The dangers of devaluing people

A while back I called someone I know and respect who runs a disability advocacy organisation in Canberra called Imagine More and offered my services for any upcoming events they might have which may benefit from a little bit of Jeanette. I have spoken for Imagine More a couple of times before and they are good people doing good things. They are one of a few parent-led organisations which I find align closely with my own vision. My friend said ‘would you like to speak at a Social Role Valorisation workshop?’ I replied that I didn’t know what that was but, OK. (Don’t worry – I went away and did some research and found it was actually a good thing).

So yesterday I attended and spoke at the workshop. I imagine you’re probably wondering what Social Role Valorisation (or SRV) is. Simply, it is a way of understanding and overcoming disadvantage and disempowerment. The best way to illustrate it is probably using an exercise the facilitator, John Armstrong, used yesterday at the workshop. He gave everyone six post it notes and asked us all to take five of them and write down the five things we strove for and/or valued in our life. Most people’s were quite similar – family, work, financial security, love, home. From memory I wrote down ‘financial security, confidence, cuddles with Mr Kitty, meaningful work and family.’ One the last post it note we were asked to write the one thing we could turn to if we lost everything. Being the advanced and evolved Jeanette that I like to be, I wrote down ‘me’ on my final note. Then John asked us all to take one of the cards from our neighbour. We reflected that we would need to compensate to make up for the thing that was lost. Then we took two more cards from each other. Now, of all our positive attributes and qualities we only had two left. My two remaining cards were ‘cuddles with Mr Kitty’ and ‘confidence’ – not really a lot of use without financial security or a job! Then we lost the last two cards. We had nothing. Effectively we were homeless, prisoners, inhabitants of an institution, powerless, poor, disenfranchised. I had one quality left. The card with the one thing I could rely on if I lost everything – me. My sense of self-worth, my strategies, my wisdom, my self reliance. John then asked us to cross out our final quality. I crossed out ‘me’, feeling quite upset. We then wrote ‘the mercery of strangers’ on the final card. So we had lost everything and our life was controlled by people who had no real stake in our wellbeing. I was reminded of being an inpatient in the psych ward. Soemtimes my nurse was caring and sweet and other times I got a different nurse who was tired, cranky, prejudiced, in a bad space themselves or whatever. Devaluaed people have no power, no influence and no control.

I was very moved by this exercise (and unfortunately it came directly before my talk – good thing I’m professional about my public speaking or it would have affected the quality of my talk!) My talk was about moving from the devalued twenty-something Jeanette to the Jeanette of today. Usually when I attend conferences or events and I am speaking, I listen politely to what the other presenters have to say but their words don’t affect me much (unless of course it is a friend speaking). But yesterday’s workshop really affected me. I was a little worried my talk wouldn’t fit the brief but in fact my story of moving from the devalued me of the past – homeless, criminal, prisoner, institutionalised, poor, sick etc – to the successful Jeanette I am now fitted with John’s presentation as if we had sat together and written our talks.

I missed day two of the workshop as I didn’t feel I could really justify another day of leave if I wasn’t speaking, So I didn’t see how to empower people to overcome their devalued state. Of course I kind of know how to do that already because I have done it myself but I would have liked to have seen the rest of the workshop. The whole idea of SRV is to enable devalued people to have The Good Life (not the 70’s English show with Felicity Kendall). The Good Life is having all those things we wrote on our five post it notes – work, wealth, security, family etc.

As a formerly devalued person, one thing really struck me from the presentation. When I was 22, I was on the disability pension. I was a recently-relased ex-prisoner and was in receipt of welfare benefits. I was essentially as devalued as one can be. I got very unwell with psychosis and spent three months in psychiatric hospital. The doctor there misdiagnosed me and I ended up in prison where I had no rights at all. I was overmedicated, brutalised, had a very tenuous hold on personal safety and was not worth much by anyone’s standards. My mental illness was treated with punishment and was exacerbated. Flash forward to when I was 36, I was a public servant with a Masters degree, a published book and a profile. I was a homeowner with connections to family and community. I got very unwell with psychosis again. I did have to go to hospital but I had a lot of friends (essentially advocates) and family involved in my care. I could access income protection insurance and so I kept my home. I was able to speak on my own behalf and when I experienced a violation of my rights I made a complaint which was taken seriously. I didn’t go to jail, I kept my job and my home. I was the same person with the same circumstance but the fact that I held the socially valued roles of author, public servant, homeowner etc meant that I was treated completely differently. These socially valued roles are a protective factor against being devalued. It is very important to hold on to them.

