Failure Friday: I’m finally ready to talk about that conference

Tdlr: Academic conference + Emotional dysregulation + Lack of sleep + Livestream= appearance of hot mess/ but actually how I am sometimes and I'm not sorry.  

Yes folks, a couple of weeks ago I conducted a research talk at my first (and possibly last!) academic conference- The F-List, ICMP and ISM ran their second annual conference and I absolutely smashed it, if by smashed it we mean it was like watching a car crash happen. In real time. On a live stream. 

The short version is I had several crying breakdowns during the delivery of my research talk and essentially couldn’t hold it together to not cry. I managed to get some content out and delivered my talk to some extent but it was not how I wanted to present my first presentation at masters level. I felt so embarrassed at the time and obviously it sounds pretty mortifying… but on the other hand that is how I am sometimes and though not ideal in a public arena this is part of what my talk was about- how hard it can be for neurodivergent people to even show up let alone deliver something even when they have something important to say. 

Some context: When I turned up at the conference I had had two hours sleep and was going abroad for the first time in four years directly after the conference, this meant I had to pack different bags and be prepared in different ways which is very difficult to manage for someone who normally packs at the last minute (although I write extensive lists beforehand this is the only time I feel able to pack stuff into a bag). 

I find being away from home and going anywhere quite anxiety provoking anyway so it was a lot. Being unable to sleep or relax when you really need sleep to function is one of the most distressing things about ADHD- in my talk I described all the gadgets, devices, habits and routines  needed just to be in with a chance of successful sleep every night or the: “sleep circus” …which is absolutely not as fun as it sounds. 

 I also felt like an absolute fraud turning at an academic conference when literally days before I’d had a week with 3 deadlines and I’d managed to miss one of them because I just didn’t give myself enough time to complete it (timeblindness/ inability to execute plans- that old familiar chestnut). I wasn’t sure if I could even continue on my masters course having missed a deadline. Despite the years of last minute handing in of shoddy pieces of unfinished work I’d never actually missed a deadline, and I’d already been given two weeks of extra time to accommodate my ADHD. I felt completely crushed by my inability to do what I was supposed to be doing, to complete what everyone else already had- I know it is my ADHD which makes it feel impossible to seek help when it is needed but it is hard to feel as if you sabotage yourself in the same ways repeatedly and that no one can really help you. 

HOWEVER. If there was ever any doubt as to how much I struggle to just show up let alone deliver something with my ADHD then this was Exhibit A.  I don’t weep uncontrollably all day every day but I do cry (or my eyes leak involuntarily) most days, and I’ve sought all kind of help with it- but post diagnosis I realised that where emotional dsyregulation (an inability to regulate your emotions) is often discussed in relation to ADHD it is mostly in the context of anger and outward bursts of negative emotions that may affect others. Mine is internalised and equally uncontrollable but just makes me look I’m constantly on the edge of a breakdown, which I’m not. I swear!

 I’ve tried different things:

Breathing.

Distraction

Entering meditative states

Drinking water

Lifting my chin

Hijacking the sympathetic nervous system

Leaving the room

Being in the moment

Blinking

Flapping at my eyes to dry them out! (attracts unnecessary attention but worth a try)

…and none of it actually works to stop this in its tracks.  

I remember trying to explain how it felt (pre diagnosis) to a psychologist and psychiatrist (separately) that it felt physical, the feeling seemed to start in my chest and was more or less unstoppable- I was often asked to reflect upon how I might be being triggered or remembering my traumatic childhood every time and I tried to say “but I’m not being triggered by how I feel about something, personally- I’m being triggered by emotional moments in films, books, tv, news, by emotional language, events or sounds, I’m not relating it to myself…”. I tried to explain it’s like I can’t control it- the stimulus triggers something in my brain but not something that is personally traumatic for me- and yet this was met by knowing nods as if I just haven’t realised yet but I will realise how traumatised I am one day and when I do, I’ll be able to confront each and every moment of every day when I’m being triggered- and once I identify the personal triggers I’ll be able to confront and control them better. 

An alternative explanation might be despite my struggles, I’m actually quite self aware as people go and want to evolve, adapt and grow. I also know that if I could control my welling-up of emotion, I would- it is much like public misunderstanding of ADHD symptoms-  the idea that if you just had enough willpower you could control yourself. It just doesn’t work here. 

 I know now in the context of emotional dysregulation this all makes sense because in this case your brain is reacting in a primal way without intervention from your thinking brain- I’ve never watched the movie “Die Hard” and cried because I actively thought “Wow this really reminds me of my daddy issues, I’m so sad about my life wah etc”… it comes from the raw reaction to human experience- even on the 1000th watching (yes, I love Die Hard). 

