Discovering the neurodiversity paradigm has changed my life for the better.
My ideological transition away from the pathology paradigm has given me the confidence to manage my own education and psychiatric treatment, helped me find a community of scholars and activists, and most importantly, helped rid me of shame. I’ve adopted the identity of being multiply neurodivergent and I’m proudly dyslexic and schizoaffective. I’ve learned to accept and love my neurological difference.
As a dyslexic student, the neurodiversity paradigm helped me shake off the embarrassment and imposter syndrome I often felt. For example, it helped me overcome the feeling that I am a fraud when using proofreading or text-to-speech software to assist me with my research and written work. Furthermore, as there is a strong correlation between artistic ability and dyslexia, my animation practice, which informs my professional identity and self-worth, is inseparably linked to my neurodivergence.
During my Ph.D. I developed a new sense of acceptance and pride regarding my schizoaffective neurotype. In 2008, when I first experienced psychosis, I understood the phenomena through the pathology paradigm and the lens of so-called mental illness, seeing this episode as an aberration. Just as the pathology paradigm teaches us to think of cancer as an invading force, despite it sharing one’s genetic code, my psychiatrist framed my psychosis as an ailment caused by factors external to my identity.
This seemed like a logical way to think about my experiences at the time, particularly because my first diagnosis was drug-induced psychosis. However, two years later, I experienced a second psychotic episode, despite abstaining from illicit drugs. This took place following a prolonged period of intense work during my fine art undergraduate degree, where I initiated a three-month immersive performance in which I founded a cult based on my secular beliefs. I wanted to try and evoke the delusions of grandeur and extreme alterity I experienced during psychosis. In hindsight, it seems clear that this induced my second psychosis and involuntary hospitalisation.
Upon leaving the ward in 2010, I concluded that there was something about me that was different from the majority of the population, i.e., there was something wrong with me. At this point, despite person-first language framing my experiences as separate from my identity, I internalised the idea that I was mentally ill. This perspective was supported by my psychiatrist who explained that it was not at that time possible to prove a causal link between teenage cannabis abuse and psychosis, but there was good evidence to show that cannabis precipitated psychosis in those with an underlying vulnerability towards it.
In the eight years following my second episode, I gained more experience, better insights, and started developing my own coping mechanisms. I became quite good at identifying early indicators, such as hypomania, a moderate feeling of elation, which was often a precursor to mania and psychosis.
During the Ph.D. I developed the confidence to take control of my medication plan. Inspired by the neurodiversity paradigm, I started putting into action the advice of other psychiatric service users, who had the advantage of lived experience, as opposed to my psychiatrist who, I assumed, had not tried the drugs he prescribed me.
Many years earlier, a friend and former colleague who was also prone to mania and psychosis said they could feel when it was time to take their anti-psychotics. We both resented agreeing to medication plans that would last for months on end because the side effects would accumulate to the point where being on the drugs was worse than the experiences you were trying to control. The result was that we both put off seeking help until we were really in trouble.
Remembering this, I decided to experiment with an as-necessary approach to my medication. I would take anti-psychotics as soon as I got an inkling of hypomania, but then stopped after a day or two, and I found it produced a grounding effect. Following six months of near total stability using this method, I let my psychiatrist know what I was doing, and he confirmed he was happy for me to continue.
Emboldened and unburdened by the fear and mistrust of myself which defined my twenties, I can now reflect on my experiences of psychosis and mood fluctuations. I see value in them both and I believe that psychosis has instilled in me a fearlessness and self-confidence. I struggle to imagine a challenge as difficult to overcome as being psychotic for a month, during which my identity imploded as I battled against extraordinary irrationality.
Hypomania is an exceedingly enjoyable and productive experience, something I look forward to. Now I understand how to back down from mania and psychosis by choice. I occasionally indulge hypomania without negative consequences, other than being a little too socially intense for some people. I feel extremely grateful that I can experience this ecstasy and I amuse myself with the thought that neurotypicals usually have to solicit drug dealers in order to induce comparable experiences. Furthermore, a convenient aspect of my hypomania is that it tends to kick in when I am under pressure. As such, when circumstances require me to be motivated, there I am, bright eyed and focused, ready to rise to the challenge.
My continuously shifting affect, which tends to range these days from glum dispassion to intense verve, provides me with a multi-modal perspective on the world, a phenomenon that enriches my life. The analogy I like to use is a surfer who, after years of splashing around in the water, has learnt how to ride waves with confidence.
The variability of my mental states, and the insight I’ve had to develop to navigate them, has provided me with transferable skills that prove useful when trying to grasp the scale of difference between my own current mind state and that of another person’s. This, combined with nine years of psychotherapy, has helped me develop a distinctly compassionate and reflexive approach to my work as an animated documentary director and researcher.
Furthermore, I believe my research interest in ethics is partially linked to the psychotic crises I experienced in my early twenties. During this time, I lost trust in myself and developed a preoccupation with earning the trust of others. I compensated for this through developing a strong commitment to the virtues of honesty, reliability, and determination. I try my best to always mean what I say, say what I mean, and do what I agreed to.
Growing up in a neurodiverse household has also shaped my selfhood, theoretical approach, and film practice. My father, David, and brother, Guy, are dyslexic and my other brother, Jamie, has Down syndrome. Jamie’s presence prompted me to contemplate the nature of consciousness from an early age. His learning disability and limited conventional communication mean we often don’t know what or how he’s thinking. My tendency towards philosophising, which Jamie encouraged, has been pivotal to my work.
Although it’s been a long incremental process, this year, I came out as multiply neurodivergent. My Twitter bio, at the time of writing, describes me as ‘proudly #schizoaffective and #dyslexic’ (@AlexWiddowson, 2023).
Fearing stigmatization and discrimination, I had kept my schizoaffectivity private while working in industry. But upon starting the Ph.D., my self-acceptance grew sharply. In the research, we are searching for ways to celebrate cognitive difference through engagement with cinema. Gradually, through participating in the Autism through Cinema Podcast, I have felt safe enough to begin to discuss my neurodivergent history on a public platform.
It was when I conducted in-depth research into the neurodiversity paradigm that I acquired the theoretical tools to rid myself of the shame and fear of discrimination that had previously shaped my identity. I learnt to see my affective shifts, manic experiences, and psychotic episodes as some of the most interesting and influential aspects of my past and present. Despite not enjoying psychosis, I believe my first episode was the most pivotal experience of my life. It was just as much a part of me as the formative moments in my childhood.
My most symbolically important act was discarding the word ‘disorder’ from my diagnosis. As a schizoaffective person, I see this label as an inseparable part of my identity. While it links to positive, neutral, and negative experiences in my life, I see the category itself as a neutral descriptor for a type of person. It’s possible to see psychosis as a temporary neurological experience which, if treated, would not undermine selfhood. While I choose to take medication that prevents this happening again, I feel quite at peace with what I experienced, and regret none of it. In fact, while writing this article I had the first depressive and manic period I’ve experienced in two years, and I can honestly say I came out the other side feeling enriched.
During my lifetime I’ve observed the stigma against dyslexia more or less disappear, but there is still significant societal stigma and ignorance about schizoaffectivity. The neurodiversity paradigm has motivated me to self-advocate, and I’ve come to see the privacy I kept, out of fear of discrimination, as contributing to a culture of oppression. During my Ph.D. I have been able to produce films and written works, not despite being multiply neurodivergent, but, in large part, because of it.
Alex Widdowson is British animated documentary filmmaker and Ph.D. candidate on the Wellcome Trust Autism though Cinema project at Queen Mary University of London.