Throughout my life, education has been a stressful task; which only until recently – the cause of this stress and mistreatment became clear to me.
My brain is not typical and the world is set to “typical” with regards to all its structures and functions, including education.
Of course back in the 1980s there was not much available for children such as myself, deemed hyper intelligent, difficult and rude as early as infant school, going to doctors and child psychologists and being told I was on the spectrum for autism. Then in secondary school – a troublemaker, a bad influence and having an attitude problem.
Teachers would always say “I don’t understand you Charlotte, you are so intelligent, why can’t you do better?”.
All that was known to me, was that no one understood me and that I was a bad child. Excelling in subjects which I liked and failing miserably in subjects I didn’t, not even bothering – feeling like it was all a waste of time and might as well be an alien language taught by aliens.
As well as this, authority in any form would be like a red rag to a bull, as if being challenged to a duel and the victor would get to parade the beheaded throughout the school as the all hailing champion.
So teachers would be shouted at by me and my “patronising” tone became a honed skill which many would misunderstand and still do to this day.
My moods became violent with students and teachers which cemented the “bad child” label as well as the “crazy girl” label I had acquired due to my mental illnesses spilling out of me from 11 years old onwards.
So “bad child – crazy girl” was my new official name and once carted off to the loony bin at 15 – this was really the pièce de résistance, which shoved me into the labeled box which society still confines me to today.
After hospital and then art college, I descended into two different states from 2001 – 2004, a reclusive agoraphobic who only went out at weekends on class A drugs.
Then in 2004 after failing an HND in travel and tourism, as instead of writing research pieces on travel destinations and tourism operating systems; I would end up submitting creative writing pieces in a drugged up haze, these were prescription drugs, anti-psychotics and mood stabilizers. Not surprisingly I was asked to leave, proceeding to obliterate my brain with class A drugs again and alcohol for 3 years, putting myself in many dangerous positions, surrounded by criminals; lucky to come out alive, some didn’t.
After this wasted time the choice to go back to college was a hard one, however deciding to work towards getting a degree was a dream of mine. Beginning with an A level in philosophy was my starting point, which opened my mind to so much, allowing me to see myself and the world in ways that to this day continue to shape me. My tutor was inspiring, he had so much passion for the subject. Philosophy was an ideal subject for me, it is not constrained by neurotypical ideas, in fact almost the opposite.
After completing this course I decided to go on to do a full time access course at The University of Portsmouth, which is a year long course – which is the equivalent of four A-levels.
Politics, Sociology, Communication Studies and History were my chosen subjects. The staff were so kind to me and even though I had less idea of my difficulties then, they helped me to achieve the best.
Two of these tutors are still my friends and this is a great achievement for me, having never been liked by teachers before. This was when my first realisation came about of the fact I was different to most students; the tutors helped me get registered as a disabled student and supported me to the best of their abilities, preparing me to go on to a degree at TUOP.
Gaining acceptances on three different degree courses, History, International Relations and Journalism, I chose Journalism.
Once I left the comfort of the Access course, there was already a feeling that was reminiscent of school, the overlooked feeling, the feeling of being “odd” and “bad child – crazy girl” was tapping at my brain telling me she was needed, silencing her – these feelings were brushed away.
Within my first week a sinking feeling had taken over and the realisation that I would not see the end of the academic year or be successful was present.
The students were all 18 / 19 and being unable to communicate with any of them, becoming a loner, something which came naturally to me. The teachers already found me difficult due to me asking too many questions, challenging them as well as just being generally misunderstood.
One subject in particular was soul destroying; shorthand – my mental nemesis. The teacher was a strong, no bullshit woman, who displayed little empathy and did not distinguish any of us as adult students.
An abrasive tyrant and if you couldn’t keep up, tough luck!
This particular oppressor did not know her own privilege and she exerted it all over me, as if she was deliberately and provocatively dancing around me, forcing me to feel her neurotypical privilege, flaunting it.
Understandably due to this I could not grasp it and certainly could not keep up, with no study buddies and when asking for extra support I was met with a simple – no!
Desperately I sought out the advice of my personal tutor, explaining what had happened and that if given a level playing field I could do better, but he told me maybe it would be more suitable for me, if on another course.
With not much choice and being shoved out of journalism like an unwanted bag of rubbish I swapped to doing a degree in Spanish/Arabic and International Relations.
As a bilingual in French/English, spanish would not be too hard, and it wasn’t.
However International relations is where everything fell apart; as for the subject, distinction after distinction for my assignments was my average, however one day one of our lecture halls was filled with around 300 students, my anxiety came up into my mouth and after scurrying around and finding a seat at the back I sat there sweating, alone.
We were asked to form groups and that our next assignment would be a presentation. Of course having no friends and knowing there would be a “odd ones out” group, which the lecturer had to physically push a bunch of us together in; the undesirable leftovers.
Being the eldest you may think there would be an advantage, as the rest were kids, nonetheless they were even more socially inept than myself and clueless about the world. We didn’t speak one word to one another.
Nonetheless eager to not fail again, my only option was to visit my new tutor that week and explained that the presentation was something which my illnesses did not allow me to do without me becoming very unwell.