I really like this concept of social role valorisation. It is something I will explore further. And here is the link for Imagine More in case you are interested in their other workshops…www.imaginemore.org.au  

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Loving, valuing and respecting yourself – the best option

Little Jeanette was similar to the current iteration of me in many ways. She was determined, motivated, curious, confident and smart. Little me had no reason not to love and respect herself. She had a loving family, enough food, a warm house, no neglect or abuse. And then she went to school.

After thirteen years of being given negative messaging about who I was by many of the other kids at school, pretty much constantly and then enduring sexual violence as a teen, I started to hate myself. In fact, at twenty years-old I was so negatively focussed that I actually wanted bad things to happen to me. I went through life deliberately making stupid mistakes and poor choices, mixing with criminals and drug addicts and trying to make life worse for myself. It was almost as if I had some kind of Stockholm syndrome from the ongoing abuse and invalidation and wanted to help out the bullies and abusers in their quest to make my life unpleasant.

Thankfully negative me got to a point where I realised the options had narrowed to either keep going on the path I was on and die or make some changes. A positive attitude is a formidable weapon in the arsenal of wellbeing and self-worth and I was soon achieving success in academia and then work. I den’t start valuing myself straight away but once I started seeking out good things, I gradually built up my self-worth.

I have noticed a few things about self-esteem and self-confidence during my journey. These are:

  • Self-confidence and self-esteem are actually a very strong protective factor against bullying and discrimination. When I was young and didn’t like or value myself, whenever someone bullied me I took their words on board and felt worse about myself. It becomes a bit of a vicious circle and resulted in my sense of my own value getting lower and lower. I also found that I cared what the bullies thought. However, my current, self-confident self firstly isn’t bothered by some stupid hostile opinion about me and I also don’t really care what some pathetic bully thinks of me.
  • Autistic people can suffer from low self-esteem which is not only reinforced by things like bullying and discrimination but also by prevalent attitudes around Autism being about deficits and ‘disorders.’
  • If you like, involve yourself in Autistic self advocacy (or self-advocacy for mental health issues, physical disability, MS or whatever relates to you). This will help you see the amazing achievements of Autistic others and will build your sense of pride in yourself and your community.
  • Low self-esteem can perpetuate itself when we internalise negative thoughts and comments. If you find yourself saying derogatory things about yourself then take yourself to task. Make a project of turning negative thoughts and words about yourself into positive ones. This can be hard to achieve because we often put ourselves down without even thinking about it. You can ask a friend, partner or trusted someone to point out when you do it if you have trouble spotting it.
  • If you have people in your life who put you down or disrespect you, maybe consider evicting them and their thoughts from your life and your mind.
  • You deserve love and respect. Remind yourself of this.
  • Reflect on the good things you do – your positive attributes, achievements and qualities. And I don’t believe you if you say you don’t have any!
  • Do something nice for yourself every day. It doesn’t need to be a big thing – it could be just making yourself a nice cup of tea or hot chocolate and taking out some time to yourself to drink it.

Self esteem is an amazing thing which can change your world. While it can be hard to achieve, it is very useful. And to report on my own self-esteem journey, I reached a bit of a milestone when I turned forty. I no longer care what rude, abusive bullies think of me, I am happy to buy myself nice things (and only feel a little bit guilty) and I started a job in an area I knew nothing about last year and didn’t get anxious about it (and I’ve been there a year and I rock at it!!) So it can definitely be done. I wish everyone this amazing quality of self-worth.

