Howard asked us all what the first couple in the video had said.
“The guy in the rugby shirt talked about how he doesn’t really listen if he’s doing something else,” said Jill.
“Yes,” said Howard. “Probably if the rugby’s on, he’s not really paying attention to someone talking.”
He continued, “What about the second couple? What did they say?”
“The first girl was saying how…. how she doesn’t like it when people aren’t listening, like it makes her feel that what she’s saying isn’t important,” replied Anne.
“That’s right,” said Howard. “And what about the third couple?”
Was this a trick question?
There were only two couples in the video. The guy in the rugby shirt and his mate, and then the two Asian girls.
I waited for someone to tell Howard this. To see what the trick was.
But then, to my surprise, Lindsay started talking about the Asian girls.
Then I realised.
Between the two couples that I remembered, there was another pair. It was two girls. I had literally just seen the video, but I’d already forgotten – not only what any of them had said – but the entire middle section.
And that’s when I realised how severe my ADHD really is.
I have had ADHD all my life but I only really realised it a few years ago (although I suspected it for a long time before that).
The kind of ADHD I have is type 2, which is inattentive. It’s the daydreamer kind – I drift off all the time, and I can’t concentrate on anything for very long (except during moments of hyperfocus).
It wasn’t picked up at school, because when I was at school, ADHD wasn’t a thing. And it wasn’t picked up when I was an adult, because the inattentive kind is harder to spot (most people don’t even know it exists), and many people don’t believe adult women can have ADHD.
I have been adapting to my ADHD for years without even realising it. I tell people honestly that I will probably be late – although I will turn up (I’m really proud of not being flaky). I accept the mess in my office and when it gets too much, I pull a tool or two out of my neurodiversity toolbox and get it sorted. And I avoided traditional learning environments.
Until last week.
My local church announced they were running a listening course.
I’ve done one of these before, at a community centre where I volunteered. The course at the community centre was run by a counsellor, was 2 sessions over 2 weeks, and I had found it really really useful. Especially being autistic, because I have to learn social skills intellectually rather than through osmosis (naturally absorbing the information) like normal people.
But that course was a long time ago, and I wanted to do another one, to refresh my memory and see if there was anything new I could learn. I want to improve as a coach and consultant, and listening is obviously a big part of that (in some coaching sessions, it’s about 90% of it!)
So I signed up, without really thinking about it, and when the day came, headed off to the rectory with my notepad and pen in hand.
The lady organising the event was called Kate. I emailed her when I booked my place and told her I was… actually, I can’t quite remember what I told her. I might have just said something vague like “special needs”.
Sometimes people complain when I say I don’t really know what I need at a place or event, but that’s because I don’t really know either. When I had anxiety, I had a clearer idea of what I needed (mainly a way to leave). But now I’m mentally well, I’ve only got the autism and ADHD to deal with, and without knowing which way the day is going to go, it’s hard for me to say what’s going to make it easier for me.
Kate was great though. She told me that I could leave any time, and to tell her if I needed anything. She checked on me a couple of times during the day as well. Those things cost nothing, they take very little effort, and they’re vague enough to cover all kinds of different needs, including those of normal people. And it gives me a sense of security, because I’ve got an invitation to make a request if I need to. Which makes a big difference.
I didn’t realise though, that Kate wasn’t the trainer. She was the organiser – sorting sandwiches, making coffee, telling us the format of the day and so on. The trainer, Howard, either didn’t know I have a learning disability (even though I was wearing my sunflower lanyard) or didn’t know how to deal with it. (A cynic would have said he didn’t care but I don’t think that’s true – it doesn’t fit at all with the kind of training he does).
The day started fairly well. We did introductions first, which I can cope with. Most of the other people there were very churchy – they’d come to the training to help them in their prayer ministry (where you pray with people who ask you to). I think I was the second youngest.
Howard started the training by giving us timings (always good for an ADHD person – we have no idea what time it is ever, but we need to know how soon we’re going to get fed). Then he played us a piece of music for a few minutes, I think to help us get in the mood for the day. I liked that bit, I love music and it helps me focus.
Then he told us a story about his grandfather. I can’t remember what the point of it was, but as he talked, I imagined his grandfather’s attic. The sunlight streaming through the skylight, nurturing the young tomato plants. The smell of those tomato plants. The dust dancing about in the air as Howard walked through the attic, exploring this box and that suitcase. The silence. The old man himself, who I could picture as one or other of my own grandfathers, with the corduroy trousers, the wispy white hair and the time to listen to the child rummaging through their stuff.
I can engage with a story. If I can picture something, I can feel it. I can focus, I can understand. I have enough to fill my brain, with the sights, smells, movement and memories.
But stick a load of bullet points on a screen and I’ll mentally check out.
