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.

Alexandra Leaving

Alexandra Leaving

I’d thought about leaving so many times. Going back through some old posts last night, even back to when I first started blogging, it was abundantly clear to me that I had been feeling depressed, lonely and trapped for years.

It was something I discussed occasionally with people I trusted. Not that I had many of those. But I was always more scared by the uncertainty of the unknown than I was of remaining somewhere that didn’t feel like a home. My fears always drove me back.

I tried. But it’s hard when the love you once had has been replaced by fear. Too many angry outbursts, too many times when my needs were dismissed, too many times when my anxiety reached overload. I tried to explain but when I never knew how what I said would be received it was impossible to be completely open and candid.

Even when I did manage to speak up, the import of what I was saying became lost in translation. These weren’t shared feelings or experiences; I might as well have been speaking a foreign language. Situations where my daughter or neurodivergent friends would grasp it immediately, not need it to be spelled out in detail.

In the end it had become obvious that living in that place with that person was harming me. Day by day my mental health was declining with anxiety and depression making it difficult to function. I was struggling with work, I was struggling with self care. Well, not just struggling: I was failing.

I knew the signs. I’d been through similar times before although every time it happened it brought me further down, hurt me more, killed another piece of my soul. So this time I asked for help. I went to my doctor, I referred myself for counselling. And I talked at length with my daughter.

At my second counselling session I all but broke down in tears as I described how I felt, how a steady drip, drip, drip of teasing, controlling behaviour, threats (even when later retracted) and aggressive actions had built up to the point where I didn’t feel safe. It doesn’t matter what the motivation was, whether harm was intended: it was emotional abuse and it did cause harm.

I explained how I was afraid of losing my job because my mind was in too much turmoil to focus. I explained how every time I tried to think of what I needed to do to get away I quickly became overwhelmed with the magnitude of it all.

My counsellor was brilliant. She helped me organise my thoughts so that right in the middle was my goal, “To Get Out” and around it were the factors that I needed to address.

CounsellorBrainstorm
The actual brainstorming chart my counsellor made in our session

I came out of there feeling enabled, that this was something I could achieve. I phoned my boss at work and explained everything (and I mean everything) to him. Because I was that anxious about it I came straight out and asked him if I still had a job to get back to: he reassured me. I felt so much better after that.

In conjunction with my doctor I worked out a schedule that would get me back to working regularly, and my boss was very supportive, saying that I should do what I had to do, take as much time as I needed, and asking if there was anything I needed from him or the company.

So, knowing my job was secure I went to my bank to see about taking out a loan for setting up a new home, which went through without a hitch giving me the funds I needed to cover fees and buying furniture.

My daughter helped me look for a new place, and we made a shortlist. I prepared myself and managed to phone up and make appointments with the letting agents to view two of them, the first on the very next day which was a Saturday. To cut a long story short we both loved the first place we looked at and I started the process of securing the lease.

Just two weeks after that viewing I got the keys and moved in to the place I’m sitting in now, a month later. My home. And it really does feel like home. It’s a lovely flat in a beautiful location, but more than that it is a nurturing environment where I feel comfortable and safe.

To borrow the most apt of phrases, it is as if I have come through an unseen metaphorical door. As if I escaped from a cage to live in freedom. My counsellor was in shock at the speed of the change in me: she had never before seen somebody go from tears and hopelessness in one session to joy and optimism in the next.

I’m not the kind of person who worries that it might all be a dream and on waking I’d be back to the harmful existence I had before. I know this is real, that this is my new life. It feels like a rebirth, even more so than my gender transition. I’ve broken the shell that confined me, emerged from the egg and I’m stretching my wings.

I’ve said before that I never managed to live independently. I’m not independent now. Oh, I can feed and wash and clothe myself, and I can do the things that need doing around my home. But I also have a network of friends who I can turn to if I need support. I live by myself but I am not alone.