My appearance as a weak person who cannot hold it together is something I have always been ashamed of and have googled “how do I stop crying” so many times I can tell you that the advice is not there for people like me— a hypersensitive ADHDer. Most advice about crying seems to be about how to let your emotions out and not keep them bottled in- ie people need to cry more! But I want to cry less- It’s exhausting! I often feel hungover after crying, and after properly sobbing through something personally traumatic I have often become very ill afterwards- often with immune system related stuff like tonsillitis and labynthitis. Uncontrollable crying is not good for me and yet it is part of me in a way that it is impossible to be separated from. And it is not talked about as a symptom of ADHD enough. 

The flip side: 

The same emotion that makes me appear unstable is the same emotion that allows me to write this and share it, the same emotion that allows me to write songs, to empathise, to intuitively know things about people without them saying a word and build rapport. My son laughs at me these days when I read stories aloud to him because he is entertained by staring at me “waiting for me to crack!” (although he’s learnt to pat me sympathetically rather than just point and laugh…) and there’s nothing I can do, there is no controlling it- IF I COULD I WOULD. *And I hate to break it to him but he, errr… has my genes so there’s a good chance my supersensitive boy also has this to face in his future. Sorry pal.  

Just to say everyone at the conference was incredibly supportive during my talk and afterwards- and I know in another environment this would not have happened so I really applaud ICMP, the F-List and ISM for fostering an environment that was welcoming, accepting and encouraging for emergent researchers such as myself.  Even with my wobbly delivery I had feedback ranging from things like “thank you for showing the reality of ADHD”,  “I absolutely feel for you- well done for doing this”, “thanks for explaining your experience of neurodivergence, I never knew most of this” to “you could think about a career in standup if this doesn’t work out!”. It’s on the list. 

The other speakers and the organisers were honestly so wonderfully supportive and it felt very healing to be “allowed” as I am. It was eye opening for me to see how some music production higher education institutions are practicing doing more to support neurodivergent people than others. I desperately wanted to leave immediately and run away from my feelings of humiliation (which would be my MO) but in staying for the whole day I felt part of something and better about it all as the day went on. It was hard for me to show up like that but I also had so many people come up to me one on one to say thank you and to share their own experiences of assessment or diagnosis, it was helpful to know I was not the only one and everyone is on their own journey of self understanding and compassion. 

Sometimes, although it feels very much about you and your personal feelings and experience, IT IS NOT ABOUT YOU- the power is in sharing something people can relate to. No-one overtly said “You’re so brave” (yuk)  but it does feel brave to share such personal stuff and also bring with you exactly what you are talking about- the inability to execute tasks in a typical way. I met some lovely people and fellow researchers and learnt a lot about different peoples experiences and areas of interest, a smashing day really, thanks gang. There's a blog written by the lovely Lauren Alex Hooper about the day here

I was read this book recently- Your child is not broken by Heidi Mavir, written about a woman’s journey through confronting her own ableism realising her son was neurodivergent and the further realisation that she also was/is. It’s a nice intro into the social model of disability where the idea that the world is set up for the majority of people without disabilities which fundamentally discriminates against differences in people- it isn’t the differences that are bad or wrong, it is the world’s inability to accommodate them. 

 I was initially going to write a sort of I’m so embarrassed, please forgive me post about my live streamed breakdown/s during when trying to deliver the research talk but actually I think although I would like to be able to not get emotional and not cry because it makes me feel like I am not in control of myself (and in a neurotypical world it certainly makes you appear weak and unstable and therefore treated differently) I also think that this is part of the problem.

 I’ve internalised so much- that emotional displays are bad, that I should have control over myself at all times that the way I actually am, the way I appear, feels bad, feels wrong, feels like it needs fixing, when actually I don’t need fixing.  It’s the world that doesn’t allow for people to be human in all it’s forms. I’m not saying we should all be wailing all over the shop all the time but when people are mostly seeking advice about how to let their emotions out more and we could surmise that if more people talked and were open about how they felt, there might be more understanding and less unnecessary suffering in the world. 

So I’m posting my powerpoint slides and lecture notes here on the resources page and saying, yeah I showed up overtired and appearing to be emotionally unstable but this is what life with ADHD is like for me sometimes- being interested in things and wanting to show up like everyone else but not quite being able to and then feeling like a failure because of it. 

I think part of the next phase of accepting my neurodivergence is to stop apologising for myself and to ask for accommodations where necessary and appropriate; to stop ignoring my instincts and trying to mask how my neurodivergence manifests because it is exhausting to never feel like it is ok to be yourself and to feel like who you are is inherently wrong. 

There is space for everyone in this world, we just have to want everyone to feel welcome and actually make it happen even if it means confronting our unconscious biases and being uncomfortable. 

 

Jemma

(The ADHD Music Producer… or The AMP for short!)


 

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