Big work feelings: Just make inclusion work, why don’t you?

Recently I’ve been asked, more than once, why I’m a youth worker? Why don’t I go into something safer? AS IF I don’t know about the extent of the cuts to youth services, and most organisations doing good work struggling to stay afloat. And IF I’ve chosen to do sessional work? So, since I’ve been asked about it, I’ve decided to give myself permission to write about it. I’ve also been asked by people who attend the dyspraxia support group I set up locally, how I got on at university? If their relative will be able to do what I’ve done too and all of the “what if” questions that are inevitable when someone worries about someone they love being different or fitting in.

When I was 16, I went to see the school careers advisor who quickly told me that I shouldn’t study GCSE History, and not much else. He’d decided then that, from the little he knew about me, which was of my dyspraxia diagnosis and statement for Special Educational Needs that History would be too hard a choice and I wouldn’t cope, so I should do something perceived as “easier”, like ‘health and social care’. There was very little advice about careers then at school, it was expected people like me just “wouldn’t” and that would be it. I don’t remember any useful discussions around how to write a CV, interviews or even self employment, there may have been for those on the “gifted and talented” programme, for the few being primed for oxbridge or those invited to prize giving *every year*, of which all three were a mystery to me. I did go on to take History GCSE, and achieved an A* in my coursework, then went onto do A level, and eventually to study History and Politics at university. Since then I’ve made a habit of doing things people once told me I wouldn’t be able to do, which I think has served me well. I don’t think I’ve ever had a positive experience of careers advisors, mostly because they don’t know how to advise people like me, who aren’t all-rounders, have a distinct uneven pattern of strengths and weaknesses and aren’t going to be able to do practical, so called “easy jobs” for work experience and to get by until something better comes along. The last one told me to “use LinkedIn” and very little else, after completing a second MA.

When I was 14, I wrote a speech about why people in my school should vote for me and was successful in being elected onto my local youth assembly, that taught about life, defying adversity and accepting your vulnerabilities in a way I’d never learnt before from anywhere else. The youth assembly was my first introduction to youth work and gave me a clear indication of who a youth worker should be. Until then I’d felt quite lost, I’d never really fitted in at school and was always looking for someone who got me. The youth assembly was all about listening to young people and making our voices heard. We planned and delivered conferences, travelled to 10 Downing Street, campaigned on issues important to us and learned about how to participate and ensure everyone felt included. The youth assembly was the first place I felt able to explore public speaking, and realised that, despite being painfully shy and dealing with, up until then undiagnosed anxiety, I was pretty damn good at standing up and addressing an audience with confidence. I didn’t realise then, and indeed found out years later how immensely proud and blown away, my then youth workers were. I’d asked to deliver a session to other young people in the group, my youth worker was *understandably* apprehensive by this request, not because she didn’t want to give me the opportunity, in fact far from it, they couldn’t have been more supportive, although the slight problem then was that I didn’t speak. Not because I couldn’t, I just hadn’t had an opportunity to believe that my voice mattered. She didn’t want me to stand up there and fall apart. I stood up, led the session, and from then on people realised that “all Alice needs is to be given something to do, and then she thrives.”  I was okay if I felt I had a purpose, a structure and was included because of what I could bring to the table, and not because an organisation/or school needed to practice inclusion or they had a box that needed to be ticked. I felt valued and respected for the first time in my life, and supported when I needed someone to listen. I know now that these feelings of being understood and recognised for what I was good at, were things I wanted other young people to experience. For the first time in my life I was told that I “could” and I wanted, more than anything else, for others to know they can too.

When I was about to turn 18, I had a breakdown and everything almost fell apart. I suddenly realised I was going to be an adult, and this terrified me. I remember sending texts to a young persons text service, about my worries of not achieving everything I’d wanted to by 18. I had a scattering of friends and few who *actually* understood, and an embarrassingly non-existent relationship history, amongst other anxieties that I didn’t know were anxieties, nor did I understand the reasons behind why I felt them. I was eventually referred to a young persons counselling service, when it all began to unravel and I jeopardised my A levels, and a place at university.  Reflecting on this years later I realise that actually, if someone had sat down with me and said, this is what my dyspraxia will mean at work but this is what I am good at, so I should play to those strengths. That anxiety is actually A Thing but there are strategies, I might have felt marginally better about the imminent 18th milestone.

My experience at work, partly because of the lack of good early guidance by someone who understands a neurodiverse brain, has ranged from one absolutely amazing employer, to others that have varied from mediocre to could-do-loads-better. I have also realised that across the board, there’s improvements that can be made to how employers recruit people, the way interviews are conducted and the assumptions that are often made about disability and mental health. I’ve had employers assume that because I’ve mentioned “anxiety”  that I must be weak, feeble and unable to fight back. And when I do, and write formal letters outlining how I feel (to date this has been four..), people are shocked and taken aback that I’m *like that* and not how they imagined. Similarly any mention of dyspraxia makes people automatically infantilise you, pity you or assume the help you need. Recently I had someone lie about carrying some equipment for me, to imply that they had been a supportive, inclusive employer. When, at no time had I ever mentioned that my dyspraxia affects my strength or ability to carry equipment (by which I mean shopping bags) from one room to another.

After university and post India, I explored teaching and decided that this might be the career for me, without realising what this would involve, or indeed understanding the realities of such a career. I remember a careers advisor just before I graduated telling me about how to get into teaching and was led to believe that this was the next best middle class option, if you can’t become a lawyer, or doctor, are no good at STEM and will struggle in high flying business. My only real understanding of teaching was the three months I’d spent teaching in an Indian school and my own negative experiences at school. Not really a lot to go on. I spent that year training as a teaching assistant to get the experience to apply for teacher training, the year spent in a school on placement was a massive lesson if anything, about how not to do things. Young people with additional needs were asked to re-do work because it didn’t fit the teachers high standards for displays and when I explained why this wasn’t the best thing to do for their confidence or mental health, I was challenged for answering back as if I was one of her children in the class. I was then sent into another room for most of the days to do endless photo copying and laminating, and if you’ve even just googled dyspraxia you’ll understand why this would be a challenge. Despite this lesson about how not to be a teacher, I still thought that teaching was the only thing *I could do*.  I applied for a PGCE that year, through a course called SCITT which stood for ‘school centred initial teacher training’, a course that was based in a school and included training on the job, with a day at university a week. I got an interview, but didn’t get onto the course because I failed the maths test. And with hindsight I would have never got on in a primary school because of the so called ‘easy’ practical tasks that were involved. I can do the difficult stuff like leading a group or writing session plans but I can’t put up a wall display or use a laminator quickly, and primary school teachers seem fixated on presentation being perfect all of the time. A six year old in the school I worked in was not allowed to colour in “little red riding hood” purple, I saw this as creative but the teacher just saw it as defiant. You see, schools and I would not get on.

