On Wednesday I graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University with a Post Graduate Diploma in Digital Marketing Communications. I had an amazing day. I got to see the friends I made on my course and the team of fantastic lecturers. I attended the faculty reception and visited the team in my office. I bought a new dress, posed for photographs in a cap and gown and swished about in my cape. I walked proudly across that stage, gave a couple of little waves to my daughters who were watching from high up in the auditorium and clip clopped back to my seat without falling over or doing anything ridiculous. It was brilliant.
There is only one thing that could have made my day better and it’s a tiny little thing, a niggle, but it’s there and I’m not sure it’s going to go. The niggle is that I have a Post Graduate Diploma and I wanted a Masters Degree. I studied for a masters but settled for a diploma when it became clear that my brain wasn’t going to consistently cooperate for long enough to write a ten thousand word dissertation.
I left high school in 1987 with a mix of GCSEs and CSEs in a range of subjects with fairly average grades so the fact that I went into higher education and not only have a degree but also have a post graduate qualification is fairly impressive, but although I’m immensely proud of what I’ve achieved so far, to coin a Love Island phrase, I’m happy, but I could be happier. I came for a masters and I left with a diploma and that’s the niggle. I didn’t achieve my potential. I could have done better. I can do better, but not until I can find a way to be 100% in charge of my own head.
I decided to write this post to show some of what happened between turning up for my first lecture with my shiny new pencil case and gliding across the stage this Wednesday. This week my Facebook wall shows you pictures of me smiling and successful, it doesn’t show you the rest. There are no Facebook pics of me glaring at my laptop and calling myself a “stupid bitch” because I still couldn’t remember what epistemology meant. There was a lot of things that people didn’t see and for those of you who are still fighting with your own heads to get academic work done, I wanted to show a fuller picture.
Many people know that I have a daughter with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), what less people know is that ADHD has an 80% heredity factor. In other words my kid probably inherited her neurobiological condition from somebody and that somebody appears to be me.
The stereotype for ADHD is naughty little boys fighting and bouncing off the walls and for a long time professionals genuinely believed that it only affected children and that all of those children were male. The result of this is that anybody with ADHD that wasn’t a young boy acting wild in the classroom was either ignored or assumed to have some other problem: attachment issues, anxiety, depression, naughtiness, laziness, incompetence etc. It also leads to problems identifying people with the condition who don’t display obvious hyperactive behaviours. If you fidget a lot and constantly move around people can see that, but if you internalise that movement or are inattentive without hyperactivity then it is often unrecognised.
The reality is that if you are disrupting a classroom full of other students, then somebody will have to do ‘something’ but if you can have your ADHD quietly then you will generally be left to get on with it!
When I made the decision to return to university to do the masters, knowing that it would involve a self directed dissertation, I decided that it would be a good idea to get my head under control and pursue a formal diagnosis and medication. Knowing you have ADHD isn’t the same as having a formal diagnosis. The most common form of treatment involves a Class B narcotic, therefore you need to be absolutely sure, so it requires a professional diagnosis by a competent expert, so I approached my GP and asked for a referral. This was in June 2016. In Stockport where I live, there is currently no adult ADHD service to be referred to. I had to confirm in writing to my GP that I would be willing to attend appointments in Chester and am currently on a waiting list in The Wirral after attempts to have me seen in Manchester, Macclesfield and Chester failed due to Manchester not accepting outside referrals and both Macclesfield and Chester losing their adult provision.