The usual story proceeded, “you are being difficult Charlotte” and being told to persevere. Following this my detachment kicked in like a superpower to protect me, becoming more and more dissociated . No longer able to go to the big lectures, no more fighting for my rights, soon it felt like the university was digesting me whole, ready to evacuate me from its bowels at any given moment. Which was exactly what happened – I was called into to see one of the head tutors, naively thinking that they were going to put some things in place for me to better my student experience and chances.
Instead, a stern, unempathetic woman stood before me, who told me that my illnesses were too severe for the university to accommodate and the only option left was for me to leave the university and come back when I was better… Better??
This made me regress almost instantly to “bad child – crazy girl” becoming very angry and emotional, crying and shouting, the tutor looked scared and hesitantly told me how to complain if I disagreed – but for now in no uncertain terms – I was off the course.
Pleading with her, “there is no cure for my illnesses”, that this was something which is a chronic condition, complex and lifelong. In a frantic panic I went to see the university therapist, hoping that a trained professional would be able to help me and possibly convince the tutors they were wrong, in hindsight maybe this was not my smartest move. Crying like a child I stormed in – saying to the therapist that this was unacceptable treatment of the mentally ill and more detrimental to my health in the long run.
The therapist said my behaviour was erratic, highly emotional and threatening and due to this agreed with the university and said ” it is best you leave Charlotte, as there is nothing we can do for you here, you are too ill”.
As I walked out of the building my body felt weightless like a ghost, plans begun in the back of my mind on how I would kill myself that week, yet again the world had ejected me and given me no choice, possibly a sign of some sort, that there was no point to me.
However instead of taking my own life, a breakdown ensued which made me self medicate, eradicating reality was the only way to stop the pain and stay with my husband, the idea of being without him – alone in emptiness was far to much of a risk. Purgatory was a familiar place, like returning home.
Then after 5 months and being patched up with sticky tape and glue, my need to achieve a degree came back.
This time deciding to approach The Open University, as I had been told this would be more suitable for me, as a completely housebound individual – unable to leave the house on my own or be taken to a university and left to fend for myself until home time, home study seemed a perfect fit.
To my delight the OU had a degree course in philosophy and psychology, a part time, six year course for a BA (Hons) degree.
My first year flew by, confidence had returned.
By year two the OU had me registered as a disabled student and had a whole load of support offered to me. Everything was going great until we got to exams, which for 3 years the OU had failed to set up home exams overseen by an invigilator; this was finally sorted in my 4th year and helped me grately.
In 2014/15, year 5 – on my last psychology level 3 module, the game changed once again and experienced a very cruel tutor who decided my illness and personality were too difficult and just stopped offering me support, contrary to the guidelines set out, she even stopped answering my emails and queries regarding assignments.
You see the OU is done online, however we have tutorials in person at least once a month, online forum discussions and day schools, none of which I can access due to my disabilities, so once again a disadvantage, but add to this a tutor who decided they would go all incommunicado on me, I was left with no way of doing my degree.
After months of arguments and back and forth emails (as I can’t use the phone) finally someone understood the severity and that this was not a case of being difficult. The OU assigned a new tutor, however no extenuating circumstances were considered in my first 3 assignments which were done with no support whatsoever. One assignment the tutor had given me such a low grade due to the fact she believed my illness was too severe to be on the course and told me that my understanding was below the OU’s standard; stating my work was suddenly below level one standards, something of which the OU disagreed with, but it was a non substitutional assignment so apparently they could not change the mark?
This brought my whole grade average down below a pass by 2 points.
One assignment which was incorrectly marked due to prejudice and neurotypical privilege, as well as a totally disregard to the support plan set out before the tutor – I was given a 30% when all my other level 3 assignments were in the high 70% mark.
This was a disaster and led me to think of a new direction, deciding to finish my honours degree off by changing my two focuses, from majoring in philosophy and psychology, changing it to a minor in psychology and major in philosophy and creative writing; adding a year on to my studies.
Bringing us to now, my first year of my new course; creative writing.
And yet again my studies are subjected to neurotypical privilege and that “bad child – crazy girl” label and persona has reared her ugly head again.
Every time I explain to my current tutor about the neurological disorders which are my disability and that due to this am not able to access all of the course due to not being able to attend, he simply says “please fill out an extenuating circumstances form” or says ” I have to treat all students the same”. This led to me having a breakdown last week and to me writing an emotionally charged email to my tutor and student support.
My tutor just reiterated the same autopilot response.
However the student support team for the first time, got it!
The passages which made me feel validated and indicated real progress were these:
I am sorry that your experience of the OU has been frustrating at times. It is a tribute to your determination and academic ability that you have achieved so much despite your conditions and the neurotypical privilege that is present in all walks of life.
This should also give the tutor greater direction as to what they need to be able to do to help you study on a level playing field.
Finally some recognition for my struggles, some validation for the fact I am neurodiverse in a neurotypical world. This is of course not the end, but the fight which has been mine and so many others is finally getting somewhere.
A new awakening is happening and I sure as hell am ready to wake everyone up, no more being silent or being marginalised.
This mission is clear and as hard as it will be, there is no going back because giving me a voice is something “bad child – crazy girl” never had.
If you have any questions on this topic or about my journey, please fill in this contact form: