Do I fit in here? On questioning a sense of belonging…

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“I really admire your tenacity to conquer adversity,” I’m told. I’ve accepted these compliments, that my achievements have been noted and that I’ve had some degree of impact on other peoples lives. We all crave attention. Human connection. To feel appreciated. Other people really do matter in shaping who we are. But adversity? Now in my 30’s, I’m at an age when people ask more emotive questions with difficult answers. Many with few clear answers, if they have answers at all. I should understand who I am. There should be a plan. And one thing people don’t give you, is the tools to reconcile the fact that you’ve “conquered adversity” by the age of 31.

I’ve been reflecting a lot recently about belonging and what it means to belong somewhere, to feel connected to others, to a community. We often, if you’re anything like me, hope to have more friends who understand, who get it. People who you don’t have to over-explain things to. One of my earliest memories of belonging, is my involvement in a youth organisation, the woodcraft Folk. A much better youth movement to scouts and guides. A hippy version if you want a comparison. Through woodcraft we’d go camping, and create communities. These communities were made of young people and adults with shared values, built on an ethos of friendship, peace and cooperation. The lyrics of one of the songs we used to sing around the campfire have stuck with me all these years;

“This shall be for a bond between us, that we are of one blood you and I, that we cry peace to all and claim kinship with every living thing, that we hate war and sloth and greed, and love fellowship. And we shall go singing to the fashioning of a new world.”

A song I sung around a campfire, as a round, is more poignant today than ever, the inequalities that covid-19 presents, the Black Lives Matter movement, Brexit, Trump and June being pride month. I was singing for a better world in 1995, a world where everyone could be included. We should have sung louder because I don’t think everyone heard at the back. Quite a heavy song for a seven year old to be singing, and of course I didn’t understand all of the nuances of it at the time, but I understood that it meant we must be kinder. If a seven year old can get that, what does it say about people “protecting” statues that don’t need to be protected? What does it say about grown adults who troll other adults on social media? People who think workplace bullying is acceptable? Or that their disability is an excuse for harassing others? or adults who demand that their story is the right story and the only one that must be told. That other lived experiences don’t matter?

I’ve always felt some kind of otherness, that I was different to other people. Explaining your summer to your classmates at your middle class school, where people often don’t leave the North East, let alone the small suburban village. Most people I went to school with went to the local uni to study business studies, married someone from school, buy a house in the same village, bring up children there, who then go to exactly the same school. The only connection I have there now, is I’ve been going to the same hairdressers since I was about fourteen. I was very very different to the people I went to school with, and these differences were very much down to dealing with “adversity” and developing the social values because of this. I very much cared about other people who felt different too. I knew I didn’t always fit in with school life, so I found my belonging elsewhere.

I always remember a conversation I had with a late friend, about 2am one August morning. He told me that he worried that he was too quiet, that he didn’t always fit in and people wouldn’t notice if he wasn’t there. We went to the same music summer school, he played fiddle like me. For the first time in my life I found other teenagers on mass who liked folk and traditional music too. There has always been an inclusion in folk music, I haven’t felt anywhere else. We could connect to other people, not just through a shared interest, but through the music we played together.

I told him that he always always had a place within our group of friends there and that it wouldn’t be the same without him. I’m glad, we got to have that chat but I wish I could have said more. Knowing what I know now, I really wish I’d given him more time. Since our conversation, I made an extra effort to ensure he felt included and that anyone else I met had somewhere they could belong too. I made sure he was invited up here when I had people over and that no one ever felt left out. We clicked because we were both a bit different. He couldn’t make it to my 21st because my birthday is at a ridiculous time near Christmas, and making plans is always near impossible, but I made sure he knew I wanted him there. I sent him a message so he knew he would be missed and we would make plans for the new year. That’s important – making the effort to invite people – even when you’re certain they won’t be able to come. It’s all about the inclusion. Those words “I don’t always fit in” have stuck with me. They’ve stuck with me, because there have been times in my life when I’ve felt exactly the same. That I don’t always belong too. And now, I’m at the stage of reassessing my belonging again. 

I’ve dealt with my otherness by making sure other people around me feel included. And have a place to call their own. I went into a line of work where inclusion is at the heart of what we do. Ensuring young people can belong. Creating communities that come together. Developing the human need of connecting with other people.

I’ve volunteered to give others a place to fit in too. All of my life because of that one conversation, I’ve made sure friends and strangers alike are given a platform to participate and belong. In my 20’s I went back to Woodcraft to volunteer as leader, I took children and young people away on camps, facilitated wide games, bivyed out under the stars and cooked pasta for the masses, because I believed so strongly in continuing my search for a new world. My days with Woodcraft came to an end when my friend died, and I looked up to another woman a decade older than me, who it turned out was ultimately bad for my mental health. Grief compounded this. Ending that friendship probably more dramatically than neccessary was something I’d needed to do for years. She led me into a false sense of belonging, an unhealthy sense of belonging.

Since recognising that I do have this difference called dyspraxia that won’t go away, not like involvement in a youth group or a music session, that I can literally stop attending. I can’t walk away from myself, as much as that sounds appealing sometimes. I’ve done the opposite of denial as a teenager, and really accepted who I am. Supporting other people to understand themselves too. It was great until I started questioning, why? Why did I do this? Why have I spent years talking about a difference that for all of my adolescence I’d kept hidden? As you may know, and I can talk more openly about this now as I don’t have any volunteering responsibilities, I’ve been trolled, bullied and harassed online by people from a community I thought I’d belonged. A group of people I’d really invested my time in. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve questioned who I am, like really questioned my identity, and distanced myself from anyone who felt like a reminder on Twitter. Do I feel more at home in the neurodiversity world? Is mental health twitter better?

I desperately wanted other people to feel like the could belong too. That inclusion was at the heart of it. I’ve always done it for other people, and never myself. Being so invested in one community has made me forget something important, that having a diagnosis of dyspraxia is only one part of my identity, who I am, where I belong. I would never force friendships on people just because they have dyspraxia too. Having more to talk about means conversations can last three hours and don’t dry up after ten minutes. Those shared connections go further than something, that is intrinsically who I am but isn’t all of me. My friends are writers, musicians, vegetarians, cat owners and self doubters too. Some have “conquered adversity”. Some have not.  They are people I want to meet up for coffee and not feel like we’d run out of things to say. And dyspraxia, whether they are dyspraxic or not isn’t always mentioned. I’ve now realised that it isn’t, and was never my responsibility to make myself belong.

Belonging is something we all have the responsibility to achieve. Not for ourselves but for other people. I learned that it was up to me to include my friend and other friends who felt different too. No one should have to feel that no one would notice if they weren’t there. We should all be able to fit in somewhere. It’s other people who create those barriers and make that seem impossible for some. People who talk about themselves but rarely about others. Shouting that their story is more important. It’s never you and always about them. Since trying to work out where I belong (or don’t belong) again, that 2am conversation is more vivid than ever. It was about eight years ago but doesn’t feel that distant.

I learned to really really value my friends. And that other people’s actions make people feel excluded, we all have a responsibility to include. And listen. Listening is important because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t know all of this. Or maybe I would but it would be all about me. We all have the responsibility to listen. To include. To make fitting in less of a mountain to climb.

I wish more people understood that responsibility.

 

 

 

Posted in Covid-19, Dyspraxia, Education, Mental health, Music, Politics, Writing, Youth Work | 2 Comments

On “where do I belong?” during a pandemic…

I have temporarily stopped using social media and probably will never go back to it, so, this piece won’t be shared there, but will possibly be read by my small following; you; and that’s okay. I still wanted to write it, you can share over on social media if you want to. We are, as I don’t need to remind you, living in very uncertain times, the world has turned upside down. And it’s confusing. On top of living in a pandemic,  I’ve experienced being viciously targeted online for a second time. Trolling as some call it, but these aren’t anonymous trolls. I know of them, although most haven’t met me in person, let alone engage with me in conversation. They are however, not short of opinions about my strength of character.

I wrote a piece when it happened the first time, quoting a 2019 You Gov Poll stating 1 in 4 UK adults being victims of online bullying. This statistic shouldn’t be so high. The first time I encountered online bullies, I had opportunities to distract myself, that I don’t have now. I could if I wanted visit a friend, go out for coffee, browse a bookshop, I could deal with my feelings much better than I can this time around. I have been an extensive social media user for years, like most of us I’ve turned to Twitter and Facebook to connect with long distance friends, distract myself from the world, see people’s cat photos and share experiences with different communities via Facebook groups. Communities who I thought understood me. Where I belonged. Where I felt safe. As a child I was misunderstood for much of my school life, that hasn’t entirely vanished in adulthood, so social media was a sanctuary I’d go to find the understanding I needed. That belonging? Feeling safe? It’s merely a memory now. Online abuse has made social media the last place I want to be. I miss my friends who I can’t see in person but I can’t be where they are, virtually.

Being able to belong is important to me, and like many of you, we crave acceptance. To feel valued. A human need, just like food and shelter. Maslow mentioned our need to belong in his hierarchy of needs. Feeling that you belong is important to connect with others and deal with emotions or experiences, having someone to ask “Do you get this too?” helps us to tick as human beings. To find a place in society. I’ve experienced loneliness at various times in my life, and being unable to find where you belong will surely manifest this. We hear bandied around “you are not alone” related to different life experiences, we feel comfort when we hear those words. Words have a power. They are powerful and when used well house meaning. “Oh it’s not just me!” we scream in unison, as we work through our feelings being similar to other peoples. When these words aren’t used well, being targeted online takes away any belonging. The “you are not alone” reassurance feels distant, that somehow it doesn’t apply to you. And you feel lost. Very very lost.

As now, during this pandemic, words we part with on social media matter more than ever. The impact they have can be profound, as our virtual world becomes our main way of communicating, and our life as we know it is changing. There are people behind the words. And such words can eat away at you for such a long time. Victims of online abuse still have a need to belong, and to understand their identity. We could all become victims of trolling and online abuse, it isn’t an exclusive club for celebrities or those in the public eye. It could be you, me (in fact it was me) or Joe down the street. In a world where people being there for their neighbours is reported by the media, people rallying round to volunteer, helping to deliver medical supplies and food, or simply checking in on people to see if they are okay. We’ve seen a kinder, gentler side to Britain. I used to travel to London for work, where it was rare to hear a stranger say hello. Now we stop to chat to our neighbours. I had no idea who lived in my street before this pandemic. Communities are really being brought together. So, being trolled right now when the media is reporting the good of society when faced with truly awful circumstances, feels like some cruel juxtaposition. It doesn’t make sense. Yet here we are.

Anytime is not the time to attack someone online, especially if they are from the same community as you, but it is even more poignant during a global pandemic. Social media being a friendly, safe, supportive space is important now more than ever. It is after all,  one of the few spaces we have left…

Posted in Covid-19, Dyspraxia, Mental health, Politics, Writing | 1 Comment

I’m exhausted. And I know I’m not alone

Image may contain: tree, plant, sky, grass, outdoor and natureOur lives over the last six weeks have changed forever. We can’t escape the daily reminders from the news, social media updates and our cats being extra intuitive. It’s a strange time. We are learning how to work again. And how to live alongside this new normal. Catch ups with friends over the phone are now the highlight of our days. Before lockdown I was on the cusp of beginning to make big decisions about where I want to be, what I want to do, who I want to be and who I want around me. Having largely been in recovery from the worst of my health anxiety. And dealing with a number of life and family events that made me reevaluate the need to enjoy life more, I was for the first time in years learning how feel content. I’d just started a new job, I have a small but select circle of friends who I adore and my sister was (and still is) acing uni. Then a global pandemic hit us, and my health anxiety recovery decided to become practically non-existent, as the country was sent into a state of shock, confusion and grief. When will lockdown end? Will that running event take place? When will I be able to get on a train again? Do I have this virus? No one knows.

Six weeks ago my colleagues and I, like many people up and down the country were told to work from home. We didn’t know for how long or even how it would work, but we knew we could no longer be in the office. That team I’d spent seven months trying to fit into, was suddenly dispersed. As I moved my office home, my desk chair, paperwork, computer, the lot, I felt confident. I’ve worked from home before and knew I could do it again. Home-working, wasn’t new for me like many other people carting their office home, it was not long ago, my normal. I didn’t prepare myself for or fully consider that working from home in the middle of a pandemic is very different to working from home out of choice or necessity. Pandemic home-working is a challenge, and something neither seasoned homeworkers nor novices could prepare for.

In the early days I welcomed the lack of commute, more time to think and reflect, being able to manage my time better. I thought, with no traveling to do, I’d be full of energy and raring to take on new challenges. Something that I didn’t prepare for is how utterly utterly exhausted I feel. I’m knackered. On weekends I struggle to get up and moving before lunchtime and during the week, I’ve often slept through several alarms, leading to a massive panic as I rush around trying to look half decent for the imminent video call. I know I’m not alone in feeling this, and I know that anything you are able to achieve when the world is seemingly imploding is bloody brilliant. I’m feeling drained because the world has quickly become very terrifying, we’re coping with our usual jobs; and if you’re in my line of work supporting people experiencing more trauma than ever, dealing with our own anxieties and uncertainties, and trying to keep up with how friends and family are feeling too. No wonder we’re on our knees. And some employers expect the same productivity they wanted from us when we were living during a very different time a few months ago. We can’t do all of the above without experiencing some kind of fatigue. It’s impossible. And we won’t be or feel as productive as before.

We’ve lost control

My anxiety is driven by not being able to control certain things, so I worry about events I can’t control and control other parts of my life to compensate. My health anxiety in recent times, centred around becoming seriously ill, I’d avoid specific activities or make steps when I go away to ensure I stay well, like more trips to the doctors. We’ve now been told to stay at home, there is no choice or alternative. The words “work from home to avoid people literally dying” is scary.  And if you have health anxiety, you can’t avoid health. One of my strategies is to ban doctor google from my life, if I don’t know about it, I can’t worry; being the logic. Information that was once a page on the internet I could avoid reading, is now in the form of daily press conferences. And if you choose not to watch the press conference, it’s recalled on social media. Our control has been taken away in how we live, socialise and work and it’s okay to feel sad about that. Working from home is now no longer a choice. Before I chose home-working, for benefits to my mental health and the autonomy it offered. Now, both of those are lost. And I am grieving that loss and coming to terms with a change. And I’m not a fan of change.

Workplaces have gone digital

Places of work are going through this exciting time when everyone is learning to work digitally, and realising that many people are able to work from home, if they put measures in place to support this. A reasonable adjustment many people with disabilities or mental health conditions have requested and been refused over the years. With this new found digital way of working, organisations, charities and companies are working out how much of their previous face to face work they can offer in a digital format. Office banter is replaced by WhatsApp groups and we now find ourselves in more video calls than we have the energy for. And that’s important, because constant video conferencing teams of 10-20 people at a time is draining. I’m dyspraxic, and find that video calls zap my energy. This is because there’s so much more to process than a normal face to face meeting or even a phone call. We have to concentrate on everyones face, our own face, visual and auditory information (including someones background – cat in shot?  or background noise? we still have to process it). We then have to listen, remember what everyone has said and know when to respond. When written down in this way, constant video calls, don’t seem like the best way to get information to a neurodiverse colleague, especially if it’s a meeting with more than one person. And we are often still processing information from one meeting as we go into the next. Workplaces that aren’t used to remote working, want to use technology all of the time, “YOU MUST VIDEO CALL EVERYONE,” they chirp. So questions that would normally be shouted across the office that could easily be answered quickly and efficiently by email as an alternative, are now being posed by half hour video calls. At the start of my home working I felt guilty for feeling so tired. I’m just talking to someone,  why do I have the energy of  a snail? I didn’t understand. But after talking to others and learning that we collectively feel this way, I feel better about needing to take time out after each video call for my wellbeing. I’ve now built in 15 minute breaks away from the computer screen whenever I have to appear on camera. It helps me recover and gives my brain time to just be. And being able to just be is important. This often means I’m taking more breaks than I would in the office, but we are living in different times, and this calls for different ways of working. Looking at a screen all day everyday is draining.

Anxiety increases. And new anxieties appear. 

A common theme emerging is that anxiety is developing and feeds off a pandemic. I’m now unable to leave the house alone, an attempted run last week ended in a panic attack. I worry about bumping into people. Catching the virus and passing it on. Our lives are now so prescribed meaning I’ve become hyper vigilant about what I can and cannot do. Recently I told a friend that I don’t know how I’m going to physically be able to run a half marathon if I can’t leave the house. She reassured me that I will run it, when it comes around. Getting out is vital for my mental health and ensuring that my brain, alongside my body stays healthy. Anxiety is exhausting, worrying about high risk family members, not being able to visit a friend for a chat, worrying about how that friend is feeling and feeling stressed about work is all our reality now. I’ve also heard that people who previously haven’t had any difficulties with mental health in the past, are now developing new anxiety and trauma. Frontline workers are especially hit hard. I’ve learned to swap my usual run for a walk with family, and to aim to eventually build up to running again. I take it slow, don’t go far from home and know I can always turn back if I need to. On days I can’t face crossing the threshold of my front door, I sit outside, make sure I get some sun and vitamin D. I try to read but If I can’t focus, I listen to the birds singing. Sounds idyllic, but most of the time I resemble a meerkat, unable to relax, always looking for the next crisis. I am an expert at dealing with uncertainty, but feeling a million steps behind where I was is bound be tough. And if you do too, know that you will get there eventually and it is completely normal to feel like this. It would probably be more odd if you didn’t have some kind of anxiety at the moment. I want to run and when this is all over feel comfortable enough to travel on public transport again. Both I know this will take time to build up to. Anxiety, makes an appearance when you least want it around, doesn’t it? It’s only natural to feel this way though, focussing on the days rather than the weeks is helping me. As are supportive friends.

We worry about friends and family in a very different way

Workdays are now consumed by extra worry, I’ve always thought about other people, often before myself but now the genuine fear of death has taken over our lives. I’m sure I’m not the only one who genuinely worries that people closest to us are going to die. It’s okay to talk about our new reality in this way. Previously I’ve been able to rationalise worries, as they explore in CBT “What is a more rational thought.” Death is now the rational thought. The news confirms this and so do the words, “This virus affects anyone of any age, anywhere.” There have been times when I’ve had to leave my work because I’ve genuinely been consumed with worry about a friend or family member, if I’m not thinking about their mortality, I’m worried about their mental health. I don’t have any friends who live completely alone, but if I did or anyone unexpectedly found themselves in that situation, I would be very prepared to move in with them (if I was wanted) to ensure they’re okay. I worry about ever seeing elderly relatives again, and when we are finally able to see friends, will those meetings have changed? Has the concept of friendship changed? Will it ever be like before? It is exhausting dealing with these new or slightly heightened feelings. The other day I made a list of everyone I must keep in touch with because I’m terrified in the current state of everything happening at once, that I’ll forget someone.

Focus, concentration and productivity is lost 

I’ve noticed, and I know I’m not alone here, that my focus and concentration on work and home life has decreased. I hoover up like that snail we mentioned before. And the supposedly five minute email is taking me half an hour to compose. I know now that I won’t see my previous productivity levels for a while, and it’s unfair for employers to expect the same productivity they would from a staff team in an office. “I’m going to get loads done when we work from home!” I heard colleagues announce. Something that I know for my own circumstances couldn’t be far from the truth. Great if you are able to develop new projects, write a book, grow your business, landscape the garden, redecorate the house and learn to yodel, let me know your secrets, but many of us aren’t going to achieve any of that under normal circumstances, let alone during a pandemic. I’m learning when I work best and working with that, not setting alarms was something I’ve been dubious of, but allowing myself to wake up naturally, and adjusting my hours to compensate this is helping. Although I’m still terrified about missing the 10am video meetings, so the no alarm rule is still a work in progress. I’m also allowing more breaks than I would in the office and trying to listen to my body more. I know I’m not going to develop new projects or develop a business venture during lockdown, I’m far too concerned about keeping people alive and sticking with the stability of a full time job. I’m lucky to still have an income and relative normality financially, as I know times in my life this wouldn’t be the case, if Covid-19 hit a year ago, this piece would look very different. So I know how quickly and unexpectedly things can change. But yes, having “more time to do things” is utter rubbish. We are however, using more energy to complete tasks on our to-do lists than ever before.

We are grieving for a world we will never know again

They say grief comes in waves. They say grief is exhausting. A half hour task seems to take days and even on good days getting out of bed is a struggle. As a country we are grieving for a world we may never see again. And as individuals we are grieving for a change in how we do things. I read people talk about the positives of lockdown “birds are singing. Air is cleaner,” it seems to have taken a global pandemic to force us to think about the environment. How we socialise will change. There will for many years be an element of fear at big public events and festivals, while we as a community and country get back on our feet. So while I am working or thinking about how to spend my day, I am also, like many of you ruminating about what is to come. I haven’t treasured more, time spent with friends, picnics in the park or weekends away, than I do now. And I feel a sense of guilt for not valuing them more at the time. In phases of increased anxiety I’ve wished a weekend would be over so I could get home, to feel safe. Now I wish I’d had a chat with the anxiety to ask it not to be so bloody inconsiderate. Life has changed and we are united in that change.

The one thing I have learned during and prior to all of this is to give myself permission for how I feel, and right now, for all of the reasons above, I feel exhausted and overwhelmed. Both mentally and physically. And that, is more than a justified response to our new world.

 

Posted in Dyspraxia, Mental health, Politics, Running | 2 Comments

In lockdown: How are are we meant to feel? On the validity of our anxiety and managing uncertainty…

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As I get up for my early run, I hear my feet tapping, my lungs breathing, my heart beating. The streets and its inhabitants; they are mostly sleeping. There’s a few people out; off to work for early shifts, the postman and early o’clock dog walkers. There’s also wildlife, lots and lots of wildlife. As I plod along, I think, I always think as I listen to the tunes in my ears and the birds in the sky, about now, then and tomorrow. I’ve become utterly terrified about running anytime other than before the world wakes up. Social distancing; a new word we hear bandied around, and like many I have the fear of “catching it” or passing on “it” Whatever “it” may be.  I worry about running anywhere near people because of comments I’ve read aimed at runners online. So early runs, you are here to stay.

We are living in very strange times, so everyone keeps telling you. Strange and uncertain times. The days merge into one, work days flow in and out, weekends come and go, there seems to be no beginning, middle or end. We feel lost. Trapped in a cycle. Is it a nightmare? Is this actually real? we ask. About a year ago I was told, alongside the collection of all the other diagnoses and anxiety disorders to my name that I have health anxiety. So debilitating I undertook a course of NHS talking therapy to tackle specifically those feelings. In other words, obsessing about my health until it becomes unbearable. I haven’t told friends. I avoid talking and explaining my health fears as much as I can. Writing this piece is making me feel on edge. It’s normal just as anxiety is a normal emotion, to worry about our health a bit, but it isn’t helpful when every waking moment is dominated by ruminating; “do I have an incurable disease that no one knows about?” or “Has anxiety been misdiagnosed and am I actually seriously ill?” So you can imagine my panic when our friend Covid-19 made an appearance. Suddenly the media is dominated by health. Just as I was beginning to forget about health, we are all talking about it. We are constantly reminded why we are in Lockdown. And everyone is feeling anxious. Those who previously haven’t had anxiety disorders before are waking up worrying they have the virus. Colleagues are talking about anxiety in work video calls. Others have taken to stockpiling food because they are scared. The world is in a panic. We don’t know what to do with this much unknown and uncertainty. And those of us with pre existing anxiety disorders? We’re wondering how valid our feelings are, now Covid-19 anxiety is the new norm.