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Me looking rather confident signing a book – an activity which always inspires confidence and positive thoughts about myself

‘Are you a genius?’ and other thoughts on my academic journey

This week I had an exciting time at the tax accountant. No really, I did. I found out that I have finally paid off my student loan. This is quite an achievement as it was a rather large student loan, gathered over eight years of study of varying degrees.of diligence and success. I thought the end of my student debt probably signals the need for a study-themed blog post, so here it is.

When I was a young Jeanette, my parents always encouraged academic success. Neither of my parents had gone to university, which in their day was a far more esoteric sort of thing than when I was a teen and almost every professional job required a university qualification. In fact my mum’s radiography qualification was completed in a trade school environment rather than a university but now the equivalent course is a four year degree course, I guess my parents wanted the best for my brother and I in terms of our career opportunities, as most parents do. We were never told by my parents what we should study or even that we had to study at all, but it was a sort of unspoken given that when we finished school there should be some further education.

I left school at seventeen, but I did graduate with a year 12 certificate Both my brother and I were top of our respective years. I got a letter of congratulation from the local MP which I promptly threw out (I was a socialist and the MP a conservative). I didn’t get into uni the first year i applied because I applied for Fine Art courses where the admissions officer was more interested in your folio and knowledge of art than your Year 12 score. I spent a year working and painting, reapplied and was accepted the second attempt.

On the first day of uni I was terrified of all the students. I was certain they were ‘real’ artists and could see me for the dilettante that I surely must be. I saw the room full of students and thought I would never make any friends from their number. This turned out not to be the case and I mad a few friends but I was always intimidated by the talent of others. I didn’t finish the course. Instead I got involved with all sorts of scary people and took five years off the life I probably should have had and lay in the gutter, metaphorically, not looking up at the stars but into the drug dealer’s squalid lounge room.

The first thing I decided to do when I did find those allegorical stars and want a better life for myself, was to reenrol in my Fine Art course, I didn’t know how I would go at uni but I thought it was something I needed to do. I had left my course unfinished in 1994 and I hate to leave things unfinished. So in 2001 I started uni once more, this time as a mature aged student. I was less scared of my classmates than I had been the last time around but I was very anxious that they would find out my drug and criminal history so invented a few years of my life (very tricky for an honest Aspie like me). The second time I was in first year uni  – for I could not get credit for my previous study given the time that had elapsed –  I was struck by how much higher my marks were and by how my fellow students thought me something of a star. One older woman asked me in all seriousness ‘Are you a genius, Jeanette?’ I wasn’t quite sure what to say.

Uni wasn’t all joy though. I was quite unwell with mental illness for most of first and second year, having to use a special consideration at the end of first year. I was terrified of my drawing class, despite the fact that I was considered the best student in the year. It went for five hours and involved intense concentration. It was also dark by the end of the class and I have always hated going home in the dark. By the end of the class I was always frazzled, overloaded and paranoid.I was so determined to do well at the class that I sacrificed my well-being and comfort. I was top of the year and won a prize for the class but it almost brought me undone. Of course no-one else could see this and just saw this intense, very private person concentrating on her drawing like there was no tomorrow.

I went on through uni, a high achiever the whole time, even if the trade off was my sense of well-being and mental health. I was asked to do honours and then got accepted into Masters. The later years of university were less of a time of mental illness and more one of enjoying the course but also being in signifiant poverty, living in public housing and subsisting on Government benefits. Most students in my Fine Art course were from wealthy backgrounds. This makes sense because the poorer students tended to enrol in courses like nursing or teaching where there is usually a job at the end of the degree. For Fine Art graduates the career landscape has just a few options. You can do a graduate diploma in education and be an art teacher, you can do something completely unrelated to art (as I did when I joined the public service) or you can be an artist and often live a finically precarious life working odd jobs and selling the occasional painting or sculpture, Being poor was hard. I often went without food in order to afford a new tube of paint (Fine Art is a very expensive course for materials). Luckily I had a motherly neighbour with an endless supply of leftovers.