Unfortunately, that was a lot of the rest of the day. It wasn’t all bullet points, but it was a very traditional style of education, much like I had at school. Person at the front, a bit of video, answering questions, looking at words or diagrams, and an awful lot of talking.
It’s not like I don’t try to concentrate, it’s just that I can’t. Not for any length of time anyway. Even as I was taking notes, I started thinking about things for my work (some not related at all to the course), and jotting them down in the back of my book. I saw Kate going to make coffee. I looked at the wires under the table. I wondered why the projection wasn’t straight on the wall (that’s actually an autistic thing).
When the thing happened with the 3 couples on the video, I was suddenly aware of how much ADHD affects me without me usually noticing it. Normally I tune out and nothing much happens. I don’t even realise I’ve done it.
But this time, I was listening to other people feedback on what they were learning – not just with the videos but with some of the things Howard was saying and reading. And I couldn’t join in because even if I’d absorbed a bit, I wasn’t convinced I had absorbed enough to give a sensible answer.
Then it got worse.
There was a bit in the session that was about our emotional reactions to things. Howard showed us various pictures and we were asked to say how they made us feel.
My counsellor (the one I had after my first bout of post-natal depression) told me that feelings aren’t wrong. Thoughts can be, actions most definitely are sometimes, but feelings are never wrong. They’re just there.
That wasn’t how I felt though.
The first picture was of the Australian bushfires. Now, I’ve been quite upset about these. I have colleagues in Australia (through my travel company) and we care about them enough that we’re doing some pro bono work for them to help them recover. So my reaction to the picture had nothing to do with how I feel about the real situation that people are in.
But my first reaction was “warm”. It’s a fire, I felt warm. Then I started thinking about a crackling log fire, and my grandparents’ house, and how warm and cosy I felt in front of it.
I looked at the picture a bit longer. It was a beautifully constructed photograph – a kangaroo was in front of the burning building and it was backlit, along with the tree it was next to, and the whole image was incredibly powerful.
This made me feel – I’m not sure of the words so I can only say “good”. I have a strong emotional reaction to compelling art – whether that’s a painting, or a photo, or a book, or even a TV programme. I appreciate the skill behind what they do, the craft, the generosity in sharing that with others.
But “good” and “cosy” were not the right answers. I know that because everyone else said the appropriate responses.
“Destruction.” (That’s not a feeling but whatevs).
I sat on my chair, facing the front of the room, feeling exactly like I was back at school. There was no scratchy jumper, and there was no-one criticising my messy writing, but that feeling of being wrong and out-of-place all over again was overwhelming.
I felt so lonely. That was the worst thing. I can cope without being able to focus, I learn really fast so I can generally pick up what I need to. But I was the only one who couldn’t concentrate, the only one who didn’t “get it” and the only one who couldn’t share how they were feeling because my feelings were wrong.
You’d think I was past all that now, wouldn’t you? School was a long time ago, and I’ve made such progress with understanding who I am and why I’m different. But back in a traditional learning environment, it felt like nothing had changed.
There was a saving grace to this listening course. And that was the listening practice.
We split off into pairs and we each had 5 minutes to listen to each other without interrupting. We had 3 questions to ask at the end.
I was paired with a nice old lady, of the kind churches are full of. You know the ones. Smartly dressed, thin-rimmed glasses, grey hair, warm smile. I can’t tell you what she told me because we had strict confidentially guidelines. I did feel really honoured that she opened up to me though. And I could listen to her, I could focus on what she was saying the whole time.
And then it was my turn. Before therapy, I would have done my usual thing of pretending everything is fine and talked about my cat or something. But therapy taught me not to hide my feelings, so I opened up to this kind, softly-spoken church lady. I told her how I upset and lonely I felt. I told her how it reminded me of those horrible days at school, when I was confused and depressed. I told her how I’d almost forgotten how isolating it can be when you’re neurodiverse.
And just having that one person to talk to made me feel better.
Because I didn’t feel quite so alone any more.
I don’t have a conclusion for this blog post really. I’ve done what I can – I talked through my feelings with a few other people outside the course, and I made a joke about it a couple of times (if you’ve been to my talks you will know how much I use humour!).
Although I could have spoken to the trainer at the time, I didn’t really know how to – I mean, I don’t know what he could have done to make it easier at the time. But I have contacted the training organisation with a view to helping them make their courses more accessible to neurodiverse people – not just me but also to dyslexics and others who proess information differently.
Kate came up to me at lunchtime, right before I was about to stuff a chicken sandwich in my mouth.
“How are you finding it?” she said.
“Incredibly challenging,” I replied. “Can you put me down for level 2?”
“Really?” said Kate. “You’re finding it really hard but you want to do more?”
“Well, I am actually learning a lot of useful stuff that will help me in my job,” I said.
“And besides, I like a challenge.”