Life Lessons

Life Lessons

L’oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal

A long time ago I wandered down a path, not knowing or even caring where it would lead. One step after another, one day after another, each much like the one before.

I had no real cares and I suppose that means I was happy. I never had a plan, you know? Never could picture any future except as a continuation of today. So I’m left to wonder at how I somehow got from there to here.

A tenuous thread of fallible memory is all that connects the grown woman sitting here writing these words to that child: how do I begin to explain the path I took? So much time was spent simply drifting along on favourable currents.

Parents and school didn’t prepare me for my life. Nobody handed me a map with my route helpfully pencilled in, or planted signposts to guide my steps.

Nobody taught me what it means to love somebody so deeply that you feel your heart torn asunder every time they hurt, or that you wouldn’t trade that pain for anything because the joy that comes with it lifts you to such heights.

Nobody taught me that there is an emptiness inside that you carry every day following the death of a loved one. That all the things you wish you could have said and done would continue to haunt you down the years. That missing someone so much kicks the breath out of you and leaves you gasping for air through your sobs of anguish.

I know now, as a parent, the strength of the drive to shield your child from the pain and hurt. To protect them from all the things that have hurt you. But I also recognise the futility of that. Indeed, I understand how such experiences are a normal part of life and open us up to much greater empathy for others.

Not the trauma though, never that.

That’s one life lesson I’d have happily played truant for. While joy and love and sadness and, yes, even grief all form part of the richness of life, trauma has no compensations.

So much wasted time, spent in fear and being made to feel that I was to blame. Spent in insecurity because I was more afraid of the unknown I’d face if I left, afraid that I couldn’t cope on my own. Spent believing that I was alone because that’s what abusers do to you through gaslighting and insidiously isolating you from potential support.

It’s so incredibly hard to come back from trauma. The effects–the scars–run deep and heal slowly if at all. My mind was reshaped by it, leaving me much more susceptible to anxiety and depression, and less able to cope with some everyday situations. In a very real sense, I’m not the same person I was before.

Recently I found myself in a church. It wasn’t planned: my particular friend and I were doing the tourist thing in Montréal, took the Métro to Côte-des-Neiges and walked up to St. Joseph’s Oratory. In the crypt church there we sat in contemplation, and as I reflected on my life I found my tears were flowing.

Not a religious moment, but certainly a spiritual one: I felt a release as if a weight had been lifted from me. When we moved on to the adjoining crypt with its ranks of votive candles I found myself in front of a board on which I noticed a single word: forgiveness.

Feeling a resonance within that moment, I decided to light a candle as a way of marking it. When talking it over later with my friend, they said something that seemed to fit: forgiveness is something we do for ourselves, not for the other person. I wasn’t forgiving the person who subjected me to emotional abuse; I was forgiving myself, absolving myself of blame for what was done to me.

I have other things I carry with me: the burden of bad choices. Times when I acted out of anger, frustration or selfishness. Times when I didn’t live up to my own moral and ethical values. Hopefully in time I will be able to forgive myself for these too.

The lessons of life hopefully teach us the knowledge and skills we need to survive and grow. I have learned no hidden secrets, no mystical arcana. What I have learned is that making the world a better place most often comes down to small kindnesses rather than grand gestures, and an important part of that is being kind to yourself.

Finding My Voice

Finding My Voice

Looking back through my school reports recently prior to my autism assessment, I was reminded how seldom I used to speak to anybody. One of the earliest labels I acquired was shy, and my teachers in comment after comment expressed their belief that I could go far if only I would talk more. Or, indeed, at all in a lot of situations.

The contrast between that and my assessment report which mentions my tendency to talk too much and go into too much detail is remarkable. So what changed?

There isn’t one single factor that helped me develop my self-confidence. Rather, it has been a combination of changes in my life, the most obvious of which has been my gender transition. Since reaching the point where I’m comfortable with how I look, I’ve become less self-conscious which translates into a more confident presentation.

I’ve also, with help from my wonderful daughter in particular, got out of a toxic relationship where I’d been controlled. My new-found freedom has enabled me to get out and about, spending time with friends. Indeed, it has allowed me to develop close, supportive friendships, where before I wasn’t able to due to restrictions imposed by my former partner.

As my support base has grown, so has my confidence in my own ability. I’d been gaslighted for years, told that I was no good at certain things, that I could never manage on my own. I believed it, and so was trapped in that situation by my lack of self-esteem and self-belief.

It’s been hard to break away from that dependency, and I didn’t get out unharmed: the trauma of living in fear for my safety has left me with mental health problems. But even so, I am definitely better off than I was before getting out.