But in the end I got the degrees – Bachelor of Fine Arts (Monash University 2003), Bachelor of Fine Arts Honours (Monash University 2004) and Master of Fine Art (RMIT University 2006). I took a graduate job, wrote a book and became a different me. I loved university. It was hard, it was fascinating, it was wonderful.

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Image of a graduate from my Wonderful World of Work book (drawn by Andrew Hore)

Socially valued roles – a reflection

I am sitting in Whimsy Manor with the heater on and a cup of tea next to me, typing this blog. I am listening to myself interviewing Positively Autistic advocate Sarah Scrimshaw in a prerecorded interview on my radio show. It’s an odd experience and it brings home to me the idea of how i – and my various social roles are perceived and how I perceive myself. The reason I’m thinking about social roles and perceptions is that I am speaking at a social role workshop for a disability advocacy organisation called Imagine More later this month. An example of some of my social roles would be author, public servant, cat lady, public speaker, Aunty etc.

Our social roles are essentially a way for others to perceive us in relation to themselves and wider society. People with disability and those from various disadvantaged groups can be pigeon-holed into stereotyped roles or have negative perceptions applied before they even open their mouths.  Our social roles can impact on our employment prospects,relationships and on how those in authority treat us. A lot of people have noted that they are treated differently by shop owners when they are wearing their business attire and when they are in tracksuit pants and a T-shirt. Shopkeepers may see the person in business clothes as being in the social role of ‘wealthy’ and therefore worthy of a little attention in order to convince them to spend money. The same person in tracksuit pants may be viewed in a different social role – that of unemployed person perhaps, as that is the role their attire denotes.

I find the idea of social roles as applied to myself quite interesting, This is because I have occupied vastly different social roles in my life. As a child I occupied the role ‘problem child’, ‘class clown’, ‘weird’, ‘gifted’ and many others. There were not a lot of positive expectations or responses to me. Even without any formal diagnosis and the stereotypes that can come with that, I was often seen as deficient and broken.  By the time I graduated to adulthood I was a small, isolated and desperately unhappy person. I actively sought out the negative roles, the dark places. My social roles were variously ‘criminal,’ ‘drug addict’, ‘homeless person’, ‘person with mental illness’, ‘alienated person’. These roles became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I incorporated them and the expectations that came with them, into my persona and sense of identity. This was a dangerous situation. I could very easily have been permanently inducted into these extremely negative roles and never have escaped. I imagine a forty year-old criminal me, using her intellect to control criminal activities and survive in a dog-eat-dog world. This iteration of Jeanette is a hopeless person, someone who is far removed from everyday society, someone who has no hope of a productive or happy life. A broken woman. But I never became her.

In fact my social roles now are about as far removed from the criminal drug addict I once was as the Earth is from the moon. A selection of my social roles today includes:

  • Author
  • Autism advocate
  • Public speaker
  • Radio show host
  • Homeowner
  • Poet
  • Artist
  • Public servant
  • Friend
  • Mentor
  • Colleague
  • Blogger
  • Daughter/sister/aunty/niece/sister-in-law
  • Facilitator of women’s group
  • Ambassador for many Autism organisations
  • Taxpayer
  • Mum to Mr Kitty

People who see me now do not see my former self. People see the entire package of all these positive roles. The history beneath this is almost never evident. I made a choice in 2000 to be ‘ordinary’. Ordinary to me meant that I would join society. I would have a professional job, a mortgage, an education and a suit. Within eight years I had all this although when I announced my intent to gain an ordinary life most of the people I knew greeted the news with disbelief and even derision.

I think the way I managed to move from my negative roles to my positive ones was mostly around attitudes. I denied the negative roles. I distanced myself from all my criminal friends and acquaintance. This meant that I had three people in my address book for some time – my mum, my dad and my brother. I made a conscious break from my negative roles and sought out positive ones. As time went on I gathered more and more positive roles to myself. These things seem to snowball and over time and the more you reach for positive roles the more likely they are to come into being.

