This blog is about Bink, and her mental illness. Not primarily about mine. Or anyone else’s in the family. Nor any of our other challenges, including our homelessness.
But no disease happens independently of circumstance. This is not only true of mental ailments; I know someone who dates the adolescent onset of type 1 diabetes to parental divorce. And how often have you heard of the occurrence of cancer, hard on the heels of other stress?
So this will inevitably be even more true of mental disease. What we were going through eventually had a devastating impact on Bink’s psychological welfare.
As well as everyone else’s in the family…
Alexander had started at Cambridge University that Michaelmas, 2005.
He wasn’t formally diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome till his mid-twenties, but he (and we) had known for some time that AS was the simplest label with which to announce his differences. It also entitled him to help from the university’s Disability Resource Centre.
Which I had been attempting to engage with for over six months, about the support he would need.
I shouldn’t worry. It was in hand. He would be fine.
Well yes. He might have been.
Had the DRC, and more particularly his college, been willing to work with his family in meeting his needs.
For those of you who don’t have the advantage of living with Alex or someone like him (there are others like him?!) here is a brief summary. Being Aspergic often means:
You have enough to distinguish you from the herd already. Not that Alex minds being different – it’s who he is, after all – as long as it doesn’t result in bullying. (Which, for most of his schooling, it had. From teachers, anyway.)
You may be more straightforward than neurotypicals. You don’t talk in code. If you say something, you probably mean it.
And it’s fairly a safe bet that life has been considerably more challenging for you than for most. You will almost certainly have struggled, and suffered, far more than a neurotypical with comparable talents and abilities, to achieve the same goal.
Getting into Cambridge had taken Alex years of unhappiness and pain. And me, years of worry. Now at last he had been recognised, would feel at home, could meet others like himself.
So I don’t even want to imagine the distress he must have felt, when he received an email advising that every fresher must report to the college office with the relevant A level certificates.
Obviously – to Alex – this meant what it said. A level certificates were not an optional extra. If they were, why would you be told you needed them?
And Alex’s A level certificates, like almost everything else we owned, were now buried deep in several storage containers somewhere in the Heathrow area and hadn’t been seen since we last had a home, the previous year.
Alex, therefore, did what any truly logical, rational person would do. He presented himself at the college office to relinquish his Cambridge place.
I don’t know, nor do I want to, what he went through to arrive at this decision.
Alex had taken up residence in college a month before term, because of having nowhere else to live. This didn’t matter as much as the fact that he only had the clothes he stood up in. Well, he had a spare T-shirt and no doubt more than one pair of boxers and socks, but everything else was in the same place as his A level certificates.
He was a member of the Chapel choir. And the dress code for Chapel was formal.
My father very kindly lent him a suit. My father being an inch or two taller, a few stone heavier and seven decades older than Alex. And had probably owned his suit for most of that time.
Alex needed a suit several sizes too big for him and half a century out-of-date about as much as he needed... well, actually, he did need it, didn’t he? Because otherwise he couldn’t have fulfilled his duties as a tenor in the choir.
But Alex would have found adjustment to university challenging enough anyway, without falling over his trousers every time he processed into Chapel.
Nevertheless, all this, Alex would have coped with.
What tripped him up was the DRC’s refusal to engage with his family.
It is the same old story. Just like Bink, in the Florence Nightingale Unit several years earlier.
Parents are amateur idiots who know nothing. Mothers in particular are interfering fusspots who make nuisances of themselves.
Since early the previous spring, I had been advising the DRC that Alex’s first and most pressing need would for a mentor to guide him through university. He would need someone approximately his age; preferably his sex; and most critically, someone who understood his subject.
Crucially, this relationship would need to be in place several months before he started his course.
Day after day, up in the North of Scotland, after the start of his course, I wrote email after email. To the university; the DRC; Alex’s college. Sitting half inside the airing cupboard, where I could plug my laptop into the telephone socket. Or down on the howling beach, where there was occasionally signal.
Week after week, I was ignored. Told it was under control. Most devastatingly, that Alex was an adult and it was confidential.
Interesting, that, isn’t it: that a student isn’t an adult financially until the age of 25?
Several agonising weeks into his first – very intensive – eight-week term, his mentor was appointed.
A middle-aged woman with no academic background.
“She can be a shoulder for him to cry on,” the DRC told me comfortingly.
A shoulder to cry on? Alex didn’t need a shoulder to cry on! (He had mine, if he did.) He needed someone who understood the Cambridge Maths and CompSci course.
By the time both DRC and his college admitted their mistake, Alex had missed a very great deal of the first six months of his course, and was required to step down for the rest of the year. (They needed time to find a suitable mentor for him.)
Without, of course, his parents being told.
At which point, I grant you, he could have done with a shoulder to cry on.