Historically vulnerability has been seen as a weakness. That somehow you’re less than. That you need to be handled with care, as not to upset you. That your voices don’t matter. But now, in the middle of a global pandemic, the whole world is vulnerable. And the extremely vulnerable need to be protected and as has been coined “shielded”. We all feel vulnerable to this thing the NHS and scientists are fighting. Whether we are categorised as vulnerable by the government or not, the world shows its anxiety. Its weaknesses are laid bare. And as a nation we are united by the strong feeling of “What the fuck is going to happen tomorrow?” We often all wake up in the dead of night convinced we have the disease we fear most. Those of us with anxiety disorders have experience of this, sometimes years of it, we’ve developed this thought process long before Covid-19 was even in the air. We are experts in this field. My concoction of dyspraxia, anxiety and possibly other neurodiversities has made me super hyper-alert. And aware of uncertainty. The fear that cannot be planned for. Worried about explaining myself. Terrified that my feelings are “just me” and if they are expressed anywhere other than in my head, people will think I’m weird or avoid me or not include me. Years of low self esteem has developed these conclusions. The “what ifs?” are heightened. We wonder if we need to justify how we feel, but equally we want to fade into the background.

As these two weeks have gone on, I’ve watched daily chores and errands become a literal matter of life or death. Do we risk popping to the shop for milk? The idea of essentials has caused confusion, and for many frustration. What is essential to you, may not be for others. How can the state determine essential? And what are the risks of carrying out such essentials? Leaving the the house, if we have to, has turned into a game of sudoko with no distinct answers. We don’t know anymore. It’s a step into the unknown and with this uncertainty, drives anxiety. We have never, in any of our life times experienced anything like this; the masses working from home, our careers judged on a ladder of importance, queues at shop doors and shelves stripped bare. You could say the nation is justified to be in this state of heightened alert. Feelings that were once irrational are now seen as completely rational because of the world we find ourselves in.

Our new norm makes me, and I’m sure many of you, wonder how much of my feelings I can talk about, but then knowing that everyone now gets it to a degree, that the thoughts in my head are now more justified than they were before. But of course it’s not just Covid-19 I feel anxious about. Are those feelings not as valid? It comes in waves, and sometimes we forget, forget about the lockdown, forget about the news, feel content with work, and then it hits us. This is exactly how anxiety works. It keeps us on guard. It keeps us alert. The last fortnight I’ve reasoned that for those of us with pre-existing anxiety disorders, our feelings are more than valid during this pandemic. The country may feel an anxious unity. We are going through a collective trauma. And in the long run, when we find ourselves out of the other side, it may help to generate more of a shift in societies attitudes towards mental illness in the future, tackle some of the stigma and make us feel heard. Saying this in the middle of a pandemic still doesn’t sound real. So, how are we meant to feel? I really don’t know. But I do know any story, any feeling, any experience is a dialogue worth sharing, and that eventually, it really will be okay. We’ll be okay. And you will be okay.

 

Posted in Dyspraxia, Mental health, Running | Leave a comment

Why I’m running the Great North Run for Gateshead Youth Council and why it is quite possibly the hardest challenge I’ve ever set myself…

Image may contain: Alice Hewson, standing and outdoor

I didn’t know I could ever be a runner. I didn’t think I had it in me or even looked like one. What do runners even look like? Images of the Harriers and elite runners finishing the Blaydon Races danced through my head. I’ve watched at least one running event a year, there’s a big famous one that goes through my town. We even have a song to go with it; “Gannin alang the Scotswood Road…” Yes, you know the one. And I concluded that the people I saw there, on exactly the 9th of June, weren’t and would never be me.

This year, after running regularly for just over a year, but no more than 5K’s I should add, I decided to enter the ballot for The Great North Run. One of the most famous half marathons. I got a place. At the age of 30 I took up running after years of avoiding sport and exercise as much as I could, and now I have to run all 13.1 miles of a half marathon in September. To begin to prepare and scare myself, I’ve looked up training plans, researched what I should and shouldn’t eat (being a vegetarian, my diet is apparently pretty good for a runner) and talked to friends who’ve ran this distance and further. To find out about something, I’ve always read the bones off it and really researched the new thing before actually doing it. This morning I’ve been reading about all of the varieties of sports bras one can possibly own before concluding that mine is probably adequate. A good friend recommended that I read “Running like a girl” by Alexandra Heminsley, and I absolutely devoured it, reading it in a day. It’s a cross between an advice book going through everything you need to know about running, from getting assessed for trainers and what sports bras to buy, how to deal with injury to an exploration into her own personal journey of running, as someone who like me, didn’t see she could be a runner too. I’d go as far as saying that this book completely changed my outlook on running. It made me cry, smile and nod along empathetically all at once. I’d totally recommend it to anyone who’s in a similar “What am I meant to do now?” situation, and questioning if there are runners like you. I’ve also recently started a full time job, so weaving in running and eventually half marathon training into my working day is going to be especially tricky, but something I’m sure many other people do, and I can get my head around too.

Friends have asked if I’m raising money for a charity, and I’ve wondered if this ballot place should be to support a charity, or just for me to achieve something massive. I don’t know if I’ve got it in me to handle the pressure of fundraising, full time work and training, but I’ve gone for the former and decided I’m going to give it all a go. There’s a lot of charities that mean the world to me, from youth charities, mental health charities, dyspraxia related causes, music education charities and due to recent family circumstances heart charities. I have decided after considering all of the wonderful organisations who really do deserve funds, that this place needs to support the work of Gateshead Youth Council, a local organisation who support young people to have a voice, get involved in decision making and understand their rights and the rights of others. Values that have stayed with me into adulthood. I was at age 14, a painfully shy girl, who was at the time in denial of a dyspraxia diagnosis I’d had at age 8 and certain I couldn’t fit in anywhere. I tried to get people to like me, I wrote to the headteacher complaining about litter that eventually lead to setting up an environmental club at school in the hope I’d find my people, but this fizzled out as people didn’t seem as keen as me and I worked hard to organise a ceilidh for the schools charity week, again my people were there but they were certainly the minority. I then heard a message in the school bulletin one morning asking for people to put themselves forward for a “Gateshead Youth Assembly” election. This is something I can do, I thought. I’d always been good at writing, and had no problem writing a speech about why everyone should vote for me. To a school community who I knew thought I was odd and didn’t understand me, or my awkwardness and concluded that my uneven pattern of strengths and weaknesses was some kind of threat. I wrote the speech. I talked about wanting to listen to others. I talked about being able to listen. I mentioned my desire to make a difference in the world. All very hippy middle class girl stuff, that made me stand out even more than I did already. I still don’t know, why as the shy girl, I decided to put myself out there. Was it a bid to be liked? Was I beginning to accept that I was different and trying to tell the world? or was I just not thinking straight? Whatever it was, it worked and I was elected to represent my school on Gateshead Youth Assembly, which is where I stayed until I was 18.

