For honesty about mental health, try 2am

At the time of writing it’s 2am, sometime during Mental Health Awareness Week, and nobody understands me. I see the world differently to most people; if you want, you can stick a label on it and call it Aspergers. Some people don’t like labels, and others don’t like that particular label; for me it’s merely a convenient shorthand. I’m writing this article not from some desire to have a rant, but to help people understand the silent struggles people face with mental health on a daily basis, or at least to explain different perspectives for seeing the world. (Being in politics doesn’t make anything any easier; I receive unsolicited hostile and abusive messages on an almost-daily basis. It is what it is; I often respond, and engage – one person recently went from calling me every name under the sun to thinking I should be Prime Minister. He’s wrong about that, too, but it’s more affirming.)

This afternoon I was at the gym, keeping fit and keeping the 4 stone I’ve lost well and truly off. My personal trainer, a former champion boxer, made me fire jabs, hooks and uppercuts into the pads. My foot movement needs work. Mainly, I just don’t ‘relax’ enough whilst training. Relaxing doesn’t come naturally to me. Later, he decides to showcase my mathematical skills to another client. He asks me 79×82. Caught off guard, it takes me too many seconds to fire back 6478. The thought process comes naturally to me, in a way it wouldn’t to most people. I know 79×81 must be one less than 80×80, so that must be 6399. I add another 79 in my head to get to 6478. A brief check on a calculator shows I’m correct. That’s the good part, the ability to calculate, to concentrate, to work incredibly fast on things that others would find more difficult. There’s an enormous flip side. Every time I meet a new person, or have a new social situation that most people would take in their stride, it exhausts me in the way that a Maths exam would exhaust most people.

These mental health issues are all around us; my trainer has his own struggles with depression but they don’t define him. Awareness is often just the understanding that, in any group of people, there are different perspectives, genuinely different reactions and ways of seeing the world. This evening I was out for a steak with a dozen or so people, some new. That’s when the hard work started: an unfamiliar environment, some unfamiliar people, and a table large enough that there’s no simple social ‘rule’ to tell me when to talk to the people to my left, to my right, and opposite me. I think I did okay, but I can’t be certain. One new person at the table was from Spain; I exchanged a couple of minutes’ conversation in Spanish before switching back to English: did I get the balance right, being welcoming without excluding others at the table from conversation for too long? No time to think about that, as conversation and food orders continued: such questions fell to the back of my mind, but they always come back later. At 2am. Sooner or later, I have to ‘process’ these questions.

I chatted to someone who had an interview booked in on local radio; knowing the presenter, I gave a little advice. It seemed sensible, but I volunteered the information without being asked: that, too, gets processed in the early hours of the morning. I wouldn’t sleep otherwise. Throughout the evening it’s more of the same: standard banter amongst same-sex company, questions of when to speak and when to remain silent, trying to decide whether to utter every pun or joke that comes into my head. Each decision has its own ‘action replay’ in my mind hours later. Did I speak too much, or too little, tonight? Perhaps every other person at the table would know the answer to that question; to me, it’s a puzzle.

When I was teaching, simple affirming phrases (which can sound patronising if you’re not very careful) like ‘that’s okay’ could be very useful: nothing’s wrong, no unwritten social etiquette has been ignored, and the student can relax about whatever’s just happened.

It’s just a different way of looking at the world. Earlier this week, someone abruptly told me that I don’t ‘suffer’ with Aspergers. There are positives and negatives, that’s true, but the negatives have a habit of closing in at 2am. Even that word is now controversial; it’s a precise enough label but it’s still a label. Frankly, semantics bothers me less. Who I am matters far more.

I wouldn’t change what I’ve done today: whether it’s going to the gym or socialising, I have to keep stretching myself. Mental health issues are about that: wherever possible, not giving in to the overwhelming urges to stay at home or to eschew social situations. Struggles both visible and invisible; some days, it’s enough to just stay on the pitch.