Seeing Yourself in the World Around You

When it comes to TV shows, movies, and books, I see myself fairly regularly in the physical sense: I’m a young white woman. But when it comes to the things that I most associate with myself – being Autistic and struggling with my mental health – there is very little. Depictions of neurodiversity and mental illness are usually very stereotypical and often downright wrong. And that only adds to the stigma around mental health.

Now, I’m a twenty five year old woman with ASD and several mental health problems (including anxiety, depression, and BPD). I recognise that my experience is very specific. I’m not asking for a fictional version of myself; I just want some characters that I can really relate to. That isn’t an unreasonable request, is it? Seeing yourself in the world around you is so important, at least it is in my experience. It validates my emotions, my experiences, and makes me feel less alone when those things often make me feel very isolated and, if I’m completely honest, broken.

I’ll give you an example:

In Season 2 of Supergirl, the character Alex Danvers comes out as gay and a major part of the season is dedicated to her coming to terms with that and her relationship with another character, Maggie. This storyline meant a lot to a lot of people but the thing that I really connected to was Alex’s emotional journey and her relationship with being happy. In episode 9, her sister is abducted (said sister is Supergirl so she gets into trouble a lot but that’s beside the point) and her reaction is: “I was happy for five minutes,” revealing a belief that she doesn’t deserve to be happy, that somehow she is being punished for trying to be happy. This is brought up again later when she says, “I feel like the universe is just magically smacking me down from being happy.” These two moments were huge to me. This is something that I really, really struggle with and I have never seen it anywhere but inside my head. So to hear it from a character I admired meant everything to me. It made me feel less alone and less ridiculous for feeling this way. Because if this woman (who is more or less a superhero) feels like that, then it’s not unreasonable for me to feel that way, is it? Of course, I’d love for it to be revisited because it’s not something that goes away overnight but the fact that it was mentioned at all kept me going for days – weeks – and even a couple of years later, I can watch that episode and feel better.

And recently, Chyler Leigh – who plays Alex Danvers – has revealed that she lives with Bipolar Disorder. She first started experiencing symptoms at twelve years old and struggled through her teens and most of her twenties: “The mania would come and go, but the depression felt like it was always there. There are a lot of different ways mania manifests: I had extreme irritability and felt like an engine running on overtime; I couldn’t sleep at all; and I felt disconnected from reality, almost like I was high. As a teen, I did a lot of drugs, and that made me feel better, but crashing was devastating.” She tried to be the one in control of everything when she felt so out of control. She was diagnosed in her late twenties* but before her diagnosis, she says she felt like she was drowning and saw multiple medical professionals and multiple medications that just made her feel nothing: “[They] made me feel nothing, and that to me was more important than feeling happy or feeling sad. I withdrew and I shut down… I just didn’t know how else to function. And so I lied about a lot, I hid a lot. I kept to myself. And that caused an incredible amount of chaos and just destruction in the family.” Eventually she hit an awful breaking point, a mania so high that she couldn’t sleep at all and ended up hospitalised. Once she was released, she talks about how she needed to start fresh and find what worked for her. It was “very, very difficult” but now she’s in a good place: “I did find a medication that works that I still take, which keeps me very level, much more even. There are not really big peaks and valleys. It makes me function as a human being where I feel like, ‘Okay, I can manage when things are really hard and I can also really celebrate victories.'”

Ten years later, she’s ready to talk about it and use her platform to support others and raise awareness: “It’s something that’s terrified me for a long time because it feels like I’m admitting some sort of secret, or some sort of way that people are going to look at me differently or judge me but I’ve been met with nothing but acceptance and love and support, which is just amazing.” Her story is complicated but unfortunately very common and she and her husband are raising three children who either have mental health problems or are neurodiverse. The link to the initial interview (I believe) is here in case you want to read more about it. She also talks about talking about mental health and mental illness with her children in a healthy way that isn’t scary and that’s really incredible. She’s now teamed up with the Be Vocal: Speak Up for Mental Health movement to advocate for mental health awareness and acceptance: “We have an incredible opportunity to change the narrative and change the conversation, and lead people to places that can encourage them and really take them where they need to go… It’s OK to not be OK. And it’s incredibly important to reach out. Be willing to let your guard down a little bit to be able to find that community. And also know that if you’re really struggling that there are so many resources.”

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#ValentinesDay gives a chance to reflect on and honor our relationships, romantic or otherwise. I want to use today to specifically talk about how my #mentalhealth has connected to my relationship with my husband and family. Through it all – the highs, the lows, the inbetweens – my husband has been my rock. In my lowest of lows, he and my children have been incredibly open and supportive, lifting me up and encouraging me when I needed it the most. That is what got me through. For those who are going through it: surround yourself with people you can trust and reach out to them. Talk about it. If you don't feel you have people you can open up to, there are many organizations who want to hear from you and help you. You can go to @bevocal.speakup for more information on how to reach out and speak up. #BeVocalSpeakUp #MentalHealthMatters #Sponsored

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*”When I first got the bipolar diagnosis it was sort of like, ‘Oh my gosh, if that was me, how on earth am I going to deal with this? Am I in the same place? Am I equipped? Do I have what it takes to actually really genuinely take care of myself?'” I find this quote really helpful because that’s how I feel everyday. I wonder EVERYDAY if I’m ever going to be equipped to look after myself.

