“Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Well, no shit, Ferris. He couldn’t have been more right, eh? I know I certainly feel like that. I mean, I’m nearly bloody forty! How the hell did I get here?
It’s all gone by in such a rapid fashion. I’ve been doing this nearly 23 years, now. It’s odd, but at times I still feel like that wee 17-year-old boy with the floppy fringe, who first picked up a saw for his trial in early 1995. Oh, and I never broke a saw blade… SKILLZ! Fast forward to 2017, here I am, Director and Co-Founder of The Vanilla Ink Jewellery School and Studios.
You probably know our story. Finding a place in The Hidden Lane, a major crowdfunding effort, building our studios in record time, the launching of our new classes for 2018... it’s all been a huge effort, with an enormous amount of work gone into our new business from both myself and Kate. There’s no way I could have done this without her. I will always be grateful to Kate for asking me to join her on this epic journey and giving me fresh hope for my mental well-being.
You see, if you don’t know, I struggle with my mental health. I’ve always been very open about my battles, regularly blogging about them, with several pieces being published by online magazines. To us at Vanilla Ink, mental health is a personal and important issue. I have been dancing with the darkness for most of my adult life. It’s not been easy, but I reckon I’m on top of it and in control. By God, I still have my bad days though. But working here with Kate, creating this wonderful business, is fantastic for me.
Throughout our Kickstarter campaign, you may have seen us talking about Therapy Through Making. This is something we strongly believe in, with plans to create a programme where we will hopefully help a variety of people, who all suffer in some kind of way from mental illness, giving them a sense of achievement and belief that things can get better. When I’ve been at may darkest, I’ve always found that I’ve been taken away to another world when sitting at my bench. It’s as if I’ve been transported to another realm, free from pain and terrible thoughts. Instead, the intense focus required to create jewellery eases the suffering and brings a little sunshine to the blackest of days.
There is, however, another sting in the tail. Just why was I feeling like this? What could have caused me to suffer all these years?
I made a phenomenal discovery about myself. Through research for one of my children, I realised that I probably was the same. It was a strange experience, but it certainly now makes sense. It explains how I’ve been feeling all these years and why I never felt like I fitted in.
You see, last week, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.
Yep, I’m autistic. It’s been an odd time. But it absolutely makes sense, both to me and my family. Now I have answers to my questions. Now there is peace where there was once confusion. But it’s far from over. I need follow-up appointments and sessions with a psychologist. This has been nearly forty years in the making and I need a little help digesting it. On one hand, I have a little bit of balance in my life as my thoughts and actions are justified. On the flip side, I’m struggling to take it all in. I’ll get there, though.
The process of diagnosis was fascinating. I discovered a lot of things that I didn’t know about myself, which is both curious and upsetting at the same time. But this doesn’t mean that mean that I’m ill or suffering from anything. Far from it. My brain just works a little different to yours, that’s all.
It’s always been there since childhood and I’ve learned to mask it. In fact, I’ve hidden it so well, some of you who know me well will be slightly confused. So, allow me to tell you a secret. This guy you know, this Scotty Mac, the extrovert, the life and soul of the party, the King of the Room, the confident, assertive guy? He’s an act. He doesn’t exist. It’s not me. He isn’t who I really am. To be honest, I can count on one hand the people who really know me. And I don’t mean to be nasty to any of my friends and family when I say that, it’s just that I’ve fooled you all. And I’m sorry.
You see, the real me is terrified. I’m crippled by anxiety, fear and self-doubt. I hate social occasions. I never want to go anywhere, see anyone or actually talk to people. Yikes! I like where I’m comfortable. I like being at home. I enjoy coming to work, to the school that we’ve built, the place I wake up eager to come to each morning. That’s where I properly come to life. I love teaching so much, it’s my happy place, it’s where I can be myself. I suppose this is the odd part of autism – how can I fear social occasions but thrive on teaching? If you find the answer, could you let me know?
But maybe you’ve been at some of my classes? Have I ever gone off on one? Did I go completely leftfield and go on a rant about something completely ridiculous? Have I bored you to tears with my music knowledge (that’s my obsession) or tried to impress you with bizarre facts? That’s the downside! But I suppose it’s what makes me, me?
I also discovered that I monoprocess, which explains my vacant, blank expressions sometimes (Kate will testify to this!). It means that I only have the ability to process information from one source at a time. I can’t stand when someone else talks to me while I’m on the phone, it creates such a noise and fuss in my head. I hate two music sources at once, I hear them both perfectly but can’t split them. It hurts. But the worst of all is in a busy café or bar. I hear everyone’s conversations. And I mean everyone’s. It creates such a mess of chatter in my head that I just shut down sometimes. I can’t deal with it. It’s all too much. Occasionally, I completely flip out and have a wee meltdown. It’s hard to hear the world this way.
It used to happen to me a lot as a younger man. Out with friends in a busy nightclub or pub, the music, lights and chatter would get on top of me and I’d completely freak out. I would never understand why, and my friends were even more perplexed. Now I know why. More recently though, I’ve been avoiding any kind of social occasion with anybody. I know this has caused a great deal of resentment from some people, but hopefully they can understand why. Being out and about is constantly terrifying for me, the new situations, people and noises make me stressed and uncomfortable. There are times when I can cope, but most of the time I just want to curl and hide myself away.
In fact, just the act of doing anything at all can be confusing for me. It’s weird to think that I’ve been this way all my life but just assumed everyone feels the same. For example, a simple action like popping into the shop ends up being hell for me.
“What if I meet someone I know?”
“What if they don’t have the thing I wanted?”
“What if I can’t find it and have to ask?”
“I might knock something over and have to pay”
“I could forget my PIN”
“What if I get the wrong thing and people get annoyed?”
And so on and so forth. I thought everyone thinks like that. I assumed that everyone’s senses screamed at them until it hurts. I just didn’t know.
So, I’m a little different. I process conversation in a strange way. A simple interaction about the weather at a bus stop is awful for me. You don’t even think about it, you just reply that yes, the rain is particularly heavy but at least it isn’t cold. I don’t. I think, analyse, plan. Do anything to figure out why the random stranger has mentioned the rain.
“I bloody know it’s raining, why are you pointing it out?”
All this internal wrangling creates hypervigilance, which means I’m in an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity, accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviours whose purpose is to detect activity. It increases anxiety, which is exhausting, stressful and leads to social errors. And I’ve been doing it all my life. But hey, I’m good at masking it!
I also do a lot of the typical symptoms of autism. I’m not keen on any kind of contact unless I know you really well. My eye contact is terrible, but I’ve trained myself to do it. Sometimes I forget though, and my eyes wander. I like things to have a place and not move from there. That’s why nobody is allowed at my bench! I have a ridiculously high level of attention to detail. I’d never thought about it, but this is why I’m such a good goldsmith. And I obsess. Oh boy, do I obsess over things! It drives my wife, Karen nuts!
Life certainly does move pretty fast. I now know I’m autistic, but I have an amazing wife and family who support me. I also have a genius business partner, and I’m part of Vanilla Ink, the brightest and best damn business on the planet. What’s not to like?
The doctor described me as a chameleon, as I’ve been blending in to every situation I’ve ever found myself in. I hide, conceal and fit in wherever I can. Well, I no longer have to be a master of disguise. It may just take a little time for me to take off my mask.