After not getting onto the teaching course, I still had a vague idea that I could work in a school, so registered with an agency to get some teaching assistant work. It was then that it all began to unravel again, and I realised that the ease of agency work that was sold as reliable and flexible, was entirely the opposite. I began getting calls to ask me to attend a school in an hour, I wanted to, I needed the work, but I wasn’t physically able to get myself there or accept it. I turned down a lot of work as a result and didn’t understand why. The agency then began to get increasingly impatient with me and I would hang up the phone after turning down work in tears. I was desperate to work with children and young people, and signed up to an agency like everyone else did, but so called easy work for other people, resulted in genuine emotional distress for me. It was only after I trained as a youth worker and began to understand myself a bit more that I learned why I found an agency ringing me up out of the blue at 7am so hard. It was because it goes against everything my brain is wired to process. I need planning time and I like to know what is coming up, dealing with uncertainty is something I’ve never been able to do well. I also need time to process what I am about to do, so phoning me an hour or two before I’m due to work in a school, is likely to cause panic, because I haven’t had time to process what the agency has just told me or to plan how I am going to get there. I don’t drive, so was regularly told “Oh it’s just up the A1” which is fine if you can jump in a car, but not if you have to plan a route when spatial awareness isn’t your strongest point, involving three busses, a metro and a boat. It wasn’t easy, and I beat myself up every time I said no because it was expected to be easy. I recently read this piece that explores many similar issues, the line, “If you can do “difficult things” therefore, you must be able to do all difficult things with no help at all, and if you can’t do “easy” things you must be a waste of space,” rang many bells with me as I nodded along empathetically.

Eventually I left the idea of teaching behind and trained as a youth worker, where I have belonged all along, my very positive early experience of youth work as a teenager on the youth assembly led me to believe that everyone is like that. And now I know, they are not. When I first qualified I was told by a then friend who I respected for her wisdom, that “I wouldn’t make it as a youth worker,” looking up to someone a decade older than you, who you respect professionally and as a person, who you’d go as far to say cared about you, isn’t always a wise move. But we learn. In a similarly unsupportive situation when I lost a friend and wanted time off to go to the funeral, I was told to pull myself together and come into work because we were taking young people on a residential that day, and they needed staff for the coach. I didn’t. I lost my job as a result, but given the circumstances was the best decision I’ve ever made.

I hear time and time again from friends and young people I work with about difficulties in education, the workplace and even finding a job in the first place. There’s a lack of understanding by society of what it actually means to provide reasonable adjustments, and that actually, the best way to understand how you can support a new employee, is to sit down and have a conversation. I am very happy to talk if people will actually listen to me. There’s too many organisations who employ disabled people to make them look inclusive, when actually employing someone is only the start, you have to actually work at it. Through my work, I’ve heard young people with disabilities describe in great detail what the “can’t do” and things they find difficult, “Oh I’m rubbish at writing they’d say,” but I always ask, and I think everyone should whether you work with young people professionally or come across them in your day to day life, “BUT what can you do?” I’m almost always met with surprise as it’s often rare, particularly for young people with disabilities, to be asked that question. I know it would have done me the world of good if people talked about my strengths more. I had a statement for Special Educational Needs, and my reports for annual reviews always said: “Alice needs to get better at…” and never “Alice is really good at this, and must work on developing this skill more.” Targets always reflected things I struggled with, and not surprisingly one of them was maths. I was never going to be a mathematician, so why every year, tell me that I wasn’t great at maths? I knew this. It’s no wonder so many young people with additional needs have low self esteem and mental health problems, if they’re constantly being told they are not good enough at things they will find very hard to change.

I’m in my 30’s now and still working as a sessional youth worker over three jobs, it’s not ideal and certainly not a choice, but it’s all I can do and that’s what matters. I’m good at youth work. I could get a full time job working in a shop or in a restaurant but I wouldn’t be good at that, and probably wouldn’t last a day. It would be more secure than sessional work, there’d be more rights and the pay might be a bit better, but I wouldn’t be able to do the perceived easy tasks. I’ve realised that there’s very little solid careers advice for people in their 30’s, by people who understand a neurodiverse brain. If the careers advisor I saw at university did, they would have probably not suggested teaching. I’ve had several job interviews recently. I always get interviews for jobs I apply for, so I know I can write a good application and my CV is pretty good too, so generic careers advice wouldn’t be beneficial for me. I need something more specialist and someone to talk to me frankly about self employment because that is, the only feasible option I see at the moment. Thinking about becoming self employed for the first time ever is pretty damn terrifying. An option I feel forced into. Naturally we all want security, and most of the time that will be in full time contracted work. Some people have the freedom to choose self employment but then can move into something safer if they need to, but others don’t have that option. I do well in interviews but then often miss out on the job because I don’t score highly enough or someone has marginally more experience, and recently it has only been marginally OR they only wanted To recruit internally anyway. It takes me longer to process information, so panel interviews also present unnecessary barriers. I haven’t got a job before because I didn’t answer the second part of a question. I didn’t know there was a second part. See the difficulty there? I’m great at presentations and speaking though, give me a topic to talk about and a presentation to prepare beforehand and I will show you what I CAN do. Equally give me a group of young people to deliver a session to, and you will see that I’m a pretty good youth worker. And that’s not just me bigging myself up, people have told me this. Although, why can’t we big ourselves up sometimes?

The most poignant lesson I’ve learned from all of this is that sometimes people won’t be where you expect them to be, I’ve written about this before, and have always concluded that this is absolutely okay. But there’s only so much shouting from the roof tops we can all do before we get tired and worn out. I’m getting to the exhausted stage hence the radical change in direction and a very brief “hmm I could leave the country and volunteer in Greece” last week. I also know people can do and should do better, and it makes me angry when I hear of experiences similar to mine, with the same conclusions of “Oh that’s just the way it is.” Well, it shouldn’t be the way it is. Accessibility should be that. Accessible. Not a half hearted way for organisations to look good. And people should listen. I mean really listen. We are the best people who can advise on our own experiences, and disclosure should be a thing we do because know we are going to be understood. Not something to make us feel embarrassed or less of a member of the team.

I’ve decided on a few things, the first that if you follow me on twitter, you may have seen already, is a petition challenging how ethical sessional worker contracts are, that in many ways open the gates to discrimination. Sessional work is most definitely not a choice, it is a necessity and a pretty appealing alternative to Universal Credit, but it shouldn’t be that necessity. Everyone should be able to access proper contracted work that provides security, and the ability to progress on the career ladder. One of the reasons *I think* that I get to interview but I don’t get the job, is because I’ve been stuck in sessional work for so long. If you can sign/support/share my petition calling to abolish sessional worker contracts here, it would be very much appreciated: https://www.change.org/p/abolish-sessional-worker-contracts

Secondly I’d love to talk to any of you who have been through, or are going through similar experiences to mine. It would really help me, and I hope you. I’m a firm believer of more voices making change happen, and it upsets me to think that if something doesn’t change now to how employers and education providers view equality, disability or inclusion, the young people I work with will have to experience similar. I also want to see it mandatory for careers advisors to have training on neurodiversity, and not it just being an optional attractive add on. You can get in touch here or if you follow me on Twitter, over there.

I became a youth worker to give young people the support, time, understanding and belief in themselves, I eventually had as a teenager. I work with young people to understand the world around them, how they can fit into this world and to feel valued. Participation is something that thanks to excellent youth work role models, I’ve had drummed into me, and now it’s important for employers & businesses, who these young people will eventually work for, to get that too.

It is important to me and so many people I know, to make inclusion actually matter. Listening is a skill, I learned that when I volunteered at The Samaritans, but when it is brought into the workplace and people are able to have frank and open conversations, the productivity of the workforce will improve ten fold.

