Simon Brodkin – often in the guise of alter ego Lee Nelson – has showered cash over Sepp Blatter, gatecrashed Kanye’s Glastonbury set and supplied Swastika-emblazoned golf balls to Donald Trump. But the comedian has re-evaluated who he is and why he behaves as he does after receiving an ADHD diagnosis.
The Big Issue:When did you suspect you suffered from ADHD?
Simon Brodkin: In all honesty only from the moment my doctor diagnosed me six months ago. I always knew I was a bit off kilter. I mean not many people get arrested six times and can call it a career. It was only when I started learning more about ADHD, I had my jaw-drop moment. I started crying as I listened to an ADDitude podcast on my way to the gig and heard a doctor listing the sort of things his patients experience. I just couldn’t believe it. Suddenly my whole personality was explained. It was as if someone had been watching me my whole life then written out my personality and called it a disease.
You’re a qualified doctor – couldn’t you diagnose yourself?
I wish I could have. The fact that I didn’t and had no awareness of it despite going through medical school being a junior doctor – and always being interested in mental health – shines a real light on the lack of education in the medical community.
What was the process of getting a diagnosis like?
It took a couple of decades longer than it should have! As a kid in school I was thrown out of so many classes, felt unstimulated, couldn’t concentrate lots of the time. I was told off, often punished and told to just focus more. But of course that didn’t help – it would be like telling someone who’s blind they should just look where they’re going more often.
It’s very hard for people with ADHD to care about something that they’re just not interested in, and I was very lucky that when it came to my A-levels I decided it was something that I wanted to work hard on. I stopped messing about in class (as much) and smashed it in the exams, and ended up at medical school.
You either care deeply about something and give it everything, or if it doesn’t interest you, you give up on it and don’t engage with it at all. It’s a very common path with someone who has ADHD. Sadly, many people who are in prison today are people with ADHD who never found something that stimulated or engaged them. Had I been less fortunate and gone to a worse school and had parents who weren’t able to keep encouraging me and supporting me, maybe my arrests would be for very different things.
My year as a junior doctor was very challenging, partly because I was no longer getting drunk with my mates every week and actually had some responsibilities – a nightmare for anyone in their twenties. Clearly something didn’t feel right as I gave it all up to become a comedian.
Does having an official diagnosis help?
Absolutely. It means everything to me, especially because I had no idea I might have had it. I’ve been officially diagnosed by a doctor, not one of those people you meet at a party who are like, “I think I’ve got a little bit of ADHD.” It’s only with mental health that people self-diagnose. You never get, “Oh my god! You’re pregnant? I’ve always thought I’m a little bit pregnant.”
Although ADHD is massively under-diagnosed I worry people claiming they have “a little bit of ADHD” means the whole condition gets treated less seriously. Our understanding of mental health is so minute in terms of where it will be in the future, people will look back and laugh. I think mental health knowledge is at the same stage as where our physical health knowledge was a couple of hundred years ago, before we understood a link between hygiene and health.
A lot of people will be avoiding seeking help because they don’t feel it justifies the time of their doctor – what would you say to them?
Do it! Do it! Do it! That’s what they’re there for. Thinking that you don’t want to bother them costs lives every year. If you have mental or physical problems no matter how small you think they are, speak to your GP. It won’t do you any harm and at best it may save your life.
The NHS is struggling, but it still works and allows free access to your local GP. It should be possible to get an appointment and if it’s not, move practice. It’s like moving banks, easier than you imagine.
Has learning you have ADHD, alongside your exploration into your Jewish and Russian heritage, shifted how you understand yourself?
Yes it has. And thanks for raising all the other areas in my brand-new stand-up show I’m launching at the Edinburgh Fringe! It’s called Screwed Up and it’s all about self-identity. As if being diagnosed with ADHD wasn’t enough I then found out I was Russian! I mean, could I have picked a worse time?
Simon Brodkin’s show, Screwed Up, is at the Pleasance Courtyard, Cabaret Bar, Edinburgh Festival Fringe August 3-27 (excl 15) at 9.40pm. Tickets: simonbrodkin.com @stevenmackenzie
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