Since 2004 and particularly over the last decade I have studied ADHD in great detail and developed my knowledge. This is partly through interest and partly as a way to defend the families I support against the stigma and misinformation that regularly accompanies the condition. It was this knowledge that helped me identify my own ADHD years ago. At the time I was told that I couldn’t have it because I had formerly managed to hold down a senior management position, I ran my own business and raise a family and was therefore too competent for that to be a possibility. Years went by, during which I increased my knowledge of ADHD by reading current research and also had several “wobbles” where the lack of structure and faith in my own abilities started to cause occasional problems. Everything I now know, makes it very apparent that what I’d been told by that doctor years earlier was wrong and I actually do have ADHD. Despite that fact, I wasn’t too concerned about it. It provided an explanation for some of the things I do and helped me find strategies to compensate for my weaknesses. It wasn’t getting in my way so it didn’t matter, in lots of ways it was a benefit because I had always been able to harness the good bits and use them to my advantage. Despite the derogatory title (deficit and disorder in the same sentence) ADHD isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but unfortunately if you need to be able to sit in one place and focus on a specific thing that doesn’t hold your interest for an extended period of time, it definitely can be.
I’m the queen of getting things done, often at the last minute, but they will get done and they’ll be done well. I can juggle, I can multitask, I can get on the phone and persuade people to do things they don’t want to do and I’m happy to pull the occasional all-nighter to achieve results. When it’s needed, I can kick it up a gear and get the job done. The problem with writing my masters dissertation was that I couldn’t. I wasn’t driving my usual 2 litre Mondeo estate that can go 90 mph if I need it to, I was driving my Mini which has a top speed of 65 mph but frankly works best at 30 and shakes if I accelerate too quickly. I couldn’t kick it up a gear. I was in the fast lane of a motorway in the Mini with my foot down, trying desperately to speed up and failing. Fun fact – I don’t deal well with failure.
Understanding every word of every lecture and failing to communicate that knowledge appropriately on paper was painful. It felt like taking a punch in the face, it hurt – a lot and what made it worse was that I wasn’t expecting it. I knew that I would have to organise my time, minimise distractions and focus, what I didn’t know is that even if I did all those things that my head would refuse to cooperate on a regular basis. I chased my referral but the end result is that I’m on the list along with a lot of other people. Raising awareness can be a double edged sword, the ignorance goes down but the waiting lists go up.
There are certain elements of academia which have no obvious connection to the topic you are studying. New lengthy words become part of the vocabulary and every time you say something you have to back it up with an argument and an academic reference. As the work got harder, my brain got weaker if the content was too “academic”
I couldn’t use my usual techniques. I couldn’t match certain elements of academia to things I already knew, so I couldn’t make the content stick in my head. I couldn’t use ridiculous analogies to test my understanding and form nemonics to help me remember.
My brain would try and tune out during teaching sessions and had to be shocked back into focus with copious amounts of Lucozade (caffeine and sugar)
Journals had to be read more than once, because the content wouldn’t go in the first time and most of them had to be printed out first. I wasted a fortune printing out pieces of paper because my brain refused to let me process the same document on a screen.
After eventually getting through the unit assessments it was time for the dissertation. There was writing, rewriting, restarting and even thoughts of changing topics at the very last minute and eventually at the 11th hour a painful decision.
Option 1: Somehow miraculously manage to write a ten thousand word dissertation in a couple of weeks, that you still haven’t managed to generate a coherent plan for, despite working on it for months and risk failing spectacularly flushing all your hard work down the toilet.
Option 2: Glide across the stage and accept a Post Graduate Diploma and write your dissertation in the future when you eventually reach the front of the queue and are formally assessed and treated for adult ADHD.
The decision was obviously a no brainer but it still hurt. It hurt a lot. I cried more over my ‘lost’ masters degree than I ever have over any boyfriend. I felt that I failed, because I did, but the good news is that the failure is temporary. The ADHD is permanent, but the failure is definitely temporary. The fact that I haven’t written a dissertation doesn’t mean that I’m not educated to masters level about Digital Marketing Communications, I still have all that knowledge, I go to work every day and use the things I’ve learnt. Content marketing, strategy, SEO, evaluating digital campaigns, analytics etc. all of that is still in my head, I just haven’t written a dissertation about them – yet! I chose this course so that I could learn specific skills and I have definitely achieved that, so despite the tears and disappointment I completed my mission. As soon as I’m in total control of my head (and find enough money for tuition) I’ll come back and finish what I started, write my dissertation and glide back across that stage.