At the end of the day, look at what I can bloody well do, and not what I might struggle with. If you do that, we’ll get on just fine.

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Posted in Dyspraxia, Education, Mental health, Writing, Youth Work | Leave a comment

We are enough. Thoughts on not being quite there “yet”…

Today, after a lovely catch up with my local Mental Health Mates group, I wandered into town, and it was here, whilst walking through the Saturday afternoon crowds, when I  had a bit of a moment. To my right, there were some buskers, singing Bob Marley’s “Three little birds”, the usual fight racism group had a stall at monument and were shouting into a mega phone and a big issue seller was mingling amongst it all, trying to chat to anyone who would listen. I stopped to buy her a coffee, it was freezing, so if I was cold and tired, I can’t imagine how she’d be feeling. She was grateful, we chatted for a bit, listened to the buskers and then she tried to give me one of her magazines for the coffee. I told her to keep the magazine, I would much rather she sold it. She smiled and then disappeared off into the distance. I wondered who else she’d talk to today. How long would she be there? Would she get another coffee? She had a story, just like the rest of us.

It was then, I called into the nearby coffee shop for a sandwich with the words, “Don’t worry about a thing, cos, every little things gonna be alright,” sung by the buskers ringing in my ears. I sat down to eat, and watched the world go by. There were people of all sections of society, going about their day, some meeting up with friends and some walking with a sense of purpose with places to be. Are they happy? Are they where they want to be? Are they still looking for what they really want? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but I do know that everyone I saw in town today had a story to tell, and some were carrying around more than we, as passers by, will understand.

Recently I’ve had several conversations with friends about stages of life we’re expected to complete by a certain time or age. When I was growing up I assumed I would get there, that I too would do all of the things, at the right time like everyone else. In my late teens/early 20’s, when I met someone who hadn’t achieved what is expected of them by society, I used to think “what is wrong with you?” But now I think “what has happened to you?” A much more healthy way of looking at it, because not being quite there “yet” is absolutely more than okay. It’s often joked that I went through more in my 20’s than most people do in a lifetime, this can be both helpful and unhelpful, but it has certainly given me an appreciation for the world that I didn’t have before.

Turning 30 last month made me question things more than I would like, I tried not to, had an excellent Christmas and New Year, but still, at the back of my mind I had loads of “what ifs” that remain unanswered. Over the last few weeks I’ve gone through a stage a reframing my 20s, and asking myself “If that hadn’t happened would I be where I am now?” “Would I even be me?” “Would I have met (insert friend here?)” I know I shouldn’t think like this, I know we all ask ourselves big, impossible questions from time to time and that I shouldn’t feel this way but I also know that no matter how much I try not to, my mind will wander. This is how our brains work, or at least how mine works, rumination has, since my early teens become a thing that I just have to do.

I’ve realised that much of this questioning, comes down to feeling the need to justify our lives to other people. The kind of thing my younger self expected people to do when I wondered “what’s wrong” with them? I hate it, and I hate that if your life doesn’t meet an expected norm, and tick the right boxes, you have to explain why. Even, when “why” can lead to incredibly painful answers. Questions I’ve had to field so far include; “Why do you still live at home” “Why don’t you have a full time job?” “Do you want kids” “Why do you have two MA’s” “Why are you single?” But we never ask people; “Why do you have a mortgage?” OR “why do you have a partner?” These things are just accepted as the norm and where we should all be. These norms teach us that anything other isn’t enough. That we have somehow failed. This is a terrible message to send to young people. No wonder 1 in 8 young people now have a diagnosable mental health condition. The most comfort I’ve had for all of this so far, is chatting to people in very similar situations. Some of us have to make our own normality, and this should be more than enough too.

I’m right in the middle of the “millennial” generation, a generation who were sold a lie, we were told if we worked hard at school everything would work out. That we’d find the job and the life we dreamed about. It would all be okay we were told, and if you went to a high achieving school like I did, life stages were very much mapped out and expected of you. If you stayed on to do A Levels, it was expected you’d go to university and then we were told a job would fall into place. It did not work out like this for most people I know. I recently responded to a tweet about people becoming successful but not really excelling at anything at school. Success is an odd one for me, and something I’ll probably never really understand. What do we measure success on? How do we know we’ve really made it? For me it depends on your reality, and the normality we make for ourselves. For some people success is purely academic achievements, and for others it’s learning to fry an egg or putting up an Ikea flat pack. I was severely bullied at school, to the extent my parents campaigned for an anti bullying policy and then I moved primary schools when it was clear, at age 8 my mental health was beginning to suffer. It was during this time, following a dyspraxia diagnosis, when my teacher told me that I wouldn’t pass my year 6 Sats, that I had somehow failed before I’d even tried. Then in a new school, with more understanding people around me, I passed those Sats exams and years later went on to achieve two Masters degrees. I’ve been most successful academically, not because I’m particularly brilliant, but because I was once told I couldn’t. Doing things that people told me I wouldn’t be able to do has since become a running theme, not necessarily at the time I’m supposed to do them, but when I do, that certainly makes me enough. And your own normality makes you more than enough too. I wish we told young people that their small achievements are just as important as the big ones. I learned to catch a bus a lot later than my peers, but couldn’t shout about how proud I was, because it was something we were expected to achieve much earlier. I felt embarrassed for taking so long to get somewhere (literally and metaphorically), so I kept quiet.

I don’t know what the next ten years will look like, and quite frankly it terrifies me, but I do know that feeling lost at the beginning of your 30’s is normal, and learning to own that fear is much better than justifying your life, experiences and choices to other people. I wish I knew this a decade ago, and that it really is okay if you’re not quite there yet.

(Although it might be okay but it is also okay to feel the way I currently feel about it all…)

Posted in Dyspraxia, Education, Mental health, Occassions, Youth Work | 2 Comments

New year. January feels.

Recently I read this in The Pool, that really spoke to me and then I cried. I can imagine the issues raised will speak to many, a conversation we certainly need to have more of. I,  like many other people, have been scouring job sites since I got home from a fabulous New Year, wondering “what next?” “what now?” and “where do I go?” My contract for my current job runs out in April so this job hunt feels all the more pertinent. A New Year brings up all sorts of questions and memories, and as much as I try to ignore the screams from the media to “live a better life,” sometimes it’s hard not to. I accept that I’m part of many of us who, come January, start to do a bit of soul searching. It never gets me very far and every year I seem to have the same questions, that to date remain unanswered.

Last month I Turned 30 and as much I’m pleased to finally be in this decade, that it seems I’ve waited forever to be part of, I can’t help thinking that my 20’s could have been better spent building a career or building an “anything.” I then remember that, bereavement, mental health and other difficulties are good enough reasons to be where I am now. I’m not in the same place as the head girl of my old secondary school and that is absolutely okay. There is pressure to know exactly what you want to do as soon as you leave school, to map your life out and then by 30 you anticipate having everything sorted. I literally know no one whose reality is this. Most people don’t feel settled until they hit 40, and even then it’s questionable.

