180: Growing Up Feeling “Other,” Part 1, with Jonathan Joly

Picture of hosted by Penny Williams

hosted by Penny Williams

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Our culture has come a long way with acceptance, but there’s still so much further to go. We’re still very much a society based on conformity and normalizing everyone. I don’t have to tell you, but that simply doesn’t work. What happens when we keep pushing people to be our definition of “normal” when it isn’t who they are? They end up feeling “other” – unheard, unseen, and misunderstood.  

This is the life Jonathan Joly describes in his new book, “All My Friends Are Invisible.” Growing up with ADHD, dyslexia and questioning his identity, Jonathan felt that there was no tolerance in the world for a kid with, what he calls, my “crazy mind” and differences. So he had to create a world where he was valued more than in the real world… a world in his imagination. His invisible, imaginary friends allowed him to be 100 percent himself, without judgment, bullying, and shame. 

There’s so much for parents of neurodivergent kids to learn from Jonathan in his story, and in the way he parents his own children. He talks about how he didn’t finish school, but went back later and got a university degree and graduated with honors, how there’s a freedom to embracing who you are, and the coping mechanisms that he created and used to keep going in a world that rejected him.  

This is one of the most emotional, moving, and inspirational conversations I’ve had. I know you’ll find it impactful too. 

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My Guest

JONATHAN JOLY

Jonathan Joly was born in Dublin in 1980. After several torturous years of childhood bullying, abuse and chronic misunderstanding from both adults and his peers, he was sent to a school for children with emotional difficulties. On finishing school, he floated from one career path to the next, eventually landing at university to study multimedia. It was here that he met Anna Saccone, and in 2009 Jonathan and Anna started creating YouTube videos about their lives from their small flat in Cork, Ireland. Over the next twelve years, as the couple married, had children and moved to the UK, they became one of YouTube’s most beloved families internationally. Across their social channels they now have over seven million devoted followers and friends. All My Friends Are Invisible is Jonathan’s first book.



 

Transcript

Jonathan Joly 0:03

So I decided I would try going to university did a year I came top at a class. It's a second year topic class got accepted into a huge University in England. Everyone's telling me like, you're incredible. You're really smart. You're genius. You're great. And I was like, This is so strange, because when I was in school, you're gonna believe this. But everyone told me I was stupid and useless.

Penny Williams 0:26

Welcome to the beautifully complex podcast, where I share insights and strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids straight from the trenches. I'm your host, Penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author and mindset mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your a typical kid. Let's get started. Welcome back to the beautifully complex podcast. I am really, really honored and excited to have Jonathan Joly here to talk with us today about what it's like to grow up feeling other in many ways, and how that is affecting our kids so that we can understand better, what their experience is like, and how to help them and how to guide them to being their true selves to be who they really are, and be very comfortable in who they are. Thanks so much for being here. Jonathan. I'm so honored to have you on the podcast. Will you start by letting everyone listening know who you are and what you do?

Jonathan Joly 1:32

Yeah, thanks for inviting me on. My name is Jonathan Joly, also known as Jonathan Saccone, Joly, a lot of people would know me for the fact that 14 years ago, I was one of the early adopters of the internet and YouTube. And I started sort of documenting my life. Definitely what I have learned were one of my ADHD traits about me is just my inability to just chill and just not, do 10,000 things. And I think, when I found the internet, it was a perfect way for me to sort of exercise and allow me to kind of like, over indulge my overthinking mind. And they did that for 1012 years. And then we started from that we fell into, Instagram and Tiktok, and Facebook and all the other platforms. And then last year, I wrote a book called All my friends are invisible. And it was just sort of, I think, during lockdown, or really sort of, I don't know, I don't know, it was either locked down, or it was me hitting 40. But it was one of those milestones in my life, that made me sort of like, pause for a moment and think, who are you? You know, and I had to answer myself the question, it took me a year, and the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, because I am dyslexic, and ADHD. I didn't finish school because of those reasons. So I've never had like a traditional education. So when the idea of writing a book came up, I was thinking, No way, am I going to be able to sit there and actually achieve that. But I it took me a year, but it did actually do it. I did probably enjoy more reading the audiobook, because I find audiobooks. Perfect balance for me.

