I Need To Talk About This

My Kind of Spark: On Neurodivergence and Unlearning.

This post is inspired by Elle McNicoll’s book A Kind of Spark. The book is about a neurodivergent girl called Addie who campaigns to get a memorial for women killed in witch trials held in her village.

I’m nervous about this blog because it has been a long time since I had such a strong and visceral reaction to a book. I absolutely loved A Kind of Spark. This is not a criticism of it. If you haven’t read it, do.

In the book, there are a lot of interactions with a teacher called Mrs Murphy. I’m not going to tell you the context because spoilers but I think it’s fair to say that Mrs Murphy is an unsympathetic character and she doesn’t like supporting or adapting her teaching to neurodivergence. At many times in the book, I got the anxious, tight stomach feeling I experience when I am carrying worry and my partner actually stopped me reading in bed last night because I was in the middle of the second meeting and had started tapping and biting my nails off. I hadn’t realised.

Elle McNicoll had shown a mirror to some memories I hadn’t previously understood. I was diagnosed as dyspraxic, dyslexic and with ADD when I was in my mid-twenties. That means that I periodically understand things that happened to me as a teenager and young child that had caused me distress but I couldn’t explain.

As I read Addie’s interactions with Mrs Murphy, I was taken back to my Year One (aged 5-6) classroom where I learned I thought very differently to other people, that this was not how I was meant to be, that I should be very afraid, and, in my own context, “mask” how I behave and see the world. It explained to me why I worry to the point of obsession about being misunderstood or getting tasks wrong. It told me why I find particularly emphatic styles that are repetitious frustrating. I get almost everything first time if I’ve processed it properly and tend to remember it too. I understood how one person conditioned me to believe I was wrong about everything, and because we didn’t understand my brain then, no one knew or thought to argue.

It all begins when I asked my Year One teacher if all the stories in the bible were true. Like Addie, I had an underwater animal obsession but mine was whales (and dolphins!! Sorry, Addie). So when we listened to “Jonah and the Whale” and I saw the picture in the illustrated children’s bible, I was confused. The species of whale in the picture had a sieve in its mouth and only ate plankton. So how did Jonah get swallowed? My teacher, Miss Anderson, was furious. I was five so she didn’t call me blasphemous as such but she humiliated me for being literal and obtusely ignoring “the message”. In another class, we had to draw God. (Yup, I know) and describe what He looked like. So I wrote a paragraph about how we can’t see God. He’s actually a feeling. (Yes, I really know.) In a beautifully ironic twist, Miss Anderson told me I had failed the exercise because I was supposed to draw a person and put my sheet in the bin, demanding that I do it “properly”. Bewildered, I drew an eye here, a moustache there, and wrote something like: “God’s face is everywhere so his nose is up and his mouth is down.” Guess what. I had to do it again. Somewhere in my house, there is a sheet of A4 paper with a face with a moustache in the middle of a rectangle box with “This is God’s face” written underneath it. At 6, I was trying to conceptualise non-corporeality but instead was punished, called “lazy” and a “show-off”, made to work through lunch and breaks to meet the tasks to her standard.

This continued. We studied the plague and I tried to draw the smell coming from the doctor’s beak. It turns out I was meant to colour it in gold instead. When I asked why it would be gold if it was made from leather or wood, I got a detention through break. When it transpired I’d read all the books in the classroom, I was punished for not telling her. It didn’t occur to me she might let me read other books or send me into the Year Two classroom to borrow things. But there was another hidden agenda, I wasn’t allowed to share about Year Two books with the class. Book reports hidden, no contributions in story time. Books were the one thing getting me through and then, they were weaponised to remind me that I was always the odd one out.

(Diversion: Shout out to my secondary school librarian Miss Radon, who saw me as a Boss Level reader and spent about five years helping me work through everything in that library, reading new things at the same time as me, teaching me about book prizes, and story tropes while I plodded miserably through everything that wasn’t French, Music, and Art)

At the same time, at 6, I started getting terrible headaches and migraines that would continue intermittently through school. I basically stopped getting them after I finished my undergraduate degree. And I became hyperconscious about everything I did. I used to hide what I was reading so teachers wouldn’t dig at me. I would mask, using the fact that in the 1990s and early 00s, a learning issue meant “behind” or “incapable” rather than “different”. Because I did fine, no one was worried although it was repeatedly noted that my verbal and reading dexterity was way out of step with my writing. Can’t imagine what brought that on.

I think now about how I hate strip lighting because it’s too bright and have to turn lights down in the evening in order to be able to sleep. Of how I avoid meeting friends in big groups because I can functionally listen to multiple conversations at once and I burn out. And realise that classroom and playground didn’t work for me. That everyone thought I sought the company of adults because I was a lonely only child and not because I was bullied for speaking and reading ahead of my peers and having terrible co-ordination skills. They thought that I couldn’t skip or hula hoop or cartwheel because I was lazy and putting on weight rather than because I my brain blacks out when I can’t figure out how to do a movement. (There’s a running joke in my friendship group that I can’t turn left on the spot or to get out of bed. I have to do a three quarter turn to the right or get out and in.) What young me didn’t know is that I find running freeing and I love being fit. Dancing, weightlifting, boxing, kayaking, swimming. But I am still unlearning always being the person hunted in chases, not being allowed to climb the frames because I was too slow, of panicking about swinging on bars and falling and the fall leading to yet another humiliation.

I talk often about wishing I could be invisible. Not absent but without an appearance. Able to thrive without being looked at. It’s only now that I see how this was all part of one long process of erasing myself. Example: I gesticulate a lot. People think it’s because I’m musical and, therefore, dramatic. That may be true. But it’s actually because I am reaching for the words in front of me and conducting them into an order. I’m extremely visual. I love words and maths but hate letters and numbers. I see words and numbers as pictures or feelings or sounds.