The other thing about roles which enabled me to move from negative to positive was that I mostly ignored other people’s opinions. When you try to change your life, it appears that everyone has an opinion. I tried very hard to ignore all the doubting the blaming, the focussing on the past. I was determined to make my own way. I often used people’s negative expectations ‘you can’t be a public servant. That job isn’t autism friendly’ etc) to propel me towards positive things. I was determined to prove people wrong who doubted me. So I used the social roles which were problematic as a means to springboard off into a positive world.

So our social roles can determine how others see us and how we see ourselves. But they are far from set in stone and can be changed as many elements of our character and persona can be. For Autistic folks, social roles and our perceptions of them can have a huge impact on how we see ourselves in relation to the world s be careful about ascribing or reinforcing a social role for someone on the spectrum and remember that you can break from from social roles,

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That other certainty…reflections on the fact that one day I won’t be here

I went to work at the Department today as I have on almost every other day since February 2007. I had no concerns for my safety or welfare. I certainly didn’t think that today might be my last on Earth – who does? I spent the morning working, somewhat ironically, on risk management. I bought a sandwich for lunch from the cafe on the ground floor. I was peeved at the woman who served me as she was rather aggressive and rude. I got upstairs with my sandwich. It had smoked salmon and capers and some kind of cream cheese. Hungrily I bit into it and suddenly realised everything was wrong. I was choking on my sandwich! Not just one of those little things where you inhale a bit of your water or something but the kind of situation which could have ended badly. Thankfully it didn’t. I coughed and spluttered quite impressively and made some comment to my supervisor about having needed a risk management plan for eating lunch. I didn’t think I was in a lot of danger but it did remind me of something we humans don;t think about -our own mortality.

I think people can only function because we do that subconscious turning off of our thoughts about death most of the time. It is very unusual that I walk down the street and think ‘I wonder if I’ll die today?’ If I did I might be paralysed by fear and avoid doing anything. Of course some people would be wise to be a little more conscious of risk but for most of us I think that switching off of the knowledge that we will not always be here enables us to get out of bed and do useful things with our lives.

When I was in my twenties I put myself in so many extremely dangerous situations due to my involvement with criminal peer groups and having a serious mental illness but i was almost unaware of my mortality. Like a lot of young people I couldn’t connect cause to potential effect and didn;t think much about the future.  It seems strange that in another universe, as a forty-soemthing home-owning public servant with very little danger or risk in my life that I find myself wondering about the inevitable day when thee is no more Jeanette. I have found over the past year (my first year in my forties) that I have become quite reflective about many things, icnluuing thinking about death and the fact it will actually happen to me at some point.

For me the thoughts of mortality can be quite motivating. As a driven, ambitious workaholic, I look at my life and realise that I will not have enough time to complete all the things I want and need to. I have been an Autism advocate for ten years and I have a lot more people to talk to I think. I have a theory that one should aim to leave the world a little bit better because of what you have done. I know I’m going to speak to but a small proportion of the world’s people but I want to make sure what I say is helpful, positive and supports others to live well and value themselves. That idea that I should be a force for good is a very strong motivator to me.

The wish for immorality through fame is always a fascinating thing. I regret to admit that I have a little of that somewhere in my makeup. I sometimes want people to know for the great things I might do for years after I die. This is foolish though. I mean take someone like Frank Sinatra. He was very very famous in his day. A number of people know of him now but I wonder how many people younger than me know who he was? How about in a hundred years’ time? A thousand? So immortality through fame is a bit of a myth because as time goes on less people know who you were. It;s not really immortality at all, more stretching out the inevitable for a bit. It also seems a fairly ego-driven dream.

So  all of these reflections bring me to the point I always come to when thinking about the relative brevity of my tenure on Earth: the miracle that I exist at all and the priceless value of my – and everyone else’s – life. I spent the first twenty-five years of my life oblivious to my own value and the preciousness of my life. I made stupid, wrong, negative choices and harmed others along with myself. My life was worthless to me then and could so easily have been lost. Because of this, I look back and think of every day I have had for the past sixteen years as being a bonus, something extra which I probably shouldn’t have been given but was. So this is why I am driven and determined to use what time I have to make a difference in the world. But I would love a few more lifetimes to do all I want and need to in order to improve the world. Oh but yes, how I would. That would be amazing.