Much of this uncertainly in modern life is down to the lack of full time, permenant jobs, that offer progression and loyalty to an organisation. My parents generation were able to get a job in their 20’s that was for life, but now this is virtually unheard of. It is the norm to have two, three, four part time jobs, with colleagues you barely get to know. This week I’ve only seen jobs advertised on temporary contacts, some being under two years, meaning that planning anything long term becomes virtually impossible. Sessional work (as much of my work has been recently) makes it only possible to plan day by day, rather than by months or years. Sessional work should also not be A Thing because it simply makes it impossible to live unless you have support, and provides more uncertainty than anyone should have to deal with at once. Sessional work is almost an open door to discrimination, as I recently experienced, you have few rights and because of the uncertainty of these contracts, many people fear speaking up and complaining, and rightly so. Losing a job hurts and makes you question if you really are good enough. Spoiler: you are. It’s just these contracts that aren’t. More people are now relying on food banks because of sessional work and 0 hours contracts. This is just wrong and should not be happening in 2019. I’m a trained youth worker, of which jobs are often underpaid so my skills are very much devalued. A union rep recently made the comparison that I could earn more stacking shelves in Asda than in a job I recently had, which really put it into perspective. For those of us who can’t get a job to “get by” and our skills lie elsewhere, either in writing or with people leaves us no option but to plough through, and I’m grateful to have had family support to be able to do that, I know many people don’t have this option.

Society is built for my parents generation in many ways, assuming that by 30 you’ll be well on your way with your career. Most schemes or programmes stop at 30, and accessing support becomes harder. Finally feeling “too old” is an incredibly odd feeling, when I’ve had access to and benefitted from young peoples schemes in the past. A couple of years ago I explored the career change option, as youth services were being cut and job prospects seemed to be evaporating. I’ve always been good at writing so I trained as a journalist, a year that on the whole I loved and gave me the chance to be interviewed by the Guardian. I didn’t get the job, but at least I got to visit another shiny building in London. After my degree I quickly realised that I just don’t have the experience to progress, most opportunities were unpaid internships and voluntary positions with expenses, both of which were not options for me, if I wanted to remain a functioning human being whilst exploring this “career change.” I felt that if I’d made the decision to do Journalism a few years previously, and I was only 28 at the time, I’d be in a much better position now. I’ve had two appointments with careers advisors in my life, one when I was 16 who told me that I shouldn’t do an English degree and another with a university advisor post second MA whose sole advice was “use Linkedin”, both meetings were as unhelpful as the other. There is then very little advice about becoming self employed, those of us who consider it, often vote against the idea because it seems too complicated. And those that do become self employed because they have no other option, find things out the hard way. There should be scope for proper careers advice for the over 30’s who have more life experience than 20 somethings, but are feeling a bit lost about what to do next. I can list several people who would jump at the chance to have this opportunity, finding advice better than the careers advisor telling me that LinkedIn is the answer to all of my questions, is hard, but something that would be incredibly valuable. Working it out as we go along is what most of us have to do, as evidenced by my jumping from degree to degree and university to university, without much of a plan other than “I must pass this degree”.

I’m not one for making New Years resolutions, partly because I don’t want the pressure to stick to something and then the guilt of not seeing it through. This may also harp back to feeling unhappy about myself, and highlighting something to change about me intensifies historical feelings of not being good enough, that I’ve dealt with for most of my life. A friend recently asked me the resolution question, and I said: “take more time out for myself to do nice things,” which I think is a healthy goal to try and stick to when you’ve been in recovery from years of anxiety and depression and crap. I’ll report back on the “nice things” I’m sure, which is a challenge when believing I deserve nice things has been a difficult one to get my head around.

January will affect us all, as we try to live up to our own or other peoples expectations. It’s hit me more than I’d expected this year partly because I’m in my 30’s now, and have no plan other than eating left over Christmas Chocolate Orange tomorrow, which is probably the best kind of plan. Facebook ads selling online dating or online making anything about you better are unhelpful for this time of year (or any time) and I’d rather sit in a bath of beans than do anything they suggest I do. This whole #NewYearNewMe thing is rubbish. What if I am perfectly happy with the current me? Is that acceptable too? It bloody well should be.

We’re all working it out together really, something that makes me feel all the more better for entering 2019.

Happy New Year.

 

 

 

Posted in Mental health, Occassions, Writing, Youth Work | Leave a comment

Turning 30. That generic “How am I here already?!” post

I’m turning 30 in three days time, so I thought I’d write a slightly less conventional “turning 30” post because following any kind of convention is something I do badly. In some ways turning 30 can’t come soon enough, many of my friends are already in their 30’s so I feel I’ve finally caught up, but in other ways, I don’t feel old enough to be 30. I lost much of my teens to mental health and other teenage rubbish that seemed magnified for me, and then a lot of my 20’s vanished to more mental health, bereavement and other difficulties, you literally couldn’t make up. It’s often joked that I’ve gone through more in my 20’s than most people do in a lifetime, something that amuses me now I’m in the last few days of that decade. In some ways having another crack at being a 20 something would be great but in other more realistic ways moving on seems a much better plan.

My 30th is at a really awkward time to do anything productive, at a week before Christmas, everyone is either too far away, too busy, tired or all three. My 21st was lovely, but bad weather meant half a ceilidh were left stranded in far off lands. So, I’ve decided to visit friends at more sensible times throughout the year. Instead I’ve chosen a meal with family and cocktails with my now not so little sister who will be home from university, to mark the day.

As with most almost 30 year olds, I’ve read a lot of those “Things to do before 30” and “Things you know when you turn 30” listicles, and apart from being amusing reading, it’s not helpful for any of us, especially people like me who’s 20’s have been pretty unconventional. I’m now in the age group where everyone has babies and gets married, and seeing anyone becomes more problematic because people are too busy with work. It’s also the age group when you’re finally “too old” for many schemes/programmes aimed at young people. Over 30’s are too old because by now, we’re expected to have our shit together and to not need these things. In the summer I even bought a book about turning 30, that I’m not even half way through because I can’t stop screaming at it. I was once told; “We’re all on our unique timeline,” and this alongside, “Remember to take some time off,” is probably the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given. So with this in mind, I’m feeling much better about Tuesday.

There are some things that I have learned in the last decade:

Friends: I’ve got better at working out who’s worth sticking around in my life, and people who are less than useful. My 20’s were spent being used, making all of the effort in friendships and looking up to people a decade older than me, who didn’t feel the same about me. I’m also now good at seeking out potential friend material, and noticing this is a massive thing in itself. I think I’ve worked out that whole friend thing now, so if you’ve made it to this decade, you’re in it for the long haul. And for that I can only apologise.

Work: I finally have a clearer plan about what I want to do with my career, getting there is hard and hasn’t been the most conventional, but I feel closer. I’m also all job-interviewed out for the year. I’ve really enjoyed work this year and being around people who are as determined as me to challenge mental health stigma and discrimination. Sometimes I think I’m just lucky, but then realise that I am just as entitled to this luck as the next person.

Remembering I need time off and that I deserve nice things: I’ve always been bad at sticking to this and guilty about the latter. I’ve often tried to keep going and work until I break, and only taking some time when people remind me to. I’m getting better at knowing when I need to stop now and realising that running on no energy has never been good for anyone’s mental health.

Understanding myself: It’s taken me a decade of trial and error, and lots of confusion, but now things make much more sense. Being less baffled about who I am is bloody brilliant.