Most of all, I can be myself. It took a long time to get here, but I found out who I am. For years I tried to be the person I believed those around me wanted me to be. I wore a mask that had been designed by others, and it didn’t fit. When at last the chafing became unbearable, the woman who emerged from behind that mask into the light of day needed a little time to find her feet. To find her own voice.

And I have. A voice that draws from all my experiences, all that brought me to where I am today. My voice.

AIM for the Rainbow

AIM for the Rainbow

Many of you will know that I am on the board of Autistic Inclusive Meets, an organisation run by and for autistic and neurodivergent children and adults to provide services and support, as well as actively campaigning to improve lives.

Well, I have exciting news: we’re picking up an idea we had in the early days of AIM and launching AIM for the Rainbow, a part of AIM that will focus on the particular needs of autistic and neurodivergent LGBTQIA+ people of all ages.

I’m especially proud to be involved as an autistic bisexual trans woman. I intend to make this the kind of resource I wish I’d had when I was growing up. Information, support, and connecting with your peers are of the utmost importance when you’re discovering your own gender and sexuality, so we want this to be a safe space where people can do this without fear.

We’ll be collecting links to resources that we personally trust and endorse. We’ll share our stories, and those of others like us. And we’ll be working to improve the lives of all of us under the rainbow.

It’s going to be great. We’re aiming high: we’re aiming for the Rainbow!

#Brexit – A Letter to my MP

#Brexit – A Letter to my MP

Dear Ranil,

I’m contacting you as one of your constituents [address redacted] because I have grave concerns regarding the handling of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

My daughter is [age redacted] and has been living in Sweden for about 18 months with her Swedish partner. [Personal details redacted] the continuing uncertainty regarding her status as a UK national living in a EU country after the 29th March is causing her immense distress. Nobody, not the Swedish authorities and certainly not the UK government (it seems) are able to provide guidance as to what will happen to her.

I also have concerns regarding the preservation of the Good Friday Agreement in the event that the UK does not manage to avoid coming to the end of the withdrawal period without an agreement in place. I remember all too well the IRA mainland bombing campaign, the bombings in Manchester and Warrington especially since I grew up near Wigan and my father worked in the city centre of Manchester in a street that saw damage from that blast. I rightly fear a return to those days if the peace agreement that has lasted half my life is not protected.

My feelings about the unutterable folly of Brexit aside, I urge you and your colleagues in parliament to seek a rapid conclusion to this sorry episode so that we can all finally have some stability in our lives. After promising strength and stability, Theresa May triggered Article 50 without any clear idea of what our future relationship with the EU would look like, and she has led the UK into some of the most turbulent times I’ve experienced in my 45 years. I am watching in dismay as our global reputation sinks below the waves that surround us.

The past two and a bit years since the referendum have been truly awful. I’ve felt constant anxiety and I’m not sure I feel like I belong in this country given the isolationist direction in which it is heading. I have ties of friendship and family across Europe (and beyond) and having my EU citizenship taken from me against my will feels like a betrayal, and not one I think I can easily forgive.

Yours,

Alexandra Forshaw (Miss)

Nobody’s Puppet

Nobody’s Puppet

I heard about the play, All in a Row, the other day. Specifically, I read what the writer had to say about deciding that the character of an autistic boy with “challenging behaviour” could only be portrayed by a puppet.

I know so many autistic people who have dedicated many years to overcoming society’s prejudices, fighting against the dehumanisation and othering of autistic children and adults.

And then we saw this. Among a cast of real humans, played by human actors, the single autistic is indelibly marked as an outsider. Perhaps he can, like Pinocchio, dream of one day becoming a real boy, but for now he’s cast out of humanity.

It’s hard to express just how painful it is as an autistic person to see someone who is essentially like you–the character with whom you have the most in common–portrayed this way. To be dehumanised, an empty, soulless shell incapable of any thought, feeling or expression, whose every action is in response another’s command.

This is the very embodiment of the prejudice and, yes, even hate that we face in our autistic lives. We live the reality of being labelled emotionless, incompetent, unfeeling, thoughtless. The agonising wounds of our experiences are opened afresh by this careless action, by seeing this puppet represent every insult levelled at us by our bullies and abusers.

And that is why using a puppet to portray an autistic person among a cast of human actors is unacceptable.

An empty boy with empty head,
My only life is what you bring
In gift each day, my will is yours.
I go where you direct my string.

What do you see inside this shell,
Behind this vacant glassy stare?
Could anybody care enough
To ever see the person there?

I didn't ask to be your puppet
To play this part that you defined.
Am I lost, forever other,
Denied my place with human kind?
Attachment

Attachment

I’m very attached to this scarf. What a strange thing to say! After all, it’s not tied to me or glued to my hand. Except…

Even without looking at it or touching it–if I appear to ignore it for days at a time–it’s here with me. It’s connected to me, attached by invisible strings of memory and emotion to my mind and my heart, to my very soul.

