Hell is other people

2011-12-02 00:00

IN 2003, my psychologist and a psychiatrist diagnosed me with Asperger’s syndrome and attention deficit disorder. Last year, I was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

From Grade 1 to 3, I went to a special school in Durban called Open Air. After I finished Grade 3, the school psychiatrist told my parents that they should put me into a mainstream school. From then on, I was teased and harassed until matric.

My family life has always been dysfunctional, partly because my parents never understood why I behaved the way I did. They thought I was just a rebellious child and they didn’t know how to deal with me. They interpreted a lot of my symptoms as character flaws. Both of them abused me physically and verbally in their anger. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong, and I still don’t know. I ran away twice.

My parents were always running out of money because they rarely had stable jobs. Being deprived of my needs for so long made me determined to do well academically and eventually become independent.

I went to university and studied journalism, but for three years after I had graduated I could not find a stable job. The nature of my mental conditions prevents me from being able to function in most work environments. My erratic mood swings made it hard for me to focus on work in the past. Because of my poor co-ordination, my inability to concentrate on more than one thing at a time, and the risk of becoming sensorily overwhelmed, I can only drive an automatic car. I can’t find any driving school in my region that teaches this, and most jobs require a driver’s licence. I’ve done various part-time, semi-skilled jobs such as cooking and being a camp leader, but I was never able to keep a job for more than a month. As every one of my attempts to find employment and use my talents failed, I felt like a failure. Sometimes it made me very depressed.

The longer I waited to find work or earn an income so I could leave my parents’ home and provide for a family, the more hopeless I felt. Nearly every person with a mental disability starts feeling this way because their situation does not change, despite their efforts to move forward. It’s like the characters in Waiting for Godot, who never arrive. The characters die waiting, after surrendering to their disillusionment.

I looked at the options of accommodation available to high-functioning people with disabilities like me. I was unhappy at home and I needed to get away. An Aspie friend of mine told me about a place near Hillcrest. It sounded like a great place. But it wasn’t. It was like most mental institutions. The residents were not allowed off the farm, even to look for jobs. It was difficult for us to get to the shops, which was the only way we could see to our personal needs. There was no formal exercise in the farm’s programme. Daily chores around the farm were considered enough exercise. It wasn’t for me, and it wouldn’t be for anyone with ADHD. If we wanted to exercise, we had to go with one of the supervisors, who were always too busy. After three days I couldn’t bear it any more and I sneaked off the property to go running on the road. A supervisor saw me running and that resulted in me being kicked off the farm.

The only people the residents were allowed to have visit them or take them away from the farm were the people their parents mentioned in their list of friends and relatives. It felt like a prison. There was a separate section for the lower-functioning residents and another for the higher-functioning. Residents from the higher-functioning section, like me, were not allowed to take friends from the lower-functioning section to their entertainment room.

Because I look so normal, most people do not believe I have any mental condition. Then, when my symptoms show, they think it’s a character flaw or that I’m trying to cause trouble. Then they either criticise me or avoid me.

Most of my friends in the past have cut me out of their lives without explanation. Thankfully, after many years of loneliness and longing, I have finally found the true, loyal friend I’ve been looking for.

 

• Asperger’s is a mild form of autism. It hinders the person’s ability to socialise. Since one of the symptoms is sensory integration disorder, Aspies (people with Asperger’s) are highly auditorysensitive.

• Attention deficit disorder (ADD) affects a person’s ability to concentrate. They are usually also hyperactive and very impulsive.

• Bipolar disorder is characterised by cycles of depressed and manic behaviour.

• Nearly all people with a disability get teased, abused or treated as a social outcast because they are different. Many people with a mental disorder avoid leaving home or interacting with people because they feel they cannot face more pain. The discrimination leaves them scarred for life, and their self-confidence crumbles over time.

• Mental disabilities usually result in conflict, and often abuse, between family members. The stress from the burdens of the disability can break up marriages. People with disabilities are very vulnerable to abuse because they can be too trusting, or their disability hinders their ability to perceive danger or to respond accordingly. People misinterpreting their behaviour can also causeviolence.

• Many people with mental disabilities get a grant. Some find sheltered work. Some try to make crafts from home to sell (most people with mental disabilities are extremely creative). The majority of people with mental disabilities can only find what can be termed “menial” work or low/semi-skilled jobs such as car guarding, packing or administration. Most need a very structured job with the same, set tasks and hours. A large number never drive a car, either because they do not have the ability orbecause they can’t finance the lessons and the tests.

• A lot of mental disabilities hinder a person’s ability tosocialise, empathise and detect another person’s feelings or needs. They lack the skills to build and maintain a friendship. They can do things which other people consider rude or insensitive, but they think it’s totally normal behaviour. They are misinterpreted even when they have the best intentions.

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