I think almost everyone who follows my blogs and social media may be aware that on Monday I was named the ACT Volunteer of the Year for 2016. This was something of a surprise to put it mildly. The most immediate consequence has been a number of media appearances and lots of people saying congratulations – including strangers! So today I was sitting in a radio studio speaking to a journalist about my life. It was a long interview – around 3o minutes. It covered all sorts of elements of my life, including some rather shameful ones from my early twenties.
The journalist was very sympathetic and asked me lots of questions which gave me the opportunity to showcase my work in the Autism community. Towards the end she asked me what was I most proud of in my life. I have been asked similar questions by journalists in the past and I usually focus on a tangible output like a book. Today I thought differently. Having just taken a trip through my memories I realised that I am incredibly proud to simply be the person I am now. I don’t mean that in superficial or arrogant way.
My journey is remarkable. If you haven’t heard it before, twenty years ago I was in prison, I had a severe drug problem, a complete lack of insight or self-awareness, I was effectively homeless, I had’t worked for years and I hated myself and actively sought out negativity. In twenty years I have gone from that desperate place to where I am now – an author,public speaker, professional employee, masters graduate, homeowner etc. I don’t think about this much. It’s just my life. It’s like having brown hair or glasses – it’s an attribute I have so I don’t often need to question it. However going through the interview today I got a glimpse into my unusual life course. I often jokingly say I am impossible or unlikely which evidently I am not because I exist.
Looking back today I could see how exceptionally unlikely my life journey from negative to positive was. I realised that at so many points everything could have come unstuck. In fact on a number of occasions it did all come unstuck and I somehow blundered through to head back into the right direction.
The purpose for the post is to share the strategies I can identify which helped me and share them. I do not believe there is much intellectual property in advocacy. I tend to think that if you know something which might help others, share and share away!
Here are a few of the things I have identified about how I got from being destitute, disadvantaged and miserable to being current Jeanette of the extreme overachievement!
- Attitude is vital. One of the main issues I had in my early life was that I actively sought out negative things. I wanted bad things to happen to me. When I decide to change that attitude and try to be positive everything changed and changed very quickly. This was not a clear cut change and I had to encourage the nascent positive attitude as it slowly grew. I consciously decided to actively seek out the positive and I kept that in my mind. If I was unsure around a decision whether it was positive or negative, I would interrogate it. I used the idea of ‘if someone did the thing I feel like doing to me, how would I feel?’ A little bit of a clunky strategy but it pushed me onto the positive road.
- Learning to ask for help. For me this is an ongoing problem as I prefer to try and fix it myself! Unfortunately some things – and especially mental health challenges and social disadvantage – often benefit from some outside assistance.
- Learning to value myself as an Autistic woman with a mental illness. Prior to when I was about 27, I could not accept either my Autism or schizophrenia diagnoses. I think this was a reflection of my immense dislike for myself and my inability to accept myself. As soon as I accepted my ‘labels’ and started to own them, life got a lot easier,
- Setting realistic goals and sometimes a few unrealistic ones too! Having goal to work towards is a great motivator. Sometimes goals do need to be recast or reassessed but I find them to be quite helpful.
- Deciding that I wanted to change my character. Our character is in a state of flux. We get the chance to change who we are to some extent. In fact most of the time it is about one million times easier to change oneself than another person. You are in control. You are the CEO of you.
- Trying to fill my life with meaning. This didn’t always involve anything big and impressive. Painting a picture or writing a poem or having coffee with a friend was often enough meaning for me.
- Rewarding myself for successes. I spent a while expecting others to do this until I realised that was more frustrating and annoying than much else. Even now I mark occasions with a little gift or treat for myself
- Spending time with cats. I know some people don’t bond with animals but for me having feline friends has always been a great support. Apart from the cuddles and affection, having the responsibility for looking after a furry person has often been a good protective factor around things like loneliness and hospitalisations for my mental illness.
- Finding things which made me laugh. Laughing is wonderful and can snap your mind out of a dark place, if if only briefly.
- If somebody is hateful or angry, remind yourself that I only have to suffer from it when I am interacting with them. They have to be in that nasty internal world all the time. I always find this makes dealign with angry or discriminatory people a bit easier.
- If I made a mistake, I would try to reassure myself that it was in the past and it was an opportunity to learn rather than something to regret. Regret is probably the least helpful emption – you can’t go back and change it and regretting it will just focus you on the mistake in the past rather than the way forward. Much better to make positive use of mistakes and let them teach you for next time. If this sounds impossible, at one point for me it was impossible and now it isn’t. The way I built this strategy was to study the Dialectical Behaviour Therapy skill of ‘acceptance.’
- Take joy where you can get it and don’t strive for a’perfect situation’ or life. There is no such thing. I am exceptionally successful in many ways and I enjoy my life but it is still very hard for quite a lot of the time. When I am really struggling with my brain;s more unpleasant issues, being able to get through an evening without calling the crisis team or Lifeline is a good thing and one to be appreciated
I hoep some of these are helpful for you too.