I look at it with eyes that span decades, seeing it adorn my mother in far-off places and times. The threads of the fabric are intimately woven with the threads of my memory, inseparable.

When I hold it I am holding my own history, holding a piece of my mother close to me, holding her even though she’s been gone all these years. Gone from life perhaps, but still very much alive in me.

Objects and memory are entwined, carefully packaged, wrapped in each other so that they will be protected and preserved.

Of course it’s still a scarf, not a museum piece, and I wear it often when winter’s chill is in the air. With its gorgeous crimson, russet and bronze, and the silky sheen of its fabric, it whispers seductively to my sense of beauty and I love it in its own right.

It would feel wrong to let it languish in a drawer, unseen. My mother was very sociable, having a wide circle of good friends, and enjoyed being around people. To see and be seen. And so it feels fitting that I wear this scarf, let it be seen.

Objects can be cherished and cared for while also being used. To me their value comes not from being pristine, but from having a history. Each association, each memory, each attachment adds some intangible value beyond price.

In the case of my mother’s scarf–now my scarf–the value might only be fully apparent to me. Others might admire it as a desirable accessory, but its deeper connections are mine alone. To me it’s unique, priceless, irreplaceable.

I could never let it go, except to my daughter in her turn. It represents a family bond back through time. This object is tied in to my fondest memories, embroidered with the love between my mother and me, and I’m far too attached to part with it.

I Know I’m Autistic So Why Get Assessed?

I Know I’m Autistic So Why Get Assessed?

“You mask it very well but you’re definitely autistic.”

This, essentially, was the outcome of my autism assessment yesterday. So no surprise to me or anybody who knows me. The obvious question is, “Why choose to get assessed at all when you’ve known you’re autistic for more than 10 years now?”

The answer lies, as so often, in what employers and medical professionals will accept as authoritative. In this case, my own word based on extensive reading, analysis and consultation carries less weight than that of a duly-designated medical specialist who had a couple of hours to review the results of a selection of written tests and speak to me about my experiences.

My pursuit of this assessment was for a personal reason: it was to provide evidence of the validity of my claim to need assistance and adjustments in my working environment to reduce the obstacles I encounter. I don’t believe it should be a requirement for access to such accommodations. Maybe that makes me a hypocrite for bowing to the demands of a system I feel is unfairly exclusive.

It was still a relief to hear their verdict: I won’t lie about that. It’s always reassuring when somebody else sees the same things you’ve seen and comes to the same conclusion. I would prefer if none of this were necessary, that appropriate accommodations would be provided as a matter of course based on a person’s own assessment and declaration of their needs.

In fact that’s pretty much my situation right now, stating my own needs, except that this magical piece of paper imbues my words with sufficient borrowed gravitas to pass the gatekeepers. In simple terms: if I wave this document in front of the people I need to convince of my needs, it dispels their doubts that I am speaking honestly.

The thing is, it actually doesn’t need a professional to get involved to identify when a person is autistic. Indeed, in many cases it’s not a professional who first recognises the signs. I knew I was autistic for all those years leading up to a professional agreeing with my own assessment. To me, and to the overwhelming majority of the people around me, my own assessment was perfectly valid.

I didn’t seek or need the outcome of my clinical assessment to validate my own knowledge that I’m autistic, and I stand by all the other autistics who know for themselves. Self assessment (also called self diagnosis, but I’m not keen on the word ‘diagnosis’ with its implication of illness) is as valid as clinical assessment, and it’s time it was fully and widely recognised as such.

It’s Hard to be Different

It’s Hard to be Different

At school I would watch as the other kids played
Left out on the edges and that's where I stayed
Forever the outcast, forever afraid
It's hard to be different, take it from me
It's hard to be different, take it from me
The skills I was taught served me poorly in life
Like holding my tongue, the obedient wife
But never a word about facing a knife
Learning compliance was no good to me
Learning compliance was no good to me
I've taken the beatings, got bruised blue and black
Scarred deep in my mind after verbal attack
So well did I learn that you never fight back
Obeying their rules didn't go well for me
Obeying their rules didn't go well for me
The ones who oppress us stand guard at the gates
I knelt and I begged just for scraps from their plates
The loss of my dignity painfully grates
The autism industry don't speak for me
The autism industry don't speak for me
I've heard about heroes, I've listened to songs
Of fighting injustice and righting the wrongs
But my heart it won't heal until it belongs
Autistic culture is something to see
Autistic culture is somewhere to be
If you want to help your people then stand next to me
If you want to help our people then stand up with me

(To the tune of Working Class Hero)