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.

 

 

 

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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.

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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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“It’s taken me 10 years to get here and I still don’t know where I am…”

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I recently said the above to a group of young people during a conversation about how it has become increasingly difficult to make decisions about your future at such a young age. Some schools even start GCSE’S in year 9 now, I mean what’s that all about? I was meant to be encouraging but in hindsight it probably wasn’t exactly what they wanted to hear. It was however, very very true. Brutal honesty is something I appear to do well.

I’m a youth worker by training and over the six years I’ve been qualified, I have had conversations with young people about the future all too often. I see them stressed about exams, worrying about A levels and there always seems to be some change in grade boundaries to make exams more difficult. Do they really need these changes? Is it worth the detrimental affect on 17 and 18 year olds mental health? I vote not. And I can guarantee there’ll be an army of people who are with me there. Why change something if it’s not broken? I say this a lot, in relation to a lot – most recently personality. There is a specific personality that appears to be more valued by society, and everyone else is expected to conform to fit this desired type of person. You can probably guess what type of person I’m alluding to here. And I am not it. So yes, why fix something that isn’t broken? Personality A isn’t any better than personality B. It’s just different. The one thing most people are fearful of. Young people are expected to follow the same path, GCSE’S, A levels and then university is the usual route if your school earmarks you as academically able. If not, your route is planned, often before you even sit your GCSES, and deemed not as good as journey A. But this isn’t true, is it? It’s just different. Again, we’re often scared of difference. What if you’re expected to go on journey A but prefer B? You are guilt-tripped with all of the reasons why this will be a terrible decision. I’ve known young people who’ve achieved straight A’s, but were certain university isn’t for them. Yet the support wasn’t there to help them explore other options. This can also understandably shatter mental health and self esteem. “Am I good enough if I don’t go to uni,” they ask. “Of course you are,” I say. “And don’t let anyone make you believe otherwise.” Stigma of the decisions we make can be so damaging to our mental health, alongside the actual stigma of mental illness.

Similarly, young people who are not expected to go to university, but decide “I’d quite like to try that university game” often go through an equally tough time. No one should have to prove that they are good enough for anything. That sentence alone sums up why I didn’t go into teaching. I was one of those teenagers, who for ages was written off and told not to even bother reading university prospectuses. Not because I wasn’t passing exams, I was, I was extremely academically capable. I was in top set English and played violin in the youth orchestra. I was everything that would pigeon hole me to go on journey A. The only anomaly was that I had a diagnosis of dyspraxia. A diagnosis that was massively misunderstood then, and so it was assumed that people with special educational needs don’t go to university. A theory, I of course proved wrong along with many others.

The young people told me about getting numbers rather than grades to asses attainment, so you get a 5 rather than a C (I think!) and some A level courses are now teaching university standard content. No wonder there’s an increase in young people with anxiety disorders and depression, when they’re being forced to sit exams years before their brain is ready. They may have changed the syllabuses, but generally speaking 18 year olds aren’t that much different to when I was their age. And I know, I wouldn’t be able to pass A levels now, I have seen the GCSE music content, so my hat really does go off to any young person who manages to study for A levels, keep up with extra curricular activities and maintain a social life.

As the conversation progressed, we talked about life plans, how to decide what we want to do and that sometimes, it’s okay not to have a clue. “People will present as having it all sorted, but their head often tells a different story,” I told them.