And here’s another example:

One of my favourite fictional characters is Daisy Johnson from Agents of Shield (which will be ending soon, something I am genuinely devastated over – it’s going to take actual therapy time to adjust to such a meaningful change in my life). Again, she’s practically a superhero (there’s a theme, I know) and ever since I started watching the show, I’ve been very inspired by her and her storyline. She’s a force of nature. She’s experienced great tragedy and each time, she uses it to reinvent herself, searching for ways to do good and make positive change in the world. She might be a fictional character but she means so much to me. And that led me to following the actress that plays her, Chloe Bennet, on social media. A few months after I started watching the show, she did an interview where she talked very honestly about her mental health: “I suffer from anxiety, I’ve had depression… it’s hard.” She talked about having panic attacks. She talked about the importance of mental health. And she talked about having therapy: “I see a therapist on a regular basis and that has helped me so much.” Reading all of that meant a lot to me. Knowing that someone I admire has had a similar experience makes me feel less alone in that experience.

Bello Magazine (November 2016)

It goes without saying that I wish none of us had to deal with these challenges but hearing people talk about these experiences really helps me. It makes all of this less lonely, less isolating. And seeing strong, smart, insightful, compassionate people (real or fictional) deal with the same things I do, reminds me that I can be those things too, that my mental health problems don’t make me less of a person with less of a future. Seeing people succeeding in what they do, while living with these challenges makes me believe that that’s possible for me as well. Representation is a powerful thing.

BEHIND THE VIDEO: ‘Clarity’

A while ago, I released the music video for my latest single, ‘Clarity,’ directed by myself and Richard Marc with animation by Lois de Silva…

It’s been a while since it was released so I thought it was about time I posted the behind the scenes video. It was a really fun and fascinating process to make for me so I thought you guys might like to see some snippets of the process…

I hope you liked it! More music to come soon…

Living with Autism During a Pandemic

I know that everyone is talking about this right now and I’d rather not because it makes me so anxious but there are a couple of things I want to say and then hopefully this blog can go back to being a Coronavirus free zone. I know it’s scary for a lot of people and there’s a lot of information and advice being thrown in your face so I just want to document my experience so far and write about the things that are helping me to minimise my anxiety.

I think the first thing to say is that I hate change, as I know many autistic people do. I especially hate sudden change because it gives me no time to process what’s going on, which causes me a lot of anxiety. It also messes with my emotions, leaving me feeling unsettled and sick and empty and twisted up. I can’t really explain it properly; it’s such a specific feeling.

The first big thing to happen was Tin Pan South, the festival we were going to Nashville for, was cancelled, which meant we had to decide whether or not still to go as it could be more expensive to cancel our flights. But as the news from other countries got more serious, we decided that we didn’t want to go and get stuck there so we had to make the difficult decision to cancel. I was gutted. I am gutted (we were supposed to be flying out today). I was so looking forward to the trip and to the festival that, not only was the change stressful, it was very distressing too. And then, of course, there was the stress of getting the money back. With the travel ban, we have since managed to get everything refunded or in credit but it was incredibly stressful, in addition to all the stress coming from the news about the virus. I have family who would be in serious danger if they caught it so, even though I’m in much less danger, I was  terrified of unknowingly transmitting the virus to them. I still am so we’ve all been self isolating apart from essential trips like picking up extra medication and so on.

And then, suddenly, everything started happening. All of the concerts I was going to got cancelled, which isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things but they are the bright spots in my life that get me through when I’m in a bad place, which I arguably am right now. So that’s been difficult, especially the suddenness, as I mentioned earlier. Then one of my best friends was suddenly on a plane home, which was very upsetting (although, of course, I understand and support her in wanting to be with her family); one minute we were making plans for the next day and the next she was messaging me from the plane. That change has been hard and I’ve cried a lot about it. Plus, just as I’ve  started to get into the groove of going to therapy again, we’re having to switch to video sessions, which I thought I was fine with but turns out I’m struggling with. And then there’s just all the not knowing what’s going to happen or how long this is going to last. So there’s been a lot of change really fast.

I actually feel quite traumatised by all the changes. Stuff like this always messes with my head and with my emotions and I end up feeling like it’s causing brain damage, like parts of my brain are being permanently warped and will never recover.

The week after all of these changes happened (most of them happened over the weekend and into the Monday), I wasn’t going to go to uni. Many of my friends and classmates weren’t going, having gone back to their families abroad and within the UK, and I just couldn’t bear to be there and see it without them all with so little time to adjust. I just felt so unsettled and restless and anxious. I don’t think I’d’ve been able to concentrate if I’d been there.