Saying no: I’m getting into the age bracket when not going out is seen as “sensible” and not “weird”, which helps here I think. Recently I told a group of mostly late teens – mid 20’s people who were discussing nights out, that a night on the sofa, with a hot water bottle, cats and a film, is much better than going “out out.” They looked at me as if I was an alien from another planet. I like being that alien. Although if you’ve ever been out in Newcastle’s big Market, you’ll understand, and probably want to join me. A younger Alice would always feel guilty for saying no or letting friends down, but now I’m much more comfortable looking after myself and doing what I need to do, rather than things I believe are expected of me from others.

Realising that I have made a difference to other peoples lives: This is an odd one and something I thought I’d never accept, even if it was true. Four years ago I set up a local dyspraxia support group, something I’ve seen go from strength to strength. I’ve guided teenagers through to university, watched young people learn to travel independently for the first time and seen their confidence grow. I’ve reassured parents and talked about myself to demonstrate that their teenagers would get there too. And when they do, their parents thank me for bringing them together. All I did was send emails and expose my life slightly and looking back this meant the world to them. People regularly write to me now, telling me about the difference I have made to their lives. It always feels good to put the “shit” into something productive and gives me that ‘warm and fuzzy’ feeling, that to date only a few things can. People are wonderful and are probably more grateful for you, than you first realise.

The words; “You’ve Brought us all together, Alice, and we couldn’t ask for anything more,” will always stay with me.

Speaking at my old secondary school wasn’t as traumatic as I first thought AND they might have just started to accept me: Linked to the above and the teenage rubbish, speaking at my old secondary school was always going to be a gamble. I weighed up what it would do to me and for me, and then how it would help others. I decided to go for it, and ended up being invited to do two talks this year, one on mental health in four school assemblies and one about dyspraxia to parents of young people with special educational needs. Before the first talk, about my mental health, I was terrified. And I NEVER get nervous about public speaking. It’s something I’ve always managed to do with ease. Speak in front of hundreds of people as a teen? No problem. Play fiddle on stage with the most famous romany Folk band in the whole of the Czech Republic? Go on then. Double act leading an event with the director of education (who then became children’s commissioner? Totally in my comfort zone. And this was all before I reached 20. However, putting me in a social situation was a completely different story.

Yet, here I was about to tell a group of 14 year olds about my anxiety, in the same school hall, where I was heckled for playing my fiddle in the school ceilidh band sixteen years ago. Looking back it was probably a jealous kind of heckling but still I was heckled in a bloody school concert. My talk was well received by the young people and teachers present, in a totally unplanned way one was my old tutor. I reduced her to tears, and after she came up to give me hug and tell me she would have never imagined I’d be standing there, doing what I just did when I was at school. I finally felt accepted as an adult who had a story to tell, rather than an ex pupil who it was assumed wouldn’t get to where I am. I think in a strange way going back to school was therapeutic for me. A few months later I was invited back by the special educational needs department to talk about dyspraxia, I was less nervous this time and felt I had a place doing this, and that people wanted to listen to me. One of the parents face lit up when I talked about my experiences, and after she told me my story echoed her daughters. I might have future work through the school, the teacher I met seemed keen and grateful to have me there, a door, that for the moment remains open…

Staying in touch with the best people from the best bits of my teens and 20’s: As I’m getting better at realising who isn’t healthy for me, I’m also pretty good at making sure I hang around people who are good for me. I’m going to a reunion (that I helped organise) with a group who I first met when I was 15 and at a time when I was very unsure of myself. It will be lovely. They are lovely. And in some ways they made a complicated life a little bit more bearable. I also discovered things I could do (the speaking in front of hundreds of people/being pretty good at debates) because I was always told I could. They believed in me, I was never told I wouldn’t be able to do something. If anyone needs to grow self esteem, joining a local youth assembly/youth council or youth parliament is a step I’d advise any young person to take. I also have friends in my life from later on in the 20’s decade who aren’t allowed to go anywhere. They know this and have agreed not to.

Checking in on friends and letting friends check in on me: I’ve always tried to be there and look out for others, but sometimes when things have been difficult I’ve struggled to look beyond my own life. I’m better now at dropping people a text to see how they are and offering to call. I’ve always struggled letting people do that to me though, believing that I was a burden or a problem if I told them how I was really feeling. I’m much more comfortable with this now and I’ve learnt to be honest (probably too much in some cases), but I’ve certainly learned to recognise when I need support. So as much as I’m good at listening to others, I’m more comfortable with letting others check in on me more. The Time to Change #AskTwice campaign is a brilliant representation of why it’s important to really find out how friends are. Friendships are a two way process and it takes both parties doing the above for it to make it into the next decade.

Doing stuff and not letting anxiety tell me otherwise: I’ve gone from being terrified of the tube in London to traveling there for work and to meet friends quite regularly. I’ve learned to deal with uncertainty (not overcome, because we never really overcome anything…) with lots of planning, understanding people and a back up plan if things go wrong. Even if that back up plan meant using Twitter as a massive distraction during an anxiety attack in Kings Cross station and hiding in Leon’s until I felt better before I travelled anywhere. I’ve also worked out how to pace myself, so I don’t get into situations where I feel I need to leave immediately. A work in progress as always.

Finding distractions and things to look forward to if something doesn’t go as hoped/planned/imagined: With anything like a job interview or exam results, I’ve tried to look for something to distract myself with or plan something nice if it doesn’t go as I wanted. I still need to get into the habit of actually doing the nice thing, but at least I understand the concept.

Not comparing myself to others: I’m the happiest I’ve been in a long time, partly because I’ve realised that comparing myself is unhealthy. I haven’t completely stopped doing this, but I can recognise when I’m doing it before the comparisons get too far. We are of course on our own “unique timeline”, being expected to be at a certain place by a certain age, just feeds anxiety and makes natural over-thinkers, ruminate more. I just wish I knew all of this much earlier.

All in all I’m pretty excited about my 30’s. It can’t be much worse than the last decade. And I’m going to have a crack at learning to drive, which will be mint or terrifying. I’ll keep you updated on that one.

Posted in Occassions | 2 Comments

Breaking the silence on workplace bullying and grievance procedures

You know when you left school and moved into the world of work, did you think that adults will be more understanding? And well, more grown-up? I did. I was bullied at school, an area of my life that I’m still unable to go into great details about. It’s still painful. And I had no idea that 20 years on from the month I had to move schools, I’d be revisiting the word again. This time, in a different context. AND at work. I’ve realised that adults can be subtle. They can be clever. They are very good at hiding unfavourable treatment against colleagues, covering it up and finding excuses.

If a child told us they were being bullied, we’d tell them to speak to a teacher, parent or other trusted adult. We’d encourage them to speak out and offer reassurance that they aren’t alone. There are organisations like Anti-Bullying Pro providing support and advice for children and young people who are bullied and we’ve recently had Anti Bullying week, bringing bullying into the media and encouraging young people to talk and campaign. I went through mediation as a teenager with some of the girls who bullied me and I was given some leaflets about bullying when I went to the school nurse with an anxiety attack, (but that’s another story.) I didn’t feel short of people to turn to about the bullying I experienced as a young person, not that it was always dealt with appropriately, but at least I could talk about it. It was also impartial. The bullies mum wasn’t handling any disciplinary meetings at school or holding the mediation I went to. Imagine it though? You’ve just been through the horrendous and isolating experience that is bullying, and when a meeting is finally arranged to deal with it, you head into school to find the bullies mum sitting there, ready to kick off proceedings. It just wouldn’t happen would it? And their mum will surely try everything in her power to protect little Johny. No detentions this time around. It may not literally be the bullies mum holding grievance meetings at work but I’m sure you get my point.