The Youth Assembly is facilitated by the umbrella organisation Gateshead Youth Council, who at the time ran all sorts of projects, from the members action course, an online magazine and funding committees, alongside the youth assembly. They all took place under the same roof, and occasionally in the council chambers once a month. To begin with I went along once a month for full youth assembly meetings, where we discussed issues affecting young people and consulted with people in positions of power, we had a very good relationship with local councillors and MP’s, many of them knowing us by name. Eventually I was at the Youth Council three or four times a week after school, taking part in other projects they had there, and joined the editorial team of their online magazine, where I really explored my flair for writing. My confidence soared and I felt like I’d found a second home, as I went through school dramas, exam stress and eventually mental health difficulties they were always there. I was listened to, and never told I couldn’t or that something was beyond me. When I was 16 I won an essay competition to travel to Slovakia (with my very understanding youth worker I should add) with local councillors to attend a conference to develop a European wide approach to quality youth work. We met young people from France, Germany, Slovenia, Czech Republic and Italy, young people coming together to make a difference. It was hard. I had an anxiety attack on the first night and wanted to go home on the second when I discovered that vegetarianism is non existent over there, I’ll always remember: “She’s vegetarian” … “But can she have chicken?” But my youth worker was good with me and earned more than her pay that week! By the end of the week I was performing on stage with the most famous Romany Folk band in the Czech Republic. The quiet girl? Not anymore.

I’ve decided to run the Great North Run for Gateshead Youth Council because they gave me a chance when few people would, a place to belong and made me feel accepted for being Alice. The opportunities; attending a Downing Street reception, Slovakia, being sent up into the air in a glider, speaking at and leading conferences and giving me someone I could ring when it all felt like it was all going wrong. And it did several times, I wasn’t always the easiest teenager to support. I nominated my youth worker of the time, Valerie, for a National Diversity Award a few years ago, and she made the shortlist. I wrote that nomination for similar reasons I’m running this half marathon, to give her and the Youth Council recognition for the work they do and the impact they make to young peoples lives. Reaching the shortlist for such a prestigious award says it all. Running isn’t a natural thing to make my body do, as you’ve probably guessed, I’m dyspraxic and with a statement for special educational needs to boot, wasn’t given the opportunity to have a go. I remember PE lessons being a form of ridicule, I wished I could find a way not to be noticed, as I tried to take a serve in badminton or stay in the middle of the little X during trampolining. I was naturally tall and athletic looking for a netball player, but in practice this didn’t amount to much. My school was a sports college, so celebrated sports like most schools do, but gave little attention to those of us who probably wanted to have a go, but didn’t realise it yet or have anyone to tell us we could. “If I run it’ll make me ill” I said, which I now realise was an anxiety reaction to something I found frustrating and difficult.

I’m not just running as a thanks to what I achieved because of and sometimes entirely down to Gateshead Youth Council, but also for all of the young people in Gateshead, the North East and beyond, to demonstrate that youth services really really do matter and change peoples lives. In recent years we’ve experienced huge cuts to services for young people, and the North East has been significantly affected, the Youth Council has drastically decreased in size, and many other services I knew growing up are now non-existent. Places to go, things to do and people to tell a young person on a bad day that “they’re doing alright really” are disappearing. And this austerity and destroying services we all loved so much growing up is set to continue. I trained as a youth worker to have an impact on young peoples lives just as my youth workers did for me, to listen and try to understand. Yet now, I wouldn’t advise new graduates to go into youth work, simply because there isn’t the jobs to go to. It’s especially difficult if you add in the ingredient of being neurodivese. And years on sessional contracts isn’t great for mental health and continuity for young people you work with. I know, I’ve been there.

This run is going to be tough. I joined a running club almost a year ago, completing their couch to 5k programme and being awarded an “inspirational female runner” award at their recent award ceremony. So I know, I have something in me to do it. I have the emotional reasons to run and maybe more ability than I first realised. My next plan is my running clubs annual 10K race in April, that I hope will ease me in gently, and give me something realistic to aim for. Joining a running club has completely changed my outlook on running, and gave me a group of people who ask where you are if you don’t turn up to a Sunday morning run, or indeed a club award ceremony where you’ve won a bloody award. They made me realise that anyone can run if you want to, it’s not about the time or being the fastest, it’s about completing the distance. Words that I’m sure will stick with me as I drag myself around the Great North Run, and consider giving up when I see the beer tent at mile 10.

If you’d like to support me to achieve this goal and say thank you to Gateshead Youth Council in the most emotive way I know possible, you can do some of the following:

  1. It would mean the world to me if you could consider sponsoring me here, I struggled deciding on a target, but concluded that anything is better than the lack of recognition youth services are getting at the moment. If you’re unable to, please do share the sponsor page and my story with people who can. I’d love to be able to fund a residential for the young people or something equally memorable, similar to the opportunities I had as a teenager that are now hard to come by these days.
  2. If you run or do run, this distance or more, any tips you can pass on I’d really appreciate. There’s so much information floating around on the internet, that can at times be overwhelming and sometimes it’s better talking to actual people who’ve been there.
  3. I need to make a running playlist, and I need your suggestions to make this the best thing to run to.
  4. And finally if you know (and like) me, a gentle nudge to remind me to keep up with the training or to look after myself, as I have a tendency to get absorbed into things would be useful. And anything you can think of to encourage me to keep going will be very very helpful indeed.
  5. And if you’d like to be there on the day on September 13th 2020, we can certainly talk about that.

I’m very excited but extremely terrified too. This couldn’t be anymore poignant; being able to run a half marathon in my home region, and doing it for a local charity who did so much for me when I was growing up. They allowed me to learn that “I can” just as much as the next person. And now I want to show todays young people that they can too.

Do consider sponsoring me.

 

Posted in Dyspraxia, Mental health, Running, Youth Work | 1 Comment

Recognising myself a decade on…

I’m the eldest of three, but I always always wanted a big sister. It felt exhausting doing everything first, going to university, passing exams, traveling alone. I was always the test so the other two knew what to do. I was never a role model though. I didn’t want my siblings to be anything like me. And I was very clear about that. “Do everything I didn’t do!” I’d say, and so far they are and have, maybe too much sometimes. Like many neurodiverse women I struggled with the concept of being “good enough” and what this actually means. Often obsessively comparing myself to others, and, convincing myself that their strengths were my flaws. Deep down I was racked with the guilt of being the difficult (otherwise translated as “different”) sibling, the one that needed more attention and support, the sister who at times wasn’t like a big sister at all. Sibling guilt is something that A) I’ve recognised to be a thing as part of my life and B) I’ve heard mentioned very little within the neurodiverse community. It is, like most experiences, hard to talk about and even harder to understand. So growing up I craved a big sister who wasn’t like me or maybe was like me, that bit is unclear. Someone to look up to, someone to guide me and someone who had already done everything first.

I spent my teens until my mid 20’s looking up to mainly older women, idolising them and wishing I was like them. I hung onto their every word, I wanted to be less like myself and more like these women who seemed to have it all. I felt the buzz when they chose to speak to me, I was always there to answer their calls. I liked that they had done everything before me, and seemed to know things I didn’t. So, slowly I started divulging parts of my life to them, I offloaded things I hadn’t told anyone before. I leaned on them, I wanted support. But I forgot they are human too, and friendships if they are going to work need to be a two way process. And most upsetting of all, I neglected my real long term friends, or I reflected my insecurities brought on by my relationship with these older women, onto my friends, who tried to piece together the jigsaw, often leaving them pretty baffled. I was pleased to have an older female figure in my life, more than once. When I became too much and one friendship fizzled out, or it ended dramatically, usually after unpleasant words that to me felt like an awful break up, I went onto the next person. I didn’t recognise the pattern. And I didn’t understand what I was doing until now, over a decade after the first time. I recognise who I am, and more importantly was, because I am now that woman. I have transitioned from the person who needed a lot of support and to lean on other people, to someone who is doing that for others. I am literally standing in these older women’s shoes, who I had so much admiration for then. I have also learned from myself, that it’s okay to be direct and honest, it’s okay to look after yourself and more importantly I’ve realised what a healthy friendship looks like.