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OK I’m not sure about the image from Floriade but I guess it symbolises memory

Friends – good and true and preferably Autie

My childhood and early adulthood was characterised by my friends – either the fact that they were absent or inappropriate or downright dangerous. I never had a peer group. In fact I was so devoid of suitable friends that I found myself taking on belief systems and attitudes just to be accepted by one dodgy peer group or another – revolutionary socialists, criminals, drug addicts – I wanted so much to belong to something that I didn’t seem to mind how negative or unpleasant membership of that peer group might be. I lacked a genuine culture. I felt so isolated that it hurt. I was all alone in a scary world where nobody seemed to have any idea what begin me was like.

From starting life as a confident, happy and intelligent little girl, bullying, victimisation and abuse – and simply a lack of having anyone who understood me – left me angry, filled with self-loathing and feeling that nobody would ever love or value me for who I was.

Sadly my story was not the only one of its kind. Many other young people – particularly those on the Autism spectrum and those with a traumatic past – end up feeling worthless and alone,

For me thankfully, this picture changed. Today brought home to me how amazingly lucky I am in terms of my friends and peers. I was due to catch up with some friends for afternoon tea. One friend – we’ll call her Ellie (because I haven’t asked if it is OK to talk about them in this blog) lives locally and the other (let’s call him Jim) is from interstate. Both of them belong to the peer group I am proud and happy to belong to – Autism advocates and Autistic people ore generally. There is a great group of us here in Australia and we all know one another. We speak at the same conferences, belong to many of the same Facebook groups and often have quite similar perspectives on certain things. And a lot of my friends in this peer group have emerged from social isolation and low self-esteem themselves. I feel safe with my Autistic friends. Most of us want to support others to succeed and be happy. Of course there are rivalries and disagreements – we are human after all – but I find a great sense of common purpose and fellow feeling.

Today something happened which most of my friends don’t see. I had a bit of a meltdown. In front of other people. This is a rare occurrence – I usually save up such things for when I am home and the only witness is Mr Kitty. This is not due to shame or hating myself for these things. More it is because I want to spare my colleagues and friends an upset and angry me. But today was different. I have been a little unwell in the mental health sense of late so anxiety has been a challenge for me. Today the anxiety of getting a piece of recalcitrant technology to work was too much. The funny thing was the difference in reactions from my friends and others who have seen me in similar circumstances. With others – particularly mental health workers – a meltdown would result in a lot of pathologising and administration of medication. It would be seen as evidence that I couldn’t manage my own health and might need a stay in hospital. But tonight, both friends helped and there was no judgment. Because why would there be? Most Autistic people know exactly what is going on in such situations and there is no need for judgement. It is just a case that Jeanette’s brain has too much stimulus or input. She will work through it and it will be OK.

This is one of the many reasons I feel at home with Autistic people. Among my friends – particularly my close friends – almost everyone is on the spectrum. This is my culture. Which gets me onto a slightly more advocacy-related point.  When I was a child, a teen, a young adult, my life would have been very different I think if I had understood where I fitted in this map of belonging. I was diagnosed at 20 when I have lived 100 lifetimes of misery already. I was a very ‘old’ young person – as are many others on the spectrum. I can’t nip back in time and furnish my girlhood self with a diagnosis but I can work to ensure today’s children, teens and young adults on the Autism spectrum don;t have to join socialist, criminal, druggie or whatever other damaging peer group. When I stand on stage – every time I stand on stage – I am speaking to my 16 year old self metaphorically. I hope that our young people find their ‘home’, where they belong and I feel that the Autistic peer group can be a very good start.

I am so blessed to have the friends I do, the life I do.

