You may remember what you were doing on New Year’s Eve 1999. You might have been partying with friends or worrying about the potential for all the computers to explode at midnight. I remember my evening very well. I was not partying and I did not have the internet. Or a computer. I had a five by two metre cell and a collection of art and books people had given to me and a little radio cassette player – I didn’t have a CD player because it would have been stolen by the prisoners who were tougher than me – which was all of them. It was a hot night and I was in ‘the slot’ or loss of privileges so I was not allowed to see any humans save for the nurse with my medication and the prison officers with my food. I had got off to sleep despite the heat and at midnight the women who were in the much nicer cottage units all yelled and banged pots and pans to ring in the new millennium. It woke me up. I yelled ‘fucking new year! Shut up!’
So I began the third millennium CE as a prisoner. I had very few wants but at around that time I started to see my life in different terms and decided I did not want to spend the 2000s in and out of prison and psych hospitals like I had in the 1990s. I didn’t want to die young, to be murdered or OD on drugs or take my own life. A new millennium should equal a new life. I didn’t really believe in anything much but for some reason I prayed to get me out of the situation I was in. My only wish was to not be involved in crime or drugs any more. i didn’t want lost of the things people tend to aspire to – a big house (or any house for that matter), an expensive car, a partner or kids. I had no great career ambitions, I didn’t want to be famous or accomplished. Writing books and speaking to audiences never entered my imagination as ambitions for my future. I just wanted the chaotic life I had been living for the past five years to improve. With all this lack of ambition in mind, I set about making my new life, having no clue what it might look like.
That was almost sixteen years ago. In the past sixteen years my life has undergone such a transformation that I hardly believe those memories of misery as a prisoner and an alienated outcast are real. Did I really live that life? Now I have everything I could want. This doesn’t mean my life is easy or free from trauma and misery. I often struggle with managing my life but I think many people would be quite envious of what I have now. I am financially secure, I have a great job that is free from discrimination and harassment, I have the best cat in the world, I love my family and friends, I have some recognition and influence in the Autism world, and most importantly I really like who I have become. I largely created the Jeanette that you see now in the past sixteen years. I decided the things I wanted about myself and those I wanted to divest myself of. I have learned a lot of insight and wisdom from all my struggles with mental illness. None of this happened magically and most of it involved a lot of effort on my part and terror about returning to my previous, broken existence. I still sometimes worry even now that my old life will return, despite how exceptionally unlikely that is.
I am not a particularly special person though. The reason I succeeded in changing my life was mostly due to my will and determination. When I was in that miserable, negated shadow life I had in my twenties I was actively seeking out bad experiences and punishment for myself. Sometime around me telling my criminal comrades to shut up on new year’s day 2000 I decided that I would no longer seek out negative things. I am a strong-willed Autistic woman so if I was facing in a positive direction, I was damned well going to make good choices. I had a lot of assistance from different quarters too. It s almost impossible to make any lasting change without support. Independence certainly does’t mean doing it all by yourself.
Here are some tips which helped me on my journey.
- Focusing on the positives rather than the negatives. This is not always easy but can be practiced
- Engaging in some meaningful activity – this does not have to be paid work. It can be anything you find fulfilling
- Accessing help and support when you can’t manage by yourself. This is not the same as giving up independence
- If there are people in your life who genuinely value you, stay in touch with them
- Set and strive for goals
- Failure or making a mistake is not necessarily a disaster. Unless you die from the mistake, you can use it to learn from. Everyone makes mistakes and fails sometimes
- If you are in a toxic living situation, get out of there as soon as you can. If you can’t leave permanently (due to financial pressures etc), try to take some respite time with a friend or family member or a disability or mental health respite service
- Pets and companion animals can be wonderful therapists
- If something (a decision etc) feels wrong, it probably is. Your gut instincts are a very powerful thing. Trust them because most of the time they are right
- Do things you enjoy as often as possible
- If you need to, use someone’s accomplishments in overcoming difficulties as an example and support. I am quite happy for you to use mine, but there are lots of other people who have overcome difficulties too
- Remember that you in are in control of your own life. You can’t really control much else in life other than your actions and decisions. You are the CEO of your own life
- Try not to place blame and get stuck in blaming others. Be angry while you need to and then work out what you can do to to change the situation or how you respond to it. You really can’t change the actions or attitudes of other people
- Try and set boundaries and limits with other people who need these. Assertiveness and boundaries can be really tricky so it might be a bit of an ongoing project
- Remember that nothing lasts forever. If life is hard, remind yourself that it will not be the same next year, next month or even tomorrow.