I remember vividly, I was sitting in woman A’s car, we’ll call her Emma, outside university. I was about to go into a meeting with my tutor to discuss strategies to prevent me from failing my degree. She had come along for support. I was in tears and she just turned to me and said bluntly “Alice, are you on anti-depressants?” I wasn’t, but felt like I should be. I didn’t recognise at the time that this was Emma’s way of saying, “I’m at capacity now, I don’t know how to support you.” A few months later I did get that prescription, just before my finals. Months passed and Emma was still in my life, we went away together, her whole family took me under their wing, I felt that she was the big sister I never had. My life revolved around her, even at my lowest, she suggested the day after my friend died, I go camping with her and her family, that included two small children in tow. “I’ve known people who were too young to die too,” she told me. But she didn’t understand my grief, and I was too broken to argue at the time. I went along, desperately not wanting to be there. I didn’t read that with every interaction I had with her, she was trying to be nice and hoped that one day we’d drift apart and I’d get on with living my life. It didn’t and never would resemble a friendship. We had very little in common really, and she was trying to support someone who came into her life, who was vulnerable and slowly the “friendship” was doing more harm than good. It was becoming unhealthy. I became reliant and at times obsessive. I put her in a very difficult situation and now a decade on, I totally understand that situation.

Boundaries are key and as we grow into ourselves, we learn what is and isn’t okay to share, and with whom. Both in person and online, we set our own boundaries. I spent most of my 20’s trying to work this out. A few months ago I experienced trolling online, to the extent that I didn’t want to share online again. I wanted my whole online presence to vanish. I’d had enough, and my boundaries felt invaded. Especially as the trolling continued over DM’S, away from the public. I started to lean on friends when this happened, and rightly so, I needed people to be there. And they were. At times my mind harped back to when I was younger and much more vulnerable, when I’d talk to people about my problems and it would continue for much longer than was healthy or neccessary. I’d forget that friendships, if they are to survive, need to involve support and empathy for the other person too. I needed to listen too. I didn’t listen for years. I now know when to stop talking, and listen. Or allow space to breathe.

Recently I had a very honest conversation with a friend who knew me then, and still knows me now. I talked about my reliance on people, and constant need to be reassured. “I think I might have looked up to you,” I blurted out. “I can’t believe you looked up to me,” he jokingly responded. “No in a different way, it was different with you, than these older women,” I clarified. And it was, he was a friend, who I used to explore my feelings around difficult friendships. I didn’t expect to be so honest in that conversation and later apologised in a text saying so. The conversation did if anything help me to process my feelings towards who I used to be, and as someone who needs to verbalise events or write them down to move forward, it was a useful exercise. I recalled in that conversation a friend telling me to “make sure you tell us the good things too”, and I tried for years to recount the things people also wanted to hear about my life. And at the age of 31, I think I’ve worked out that balance. I know I still need more reassurance than most people, but I am aware of it, making me more wary of the bonds I make and appreciative of the friendships I value most, that do make me feel “good enough.”

Finding the space and appropriate moment to apologise to those I relied on years ago but didn’t listen to, might be useful, or counterproductive. Just simply saying “I get what I did then,” feels like a conclusion. Recognising myself and who I used to be has been powerful. Powerful to know I now know and understand. It doesn’t yet provide a conclusion, but as time goes on and I ruminate more it may do, and as always writing about it is a start.

(Really interested to hear from anyone with similar experiences…)

 

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

Why running is both the best and most difficult thing I’ve ever done…

I took up running about a year ago, with absolutely no idea what to expect. I didn’t tell anyone I was running for a while, keeping it quiet as if it was some kind of dirty secret. I didn’t want the attention and I certainly didn’t want to do it with people. It was my thing. And I didn’t want to share my running with anyone.

I then did. I told friends. I told the world and I joined a running club. I’m lucky to have found the most inclusive running club on my door step, but even with their mixed ability, everyone’s welcome ethos, there’s still competition, if not against each other, it’s with yourself. I didn’t know what looked good or bad, the talk of PB’S really put me off, and I started subconsciously measuring myself against myself every time I went running because that’s what everyone else does, right? I have never been a competitive person, “It’s the taking part that counts!” my hippy teenage self would scream. Judging yourself on yourself was new. Some runs were great, and I’d come back feeling elated and ready to go out again. Others were not so great, I’d convince myself I was too slow, that my pace was awful and I shouldn’t be a runner. Am I fooling myself I’d wonder? Many times mid-run I’ve stopped dead in my tracks, wondering what I’m even putting myself through. My mind harps back to school PE, when I was told I couldn’t join an athletics club because I wasn’t good enough. Maybe those teachers had a point? But these thoughts always passed and I plodded on. I tried to go further each time, ignoring the time as best I could. But then when I ignored my sports watch, I’d convince myself I was doing something wrong because I wasn’t running a race with myself. it’s a cycle and a cycle I don’t know how to break.

When I post a running photo on Instagram or Facebook, often smiling, looking like I’m having the time of my life. I’m always congratulated. People tell me I look great, that they’re proud and use the “inspiration” word. Friends tell me they wish they could run, I’ve even inspired some people to take up running and others would say they can’t add anything to conversation when I talk about running. We are social beings and we crave being part of communities, I feel part of some kind of running community now, a community I used to admire from afar, “Rather them than me,” I’d say. Friendships are built on connections, and through these connections we share interests, likes and dislikes. Offer support when things are hard and celebrate our achievements. It keeps conversations moving, and means if you’ve worked on the friendship thing well, you rarely run out of things to say. I adore running, being able to talk about it and relate to other people when they mention they run too. It’s given me a freedom I haven’t felt before and has been a way to calm the anxiety before it takes over.

RunningBut it is also by far the toughest thing I’ve ever done. 

This afternoon I went out for my usual 5K loop around the block, and as I did I stopped to take a smiley, “I’ve been for a run!” photo. I stalled posting that on social media. I didn’t post it because it wasn’t always a great run. My social media has been lying about how I’m finding running. The first 3k of that run was awful and I was very prepared to give it all up. No more running Alice. No more competitions with myself. No more trying to be something I’m not. Before that photo, something you didn’t see, unless you were the dog walker in the distance, is me collapsing in tears in the field behind me, feeling awful about running, and convinced I had lied to myself and everyone around me. I can’t run. I can’t even run against myself. My thoughts raced, I couldn’t find it in me to go on, and I didn’t want people to think I had taken to running like a duck to water. Am I a running fraud? Every run I have to push myself, sometimes even just to get out of the front door. Every run I wonder what I could do better. And some runs, I feel like giving up. It’s a labour of love with yourself; it’s a labour of identity, you have to listen and understand your body. No amount of running books or think pieces about ultra-marathon runners helps you understand this. No amount of races completed, PB’S achieved or expensive running kit bought makes you a runner. It’s about how you feel. How that race is going with yourself, whether invited or not, the motivation to get out of the front door. Today I did get up and continue my run. I plodded along, and tried not to worry about my pace or the obstacles in the way. I focussed entirely on me and my breathing. It wasn’t the best run, but I got to the end and completed the distance. I post about the end on social media. I tell people about my runs and the club I joined but I rarely talk about the middle. The middle is the most important. The middle is where I learn about running. I got there but today it didn’t feel easy. Taking up running is by far one of the best things I’ve ever done because knowing I can get to the end of something challenging feels more wonderful. Than something like writing, which I know I’m good at, but I don’t find hard.

Despite this afternoon running remains one of my favourite things to do, I don’t always run with the club. And running on your own allows you to have moments like today. We all need time to reflect and understand what it is we’re really getting out of something. I will go running again. Moments like today will arrive again, it’s the cycle of running. A cycle I’m only starting to understand one year on.

I’ve written this for anyone who’s ever wondered why they run or even if they fit the definition of a runner. And has considered giving up too. Or substitute running for another activity you equally love but find almost impossible some days. This is for you.

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New Year. MY time.