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Some thoughts about ‘success’, whatever it may be

I have had reason to think about the concept of success lately. As with everything in my life, I find myself comparing the me of today to the me of twenty years ago. People seeing me and my current group of friends and colleagues would probably call me successful. I would agree, and I am certainly successful in a conventional kind of way. I have nothing against success per se but am aware it is a concept which can be a bit fraught.

Let’s go back a few years to see where all my apparent success came from and why I don’t generally get overwhelmed by it and try not to get ahead of myself. I turn 41 this year so let’s pop back in our metaphorical TARDIS to 1995. Jeanette who was just about to turn 21 was a vastly different manifestation of Aspie than her almost 41 year old self. She had just been released from prison, had her life savings of $4000 stolen by a ‘friend’ who took off to Queensland and justified the theft with some nonsense and displayed no remorse. Previous Jeanette had also been dumped by all but a tiny remnant of her pre-prison friends. She had been given a diagnosis of ‘nerd’ (or Asper-something) which she didn’t understand or want to admit to. She had moved in with her drug dealer – one of those ‘felt like a good idea at the time’ deals. The drug dealer and housemates decided that rent was an optional thing as were bills (so no phone). Jeanette’s daily activities consigned of getting up around noon, drinking coffee and smoking a lot of marijuana. Once a week she would buy an absolute luxury – a falafel roll from the BP service station. It cost $3.00  – a fortune after all the rest of the money went on weed. Jeanette had just had her stereo, TV and VCR stolen by ‘friends’ and was becoming quite unwell mentally. Within three months she will be psychotic, even more impoverished and homeless but that’s a story for another day.

On Jeanette’s 21 st birthday, she has $30 to her name. She spends the whole day looking for a gram deal of weed, knocking on the door of every drug dealer in her home suburb of Richmond. At 6:00pm she scores a deal. She miserably packs a bong and says to the acquaintance (for drug addicts have no friends, only contacts) ‘it’s my 21st birthday.’ The contact replies ‘well, you’re celebrating aren’t you.’ 21 year old Jeanette has no friends and has lost contact with family for the time being. If someone said to 21 year old Jeanette that she would earn a Masters degree, write two books, have a number of solo and group art exhibitions, work in Government administration, own her Autism diagnosis and speak about Autism to a huge variety of people, she would have thought you had got into the magic mushrooms. Soon to be homeless Jeanette will eventually come to own her own home and be a formidable manager of personal finances. People have told soon-to-be 41 year old Jeanette that she is a role model for their kids, an icon in the Autism world, an opinion leader.

20-something Jeanette is with me always, tempering my attitudes and confidence. I decided to be successful. It was more organic than tossing the drugs down the toilet, throwing out the address book full of criminals’ phone numbers and saying ‘I want a career and a house please’ but it wasn’t too far removed from that. For me success has been an series of incremental shifts, gathering of wisdom and insight and learning from errors and adversity. And it did not occur to me that I was successful in any way until recently. The funny thing about having a dodgy past is that in some ways it anchors you to the past for far longer than it probably should. I spent at least 10 years after I escaped from drug use, criminality and homelessness seeing myself in relation to that time and feeling a strong influence from it.

Success is far more broad than conventional or material success though. It is what is in your mind, your character that makes you successful. I know successful people who have never worked or gained qualifications or any other thing. I talk about ‘conventional success’ when I speak of myself. What I mean by that is that society tends to views sorts of things like how much one is paid, whether one has higher education qualifications or ‘achievements’ like writing a book or giving a TED talk as denoting success. I would suggest that it is not necessarily the case that success has to be this kind of success. Success is a loaded thing. I judge people on whether they are a decent human being who respects and values others and themselves, certainly not by the size of their income.

For me the measure of personal success is how good I feel about the things I am doing, how content I am with life, the kind of people I have in my life and the nature of those relationships. And I honestly don’t know how I got to be the me that I am. I wish I could tell my 21 year-old self that her misery won’t not last and people won’t always look down at her. It amazes me that she managed to overcome her significant challenges without the knowledge of where she would end up. One of those magical, perfect things. I am eternally grateful that I became the me who I am now.

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Almost 11 year old Jeanette…..