Penny Williams 3:10

Yeah. And why don't you share a little bit about what you share in your book more about your story maybe and growing up feeling other I know, you've used that terminology. And I think it's such a powerful message and you're sharing more than your story, you're so vulnerable, and really sharing a piece of yourself by being so open, it's so impactful for others. And I think, so many parents, like me, really struggle to understand our kids experience, they are different than their peers, and they're very aware that they're different than their peers. And they're struggling with that. And, and we want so badly to help them. But we don't always know what that's like, or how to help. And so I'm hoping you can share a little bit to shed some light on that for us as well.

Jonathan Joly 3:59

I think, it came with the idea of telling that story. And if any of your listeners have read the book, or maybe they should think about reading the book or listening to the book on Audible, but I found that like, I don't think I had ever planned on sharing that story. You know, I taught you know, that world donde and those invisible friends and those relationships I had like I was contented with the idea of keeping that to myself forever. You know, because the world can be a little bit toxic. And it can, it can kind of bring darkness to light. But as long as you keep the light hidden, no one will ever know about it, and then it's safe. And then I noticed you know I have I ended up with four children. I have four children, and one of them started having mental health problems and another one started having identity problems and the other two little ones are too young so I'm just waiting for that roller coaster to begin. And I started to you know, because it was during lockdown.

I started becoming there like Council And I started, using my own experiences with two very different experience two different things that they had. And I was able to sort of, like, help them out and and then I would start telling them stories about my worlds and my imaginary friends and my imagination and how I felt and you know, and then it sort of resonated with them. And then I started to notice that they were improving, by me sharing, relating to their story and realizing that you're not alone. Because we all feel very alone, when we're sad, or we're triggered, or we're, spiraling you always feel like you're the only one. Yeah, and then my, my child said to me, why don't you tell other people your story? Why don't you tell anyone about this? And I was like, Oh, I don't know, I'm too afraid, I don't know if I want to, and they're like, Well, you tell us and it made us better. And I was like, okay, and I kind of I went to create a children's book about, a very sort of superficial level of the story. And then I ended up accidentally telling the entire story, because once I sort of opened the box, we all we all have that in our minds, you know? Yeah, my mind is funny, because I wouldn't say I have a photographic memory, but I have an emotional memory. And I can tap into emotions from, 1020 30 years ago, some parts of the book people have asked me to, like, how did you remember those things. And I'm like, I didn't remember them.

But I remember the emotion attached to the event. And once I sort of tapped into the emotion, I felt like I was in a time machine, that I could just step into a time machine because I had so much unresolved emotional trauma from my childhood. And he was, all I did is I put it in a box, and I stored it away in my head. And I thought, well, I'll never deal with this, so I'll just leave it all here. And then yeah, I started to unbox it. And as I went through it, I sort of started to rekindled a relationship with these invisible friends that I had, and I started, it was brought, right back into my childhood. And suddenly, I could feel everything, I could remember every every injustice, every time I was spot on, and hit on and punched. And, and I just, I felt like, so it was all overwhelming, and then I decided I was just going to just write it all down, and I knew I knew what I was doing. I was like, this is a terrible idea. Because you're sharing your safe place of life, you're sharing the thing that you you said, you would never ever, ever, ever share. You know, because it's easy to share on the internet and social media, it's easy to share your life. But when it comes to, our happy place, when you close your eyes at night, or via AV experienced as the more the place you go to when you do that, or the place you meditate, I you know, the spirit guide that you have, there's so many ways of describing my connection to the invisible.