Image result for New Year

Y’know what? And it’s taken me far too long to realise this, but I’m not a fan of New Year. The time we feel pressured to have a good time, to do something and be happy. It’s almost like it’s expected for all of your worries, anxieties and feelings to disappear for that one night. But reality tells us life isn’t like this. They will still be there come January the 1st. The Tories will still be in power. The futures existential questions will still hit us. What will 2020 be like? I hear chorussed across social media. We hope for better. Or if we’ve had a good year, much of the same.

For years, as this night has drawn closer I’ve panicked about how I’m going to spend it. And if I’m doing New Year right. Am I missing a magic ingredient? I’ve done it all from fireworks and family nights in, time with a good friend to the bigger and wilder, New Years parties, and once a gig, when I ended up being a stand in fiddle player for a ceilidh in the cliquiest village hall I’ve ever set foot in. In the year of the millennium we had a street party. My actual street had a party. I was only ten at the time, but from then on it was ingrained in me that New Year meant something big. And if I didn’t meet that expectation I’d somehow failed. The millennium also saw the threat of the “millennium bug”, what was that all about? But as a ten year old this terrified me, so thought I’d better have fun. New Year is an excellent enabler in reminding us what we haven’t achieved, or expectations we failed to meet. Like a big, wild, busy New Year. I’m single, that as I’ve recently realised is essentially a decision I’ve made, so the questioning around finding a partner and settling down that comes with this time or year isn’t welcome. As I’ve got older most of my friends are either partnered up or married, that can be difficult if you’ve decided to be a slightly more unconventional 30 something. The festive period is prime time for the announcement of engagements, pregnancies or new houses. You have to be happy for these friends and family, and I am, but the feelings it brings up about your own life choices are hard (if not impossible) to avoid.

This time last year I was terrified about entering my 30’s. What if I haven’t achieved everything? my anxious brain chirped away. When rational brain knew that’s utter rubbish. Now, a year on I’m far more (but not completely) comfortable with not necessarily achieving everything and doing things differently. This year my two biggest achievements happened, that top most things in this last decade let alone year. I was offered my first full time contacted job, complete with a desk in an office, and I took up running. Both I did at the age of 30. Both at just the right time. I have never been one for New Years resolutions, but I did tentatively tell myself that I wanted to feel more secure with work. And in a way that I don’t quite believe myself half the time, I’ve achieved that. Most people say they’ll get fit or do more exercise in a New Year, and then come February this resolution falls through. I didn’t. I somehow just fell into the running, and eleven months later, it still seems to be a part of my life that’s not going anywhere. I even have a Fitbit now, I’m that committed. Setting News Years resolutions doesn’t sit well with me, but I would like to attempt to run the Blaydon Races this year, just to say I’ve ran the race my town is most famous for. You’ve heard of the song, right? If not look it up. The new job has been great, but my work-life balance has not. Something I’m going to improve in 2020, I’d like to be better at doing nice things. If I owe you an anything, get in touch. I’m not hoping for much am I? Other than that I’d like less of 2014-2018 and more of 2010/bits of 2019. Also driving, I say I’m going to learn every year, but 2020 might be the year.

This year I’ve accepted I don’t need to do anything big or wonderful for New Year. It doesn’t need to be wild. Or even happy if I’m not feeling it. If like me anxiety is part of your life, playing out the previous year, in one whole night isn’t healthy or helpful. Looking back can be cathartic to reminisce but it can also cause pain. We’re not forced to analyse a whole year in one night any other night of the year are we? But on December 31st, we must. People experiencing mental health crisis’ rise during this time of year, as people reframe their life versus what is good enough or expected of them. It can be terrifying and worrying for many, with the impression everyone around you is “having the best time.” Unnecessary pressure can have incredibly sad consequences.

It’s taken me a long time to admit to myself let alone others that I don’t particularly like New Year or enjoy the build up to it. I find it stressful and worry intensely if I’ll get invited anywhere. My brother and sister have always had a big group of friends close to home, so knowing they have certainty in their plans and watching them get ready to go to see their respected mates has been hard. But I’ve not been able to show it. Being accused of taking it out on them having a good time is the last thing I’d want. One of my favourite New Years was staying with a good friend, we didn’t particularly go anywhere during the evening, but sharing the night with someone and being able to catch up was lovely. This year I didn’t make any plans, and as I started to worry about the lack of said plans, I stopped and thought. Is it worth worrying? It’s only one night of the year, everything is pressured and we’re conditioned to be reflective, that isn’t always helpful for our wellbeing or mental health. There are other nights of the year to do nice things, to see friends, to drink wine, without the pressure New Year brings. This year I’m spending the 31st alone, with cats, a good film and wine. It’s not the first New Years Eve I’ve spent alone, but this time I’m doing it my way without the distress that I might be doing something wrong. Or wishing I’m somewhere else.

“New Year, New you” – in two days time I’m going to be just the same Alice. And I’m more than okay with that. I hope you can be too.

I hope whatever you’re doing, it’s the right thing for you.

Best wishes for the year ahead X

Image may contain: Alice Hewson, smiling, glasses, indoor and close-up

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That “I have everything sorted, now” front; On workplace loneliness and everything in between…

There has been periods in my life, when I’ve felt intensely lonely, for different reasons and of varying levels. Sometimes it makes a fleeting appearance, and others it lingers for a bit longer.

This year I turned 30, took up running, became a trustee of a charity I care about and got a job that provided me with more security than I’ve ever had in my life. After years of bouncing around between sessional work, zero contracts and working from home gigs, this really felt like the break I needed. I did not account for the intense loneliness I would feel or that when I worked for a national mental health campaign, but often in isolation and from home, I would feel more connected to others than I do now. It’s a strange feeling, but my guess is that if I’m feeling it, some of you will too.

Your 30’s are by definition a time when you’re meant to have your life ‘sorted’ and in some way know where you want to head. The ‘wild’ 20’s phase will be coming to an end, as university feels like a distant memory and you begin to settle down. You only have to look at all of the social media posts from people my age sharing new houses, babies and engagements, to know this. If you’re anything like me, and you didn’t follow the conventional route to anything, whether because of trauma, disability or family circumstances, you’ll know how difficult this can feel. I didn’t have a ‘wild 20’s’ and I’m likely not to have a conventional 30’s either, but I know we all want to portray the idea that we’ve totally ‘got it together,’ when in reality most of us don’t have a clue. I mean, we’re all just busking it really, aren’t we?

It’s Christmas in a few weeks, and I turn 31 even sooner, so seeing adverts suggesting we “check in on an elderly neighbour or relative,” as important as this message is, can be tough when you’re experiencing loneliness at a different time in your life. Of course I worry about my 90 year old Grandad who lives miles away, especially as his health has deteriorated recently, and I know there will be people to check he’s okay, and call in, but when you’re wearing a mask to suggest you totally have everything sorted, it’s very hard for people to know when you’re not. And at this time of year when everyone’s preoccupied with Christmas, New Year, work Christmas parties and unfortunately an election, it’s very hard to have that conversation.

In August I started receiving congratulations cards for my job, enough of them so I knew people had noticed this milestone in my life. “Well done! You deserve it!” and “I’m so proud of you!” they said. I felt happy. That I was finally going to get a desk in an office. A strange dream, but it was mine. After a host of inconsiderate employers, I wanted to feel like I had a purpose at work. A desk and a degree of responsibility seemed to tick that box. As I settled into my desk and started making small talk in the kitchen, mainly about cats, I began to focus on my work, which felt very solitary, despite being surrounded by people in a shared office. I’d make a to-do list every night for the next morning, and focussed on completing this, occasionally emerging for the usual caffeine fix. Before I started this new job I had good intentions to get the work-life balance sorted from the start, hoping to visit friends on the weekend, join the local orchestra, go to the Tuesday night music session, sticking with running at the club and even taking up Morris dancing and joining a choir. I have achieved pretty much none of the above. I didn’t account for or realise how exhausted I’d feel after a long day in the office. I barely had the energy to keep friendships going in the first few weeks, let alone visiting people at the other end of the country or being more social than sending the odd tweet.

