Yesterday I spoke at A New Direction’s event, Partnerships, Co-production and Compromise. I shared my experience as a young creative, finding my way through an educational system that was inaccessible to an autistic person from a challenging background, and the help I’ve had from Create Jobs, Balance CIC, Ambitious about Autism, Autistica, The Prince’s’ Trust, Hillcroft College, Scope and Time to Change in accessing opportunities to thrive.
This time a few years ago, my life was looking very bleak. I had been on Employment Support Allowance (ESA), and had found the experience dehumanising. Jumping through the hoops of the welfare system, without any reasonable adjustments for my disabilities and mental health conditions, left me lacking in confidence. How could this be, when I had recently graduated from my degree with a first and an academic award, despite dropping out of secondary school with no qualifications?
Surely this time should have seen me at the peak of my confidence. I had my whole life ahead of me.
But the mental health conditions I had carried with me from my difficult childhood and issues with education were still untreated. One month after graduating, I saw my GP. He offered antidepressants. I had been there before, and experienced severe side effects both on them and coming off. I needed talking therapy.
Five months later I accessed CBT therapy for my panic disorder. I saw a quick improvement in my panic, with some improvement in my other anxiety symptoms. I was particularly struggling with somatisation — where you experience physical symptoms of anxiety. I found it hard to identify my emotions and symptoms — a common difficulty for autistic people, known as alexithymia.
It was a six month wait to access specialist trauma dynamic psychotherapy. I had 18 weeks, and worked through all my traumatic memories.
One of the hardest parts of therapy was recognising how dysfunctional my life had been until leaving for university. Living away from home, whilst a huge adjustment, was a lot simpler than my life before. Upon graduating, that independence was taken away, and I was left with a hole. I didn’t know what I would do next, and I didn’t feel supported to take the risks necessary to find out.
Through the therapy, I realised the need I had to go out into the world and speak about my experiences. Learning to do this honestly without breaking down crying was something I began to practice every week.
My talk yesterday was my second time speaking publicly. I saw how receptive the audience was to hearing my experience, and how supportive they were of my achievements since.
In truth, those achievements were just as much down to the professionals and workers who have supported me over the past few years. I have been able to develop my confidence and try different paths. I have interned in the Civil Service and m/SIX media agency through the Autism Exchange, I have accessed courses in coding through Create Jobs, allowing me to develop Neurodiversity Works, and have contributed to A New Direction’s work through the Young Challenge Group, I have built skills in filmmaking and had the opportunity to share my experiences with other disadvantaged young people through the Princes’ Trust, I have consulted on research and MoleHill Mountain with Autistica, I have been supported by Balance CIC and helped them develop their social media, and I have joined the #ScopeForChange and #TimeToChange young champions to campaign for neurodiverse accessibility and employment.
Wow, so there is high quality support out there. What it took to was finding out about it and accessing it. The charity and social enterprise sector is picking up the slack of government policy that is not working for people like me. Policy makers should be looking and listening to them if they want to improve the lives of those with complex needs. This is where the advocacy and encouragement needed to challenge personal mental health problems exists. Thank you, to all that have helped.
Before I sign off, I also want to shout out to my wonderful family and friends. I couldn’t have done it without you. Finally.. My dearest supporter: the kitty!