And I just, I didn't want to share it, but I did. And then, it's been an interesting experience as people have read it, because you can read it from the aspect of, the mental health element, I don't know what chapter number it is. But in 1989, I considered ending my life. Because I just I couldn't understand no one, no one would listen to me, no one would understand me. You know, I was experiencing high levels of anxiety. I was being triggered by depression. But this was a time when mental health wasn't being discussed, that people wouldn't consider that the emotional complexity of a child, how can a child be depressed? What have you got to be? What if you got to be unhappy? You know, you don't have bills to pay your and, and now I have children. And I look at them and think, yeah, they have everything they could ever want. But yet, they struggle with anxiety, and they struggle with depression, and they struggle with identity, and they have all these things that are absolutely nothing to do with us as parents. You know, it's just the way they're built and how they choose to interpret emotions, interpret social experiences, it's just, it, there's no guidebook to how you can raise a child without mental health because mental health is part of our brains. Yeah, it's like, some people are good at maths, and it's like, oh, well, don't you're good at maths.

And some people have, crippling anxiety. Yeah, it's not something that they can fix. I think you know, me personally, I find CBD very helpful. Yeah, things are a lot easier now. Like, but you know, I in my 20s, I found an alternative, illegal way of settling my mind, but it really bothered me because I was made to feel I was a criminal then right, but all I was doing is that I was just, I was just trying to manage my mental health. And unfortunately, the country I lived in, said, that's a criminal offence to do that. Right. Right. Oh, so I'm thankful that today. And I know in some parts of America, they've even gone much further and they've made it legal. So I'm a great believer in that.

Penny Williams 9:56

Yeah, yeah. It was medicine for you. Yeah,

Jonathan Joly 9:59

But I had to struggle for, over 25 years before I even figured out what that was. And then I had to, go through a phase of like, for me, I think it's funny because I dropped out of school, because everyone told me in school that I had no potential. You know, I wasn't, because I couldn't pay attention. And, what I did really enjoy doing was like, writing and coming up with stories and writing poems. You know, I was just like, I was a dreamer. Yeah, I enjoyed living in my imagination more than I enjoyed living here. Hmm. You know, and if you read the book, you kind of get that whole essence of that I was torn between two worlds, and I lived in my world donde, where everyone was great. You know, all my friends were really nice and really attentive and cared about my needs. And then when I flick back to the real world, it was so brutal, and I think, again, for your listeners who don't know me, I am a non binary person. And as I grew up in Ireland, in the 80s, Ireland is very, very conservative. It was basically run by the church and state, there was no divide between both of those.

So they're very strict on how people acted and presented. And I knew I felt a little bit queer, but I knew it was something that there was no tolerance for, as well. So there was that compounded on the fact that I had all these mental health issues. But then on top of that, I'm also made to feel that, like, all those thoughts in your mind when you think that you're a girl, but you're not a boy, that's very confusing. And then you're being told how you act and how you think is wrong. It was just really bad timing for me to be born. Yeah, I get it. Yeah. Cuz it just, I just think, coming full circle. Now, having a child who has presented as a trans person and is now kind of come out as a trans person and change their identity. And I've been dealing with that now with from a parent perspective on like, my parents who dealt with it as the parent, and they looked at me and they taught, yeah, you just need to keep that in the inside. You just you can't share that. You can't tell anyone about that. Yeah, and, and every time I would express it, I would find myself being punched and spat on and told I was a mistake.

You know, and I was like, Okay, so the world tells me, I'm a mistake. And the people who are supposed to guide me in this world are spitting at me and reminding me that what the boys in school are also doing to me, is also telling me that everything is wrong. Yeah, and then, it's like, at the end of the day, I don't want to spoil it. But I made a choice that either I could not live anymore, or I could live but I couldn't live as Jonathan anymore. I had to be somebody else. Yeah, so I had to like, put away my invisible world. I had to leave my friends, I had to become someone else. And the moment I became someone else, and the moment I started was like, oh, you know what, I'm going to be really good at sports. Because that way, boys won't be mean to me. And it worked. It worked very, very well. You know, and then I got lost in this projection that I created for myself all the way up until 40. You know, and then I started to realize what I had done. And I was like, oh, no, I've lived a lie my whole life.

