silly me for thinking I was special.
It’s not just about being a little bit forgetful, like forgetting to put the washing machine on or forgetting to grab the eggs at the supermarket or not bringing your friends present to their birthday party. It’s not about those things because we all do things like that, that’s human nature and I know that; but for me its different. I can’t process information, I can’t digest it, I can’t make sense of it and because of all of those things I can’t retain the information I need to make the most of my working and professional life. I wish it was simple, I wish I was being dramatic and self-absorbed but it’s much more than that.
A few years ago I was in a shop and I had to sign a receipt, I had the pen in my hand and I’m looking at the box I need to put my signature in, I wasn’t married so it was maiden name that I’d been writing since I was eleven, but in that moment I didn’t know what to tell my hand to write. I knew my name but I didn’t know how to write it, not spell it, I knew that but I couldn’t tell the pen the shapes of the letters. I managed it eventually but I walked away wondering what had just happened?
About 2 years ago I left work to head to the train station. Manchester Oxford Road has a set of stairs that are steep and exhausting, especially after a day in the office when you’ve spent eight hours trying to reflect the illusion that you know what you’re doing. I reached the station, I headed for the stairs, I climbed three and then my right foot stopped, my left foot didn’t know what to do either so I tripped and fell splat across the stairs. When I picked myself up my feet were still confused so we took a moment on the stairs to gather together what the next move was.
I stood on those stairs being brushed past, nudged, tutted at and no doubt there was a lot of eye rolling going on by other commuters rushing for their trains, but all I could think was “why the hell can’t I climb the stairs?! Why don’t I know how to do this?!” Now every time I climb or descend a set of stairs I have to remind myself that I can do it, I have to remind myself how to do it.
When I cross roads I have to remind myself to look both ways, I have to remind myself how to look both ways. Sometimes I look at the laces on my Converse and I’ve forgotten which way the laces go. For a writer I’m a terrible speller, I get my to, too, two mixed up and my their, there, they’re all wrong. I never used to. I miss words out of my sentences. When I brush my teeth I forget where to put my tongue so I don’t lick the minty toothpaste and make myself gag. Sometimes when I’m reading I don’t know what the words say and I stare at the page trying to figure out why the hell I can’t read, I’ve written countless novels and short stories and I have a degree in English Literature and Linguistics so apparently I’m not completely stupid, so why can’t I read?
When I talk and my mind goes black its not because I’ve lost my thread it’s because I don’t know how to speak. It’s not forgetfulness, it’s a vacant hole of nothingness and as I sit there looking into space trying to figure out how to get something in my head to communicate with my vocal chords and then transmit the message to my mouth so I look like a normal person I wonder, how has this happened? What the hell is this?
It doesn’t stop there, sometimes I don’t know how to hold my knife and fork, I don’t know how to set the time on the alarm clock I’ve had for 13 years. I don’t know how to button up my cardigan or operate the Sky remote for the TV even though I’ve been shown a thousand times.
I don’t know my way around the town I’ve lived in for thirty-eight years, I forgot how to catch a bus after lockdown. I volunteer at food bank and I’m terrified I’ll pack the bags wrong even though its ridiculously simple.
When I do a speech it never comes out the way I want it to. I was trained by the best man in the business but because my brain functions so differently from what his teaching requires I’ve had to adapt my own delivery so I don’t stare into the abyss when I forget how to talk. Imagine that, I chose to be a public speaker knowing I had a cognitive impairment, knowing there would be a distinct possibility that I would look like a prize moron in front of hundreds of people.
How do I know I have a cognitive impairment? A psychiatrist diagnosed it. He wasn’t sure if it was medication related or if it was a rare side effect of having Bipolar Disorder and he left his post before we could delve any further. So how do I cope? How do I deal with the things that challenge me? Honestly? I wing it. I wing everything and I let my self-doubt catch up with me later. I can’t predict what my brain is going to throw at me so I take the rough with the smooth and think myself lucky if my day isn’t a total disaster.
So why am I writing this? I’m not asking for praise, I don’t want validation for doing this, the simple fact is, there is not enough written on this subject and I have no answers or advice for anyone who experiences something similar, but just like Bernard and Wilomena I don’t let this beat me. I deal with it and I get on with my life. I work, I write, I speak, I catch buses and I climb stairs. Life is far from easy, it’s frustrating, it’s painful and relentlessly tiresome but what else is there to do other than carry on?
My cognitive impairment is annoying and frankly with the other two issues I think it’s a bit of a liberty to give me a third but don’t feel sorry for me, because I don’t. If I felt sorry for myself I would never have achieved the things I have. I would never have had the opportunities I’ve been given and I would never have been brave enough to show life that I can do this no matter what it throws at me.
It’s like I always say,
“I make the best of a bad situation
and I take control of it.”