“I’ve lived in Piddlehinton for nearly 18 years, but I’ve never felt I fit in. I feel an outsider living here – but then again, I’ve felt an outsider everywhere.
I’m 54 now. Although I did tell the bank I was 45 the other day for some reason. I was insistent on it. It comes out your mouth, doesn’t it? And you think, oh my God.
I grew up in Greenwich, Lewisham and it was a couple of stabbings, my mum getting mugged and having my first child that brought us here. Me and my ex-husband met when we both worked in the ambulance service; he as a paramedic while I worked in research. He wasn’t getting promoted, so when an opportunity came up in Dorset he took it.
He was the one who persuaded me to have children. I didn’t think I wanted them – didn’t know what I wanted. I’ve got three now: teenagers. Love ‘em. But I don’t do little kids. When we first moved to Dorchester I didn’t find the move too strange. Having a child under one meant I met a group of girls who I sort of latched on to, which was massively helpful – I’m still in touch with them now. They were from all over, so it wasn’t really until school that I noticed the difference. That I don’t fit in.
I think I’m a very strange person. One, I’ve got the South London accent but I’m quite educated. I didn’t do well at school – was a typical ‘couldn’t be bothered.’ I went to a massive comprehensive in the same area where Stephen Lawrence was stabbed – I used to stand at the same bus stop. I think I just got lost there. I was a typical teenager, more interested in bikes, going out. I crammed at the last minute, then didn’t pass.
In my early twenties I had this wild rock and roll lifestyle, living with a guy in a band. We travelled all over, across America, met loads of people. I used to love telling my daughters about it as I did the housework. It’s become our little catch phrase. ‘Yeah, but look at you now, Mum. You’re just folding laundry in Dorset.’
Eventually I got bored with the partying, following him around, and decided I needed to do something for me. I’d temped in the City but I was the world’s worst secretary – wouldn’t keep a job for more than a week. It was during the IRA bombings in London and I got fed up of not understanding why it was happening; especially as my dad’s family are from rural Ireland, so I got into the history.
One day I saw an advert for Mensa and done the test. I passed that, did a longer one and was invited to join – putting me in the top 4% of the country, or is it the world? I’m in a yearbook, got a certificate somewhere. My dad said, you can’t waste being in Mensa so I went back to Uni when I was 26 – did Historical Studies at Goldsmiths, even though I’d originally only got a grade 5 CSE. My dissertation was on homosexuality and Victorian Britain and I also covered the spice trade, Indian history, American civil rights… a bit of everything, it was a really good degree.
When my ex and I moved to Dorch we initially rented a place but wanted to buy. We bought our house on the Close as it’s right at the end, looking out onto fields. Even now, when I come down the long road and see the space… Oh my God. I tell the kids when we go to London, ‘Look at how many people are jam-packed in here. Compared with at home.’
I always wanted them to have the kind of lifestyle I’d had – which was just out all the time. Where I grew up in Lewisham was a small community. My house backed onto the park and allotments, so I just sort of ran wild. I knew that if we stayed in Dorch they wouldn’t have that. I didn’t want them to be growing up in a garden and that was it. I wanted ‘em to roam.
My husband and I got divorced when my youngest was a babe in arms. And I sort of got stuck here. I’m into the scooter scene and through that met my second husband, Phil. He can be annoying, but he’s also my rock. We’ve learnt a lot from each other. He moved from Kent to join us and we got married two years ago. My two girls definitely feel themselves to be local, but my son clings to the London aspect. He’s never really fitted in – even more so now, as a six-foot skinhead. He and I are into scooters, Ska, the whole black culture. We’re a strange bunch really. We do fit in but we’re always… we’re not rural, we’re not second homers, who are we?
When I was 47 I was diagnosed as having severe ADHD*. We’re most likely all on the spectrum – the whole family. So it’s fun. You can imagine. Actually, I think it’s hilarious. Although it means we’re the house with mess everywhere – the garage door is hanging off its hinges and there’s bikes and scooters all over. The neighbours that you hate to have. I find keeping things tidy is hard. Really hard. And you can imagine all of us are like that. We lose things constantly. It’s a never-ending waste of my life, looking for things.
I’d love everything to look neat but – and I know it sounds ridiculous – there’s an aspect of my brain which means it won’t engage unless it gets instant gratification. I very much live in the now and will put off the ‘boring’ things until they become overwhelming. Then this brick wall appears and I physically can’t complete a task. I’ve lost so much time and money because of it, it’s actually a nightmare. A real disability, when I think about it.
And, of course, an everyday annoyance. A lot of our neighbours are into perfect lawns, and I can understand that. We’re decorating at the moment, first time in 17 years, and then we’ll move onto the outside. Because I do care. But I’m either not well enough to do it, or Phil can’t do it all. I take Ritalin, which helps a lot. It allows me to feel like I’ve come up for air and the fog in my head has cleared. I’ll be able to wash up, put away laundry without even thinking about it. But even though I take it five times a day, it wears off, and then it feels like I’m in a wind tunnel, with life throwing every typical element of the day at me – all at once. It’s exhausting.