Penny Williams 11:47

Hmm. So powerful, your story. And there's several things that you signed that I'd love to expand on a little bit, that resonate with me,

Jonathan Joly 13:30

Part of having ADHD means I don't know when not to stop talking.

Penny Williams 13:34

And yeah, your story and just sharing it is so amazingly powerful. I know I keep using that word, but it is. And I think there's a lot of power for you in that too, right? There's a lot of healing, probably in that self reflection.

Jonathan Joly 13:50

It's a mixture. But fortunately, a lot of people aren't unfortunately, with the political climate and things that are going on culturally, there's a lot of vested interest in my story not being read, and people like me to just stay quiet. You know, and that's really hard, because, like, as I explained, how I grew up, and how the world told me to be, it took me 30 years, from the moment I decided when I was around 14, to become somebody else, and then lived all the way up to 40. And then I felt or maybe the world was ready, maybe I could sort of sneak out and become me, and as soon as I did that, I was very quickly reminded of all the things I was told as a child, or unfortunately, are still being told to me today. That is not real. You're making it up. It's, you know what I mean? It's not true, you're gay. You know what I mean? Like, it's just people say all sorts of derogatory things to me because they can't understand that, being somebody like me, is different to you.

And that's okay, because we're all different, and we all should be allowed to kind of You know, to revert, I feel like I was happy to stay on labeled when I first mentioned that I wasn't, but then people was just so confused by it, said I said fine. Yeah, like non binary is the only thing that makes sense to me because I don't feel like a boy. But I don't feel like a girl, but I look like a boy, but I'm happy as a boy, maybe as a child, I definitely wanted to transition to a girl. But that was never allowed to happen. And maybe, being a non binary person is because I was shown so much, so much that I can only be what I am that maybe I just got used to that idea, but then that doesn't affect my sexuality, because, but sexuality and identity are not, they align themselves sometimes, but not always.

And then the melding of having a mind like mine, which is just, sometimes you don't know what's real and what's not, but either way, when people say, like, my, my naysayers would say that, like, oh, Giselle and Dom de and somebody characters from my book, it's not real me, and I'm like, well, it is to me, and it saved my life. And, when I opened that box, two years ago to write the book, they all came back, and they're still here. And I still talk to them. And I know that makes me sound really crazy. But to me, it's like, it brings me peace. And I'm like, I'm really sorry, I put you guys in our box 30 years ago. And we even when I think about that idea, like I got really upset like I, I filmed that diary, when I was writing the book. I haven't like published it or anything, if you do, I was just filming of myself and I cried so much, because every time I talked about the fact that these people are the only people when I was a child, that made me feel somewhat normal. I'm like, I'm getting all emotional. And then I, the world told me for 30 years to ignore them. And I did that. And now they've come back again. And now the world's telling me again, you need to ignore them. You know, and I put now I'm, like, 40 years old, and I'm a lot stronger. So I can kind of push back and say, I don't want to ignore them, like, they bring me peace, then it's like, well, now you need to be cancelled, because you're not doing what we're telling you to do.

Penny Williams 17:19

So you're still getting all of that really negative messaging about being authentically yourself. Yeah. And yeah, it's so tragic. And I know, for, for our neurodivergent kids, they are getting that messaging constantly, especially in school, school is an activity of conformity, let's all fit in this box, let's all learn the same way, let's all act the same way, let's all you know, sort of dress the same way, it's very much about the success. And that successfully looks one way. And so our kids are getting very similar, negative messaging to what you're talking about. And we're constantly telling them that either they're not good enough, because they're not able to maybe perform academically, like their same age peers, or we're saying that, they're too emotional, right, they should put that away. And you're so right, it's culture, its culture, and then that we're raised in that culture.

