Why I Left England to Live at a Dumpsite in the Philippines: a Brief History of Roy; ADHD, Depression, and a Lifelong Passion
When I meet new people one of the first questions they ask is why I came to the Philippines. And when they find out I live at a dumpsite, why I live in Payatas.
With some big announcements lined up for the Fairplay for All Foundation (FFA), I decided to write a couple of blogs to tie together a bit about 1) my history, 2) how FFA began, and why we do what we do. and 3) what’s next for FFA.
A Brief History of Roy
So first off, for those who don’t know, I’m Roy. I’m English, which despite many people’s insistence does not mean I’m American. Nor from London either.
I grew up in Leyland, a small town up North of around 40,000 people. Nothing much happens there, though Leyland Motors built a lot of the trucks. You’ll sometimes still see ‘Leyland’ on trucks. Oh, there’s a Tesco too.
I was the middle child, I have an older sister and a younger brother. Growing up we were working class. By English standards, that meant I was playing a SNES years after the Playstation or XBOX had come out. It meant sharing a room with my brother. We always had something to eat, we were safe, fed, and watered. Importantly my parents always made sure to show they loved us.
My parents were also smart with our homes. When they first got a mortgage to buy a home they renovated and sold it for a decent profit. Every couple of years they bought a home in a better area, renovated it well (my Dad is a joiner and did most of the labour himself), and sold it, riding the property boom. Doing this my family moved into the Middle Class. Their income is about the same as before, but they drastically improved the home and got capital from that.
ADHD: Attention Deficit, Hyper… Squirrel!!
Kids: if anyone tells you that you have ADHD, pay no attention
Because of the constant renovating and selling, we moved around a lot. For a kid that can be tough, especially when you add in that I have ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder). It’s not just changing your home regularly, it’s changing your friends. Back then ADHD wasn’t so well known, and not very well treated. My Mum did me the biggest favour by not having me diagnosed as a kid (I was diagnosed in my teens). She was a nurse before we came along so knew something was different, but didn’t want the repressive treatments and drug addled kids that meant (and often still does).
Rather than a deficit disorder, it would be better to call it an ‘attention abundance’ – though the acronym AA has already been taken so maybe a different name. People say deficit because the kids typically don’t function well in a school environment. It appears they can’t focus. But it’s precisely the opposite; what any other authority figure is telling the kid to focus on is usually boring for any child. Imagine being forced to sit in a seat for 6 hours a day to learn about something you had no interest in. A ten year old has no practical use for division or correct grammar in their daily lives. With ADHD you have that, plus a thousand more interesting thoughts running through your head. They’re focusing on so much more than what the teacher is saying and the lessons get lost in an abyss of more interesting things. If the child can’t focus on the lesson, it’s not the child’s fault. The lessons are boring. The child isn’t broken, the system is.
To prove that a bit more, Thomas Edison, Richard Branson, Jamie Oliver, Michael Phelps, Jim Carrey, Ryan Gosling, Adam Levine, and so many famous, talented people all had/have ADHD. ADHD, like many so-called disorders, can be incredibly useful when understood and utilized, when the child is put first and things re tailored to the child. It’s how I can juggle a charity, a Master’s degree, journalism, coaching, and a bunch of other stuff thrown on top. People with ADHD see the world in a different way, and that often allows incredible insights that we wouldn’t have any other way. Unfortunately traditional school doesn’t care much about those insights, it only cares about their curriculum.
So I couldn’t keep still as a very young kid, couldn’t make eye contact with people, or socialize properly, because I was constantly interested in other things. One time that meant I ended up in a sewer. Somehow as a four year old I’d pulled off a manhole cover and ended up stuck for almost an hour before my Grandmother found me. I don’t know how many times my brother would patiently build something before I’d go into the room and within seconds destroy it from curiosity. My parents would be sitting down somewhere to see me run through, closely followed by my brother screaming ‘IDIOT’ in a way only he can. Most of this is very normal, but in a kid with ADHD and most kids will have times when they’re hyperactive. With ADHD, though, it’s all the time.
To be fair, I have also purposely annoyed my family out of boredom. On the way back from Wigan with my Dad and brother, a 20 minute journey, I sang 99 green bottles. My brother got annoyed immediately, so I carried on to see what would happen. My Dad tried to calm him, saying I’d give up. 90 green bottles later and they’re silent, fuming inside. As we pull into the driveway, it times perfectly with me finishing the song. My brother gets out of the car, screams ‘IDIOT’ in his special way, slams the door, and storms off. My Dad shrugs at me with an annoyed look and says “well you are”… and I crack up laughing.