I’ve since read up on workplace loneliness, and realised that it is an actual thing. That other people in new jobs experience this too, 53% of us in fact. It’s great, after reading that, to know I’m not alone, but offers little reassurance to tackling the isolation we all clearly feel. Sometimes I just want a hug from a friend, but when most of the people I’m close to live over 200 miles away, that takes a bit of planning. The listicles to help us cope with loneliness in the workplace (or anywhere) are interesting or amusing, I haven’t decided. ‘Put down your devices and make friends!’ one told me, which is fine, if most of us didn’t need twitter like we need therapy. Telling someone to have a social media break, is as one friend put it, like saying “don’t go down the pub”. Another listicle suggested ‘to make the most of the time you spend alone,’ which works okay, until I’ve read my way through all of the books I own and listened to Thea Gilmore thousands of times. Another suggested admitting openly how you’re feeling so others can reach out to you, again good advice, but needs to be taken cautiously when everyone you’re naturally connected to also has emotional baggage. It then ended with ‘see someone about it,’ that can again be useful advice, if used by the right people, and mental health services weren’t a minefield to navigate to see anyone helpful, who doesn’t just read from a self help book reccounting things you already know, (my actual experience of a university counselling service…)

I’ve now fallen into a better routine at work, and I’m not as tired as I was a month or so ago, but three months of not socialising or seeing people outside of work has become a cycle I’ve found hard to break. I’m beginning to recognise when I may need to take holiday, the concept of annual leave is still a new one on me, being paid for not being at work? Are you actually sure?! Some of the sessional worker guilt still lies dormant. I do know now, that to stay productive, I need to occasionally take a break, and probably soon. I’ve been so focussed on work, that I haven’t been able to plan ahead further than the the next day, so things like New Year, that in previous years I’ve actually made more of an effort for are left unplanned. I’ll likely be alone with cats this year, unless something last minute falls into place. There is of course #joinin on Twitter, so we’re never really alone, alone are we? But we can, whether surrounded by a supportive social media following, with family around or work in a busy office, still feel intense feelings of loneliness and isolation. I’ve always battled with the concept of fitting in, and understanding where I really do belong, and of course naturally everyone I’ve ever really connected with isn’t exactly around the corner. I have learned that loneliness is one of those things that you can’t see or recognise unless someone tells you it’s there, but you can definitely feel it once you have it.

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The people behind the words…

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I have always, dealt with life events, thoughts, feelings and emotions through writing. I’ve been able to process everything in the written word. Whether that is texts to a friend, notes in a notepad, through journalism or long email exchanges, being able to eloquently get my thoughts down on paper has always been a strength I’ve worked towards. I have also, like most adults across the world, been an extensive user of social media. I have used social networking sites to share those words, but also to communicate with friends across the world and to build connections with others. It has at times been a massive comfort to me. When I first started understanding my dyspraxia diagnosis, I loitered around the “dyspraxic teens” forum that was around at the time, I was amazed to find others who were using words to express just how I felt. Words; they are powerful when used well. But when not used so well, they can cause a very different ripple affect.

According to a recent 2019 YouGov poll, 1 in 4 UK adults have experienced some form of cyberbullying. That’s the same statistic we see bandied around relating to mental health, 1 in 4 of us have a mental health problem, they say. I am one of the 1 in in 4. You may be too. But A QUARTER of us have been attacked online. A QUARTER. Just let that sink in for a moment. Like the mental health statistic, you are likely to know someone who has experienced online abuse, is it a friend? Family member? Colleague? Neighbour? I’m telling you, it’s one of them.

I did not expect to add to that statistic. The 2019 cyber bullying club. A club I don’t particularly like being a member of, but I am now part of another 1 in 4. As someone who has hated numbers growing up, preferring words to make sense of things, I’m linked to a damn lot of numbers. But I am not just a statistic. I am a person. I am a daughter. A niece. A friend. A cat owner. And I am the person behind the words.

Cyber bulling is described as abusive behaviour online, whether private messages, twitter, Facebook or Instagram, to purposely harm an individual. This includes negative comments, stalking,  harassment, trolling, sending unwanted, repetitive messages and virtual mobbing. I have experienced intense trolling, in the form of harassment and virtual mobbing, when as the name suggests, a mob is encouraged to send constant messages to attack an individual.

Statistics show that young people aged 18-24 are more likely to experience cyberbullying. They are the generation who have grown up with social media, it has been part of their life and a fixture of their childhood. I remember my little sister first getting a Facebook account when she was ten. I work with young people, I understand cyberbullying, deliver sessions about how to keep safe online, encourage conversation about what to do if they feel unsafe and I listen to their concerns. As a youth worker, I know this stuff. Did I expect it to affect me as a 30 year old woman finally feeling life is falling into place? I certainly did not. The YouGov poll outlined that amongst my age group; 25-34 year olds, 33% had disclosed experiencing online bullying. That’s quite a chunk of us in our late 20’s/early 30’s who have also been targeted online. It is really not just a young persons problem. Anyone of us can be a victim, at any time. It’s not just unique to celebrities or those in the public eye either. I read once about an MP receiving a death threats by strangers online, I felt physically sick. You must be some kind of person to deal with that kind of abuse, I thought. I have since learned you don’t have to be any kind of person, any of us can become one of the 1 in 4.

Advice I’ve received this week has been, “ignore them!”, “go off social media”, “Don’t reply” and “whatever you do, don’t feed the troll.” All pretty standard advice, and for those in the 1 in 4 club, I’m sure you’ve heard before. The police are apparently taking trolling more seriously and in April 2019, a white paper was published to propose laws to compel social media companies to take trolling and online abuse more seriously, and to protect us from harm. So, reporting to either the police or the platform where you’ve experienced abuse is always an option. I do wonder though, with these strategies to forget, ignore and essentially hide away from the trolls, are we letting them get what they want? They haven’t got the reaction they crave, but have they got something better? Knowing they’ve got to us? it’s a tough one, but after pondering for a week I’ve concluded that the only real way we’re going to get to these abusive trolls is to speak out about it. Reclaim social media as that safe, supportive and comforting environment I know it can be sometimes. I go to Twitter when I want to vent after a hard day, in a similar way to going down the pub. There is also a quarter of us who have experienced this, who, as we are being silent about the trolling we experience, are unaware they most definitely aren’t alone. I always encourage people to talk about their mental health, “promise me you’ll tell me how you’re feeling”, I say. And we should, as a community talk about cyberbullying and trolling too. Not just as a young persons or celebrities problem, but as a concern for any adult who has a social media account.

Cyberbullying is by far one of the worst and most invasive forms of harassment I have ever experienced. We can block as much as we can, but the words, those words they use repetitively over and over again, will remain implanted on the brain. Deleting the comments, does not delete the memories. This week, and it’s important to understand how this kind of abuse makes you feel, I’ve lost sleep, cried at work, felt that it must be my fault, thought that it was a social media break I needed and worried I’d burdened my friends by talking about it. This is all on top of working a full time job. It breaks people down, and quite frankly our mental health is too precious for that. These bullies want to see this, they want a reaction, to know they’ve got to you. Just as trolls use words to get to us, we can use words to describe our experiences and come together. That device in your pocket; it can be powerful when used well.

We can only begin to solve the problem by talking about it more. Online trolling, is a 21st century problem we really don’t know enough about yet. It’s so new, understanding is only in its infancy. There are so many real human beings, 1 in 4 of us, behind those words on a screen.

(If you’ve experienced online trolling, abuse or harassment, know that you really aren’t alone. Lets reclaim social media as a safe space for everyone to be…)

 

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