My friends on Facebook and the people I work with could see how happy I was when I got out of the situation I was living in: a relationship that was ultimately toxic and slowly killing me. I got my drive back, my motivation. I started to enjoy working again. I got up in the mornings feeling ready for the day.

And then, a week ago today, I was sitting here. Well, actually sitting and feeling restless, then getting up and pacing, then trying to sit again. My thoughts going round and round: should I? Should I not? A dilemma: do I tell someone how I feel? Is that fair to them if they don’t feel the same way? Might I ruin a friendship? Could it even work?

I talked to my daughter. I talked to a dear friend. I knew what I wanted to do, but I needed to work up the courage to take that chance. The emotions were so powerful that I was overwhelmed. But in the end I sent my message.

And then I waited. Minutes have never passed so slowly, a lifetime between each tick of the clock. They responded! This person I have fallen so much in love with loves me too!!! And so I am flying, lifted high by the joy of love.

Two people who felt some spark between them, who are both starting to grow and learn who they can be at a point in their lives when that had no longer seemed possible. It’s a wonderful experience to be sure, but how much better it is, how much more meaningful and joyful when there is somebody with whom to share the journey.

 

Reach Out, I’ll Be There

Reach Out, I’ll Be There

Yesterday evening (UK time) I posted a status on Facebook where I set out how I was feeling due to depression and anxiety.

Just venting here.

I’m exhausted. My anxiety keeps flaring up with no obvious triggers, the depression is with me more and more. I’m getting seriously eye-rollingly sick of feeling like this so much of the time.

I’ve got some seriously strong urges:
– To run away to old, familiar places.
– To lock myself in somewhere safe, curl up in the fetal position and stay there.
– To just sit here and cry.

I’m feeling kind of trapped. I feel like I’m failing. I’ve not got the strength left to keep on fulfilling my responsibilities. But there’s no escape, no respite. I don’t want to play any more but the merry-go-round won’t stop and I can’t get off.

It wasn’t generally visible: I restricted it to people I feel safe sharing more sensitive, personal things with. And, typically, I worried that it might have been attention-seeking.

I had not slept well all week; I somehow unproductively scraped through a day’s work with the assistance of much music, and was feeling enervated and pretty hopeless. Again. I think that it wasn’t so much attention I wanted as just a little acknowledgement. A bit of solidarity to help me feel less isolated.

I never used to reach out like this. I would keep it all in and try to handle it on my own. Well, I was prepared to do that this time too: I was seriously weighing up the pros and cons of self-harm. The knife is still where I put it, within easy reach. I didn’t need it in the end.

Reaching out worked. I never used to have any kind of network, any group of friends I could turn to for support when I was struggling. In recent years this has been getting steadily better. I still feel a reluctance to impose the burden of my feelings on anybody. But they are a compassionate bunch and what I received was caring and supportive.

They helped me reach the point where I could make an important decision: to visit my brother. It was something my daughter and I had talked about. We both feel a connection to that part of the country, a link to happy times in the past. In a way this really is fulfilling one of the urges I felt: running away to an old, familiar place.

I phoned my brother, checked when he would be around, and then organised what dates my daughter and I could manage. Suddenly I had an escape, the promise of some respite, and I started feeling positive. I messaged one of my best friends to share the news: we ended up chatting for hours, well into the night!

I slept well, cuddling my plush toy penguin as usual, and woke up an hour before my alarm feeling better than I had for ages. Before lunch the time off work was booked, as was the hotel. I can’t deny I’m feeling incredibly excited about the trip.

More than anything I am amazed by how much different I feel just within 24 hours. To go from despair bleak enough to make cutting myself seem an attractive option, to this hugely positive feeling of anticipation and excitement. I wish I could bottle the feeling and save it for the next time.

I know I will feel down again, the depression is always there in the background. It’s not a case of, “Hello darkness, my old friend.” Circumstances affect my mood: it swings between highs and lows. But the highs don’t shine a beacon of hope that is visible from the depths, and the lows don’t drag me down when I’m soaring. All I can do is live in the moment and respond to it in whatever way I am able.