My course discussed it through our WhatsApp group (we’re a small course) and ended up emailing our programme leaders to say that we didn’t feel safe and that we didn’t feel it was responsible for us all to be there, to travel in on public transport, and so on. Very few people went to the classes and I think it was later that day that it was announced that the course would be moving to online classes. I’m yet to see how smoothly that goes. They’re not moving our assessment deadlines, which many people are very upset about, something I definitely understand. There are a lot of reasons to feel an extension is necessary. My mind changes from hour to hour; I don’t know whether I’d want an extension. Yes, there’s massive anxiety affecting my life that makes it hard to work but at the same time, we don’t know how long it’s going to go on for and I’d rather just get the assessment over, if that makes sense. I don’t know. I don’t know what I want.

Me and my Mum – my household – are self isolating, apart from necessary trips out (getting the necessary supplies to stay in, getting supplies for the cats, getting what we need to allow us to work from home, and so on – making it possible to self isolate for as long as we need to). It’s weird: I usually spend days at a time inside but suddenly I’m really claustrophobic and restless and anxious and it’s been less than a week. I don’t know where that’s coming from. Maybe I’m just so full of anxiety that everything is making me anxious.

So, having said that, I wanted to list for you a few of the things I’m doing to try and minimise my anxiety:

  • Keep a routine – I’m not talking about being really ambitious. If you’re like me and you struggle with Autism and/or mental health problems, diving into a really ambitious schedule just means I end up crashing and burning and then feeling terrible. So when I say ‘keep a routine,’ I’m talking about the little things. I’m talking about getting up at a reasonable time, showering, remembering to eat, getting fresh air (even if it’s only opening the windows and getting out into the garden, if you have one)… Things like that. Yes, it’s motivating to be productive so if that feels possible, go for it, but it’s also important to be gentle with ourselves during a time of such great stress.
  • Keep to a regular sleep schedule – With nowhere to go (if you’re self isolating), it’s easy to just stay in bed, get up late, and then end up going to sleep at four in the morning. It’s really, really easy. But I’m trying to go to bed at my normal time and get up early, like I do everyday. It’s much better for my mood than if I stay in bed for hours. A regular sleep schedule is actually proven to reduce stress, help you to avoid getting sick, help you think more clearly, and a multitude of other things, all useful at a time like this.
  • Stay on top of my medication – This is a fairly obvious one but if you take medication, make sure you’re stocked up and that you take it diligently. I take a regular antidepressant, a regular anti-anxiety, and then I have an anti-anxiety to take as needed. And, as you can imagine, I’m needing it a lot right now. So I’m constantly listening to my body so that I’m aware of when I need to take it as early as possible, so that I avoid the unnecessary anxiety. Of course, there’s huge anxiety going around but there’s also anxiety that we don’t need to feel and if we can avoid it, then I’m all for that.
  • Start and end the day with something calming – I’m dealing with a lot of anxiety (as we all are) so I find it helpful to start and end the day with something that relaxes me. For me, this is usually writing my diary because it empties some of the stuff out of my brain and helps me feel like I’m not trying to hold onto so much. It’s all safe, but I don’t have to actively hold it in my head. So letting some it go is like being able to breathe deeply again.
  • If the news is too much for you, ask someone in your support system to keep you up to date on the important announcements – My anxiety has always been triggered by the news and it’s even worse now so my Mum listens to it, filters out all the noise and fear and things I don’t need to know and gives me the important, relevant information. This has been so helpful since there’s been so much confusion and misinformation and fear mongering. If this isn’t possible for you, check your national news once a day and then try not to look at it again. Because there isn’t as much information as there is news time, there’s a lot of speculation and opinion and it doesn’t do any good to get sucked into that spiral if you’re already really struggling with anxiety.
  • If you have to work or study, try to do it in manageable chunks (which will be specific to you) – As I’ve already mentioned, I still have an assessment deadline. I still have an essay due. So, even though I’m really struggling to focus because of all the anxiety (which means it’s taking so much longer than it normally would), I’m trying to work on it everyday so that it doesn’t pile up and so I don’t end up overloaded and overwhelmed (it hasn’t helped that I’ve had multiple problems with my laptop in the last few weeks). It’s hard, especially since it’s now much more difficult to get help with it, but hopefully the slow and steady approach works.
  • Indulge in simple things that improve your mood – This is not a trick question. If there’s something simple that makes you feel better, let it make you feel better. Some of the things that boost my mood (even temporarily) are having the fairy lights on, burning my favourite candle, spending time with my cats, watching my favourite movies and TV shows… You’re allowed to feel good, to try and feel okay even in the face of this big, scary thing and if something really simple does the job, then go for it.

If there was ever a time for looking after yourself mentally (and obviously physically), it’s now. I hope some of these tips are helpful and let me know if there’s anything that you find helpful in stressful times such as these. As I said at the beginning, hopefully this blog can go back to being a Coronavirus free zone after this post because I know it’s triggering for a lot of people, myself included. But if I find any helpful resources for getting through this, I’ll definitely share them because I figure we could all use all the help we can get.