I didn’t tell them that at the age of almost 30 I’m seriously considering having some time out because I’m at the stage now when the path is hidden, and I’m completely lost. I couldn’t bring myself to be that honest. Something that I’m sure harps back to being at school, where we wan’t to appear well measured and like we know exactly what we’re doing, when in reality all we want is someone to tell us that it is all going to be okay. The reassurance to say we have made the right decisions. I’ve sometimes wondered if I’ve used education as a crux to deal with my anxiety, it’s a very structured environment with a defined beginning and end. I’ve not had to worry about “what now?” because I have a list of deadlines that tells me what essay is due in next. I’m a trained journalist but I’m likely never to practice as one. You need more than being good at writing and an MA in magazine journalism, it’s about who you know and as things stand I don’t know many people. I knew this before I started, but felt safe going back to uni. That said my journalism training is one of the best things I’ve ever decided to do and writing is one of the few places where I’ve really felt a sense of belonging and can fit in. I’m very grounded in youth work because it is something I’ve known for years, but it is also a profession where an increasing number of professionals expect youth workers to have a specific type of personality. I’ve had three jobs where I’ve found people who thought this way. It can be confusing, and adding in anxiety, can really make you wonder if you’re good enough or should even be there at all, because you’re not like person A.

And as I said earlier; Why change if you’re not broken?  I wish my 16 year old self knew that it’s okay to not have a clue because right now I really don’t know what to do next.

But we’re all still trying to figure it out really, aren’t we?

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Expectations: in conversation with my brain…

For context – I’m writing this – after weeks of feeling more depressed than I’ve felt in a long time. Summer is coming to an end and I’m looking ahead to autumn. I have The Proclaimers singing into my headphones, I’ve just finished listening to another episode of “My Dad Wrote A Porno” and I’ve dance-tidied my room to Blowzabella trying to make myself feel more “happy.” I don’t know why I feel this way, and if I did I’m sure I’d try my best to stop it. Depression to me is not being able to physically get out of bed, until the cats miaow loudly in your ear for breakfast, and even then it’s like climbing Mount Everest. You feel lost. You’re physically and emotionally exhausted. You want to talk to friends. You desperately want that interaction, yet you don’t know how to start the conversation you so desperately need. It’s not being able to adequately put into words the thoughts in your head, and for someone whose most recent degree is literally in words, that is a pretty scary prospect. Even since mental health became my job, I should know this stuff, but somehow, when it comes to my own mental health, I don’t. Or at least what I preach to others seems harder, if not impossible.

I’m always rushing about, most of us do, trying to achieve the next big thing, yo-yoing around the country certain I won’t break, looking for another project, planning the next place to visit and searching for an adventure. Two months ago the Mental Health Mates group almost staged an intervention because they saw I was doing too much, so gave me the “burn out” lecture – which to be fair – I needed at the time. Do we really give ourselves adequate time to just think? To not get caught up in life or the expectations of ourselves and others? Do we ever actually have a conversation with our brain? More often than not we don’t have the time to just be. Or if we do, it’s unwanted time and we wish we were doing something else. We’ve all been there. I know we have.

If we harp back 11/12 years, to when I was 18. I felt similarly lost as I do today. Before my 18th birthday, I was terrified of becoming an adult and the expectations this would bring. Most A Level results days bring joy, but mine just brought fear and anger that I should have done better. Why did you spend all of Year 13 so miserable Alice? I didn’t have the answer to that question then, and I don’t have much of an answer now. But I do know that expectations can be damaging, and the hype of becoming an adult and going to university (I wasn’t even moving away) wasn’t anything to fear, but at the time it was everything. When I was at my lowest, I extensively used a text service for young people, where I could text my worries to a youth worker who would listen and respond. This interaction became a lifeline and made A Levels more bearable. I was able to talk to someone, who wasn’t my parents, or a teacher, who seemed to just “get it.” I kept a detailed diary documenting the time,  charting the feelings of a teenager who was convinced she would fail her A Levels and was absolutely terrified about going to university. I was 18, but didn’t want to be, I remember texting one morning “I don’t feel like an adult. I haven’t achieved anything I should by now” And it was on that morning when it was suggested that I should speak to a doctor. The doctor, who then told me that I was too young to be depressed.

“Is the youth worker who told you to come here medically qualified?” She demanded.

A rhetorical question she already knew the answer to. I was stunned into silence, and left the doctors surgery with little, other than an already shaky confidence shattered.