For a very, very long time, I became out of step. I “underachieved”. I was not good at things that naturally went hand-in-hand with other skills. I was pushed into speaking because my writing was inhibited. A Kind of Spark has made me see the conditioning I have internalised without ever realising how far it went. It comes with so much fear. So much noise. I wish I’d realised the noise was other people and if I’d just let myself be, I could have been walking to my own music a long time ago. I’d love to meet Addie. I’d love to read her shark book and show her one about whales. I love for my friends and colleagues to read it and get a small glimpse of neurodivergence. Addie is not the same as me and I am not the same as her. But for once, I saw a very young Hannah and understood why they were always frightened. I wish I could have told her all the things I’m learning now. I hope I can listen to myself a bit more often.

You can purchase A Kind of Spark from Round Table Books by clicking here.

I Need To Talk About This

Big Book Fear: Being a Disabled Bookworm

You may or may not know that I am both dyslexic and dyspraxic. While these Specific Learning Difficulties may seem inconsequential to you if you are neurotypical, they are life altering for me. Unlike most dyslexic people, my general reading speed is very high (c.1100 words per minute) but I have actual sensorial experiences when I process text, and this can slow me down. I hear words like percussion so the process is like first acknowledging a *bang* and then processing what the sound is: “Oh that’s a drum!” This makes words, poetry, theatre, songs, and other delivered texts truly magical. I get obsessive about styles of writing that I enjoy and intuit a lot from authorial voices. So far, so good.

However, there are a number of downsides to this part of my brain. For example, when an author uses a lot of the same word or name (the Wolf Hall books/Tudor England loves a Thomas), it’s like a reading version of the hype section in a drum & bass track and I am left in limbo waiting for the beat to drop. It can lead to concentration loss and then that’s my reading session over.

While I have the capacity to read several books of any kind in a day when I need to, I get word fatigue more easily than other folx. It’s worst when moving through emails and most manageable in novels with a distinct and consistent narrator. But I am also caught out by having limited short term memory. If I get distracted or drawn into a peripheral idea, then I am lost. The drifting treasure hunt is a nightmare when I’m reading academic books because I frequently come across things I don’t know or references that I don’t recognise and suddenly I’m learning about what wallpaper was used Oscar Wilde’s bedroom and not whatever I was meant to be researching.

If I put a book down, I have a very short window to pick it up in again before I temporarily forget everything about it or have processed enough of an impression to not need to finish it. I re-read very rarely because books are like moments in time for me. They aren’t worlds I visit or frequent. They are a thought interruption and once that disturbance is profound enough, I store away the impression in a visual library in my head. Therefore, I can normally tell you what was happening in my life when I was reading a book, where I was when I read it, what the cover looked like, which bag I carried it in, and how I was feeling at the time. Functionally, there are sections in my mental library. For example, there’s a PTSD bookcase (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and a read-through of Kay Scarpetta crime series up to Scarpetta in 2008). There’s a “I read this in a tent when it rained at a folk festival” shelf (Lord of the Rings, The Godfather, To Kill A Mockingbird, Emma). There’s also a “I read this on the tube” section which takes me through all the moods, fads, and passions of my teenage years (shout out to Malorie Blackman, Alexandre Dumas and Meg Cabot for staying solid).

I have a fondness for my brain library but all of these things make chonky books (let’s say more 600 pages or epic hardbacks) feel hugely intimidating. Will I ever finish them if I start them? The audiobook is more than 24 hours so I need to set aside time or commit weeks and weeks to a single book when I could read it in a few hours. What if I get distracted? There’s so much world to hold onto. Also, how does this mesh with my preference to read 6-10 books at once? I have to micro-manage my life because I am unalterably forgetful (no short term memory), distractible, and easily overstimulated. My brain will just factory reset (blackout and then slowly re-establish all the things that were going on) as many times a day as my stress and sleep levels demand. Can I spare the headspace to read a book that might trigger any of the possible symptoms of brain overload?

I love book hype. I tend to find that my friends who are excited for a new read are effusive and generous in their love of the story, character, or world they anticipate. It can be really special to take part in and be around. But then I pick up the hardback and I begin to problematise the time, conditions, mood, and space I have for the challenge facing me. Because of how words work for me, I find it hard to exist in too many serial spaces at once so I had to finish watching the original Star Trek series (a strange story for another time) before I could really contemplate picking up Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. (This is the last novel in the Wolf Hall trilogy about Thomas Cromwell’s career under Henry VIII.)

I am almost ready to begin with my new 875-page obstacle course but I can feel the anxiety rising. If I don’t make it this weekend, when will I next pick it up? Will I care? Will I struggle with all the Thomases? Will I power through and be done in seven hours? The good news is that my copy smells great and I have bought a doughnut to have while I get stuck in. Wish me luck and solidarity to all the other people with different and unusual ways of negotiating their joy of reading.

How the Blog Works I Need To Talk About This

Intro: I Need To Talk About This

This is a blog thread that might be about a section, quote, theme, or particular thing I have read and have a big reaction to. For example, when I read Candice Carty-Williams’ novel Queenie, I found myself cackling on a train while reading one of the conversations about dating and money. I photographed the page and sent it to my friend, Furaha, who I had had the exact same chat with not a week previously. I might write something about dating, money, and conversations between women of colour about these things. Alternatively, I might write a very heavy piece about a particular aspect of the new His Dark Materials novels that really frustrates and disturbs me. I might also write something about Pullman’s code-breaking academic Hannah who likes hot chocolate, lending books, and recommends Poirot to people (#narcissism). This is a react thread.