So as parents, that's what we're taught. And it's so hard sometimes to break those habits. And so a lot of the work that I do with parents is just, you have to put all that away, you have to put away anybody else's expectations. And you have to raise this individual that you have, who are they, and giving them permission, not that anybody needs permission to be themselves. I really don't like using that word there. But that was what came to mind. But you know, giving them permission to be totally themselves to do and be and learn and grow in whatever way is working for them and brings them the most peace and joy. And we don't do that as a culture, certainly, which is exactly what your story is illustrating. But as parents like, we have to step in, and we have to change that narrative for our kids as much as we possibly can.

But the similarities there, between growing up with a different identity may be or questioning your identity, but also not feeling like you fit like so many kids with ADHD or autism or anxiety, depression, learning disabilities, they don't feel like they fit and what you're talking about, and just listening to you talk is so resonating with me for my own son who's 19 now but he struggled in so many of the same ways. And it's interesting because at times I've seen him sort of try to escape and not be himself to try to build a different reality for himself maybe online. And I'm realizing that that is sort of self preservation, right. It's him trying to protect who he really is, from sort of being attacked or destroyed. Does that make sense to you?

Jonathan Joly 20:20

Yeah, I think you'd set that M near a diversion children are kind of this has been echoed to them right now, and they're told all the time, that they've, they're mistaken. You know, which I think is interesting, because I did drop out of school, because school told me I was wrong. But then at 26, I found myself in university, and I found myself in university because I kept getting fired from jobs. Because I just, I just, yeah, I just, I couldn't work. You know, I, I couldn't do anything. Because I'm very good at convincing people. I'm somebody I'm not. But then very quickly, after getting past the initial interview, or even in relationships, it would always eventually kind of come crashing down. Yeah, because I was not the person I said I was. But I'd become a very good chameleon at pretending I was different people.

So I decided I would try going to university. As an adult, I didn't need my, my school didn't matter why he didn't school anymore. It was just an interview. So I went to do an interview. And then they let me they said, Yeah, you can try on the course we can do a year on the course. And it did a year, I came top of the class, straight into second year, second year, top of the class got accepted into a huge University in England, moved over to England, everyone was telling me like, You're incredible, you're really smart, you're genius. You're great. And I was like, This is so strange, because when I was in school, you're gonna believe this. Everyone told me I was stupid and useless. And then in university, because you keep telling me, I am intelligent, I started to believe you.

And then the more I believed you, the more I sort of, became graduated as a first class honors and, throw my hat in the air. And I'm like, but I, I was told that the best thing I could do in life was to become a carpenter or our sweep stores or work in a shop or, something that wouldn't require me to use, what I mean, my mind is much just a sort of a trade is the best you could hope for. And then suddenly, I'm in this like, other world, and I've been told these other things. And I'm like, wait, hold on. So school obviously didn't appreciate the way I spoke, or the way I taught, but university did. So when my children when my children may be struggling in certain areas of school, I'm like, Yeah, but you guys are really, really good at creative writing. And you guys are really good at expressing yourself. And you're good at this. And you're good at that. And unfortunately, school doesn't really value people the same way. It's sort of just like, you need to all be good at A, B and C.

Penny Williams 22:53

It's a system of conformity. Yeah.

Jonathan Joly 22:57

And I am a child who is terrible at ABMC. My wife, who went to school was one of those kids that got into newspaper because she just like, absolutely smashed it like she did so well in school. Her father was in Italy, he was a commander Toria, which is like a night, because of his involvement in history literature he worked in in John Hopkins University, hitting incredible careers that as a professor, and then his daughter went on in school, but the minute she stepped into university, she just crashed and burned. Yeah, and she just couldn't do it. And between both of us, they always say, well, at least both of us, we have the kids covered because Anna did amazing in school, I crashed and burned. She crashed and burned the university would I succeeded, so between the two of us, you know,

Penny Williams 23:44

Yeah, the experience in school for our kids who are different is so awful. You know, my son has been so traumatized by his school experience and just not feeling like he could be himself. I mean, that's truly what we're talking about. So often, when we talk about the ways that our neurodivergent kids struggle in school, it's that they're not allowed to be themselves. They're asked to do things in a neurotypical fashion. They're asked to sit and learn in a neurotypical fashion. They're asked to show what they learned in a neurotypical fashion, right? They're not allowed to inject creativity. They're not allowed to do it in their own way, where they could shine, and they could feel like they were capable, right, the messaging that you were getting as a child was, you're not going to amount to anything, because you can't do this in the way that we say that you need to do this. And it's so unfortunate, because if we would just open our minds and hearts and let kids do things in their own way and be themselves, they could really shine and thrive. Every kid could.