But one thing I have definitely resolved to do is to make time to keep in touch with my friends and, as much as I am able, to go and meet them, spend time with them. They are well worth the effort.

I Support @Sonnolenta

I Support @Sonnolenta

The story so far: this open letter on a friend’s blog calmly and rationally asked a number of the chefs from TV’s Iron Chef and Chopped to consider alternatives to Autism Speaks (AS) when supporting autism charities and autistic people. It sets out the well-publicized issues with AS’s repeated negative portrayals of autism and autistic people as tragic, broken and a burden on the rest of society. Portrayals that strongly suggest the lives of autistic children are defined by suffering; that carry the unspoken presumption that it would have been better if autistic people like me and many of my friends had never been born.

Please take the time to read Cristiana’s letter. It was written in response to her autistic son’s reaction to discovering that chef Michael Symon was to donate $50,000 to AS. She pleads from the heart as well as the head for autism organizations such as ASAN and AWN to receive the recognition they deserve. Let me be clear: she is not demanding that anybody cease their support for AS just on her say-so. Rather, she sets out the evidence to support her case, and asks that the reader makes an informed decision based on that.I’m posting this to signal boost because she could use all the support she can get in this. If you agree, please add your voice to hers and show that we are not just a few isolated individuals but an active community.

Thank you.

Does Mental Illness Scare You?

Does Mental Illness Scare You?

The brain is a mysterious organ. Unlike the heart, lungs or kidneys, its workings are shrouded in a veil of complexity. For all that we know about the chemical and electrical activity it exhibits, for all our mathematical models of neurons and synapses we simply cannot fathom how its activity gives rise to self-awareness and consciousness.

Throughout history most people have viewed this consciousness as a uniquely human trait. Yes, we are learning that this is not the case and other animals also have consciousness, but the idea that the human mind is special persists.

Many people cherish the idea that we are set apart from the rest of life on earth, that we are more important as a result of the functioning of our brains. And perhaps this is one reason why mental illness carries such stigma.

When other organs malfunction modern medicine can often repair the damage, or even replace the damaged part (heart valve replacement, pacemakers, kidney dialysis, transplants). There is confidence in these treatments: we can understand a surgeon replacing a worn out valve in the same way that we understand an auto mechanic swapping out a fouled spark plug.

When it is the brain that suffers damage or illness things become much less certain. Because we do not understand its inner workings and how consciousness arises from them there is a deep fear that mental illness will corrupt who we are. That we would no longer be ourselves. We fear the unknown.

Most mental illnesses are also invisible. There are no outward physical signs that somebody has depression, schizophrenia or Bi-polar disorder. You never know. And that not knowing triggers fear, compounded by a general ignorance about mental illnesses.

The media doesn’t help (surprise, surprise!) by actively seeking to explain many violent acts as the result of mental illnesses, and often describing the antagonist in thrillers and horror movies as mentally ill. Schizophrenia in particular has a long history of being unfairly linked to violent behavior. I’m not saying that schizophrenics are never violent, but the reality is far, far removed from the picture painted in popular culture.

One statistic relating to mental illness and violence does stand out, however. A person who suffers from a mental illness is far more likely to harm or kill themselves. The misplaced fear of the mentally ill person needs to be replaced by a fear for them.

Because you can help by fighting the stigma, by being there when somebody you know is affected — because it’s more likely than not that somebody among your family and friends will suffer from a mental illness at some point.
Mentally ill people are often afraid to disclose their illness because of the stigma. It can be a sure-fire way to lose friends overnight. It might lose them their employment. How would that feel? Not only are you ill but now you’re on your own with no job. “Good luck with that!” Can you understand why that would push some people to kill themselves?So yes, disclosing mental illness can carry a sizable risk. But not disclosing means that there’s no chance to get the necessary support. It’s a catch-22 situation, and all because of the stigma. You wouldn’t shun somebody because they had asthma, would you? So why do it when an illness affects their brain?It’s not a difficult concept. Here’s a person who is ill. Support them. Simple.