What support do we get as an adult? Especially when we enter the workplace and expect bullying to be a distant memory? Following discussion with others, it seems, not a lot. Most people are unable to talk, for fear of losing their jobs and the damage to their professional reputation it may do. For these reasons I am unable to discuss the specifics of my situation, but I can say that workplace bullying and being forced into a grievance procedure destroyed years of carefully built up self-esteem. I went from a fairly happy and bouncy Alice, who thought she was on the cusp of finally ‘sorting herself out’ to someone who felt utterly broken. I started experiencing chest pains, a common anxiety symptom but something I have never had with my anxiety before. As you can imagine, the first time it happened I thought I was dying, so I constantly held onto my wrist to make sure I could still feel a pulse. Isn’t anxiety logic great? I experienced sleep problems, stopped seeing friends and found myself feeling tearful in the most bizarre or inconvenient of places. I was eventually prescribed beta blockers to help me get through meetings and to prevent things from jeopardising the other work I do. It was during an anxiety attack WHILST HAVING A SMEAR TEST, when it was suggested I see a doctor about taking something for my anxiety, that had previously been pretty stable without medication for years. She was lovely, but I’m sure she could have done without dealing with me that day. Sometimes small talk isn’t helpful, or sometimes it is, whatever way you look at it.

I felt very alone dealing with this and quickly came to realise that grievance procedures are one-sided. They focus on looking after the organisation, and protecting peoples jobs, often conducted by senior managers who are on a damage limitation mission. Checking out how I was doing didn’t exist and I felt increasingly alienated during the process, as if I had done something wrong by speaking up. I felt so alone. Is it just me who goes through this? I hopefully trawled the internet for people who had been through it too. Am I the only one? I wondered. It was very late in the day when I finally used the words “bullying” to describe my situation. I didn’t relate what I was going through to the bullying I had experienced in the playground 20 years ago. I didn’t accept that it was a breed of the same thing. There is a stigma surrounding adults experiencing bullying and we are all forced into this strange silence. This is what I found online, very few people were able to speak out, very few people knew that there were others out there like them too and there was a lack of guidance from people who had experienced similar. The ACAS website was wonderful as was advice from my union rep, but during my lowest moments chatting to people who had been there too meant the most to me. I wanted to know what to expect from a grievance process, my anxiety detests uncertainty, but I found myself riding the waves very much alone. The only way I realised I wasn’t the only one was by speaking to people privately. This helped me realise that other people have been or are going through the same emotional turmoil. They too wondered if they should say something. They wondered about the process of taking up a grievance. We were all scared about what speaking out would do to our reputation, so often approached the subject cautiously. I’m part of a MANY but at the time I didn’t know this. This is why we need to change how we approach and talk about workplace bullying, to create a dialogue that will be helpful for everyone.

I decided to write this, because last night I read a petition started by Lucy Nichol and on doing so burst into tears. Her petition calls for more transparency and impartiality in workplace grievance processes. A change that will make it easier to challenge bad treatment and to feel supported in that decision. You can sign her petition here. Please do sign and share. I have never felt so strongly about a petition as I do with this one. There are too many of us who are unable to speak out, those unable to put the jigsaw pieces together to recognise their experiences as bullying and people who fear the stigma of admitting to such difficulties in the workplace. All on top of a massive taboo of dealing with mental illness at work. My experience is just one of far too many. It’s comforting to know this but devastating that others have to go through this too. If we work together to change how we tackle and view bullying at work, i’m certain we can make it better. No one should feel like they don’t have anywhere safe to turn.

Posted in Education, Mental health, Politics | Leave a comment

Employment isn’t always plain sailing

Back in 2010, I remember sitting in the desert in India, watching the sunset, drinking chai, writing in my journal and watching the Indians thrash us at volley ball yet again. I’d graduated from university the summer before, and life then, was exciting but incredibly uncertain. I didn’t know who I wanted to be, what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go next, so I travelled (insert how many miles away India is) to find the answers to those questions. Living with seven girls from across the UK, and a total of 47 people on camp plus a staff team from India gave me the opportunity to find out about their lives, what they’d done, what they wanted to do and why they were there. We all had a story. I realised this after the first night in our homestay, when my room and bed mate (we got to know each other very well, very quickly…) told me why she was there, the fear she felt and the uncertainty that lay before us. Feelings that echoed my own. We made a pact that night “we’re going to get through this together.”  From that first night we got on well. And we more than saw our pact through.

India wasn’t a traditional gap year in any sense of the word, the organisation I went with who were funded by Department for International Development, Platform 2, sent young people (18-25 year olds) to volunteer abroad for ten weeks. To be accepted onto the programme you had to be deemed as “disadvantaged” in some way, for reasons of health, finances or other barriers that meant you wouldn’t be able to enjoy a traditional gap yah. So yes, I’ve been able to travel, but it was far removed from our ideas of a gap year. These parameters alone set the tone for the trip.

At this time I didn’t have much experience of work, and had no idea what it meant to look for a career. I left uni, went to India to run away, work out who I am and decide what I wanted to do next. For ages that was to become a teacher, but I’m glad my maths abilities are too awful for that plan to ever become anything other than an idea in my head. At university I was too dyspraxic to get a job just to get by, so I never had those part time jobs in bars or shops, that many of my friends went to after long days in lectures.  Not being able to get a so called “easy job” was hard to explain and is equally difficult for people to get their heads around now. I did however work for the university as a student representative, my first real experience of a job that paid money. It essentially involved working on open days, allowing 6th formers from local schools to follow me around for the day and going into schools to talk about university life. This kind of part time job suited me well.

My experiences of employment have changed a lot following the safety net of university, something I need to be suitably vague about for now, due to uncertain legals. I have as a rule disclosed my dyspraxia and sometimes anxiety to employers after successful interviews. I say “sometimes anxiety” because I still have a lot of self stigma around that, this harps back to almost going abroad again a few years later (with a different organisation,) can you spot the running away theme? I was told then by someone who had quite a lot of responsibility for duty of care, that he was ‘totally unpreppared to support me’ because I had disclosed having been on anti-depressants on a medical form. “What if she needs to go back on them again?!” I read in an email. Well bollocks, I say. But reading something like that really does knock your confidence. Even if you are determined to not let it. So, I’ve been understandably cautious since.

I’m writing this after months of reflections, feeling utterly broken and sleepless nights caused entirely by anxiety. I can’t be specific about this, but in some organisation, in a region somewhere, in a job, I experienced bullying, stigma and discrimination again. The sad reality is that many people go through similar but few are able to talk about it or know that there are others out there like them, although unions do exist for a reason. There is also little acceptance of what going though an experience like mine can do to your mental health.

For years I’ve had to take lots of sessional work, not for the lack of trying but because given the current climate that’s all I’ve found available, and universal credit doesn’t sound like an inviting alternative. Sessional work is essentially 0 hours contacts for professionals, that gives you little to no rights. I’ve had several sessional jobs, that claim to offer flexibility, but in reality this is only flexibility for the employer, not you. You are paid for the hours you work. There’s no sickness.  No NI contributions. Sometimes you might get holiday pay but most of the time you don’t. And if a session is cancelled for reasons out of your control, you aren’t paid. No one can plan on a contract like this. It also means, that if they decide they don’t want you one day, they are well within their rights to do so. And they don’t expect you to argue. I’ve spoken to employers who see sessional workers as “just sessional workers” and I’ve heard from others on these contracts who believe that they can’t complain. “At least I have a job,” is a fear I hear too often, and rightfully so but it’s so wrong that people have to think like this. The best thing I have ever done is join a union and hold people to account. And I did this without claiming sick pay when I got ill again, because there wasn’t any. There is a bigger campaign in abolishing these kind of contracts but if we get together and stand up for our rights, maybe employers will begin to listen.

I thought I’d identify some of the things I’ve learned at work in the last decade;

Things I’ve learned

1) Join a union

Joining a union has helped me to order my arguments and get advice about where I stand when I was beginning to understand employment law. It also made me realise that how I was feeling about my situation was completely justified, and there was someone prepared to fight my corner and change things.

2) Disclosure is never straightforward

I’ve gone from never disclosing to always disclosing, but I never know what is right. It has never been easy, and if anything knowing the right thing to do has got harder. I think, looking at your situation, what you’d get out of disclosing your disability or health condition and knowing your rights if things go wrong are good steps. If anything, after disclosing I am protected under discrimination laws, but that doesn’t stop people abusing positions of power.

3. Keep a file and back up everything in writing

I was very organised (in all situations I’ve challenged ways I’ve been treated) by keeping a file of all emails, interactions and meetings. Drawing up a timeline also helps plot events. I also, when I realised things were starting to get tricky asked for every conversation to be backed up in writing. This helped to keep a paper trail and provided points of reference for meetings.

4. Read up on employment law (or any other law you’re challenging…)

A union rep is a great source of information, but its always good to go into meetings with some background knowledge. After studying media law at university I will always be in awe of lawyers who have to know all of the laws. The ACAS website became my stable bedtime reading, I found the advice there invaluable. Also read forums or other online communities where people have been through similar situations to you.

5. Seek support from friends and family

Support from my family and friends has been invaluable and is something we all need when going through difficult times. I’ve had people to proof read letters, rant to and discuss strategies with. They also phone me and let me tell them about my cats. This all helps. I wouldn’t have got to where I am now without any of them.

6. Go to a doctor if you need to

Something I hoped I wouldn’t need to do. I was angry it made me feel that way and didn’t want to accept that I was in bits because of difficulties at work. It was affecting me more than I understood at the time but speaking to a doctor put it on my record, and this was further evidence should I need it later.

7. Take time out to do things you’d normally do

This is probably one of the most important of them all, and something I’ve never really managed. Whenever I’ve had to challenge something, whether at work, university or volunteering, it has totally consumed my life. I thought that my life had to revolve around getting results by fighting whatever it was at the time. It has always been exhausting thinking this way. At no time have I ever thought “Yes, this thing being all of my life is the right thing.” It never is and your mental health will take a battering as a result. Just like during periods of anxiety, I’ve avoided friends, would only talk to my parents about the one thing on my mind and stopped doing things I would usually do. Please don’t let it consume your life. Have days off. It will still be there when you get back, and having a day to enjoy yourself won’t make the world end, I assure you. The one thing I wish I’d done is see friends more, and now I’m almost at the other side of it, I’m determined to put this right.

8. Know your limits

It’s no use trying to save the world if your mental health is going to suffer. Employment tribunals, grievance meetings and the time it takes to get together evidence to make a case is exhausting. This exhaustion is often magnified for those of us who have anxiety or other mental illnesses. You will spend every waking moment writing letters. And every subconscious moment (when you do get to sleep) dreaming about every possible outcome. Sometimes saying, I’ve done all I can do now and focussing on your mental health is better than pushing on until you have no fight left in you. If walking away after having your say is the better thing for you, and your wellbeing, please do that. Equally just knowing that you weren’t at fault is sometimes better than the stress of taking things further.

Back in the golden sands and sunshine of the Thar desert, when I was an unsure 21 year old searching for something I didn’t have a name for, I would never have imagined then that I’d experience difficulties in the workplace or volunteering five times in a decade, most of these times I was too tired and inexperienced to say something was wrong, until the last and very recent time. And I know, more than anything that this certainly isn’t going to be the last. In India I was there to teach the children but quickly realised that the kids of Jaisalmer taught me more, and have helped me to evaluate things even to this day.

Next month I’m 30, and I know that I’ve definitely not found what I was looking for in the desert back than, maybe it didn’t even exist or maybe I’ve just found something else. Either way, I wanted to write this because it was important for me to explain the last few months without the specifics, and to put this in writing so that I almost believe it myself. It doesn’t matter whether you are a sessional worker or Chief Executive, situations that resemble the above and make you feel undervalued or bullied, are not okay. It’s hard having to tell people this, but you really do feel brilliant once you get to have your say. And sometimes having a say is all we need.

Posted in Adventures, Dyspraxia, Mental health, Politics, Writing, Youth Work | Leave a comment

I believe. I want. I do.

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Recently, while tidying up, I came across an old school report. I sat down and read some of it, one teacher commented; “Alice has an innate sense of justice and fairness.” another teacher wrote: “historians are not judges or juries,” referring to, I think, my constant need to have an opinion in history essays, when all I needed to do to get a good grade was report on the historical facts.

This first comment made me think, there isn’t a moment when I’m not thinking or more aptly over-thinking but I pondered this for a moment. I have always wanted and needed to stand up for things that aren’t right, challenge people who upset me and to be listened to. I’ve dealt with my fair share of situations I’ve needed to challenge or others have challenged for me when I was too young to do so myself. I moved schools when I was 9 because I was horrendously bullied, by both pupils and teachers. I remember my mum standing at the school gates with a petition to get an anti-bullying policy because the school denied any bullying ever went on in their school. My early childhood memories consist of letters being written to directors of education and politicians about a situation affecting me, but something I barely understood at the time. Maybe some of this need to stand up for myself and the rights of others stemmed from here? It’s possible. That said people shouldn’t have to fight for their rights so much, especially around disability or mental health problems. I started to experience anxious thoughts beyond what would be seen as normal for a child my age when I was eight, yet the average age of onset for anxiety disorders is 11. Although I remember my first debilitating anxiety attack when I was 12. I’d met anxiety before I had even started my periods, and I think before we had any talks about puberty at school. This shows that mental health and changes to our bodies should be talked about at a much younger age than they are (or were, it might be different now…) It makes me so sad every time I hear a story about someone having to fight against things that are fundamentally wrong. And exhausts me when I find myself in a situation I need to challenge. I forget not everyone lives inside my nice, friendly bubble. A circle I have grown of genuinely understanding people.

I started writing when I did because I wanted to connect with people, some with similar experiences and some with different outlooks so we can all learn. Deep rooted in my writing is a desire to make changes and to let others know they certainly aren’t alone. My “innate sense of justice and fairness” most definitely hasn’t left me and brilliant campagns like Time to Change wouldn’t exist if we’d done all of the challenging we need to do.

