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.