But mostly as a child it was unintentional, because with ADHD you have to learn social cues consciously, among other things. So while children will have learned to adapt by a relatively young age, as a child with ADHD you don’t understand why you have to eat with a fork, or what personal space is, and it takes longer to understand this.
You also don’t grasp consequences as easily, or because of dopamine rewards you take more risks. Like when I jumped out of a tree house at 7 years old because I’d watched Power Rangers for the first time (I was usually banned from watching such things). Flinging myself into the air for a flying kick against no particular imagined enemy, my small 7 year old body fell from about 7 feet, my leg got caught on the washing line, span me back up, and I landed on my arm. The bone snapped and came through the skin, needing a bunch of screws and 6 weeks in a cast to fix. No regrets though.
One of my favourite stories my parents told me about my childhood (I remember very little of it) was in Primary School (Elementary). It was story time and the rest of the class were sat listening. I lay down on the floor, my feet propped up on the wall, and was fidgeting a lot. My teacher shouted at me, ‘Roy, what did I just say?’ Word for word I repeated it back to her and she didn’t know how to respond. After all I was listening. I like that one because it shows what ADHD is. You’re paying attention, but what’s going on outside isn’t enough, you need more stimulation. A school typically teaches everyone to sit still and shut up, so the teacher can give a lesson prescribed by some government employee with no understanding of education at all.
In many ways I was fortunate that I had constructive areas to put my energy. At Primary School I would beat the Principal at Chess during recess, play football over lunch, and after racing through the lessons in class I was sometimes allowed in the library to read whatever I want.
Others aren’t so fortunate. If you don’t show the traditional intelligence required at school you’re forced to keep doing it over and over. Then people assume there’s something wrong with you for not learning. The ones who struggle most are put on medication to get rid of their fidgeting and excess energy. Instead that medication turns the energy inwards. Instead of running round the garden, that energy is running round their head, doing a lot more damage than pulling up a few flowers. It’s easier for the parent or the teacher, but it makes it much harder for the child.
As a result of medication, the child often ends up hating themselves and has more suicidal thoughts. Current medication is experimental, and doctors are often paid to prescribe it to kids and to adults. There’s a massive disconnect between the child’s best interests and what makes money. Unfortunately money is winning. One example is Glaxosmithkline’s anti-depression drug Paxil, which GSK’s own research showed was causing suicidal thoughts and behaviours in kids. Nevertheless they gave kickbacks to Doctors to prescribe it to children.
And that’s the system, it’s not a one off. Trovan, one of Pfizer’s drugs which killed children in Nigeria, is the inspiration behind the film the Constant Gardener. And the lines between corporations and medicine have been blurred permanently, War on Want produced a report ‘Nestle kill Babies’ about their outrage at how Nestle dressed their sales reps as nurses to convince the poorest mothers in the world to give up breast feeding and buy powdered milk instead, while now Nestle’s CEO says not even the poorest people in the world have a right to water as they try to privatise water.
To erratically jump back to ADHD, though, originally I never intended to write about it but ended up with 1,000 words. It still affects me of course; I can start writing/doing something interesting and realize it’s now the evening and I haven’t eaten all day. Mostly, it’s incredibly useful. But that’s after years of understanding it and myself, of working out how it can work for me. As a child it can be incredibly hard, when adults are directly and indirectly saying you’re a problem and punishing you and you don’t understand why.
Things may have got a lot trickier at High School. I joined the school’s football, basketball, rugby, and cricket teams, as well as extra-curricular table tennis, badminton, chess, cricket, and lots more football. But that still wouldn’t have been enough. School isn’t stimulating, it’s not designed to be. It was designed to turn kids into obedient factory workers, and it hasn’t been updated since. Check out Ken Robinson’s TED talk for more.
Many good teachers are caught in the middle, equally frustrated with what they have to teach and how. I avoided the full minefield of High School with ADHD, though, because fortunately at this time I developed depression, which took away most of the excess energy. Unfortunately… I developed depression.
Those with ADHD are more prone to depression, partly because of the brain’s chemical, partly because of more frequent social rejection. I was obviously very unhappy. Ultimately it all stems from a lack of self-worth, you feel incredibly isolated, as if no-one understands what’s going on.
I didn’t tell my family anything, I shut them out. My depression developed and lasted throughout High School and I’d consider it wasted time if it hadn’t developed a lot of decent attributes, ways of seeing things, and if eventually I hadn’t broken from it.
My family are incredibly religious, too, as in the world was created in 6 days. My Mum would smile and praise us as really young children when we buckled Jesus in the car (mixing her two biggest obsessions of God and making sure your seatbelt is on). The community we were exposed to was all religious, so this seemed normal to us.
