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Shappi Khorsandi: ‘I’d tell my 16-year-old self, you have ADHD. That’s why you failed your GCSEs’

Comedian turned author Shappi Khorsandi discusses racism, meeting her hero Billy Connolly and overcoming the odds in her Letter To My Younger Self.

In this week’s Letter To My Younger Self, comedian turned author Shappi Khorsandi recalls her difficult school years, coming out as bisexual at university and her father’s reaction to her novel.

At the age of 16 I was extremely shy and quiet. I had very, very, very long, very thick curly hair that I hid behind. I was self-conscious about my weight. I couldn’t talk to boys easily. I just sort of hung out with a few girlfriends and went to a lot of indie discos.

I only got four GCSEs because I had undiagnosed ADHD and dyslexia, but I found a – complicated – route to studying drama at college. Though I was shy I was very determined to do that.

At that time racism was only talked about in the context of racial slurs. Or duffing people up in an alleyway. We didn’t have the vocabulary we have now to describe the much more subtle racism that even the people who were harming us weren’t aware they were doing. It was either you were called the P-word or you weren’t.

It was a very difficult thing to bring up, when people were overtly racist towards you and called you slurs. There was a shame around it. I witnessed my parents getting it and it wasn’t anything we ever talked about.

It felt like there was no one to go to, to talk about how it felt, and that feels awful when you’re young. It makes the world feel unsafe.

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2010 Shappi joins her fellow stand-ups for Channel 4’s Comedy Gala at the O2. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

When I was 16 I made friends with a lovely gay boy in my area. And I remember a bunch of people came up to me and said, “Do you know what he is?” That was the first time I saw homophobia, So at 16 I became quite a militant gay rights activist – that became my cause, my identity. I went to gay rights marches, Pride.

I immersed myself in the gay cause, as we called it then. I went to university and I joined the gay society, and came out as bisexual, which wasn’t received well in the Nineties, I have to say – either in the straight community or the gay community – so I went straight back into that closet.

We felt in literal danger as children. In 1984 terrorists were sent over from the Islamic Republic of Iran to shoot my dad [exiled Iranian poet Hadi Khorsandi].

The plot was foiled but that was quite a trauma. Growing up, my dad was my hero. I was always being told how brave he was. He was very proud of me. He kept telling people: “Shappi really cares about the gay people.” He was very proud that there were these people I was sticking up for, without understanding that I felt part of them.

It was a big deal for me to be a writer like my dad. The other day he was at my house, holding my book Kissing Emma in his hand, saying, “Look at what you’ve done. You’ve written a whole book.”

He doesn’t have the concentration to write a novel. He understands things haven’t always been easy for me. Sometimes he’ll say, “Shappi had no one to help her. She was a kid of two foreign people who were so consumed by what was happening in our own lives we didn’t have the time to navigate her through school, or understand that she had dyslexia and ADHD. We just left her to it.”

It was really lovely to know that he saw that, because I think we all need a bit of validation from our parents, even when we’re 48.

When I left university all my friends were getting jobs and I thought there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t fill out a CV, and I knew that whatever job I’d have I would never have a boss. Not because I thought I knew better, but whenever I’ve had a boss, it made me feel really stupid and frustrated. I could never understand how to toe someone else’s line. I never lasted in any jobs; I just couldn’t focus. So I worked as a cleaner and a life model because those are jobs you can do while you’re daydreaming. And I very much needed to be locked in daydreams.

When I had kids, that was really difficult because children interrupt your daydreaming. Learning how to navigate that was quite a journey, let me tell you. 

Shappi Khorsandi Image: Heathcliff O’Malley

If I could go back to me at 16 I would tell her… Oh, it makes me cry because it’s been so hard to not be diagnosed till very late in my life. I would say to my 16-year-old self, you have a neurological condition called attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. That’s why you failed your GCSEs.

That’s why you feel awkward socially, and that’s why your decision making is so hard and doesn’t adhere to any boundaries or values. ADHD is the reason why you will have bulimia, and why you will start to binge drink and have a bad relationship with alcohol because eating and drinking will be how you self-medicate to quieten down your mind.

The proper way to quieten down your mind is with the help of the psychiatrists and a good therapist and medication. And then you will feel like you’ve come out of prison.

When I got married, my parents were disappointed. My dad didn’t understand why I got married when we lived in England and you can easily co-habit. He wouldn’t walk me down the aisle, because that tradition doesn’t exist in Iran, and when I explained the significance, he said, “So I give you away like you’re a cow? I’m not going to give you away. I can’t. This isn’t me.”

And my parents, like all my friends, could see that I wasn’t in the happiest place in that relationship. My best friend took me aside quietly when I was dating and said to me, “Are you happy, because you’re not yourself around him.” But I ignored the fact that the man I was marrying had fundamentally different values to me. I went against my own values. And it ended in divorce. 

The first thing that comes into my mind when I think of good things to tell my 16-year-old self is: “Guess what, we have a golden retriever! You got the dog you dreamed about.” And I’d also say to her, you are a professional stand-up comedian. That’s what she wanted to do.

I’d love to say to that anxious 16-year-old girl, who wasn’t gregarious or confident – you did it. It was really fucking hard but you did it, and it’s so much fun.

There are still people I meet and I can’t believe I’m meeting them. I was at an awards ceremony aftershow party once and I just stood and stared at Billy Connolly, because Billy Connolly and Richard Pryor, in my humble opinion, are the greatest comics ever.

He saw me staring and he understood that giving a comic like me a moment of his time would give me a precious memory for the rest of my life. He came over with a chocolate-covered strawberry and said, I brought this for you, and we had a silly conversation about chocolate strawberries that lasted about 20 seconds.

Then he kissed my hand and said, I’ve got to go now. And off he went. And I thought that was the most humane, most compassionate thing, to understand how happy you can make someone by just saying hello to them. If I could tell my 16-year-old self that one day Billy Connolly’s going to come over to you at a party and give you a chocolate covered strawberry… that would be a very big deal for me.

If I could go back to one moment in my life it would be when I got an A in my English A-level. We went down to the school and looked through the big results sheets pinned up in the hall. I was queuing to look at my marks, and a teacher came up to the girl next to me, face full of joy, and said, Emily, you got an A for French! And Emily jumped up in the air and she was so happy. And I was like, Oh my god, how wonderful! Imagine being able to go home and tell your mum that, imagine being the sort of person that gets an A.

Then I looked at my English result and it said, A. And I thought, well that’s wrong, I’m looking at the wrong line. So I followed it with my finger. And it was an A. I’d never got an A before. I couldn’t believe it.

I’d been told I was stupid and lazy all throughout my school years. Getting that A was like my certificate to prove that the people who told me that – they were wrong. 

Shappi Khorsandi’s book Kissing Emma is out now (Hachette, £7.99)

@Janeannie

This article is taken from the latest edition of The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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