Those words have stuck with me to this day. The days following that doctors visit I felt broken, lost and like I was too much of a burden for just trying to ask for help. I still had the text service though, and sometimes all you need is someone to listen, qualified or not.

What did I think I hadn’t achieved by that age? What did I think I should have done? I don’t know. But I do know that I’m in a similar predicament now. I’m turning 30 in a few months, and as with eighteen year old me, I’m convinced I haven’t done things I should have achieved. This written down sounds utterly ridiculous, because I know, more than I did eleven years ago, that comparisons with others mean little, we’re all on our own path and life certainly isn’t a race or something to win.

As young children, we’re taught to be competitive. The school sports days, that were just ritual humiliation for me, the endless exams or tests and relationships. If you haven’t got a massive circle of friends – certainly more so when you’re younger – I couldn’t give a toss now, you are seen as some kind of failure. When most of your friends are in relationships you constantly feel like you’re third wheeling. And the time exam marks are read out in science, making you feel ridiculed because physics is somehow beyond your brains capabilities. Whether you want these things to be a competition or not. They are.

There is also the opposite to this that, I’ve read referred to as “imposter syndrome,” when you believe things you’ve achieved should never have happened or that you are some kind of fraud. I know when good things have happened to me, because I’ve felt so low in the past, I’ve believed that they happened to the wrong person or that I’m not deserving of good things too. I remember being offered a job, and saying down the phone to the person who had just offered me the job, “are you sure?” as if there had been some kind of terrible mistake and that they meant to ring someone else. There had never been a mistake – I just didn’t believe it could be true – when I was so used to rejections. I once got a 1st for an essay, and was on the brink of asking my tutor to have it remarked, because I was convinced there had been an error and I didn’t want to deprive someone else of their good mark. Eventually I didn’t ask for it to be remarked, and accepted that I had done well and should be bloody proud.

In my early 20’s I looked up to someone, who was ten years older than me, and was unwittingly bad for my mental health. She was everything I thought I needed to be, both professionally and as a person. We’ll call her Belinda. “Why can’t I be more like Belinda?” I’d wonder, after another 2am phone conversation, where she disclosed more about her life than she should have, and I thought I was in some kind of exclusive club. I modelled my life on hers, when in reality I was nothing like her. She’d send me messages, and I would feel excited whenever I saw her name pop up on my phone. I didn’t just want to be like her, I basically wanted to be her. I soon realised that she didn’t really want to talk to me, we were never anything that real friends resemble and she was only keeping me around because she felt she had to and so I could essentially be used. It was a lesson. A lesson that taught me how sticky comparison can be and how detrimental to your mental health it can become. I was at one of my lowest points when she was in my life and vowed to keep people around who were only good for my brain in future. So far I seem to have stuck to that. If you’re in it, you’re probably one of them.

Concluding context: I’m now listening to Mamma Mia, I’ve moved from my desk to my bed to write the rest of this, my cat is asleep on the top of my wardrobe, I might start being able to chat to friends again and I’m feeling on the whole a bit happier. I’ve also had time to think and reflect, and have that chat with my brain, that many of us don’t have the time for. Expectations are everywhere. They are less obvious as an adult but they are still there. Social media is the worst enabler of this, making us believe who we should or shouldn’t be, but it is also the best enabler of helping us feel closer to our friends. The latter is definitely important when you’re going through a depressive episode.

Although, I’m still terrified about turning 30, but that’s totally normal right?! If anyone has any advice on the whole “turning 30” thing, I’d happily listen.

Make sure you look after you. And give yourself some time to just be when you don’t feel as “you” as you’d like. There really is a lot to be said for self-care, alongside using others as a sounding board to help you feel better. I’m also certain dips in mood are sometimes in sync amongst close friends, as with women and periods, or maybe that’s just me? Either way, it’s reassuring to know others feel as you do.

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