My “stand up for what you believe in” attitude didn’t leave when I changed schools at 9, the problems didn’t go away, new difficulties arose, and if anything my desire to make a difference grew stronger as I began to be able to speak for myself more. Secondary school was where I truly found my voice, and it became a place where I would literally stand up and say “No” along with several other words, if something happened to me (or other people) that I didn’t think was right. On one occasion I was given six detentions and one incident slip in one day because I challenged teachers about being made to leave my bag outside the library. I laugh at how ridiculous this situation was now, but at the time it was pretty traumatic. I had anxiety, and needed to know my possessions were safe. Something that my fifteen year old self couldn’t communicate at the time, so, I was seen as rebelling against the rules. I fought it, and eventually all detentions were rescinded. Since then I have maintained a reputation for standing up for what I believe, even if by the end of it I fall to pieces. I’m better at judging how far I can take something now, and how much my mental health can deal with. I also recognise when I need to take some time away to forget about whatever it is that’s going on for me.

I’ve been brought up in a youth organisation called the Woodcraft Folk, who encourage children and young people from a very young age to have a say and understand their rights, and the rights of others. I’ve never known a Woodie not to challenge things that they see as wrong. I went on International camps where we were taught about sustainability, debating and the rights of the child. I could recite article 12 by the age of 7. I knew about conflict in the world before most children do, we wrote amnesty cards at Christmas to prisoners of war and went on protests about everything. Singing songs around a campfire about peace and wishing for a better world, really did make me think of things much closer to home as well as further a field. As I grew up I wanted to change things for everyone around me. I wrote to my school headteacher once complaining about litter, he wrote back and they set up an environmental club that ran on Thursday lunchtimes. I was proud to be listened to. And realised then, the value words can really have.

As my anxiety intensified and I started to understand my diagnosis of dyspraxia, I realised that it was mental health and disability (or hidden differences) that I had to shout about. I began talking to other people, and was saddened to hear that they had been there too. A theme began to emerge, people talked about the assumptions from others, the misunderstandings and the conclusions that had been made about them but without them. This often happens because people don’t listen or choose not to. Listening is a skill I learned to be just that, a skill, when I volunteered for the Samaritans a couple of years ago. I honestly think “listening” should be a training as mandatory as safeguarding or a DBS check in a new job.

My first real experience of being treated differently because of my mental health was on a university trip to Paris, when we were told we’d be going INTO a riot. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t feel a little bit concerned by this. I was told, that I wouldn’t be able to cope and should take the Eurostar home. To travel away from a trip I had paid for and was excited about. I spent the first bus journey in tears because I didn’t feel understood. I felt judged and broken because someone assumed my mental illness meant that I was weak and couldn’t cope. But you know what? Anxiety makes us stronger, it gives you an outlook on life that others can only imagine and it makes you determined to make things better, if not for yourself but for others. That situation on the coach, on the way to Paris could have been prevented if I’d been listened to. A situation that would never have happened if we’d gone to a museum that day or anywhere to avoid the centre of Paris. I mean, I don’t go to town when the EDL are marching because the thought of them makes me anxious. It’s really not hard to avoid these situations. And as someone with anxiety, I am an expert at avoiding situations. This was a moment when I didn’t stand up for what I believed in, I turned into a mess, terrified of what should have been a fun trip away. I wish I’d been able to explain that yes, I won’t cope in a riot but going home when you have travel anxiety also isn’t an option. I didn’t. I couldn’t. We went to the riot the next day and I had an anxiety attack in the middle of Paris, not fun for me or anyone around me but I learned loads from that day. I knew that I’d be telling a completely different story, if my then lecturers showed some empathy and understanding. I learned that sometimes, when we feel utterly broken, it can be hard to stand up for ourselves, and that is okay too. I realised then, that I wanted to speak for (and with) others who, like me are unable to challenge things for themselves because of how they feel. In numbers we can do amazing things. We can make people listen and we can support others to speak out so they don’t feel so alone.

Recently it was World Mental Health Day, and I ran an event mark the day, bringing people together to start conversations about mental health. As I sat there, introducing the speakers and feeling proud that I had brought these people together, I thought, these are my people. I felt part of a community and it never fails to amaze me what people can do when they get together. My small event in a tiny corner of the North East is part of a bigger movement supporting people to make changes and to confront mental health stigma & discrimination. People spoke on learning difference and mental health, the importance of writing and experiences as a student with a mental illness. It was a time to connect. A time to network. The room was filled by an atmosphere where people could “just be” and this felt wonderful. You see, you don’t always have to launch a politics magazine or take someone to court to make changes. Sometimes all you need to do is listen to people around you and give them the space to share their story.

One comment that will stay with me; “people need somewhere to go, something to do, and someone to do it with,” that I’m sure resonates with all of us.

My “innate sense of justice and fairness” has grown stronger, I’ve developed a clear sense of identity that has anxiety & dyspraxia right in the middle of it and I often want to make things better for other people. I was once stopped going on a volunteering trip to South Africa because I disclosed having taken antidepressants on a medical form. I knew I was never going to get anywhere near that plane, nor would I want to, but I wanted to shout about why that was wrong for the people who will be standing there after me, both literally and metaphorically. ‘I don’t want others to go through what I’ve been through’ is a cliche but very true.

Although, having to constantly shout about things that are not okay, will eventually take its toll on your brain. Especially when they involve work, a job you love and make you question all decisions you’ve made up until now. We will often think, as anxiety quite happily lets us believe, that we’ve made it all up. We’re making a big deal out of everything. Challenging things will just make us out to be a massive liar. “It’s your perception” they would say in chorus with my brain, I wish it was, but judging by my research that mainly consists of Twitter and friends IRL, other people are going through the same, so it really isn’t just my perception. It’s only when a massive dose of stigma and discrimination slaps you in the face, something I need to be vague about for now, that you are made to think; “does this happen to other people?” and when the answer is always “yes” I wonder, what can I do about it?

I have, in all of my 20’s experienced minor to major difficulties at work, largely related to things I cannot change about me, nor would I want to. It’s when these difficulties are echoed in other peoples lives that upsets me most, but also brings the most comfort. I once lost a job because my friend died and they wouldn’t let me have time off to go to his funeral, I’ve challenged how inclusive some activities were for a group of young people with disabilities in another and I’ve been met with confusion about my personality by many employers. As a youth worker I’ve had to accept a lot of short term, seasonal or sessional contracts, that offer you no rights if things go wrong. Contracts that I believe are fundamental ways to hide discrimination and often exploit people. We always hear that old chestnut of needing experience to get the job, but needing the job to get the experience. There is literally no middle ground. I have no idea how to get into management, not that I want to be there but if I did, I wouldn’t have a clue. Many people in their 20’s and 30’s have to take jobs they are over-qualified for, if they want a job at all. And universal credit doesn’t sound like an alternative many will choose.

I’m writing this for anyone who has ever felt judged at work, in eduction or anywhere else in your life. Everyone who hasn’t been listened to and for those who stand up for things that need to change but also for others who find it difficult to do so, because that is absolutely okay too. We’re in this together and unity (as my woodies roots told me) makes for a community. I’ve felt valued in many places, alongside not feeling understood, but it is finding a sense of belonging that I have learnt more from and has really kept me going. People can be mint.

I don’t quite know where I am or how I feel at the moment but writing this down has helped. But I know, it will eventually be okay and you’ll be okay too.

 

 

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