Jonathan Joly 24:57

Yeah, I think for my generation No it born in the 80s. And now it's like, the Internet to me was like, especially back in the early adopting period of the internet, I found a way of making an income and it's the longest job I've ever had. I've never been fired from this job. You know, I've actually enjoyed doing it, and I do it in such a unique way where because of my uniqueness in my the way I think and how and in the stuff things that I say is what people are interested in. Yeah, I couldn't go to work and do a job. It's funny, because people will say to me, now, you have a very successful business. I'm like, I don't have a successful business. I don't want to be the CEO of my business. I, I'm the creative director, and I pay accountants and lawyers to run the things that I just don't understand. Tax VAT, and insurance and pension Forget all that. I'm the ideas, man, yeah, that's what I like doing, and I really enjoy it. And I try and instill it in my children.

Because I do see that there is this there's something about the school period where, you're, you're handed as sort of a default friend group. And the friends that kind of like, surface to the top are the children who are most people find conformity the easiest, yep. Right. And they're the ones that then the teachers say to them, Oh, you guys are great. And then they sort of favor those children, and then the sort of different tinkerers, they kind of get pushed to the outskirts, and they're made to feel that, you guys are different, and you guys don't know how to be the same as everyone else, or you're not good at sport, or you're a different, you might be good at this. Or maybe you want to choose to express yourself a bit darker, or something. And then I always say to my daughter, because she's, she's the one that kind of is definitely leans to the dark side. And I'll say that I'm like, Yeah, but, in 20 years, I'm telling you, you we who you think right now is most likely to succeed, it's not going to be that way.

You know, I'm like, succession and success. You know, they're, they're very different things. You know, like, to me personally, I don't value success with a monetary thing. I know, because I have a large following. And a lot of people like to talk about me, people think that, you're driven by, making money and having financial wealth. And to me, it's like, no, it's about freedom. I work hard, in order to be allowed to exist the way I am. The alternative for me, if not doing this job, means that I would have to go and conform. Because, right now I have the freedom not to conform, because I am my own boss, which brings a ton of other problems, but those other problems are okay for me. You know, because if it suits, my core problems, and my core problems is my inability to, conform, then then I'm, I'm okay, with all the other hassle and stuff that comes with it. You know, it's kind of hard to expect anyone listening, who gets me who's like me, is like, yeah, I get that.

Penny Williams 28:09

Thanks so much, Jonathan, for being here. And sharing not only your story, but part of yourself with all of us. It's a really tough thing to be so vulnerable out in the world. And we're so appreciative that you are doing that because I know that we as parents are hearing things that we can relate to in our own kids. Even though some of your story isn't really about your ADHD or dyslexia. We're hearing a lot of relatable stuff for our own kids who are neurodivergent. And we are going to come back with a part two. In the next episode, Episode 181 will be part two of my conversation with Jonathan. And we're going to talk so much more about those coping mechanisms and other things that I know you will find relatable, and maybe even really insightful about your own kids. So I hope you'll stay tuned for that next week. Thanks for joining me on the beautifully complex podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share. And don't forget to check out my online courses and parent coaching at parenting ADHD and autism.com and at the behavior revolution.com

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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I'm Penny Williams.

I help stuck and struggling parents (educators, too) make the pivots necessary to unlock success and joy for neurodivergent kids and teens, themselves, and their families. I'm honored to be part of your journey!

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Join me as I help parents, caregivers, and educators like you harness the realization that we are all beautifully complex and marvelously imperfect. Each week I deliver insights and actionable strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids — those with ADHD, autism, anxiety, learning disabilities…

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