But the worst element is Original Sin. You’re taught from birth you’re a sinner, you’re told you’re worthless without Jesus. People say without God, they’re nothing. No matter how many times your parents tell you they love you it can never undo the harm caused by the evil idea of Original Sin. An adult may have the abstract reasoning to understand this more, but to a child you’re telling them they’re nothing by themselves – they have no value unless they have God, and if they somehow lose God they have no value. It only creates fear, guilt, and totally undermines self-worth.
A Question of Justice
During this time, though, I saw a lot more of what was really happening to most people in the world. How the biggest factor determining what happens in your life isn’t how hard you work, your grades, how skilful you are, or any of the meritocratic lies our society tells. What most determines what happens in your life is where you’re born. Nothing means more than the random luck of where your mother popped you out – not even who your mother is.
I couldn’t understand how no-one else seemed to care about that. I heard a lot of talk about how God loves everyone, and as Christians we love everyone, yet it seemed we did the opposite. We were allowing people around the world to starve while having big Sunday roasts and giving ourselves a pat on the back for how many ‘souls’ we’d saved. It was messed up.
Understanding why the world is this way became an obsession for me. Who cared what the circumference of a circle is, what could matter more than the basic survival of the majority of people on the planet? I owe my Maths teacher an apology there as he bore the brunt of a personal essay about how pointless Maths is, when the issues were my own. But the question remains far more important.
This obsession with understanding the world, though, carried into College (A Levels). That was where I developed the structure and organisation to plan things thanks to a lovely woman in study support. Gradually breaking free of depression (a whole other story), I continued studying why the world was this way. That’s where my energy and attention became focused and I studied it intensely.
Onto Uni and like many Oxford rejects I went to the University of York for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics – which was a very good program. First, though, I took a gap year.
More Fun in the Philippines?
And to cut a long story, well still very long, that’s where my connection with the Philippines began. Until then it was another country in a textbook. But before going I had met Craig Burrows who ran a Children’s home, education sponsorship program, and more in the Philippines as he was a friend of my Uncle. I knew I wanted to volunteer for my gap year, but I didn’t know where. And like the cure for an agoraphobic, the answer was waiting just around the corner.
I also went to Kenya afterwards, working with the charity of a woman I knew at a former Church. Both were fantastic experiences. In the Philippines I learned a lot, while in Kenya I was trying to implement some of that – and learning as a result. Ultimately I was still a naïve Western student, that’s part of the process, and like most volunteers I got more out of the experience than the charity.
So after three months in the Philippines and then Kenya I went to York. I took my second year on exchange in Singapore, at NUS. During the Summer I volunteered in the Philippines and again loved my time there.
On both occasions in the Philippines I stayed at Mango Tree House, a children’s home for orphaned, abused, and neglected kids. These are kids who have gone through so many horrible things in life. Through the charity I met kids born in cemeteries, kids prostituted, children beaten from a young age, some of the worst things you could imagine. Yet their resilience, hope, and happiness are amazing. By any Western idea they would be on a thousand different drugs to get through the day, but these kids were happier and better equipped than almost anyone I knew back home.
So on the day of my graduation, June 15, 2010, as everyone else was suiting up in their gowns for graduation, I was on a plane back to the Philippines.
So this is what I always wanted to do. To be involved with helping improve the lives of those who deserve it the most. To wrap up this rather long brief history, that’s why I came to the Philippines, and Payatas It’s why I live at a dumpsite, why I spend my time researching the best ways to develop the community, and why we live that out.
Finding Your Passion
I was lucky enough to understand what my passion was at a young age. With my hyperfocus I can dedicate myself to researching, studying, and most importantly doing development. For others, it takes time to find their passion. And that time searching is invaluable. Better to spend a year or two searching for your passion than to spend your whole life never knowing what it was.
Imagine you’re 90 years old, and your life is about to end. You’re on your deathbed looking back on everything you’ve done. What would make you feel fulfilled? What would you look back on and smile about?
For everyone it’s different. But usually the things that mean the most to us are in service of others, whether making our partner happy, providing for our kids, volunteering and giving regularly.
I appreciate that I’ve gone a long way round in explaining the reason why I’m in the Philippines. But you learn more in the journey than the destination. So that’s the end of the first part of this story, why I’m in the Philippines. Soon I’ll be writing about the Fairplay for All Foundation and what’s next for us (I promise it’ll be shorter).
In the meantime, if you want to get involved with the foundation you can get your own Team Philippines jersey, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to visit, donate, volunteer, or have any other ideas. More on all that in the next chapter of the story.
“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” – Winston Churchill