My mental health started to go when I was about thirteen. It’s trauma based. (At this point Elise falters, and I see pain ripple the surface of her face as her eyes glisten.) I didn’t realise at the time what had happened – they say I might still be treated for PTSD. When it’s trauma-based, unless you treat it, it will come out and out and out, again and again and again. And that’s what I was finding. I was getting OCD, I’ve got high level anxiety, I’ve got depression.
It’s hard work being as I am, and a mother, and dealing with what I’ve had to deal with. I still have times when I just lose it – and when I lose it, I lose it. My anger explodes. I try and hold it in and hold it in, because I try to be patient with the kids.
My mental health has also lost me friends. It’s really hard. I think I scare people and wish I didn’t. I tried so hard to fit in when I moved here. I was lonely. I’d do the book clubs, I’d try and get on the committees, I was a parish counsellor and I’d try and talk to everyone at the school. But there comes a point… I’ve always been the ‘add-on’ friend and I’m a bit naïve at times. I don’t read people very well and I’m quite loud and quite London and they don’t know how to take me. There are mums on the Close I like, very down to earth. But everyone mainly keeps themselves to themselves, and I wouldn’t say that I had any sense of everyone being in it together, during lockdown.
In March I wasn’t really taking much notice of the news. I’d stopped watching it because it was making me so angry. And then it was like, Oh God, shit, this is happening. I didn’t like it. Anxiety fractures my brain, and I’ve realised that I don’t like not knowing what’s happening. I didn’t know how long we were going to be in for. What was going on. And that really freaked me out.
There were five of us in the house for three months; my son, Cullen, sleeping in the conservatory as we’ve only got three bedrooms. I usually do Reiki in there, and it’s now pants and fags everywhere instead of calm and peace.
But it was all actually okay. I was so worried, thinking we’d kill each other. Because we are loud. We argue. I’ve bought my daughters up to think for themselves. Which is great; but you try parent a teenager who does that. There’s no let up. It’s like being hit over the head with a hammer sometimes.
My youngest daughter, Lili, was so outraged about people complaining about a 19-year old neighbour having a party that finished at midnight, she put up posters around the village. I knew she was doing it, but didn’t stop her. She’s that way inclined and it was the nasty aspect she didn’t like. She’s now a bit worried about going out; although no-one said anything – apart from a couple of older people down the street who complimented her on her grammar.
In the past Cullen has been hard work to live with, but he’d spent eighteen months living on his own and when he came home I saw how he’s really matured and is now a real diffusing aspect. We played board games – Scrabble could get quite loud – and Phil and the kids went out to get food. I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was quite bad at one point and spent a lot of time locked in my bedroom – my safe space. I’ve had some very, very bad periods of OCD and high-level anxiety with intrusive thoughts, and was terrified I’d get ill again. It’s one of the most hideous things you can go through – because you literally see yourself going mad – and I didn’t want to risk it.
So I basically spent three months in my pyjamas, shuffling around a bit. And, yes, that makes me feel awful as a mum. But I’ve always had that. I’ve always had the guilt. The kids would come in and chat. They’re used to it now. My youngest daughter had to learn to cook for herself when she was twelve. Which is horrible.
I once wrote a booklet for them: the mother with the broken leg and the mother with the broken head. It was all about how they start off both being in bed. Then, with the broken leg the mother has a walking stick so you can see she still needs support. But with the broken head you can’t see that, so a lot of the time people expect you to be ‘normal’.
But I quite like the way we are, actually. Lockdown made me realise that we are very much a strong unit. And I’m proud of that. My kids have been through a lot and they’re alright. I’m really proud of them for going on the Black Lives Matter march in Weymouth; Cullen having to explain to everyone the origins of skinheads and Ska.
I loved how calm it was in those three months. Usually we’re always rushing around, dropping the kids here and there, which then causes friction. I learnt to sketch and wrote short stories – although I never finished one. And it gave me the space to work out what I want to do. I’d like to carry on training as a counsellor and work with young offenders; so many of whom also have ADHD.
I’ve also decided that I’m going to do more of what I want from now on. I’ve been living in the backwater of my life, and it’s really tiring, living in my head, being me. I exhaust myself. Although I don’t really know where I wanna live. Probably in a van, travelling across Europe. Or on the scooters with Phil. Loving the freedom, the music, something a bit different.
In many ways I’m quite proud of being a misfit. But of being part of Mensa? No, I’m more embarrassed about that. Anyway, it’s not really helped me, has it.”
* Although ADHD is different for everyone, for Elise it expresses itself as her brain lacking the ‘filter’ that most people have. This means it receives all outside information at the same time – making it impossible to process everything – and she’ll speak her thoughts without being able to consider the consequences.
She’s constantly having to move – even micro movements – and lives totally in the now. Her over-thinking creates anxiety and sometimes causes depression and she generally appears disorganised. However, on a positive note she wouldn’t change it; because it makes her who she is, she’s a quick thinker and her hyper-focussing means she can be very driven.