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.

Grateful 2019

This year has been a weird year, something I don’t really want to get into until I do my end of year review. But it has been a weird year and with all the medication changes and mental health issues, it’s only the last three months that are really clear in my memory. I’m very aware of being grateful – there’s so much to be grateful for – but having had such a fuzzy brain, I feel sure that I’m forgetting things, something that’s causing me a lot of anxiety. Pieces of the year are just missing from my memory, whether blurry or plain misfiled, and so I worry that there are moments in there that I should and would be grateful for if only I could get a grasp on them. But I can’t. So this is the best I can do. Please forgive me if I’m leaving things out.

My Mum – I always list (or shout out) my Mum because she is the person that I am most, most grateful for. Being the person I am with the disabilities I have, I couldn’t survive in any way without her and for that, for her presence, I am so grateful. She goes above and beyond to help me through the bad days and achieve on the good days and I’m just in awe of her. She is the most caring person I know.

Richard (my best friend and writing partner) – During the first part of the year, Richard and I planned an EP that we were both so, so excited about. And then suddenly, overnight it felt like, that excitement disappeared for me. It was replaced by paralysing anxiety, so bad that I couldn’t even talk about the project. It was awful. But we got through it and the EP – Honest – is now slowly being released, all of which is largely because of Richard, both practically and emotionally. And that’s just our working relationship. He’s always there to text me shitty jokes, to help me write songs when I’m banging my head against the wall, to eat sweets and watch The Good Place with. I don’t know what I’d do without him.

My Family and Friends – I often give a specific shout out to Mum and Richard because they seem to be the ones who most commonly see and help me with my bad days and my anxieties but the rest of my family have also been amazing this year. They’ve always been there when I’ve needed them. I haven’t seen many of my friends as much as I would’ve liked to this year. Between the depression, the trying of different drugs, and starting the Masters, it’s been a messy and complicated year that I will write about more in my end of year review. Hopefully I’ll get to see them more next year.

The animals in my life – We started the year with our dog, Lucky, and three cats, Lucy and her kittens, Mouse and Tiger. We’d dabbled with the idea of Mouse having kittens, just to do the kittens experience one more time, but just as I changed my mind – it was too much change and I needed everything to stay the same – we came home and Mouse was having kittens, despite the vet telling us the week before that she wasn’t pregnant. And now we have two kittens in the house, two black furballs called Sooty and Sweep. They’re gorgeous and them, plus the rest of the animals, have really helped me with my anxiety (which has been overwhelming) over the last three months and that has been so, so important.

My Masters Degree group – Starting a new course or a new anything is always scary and for me, the scariest part tends to be the new people. Fortunately, I’m doing my Masters course at the same uni I did my BA so that was really the only new thing. But I got really lucky: I ended up in a really small group and they’re all really lovely people. It feels like we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well and we’re all so supportive of each other. The groups are going to change somewhat after Christmas but it became a really safe environment, creatively and personally, and I’ll really miss it. I know I’ll still see them and our friendships won’t suddenly end but I’ll miss our little pocket in space and time.

My benefits being renewed – Given how scary the political climate in the UK has become and continues to become, I am so, so grateful that my benefits were renewed before the election and will last until just before the next election, regardless of what happens in the next few years. That was such a relief to learn. I don’t know what will happen after that but for now, I feel like I can breathe a little bit easier.

Red Bull – The major side effect of my current medication is this overwhelming sleepiness. When I told my psychiatrist about it, he said that it should wear off but that it could take months. I’d been drinking Red Bull to help me stay awake and help me concentrate; we discussed the fact that it’s not massively healthy but it’s his opinion that the sleepiness will wear off, hopefully within a few months and then I can give up my Red Bull habit. So we’re keeping an eye on it and in the meantime, Red Bull is my best friend.

Fanfiction – In times of great anxiety, I’ve reverted to a major hobby of my early teenage years. I read stories from every film and TV show I loved and wrote reams of the stuff. I’m not writing it this time around but reading it and getting lost in new stories from familiar worlds has been a very effective calming strategy. It’s made me feel safe. And it’s kept my creativity (always stifled by my anxiety) burning low, in the background, for when I’m ready for it.

His Dark Materials – I have been in love with this show from the first episode. I honestly can’t remember the last time I was so impressed by and excited about a TV show currently airing (I’ve fallen in love with shows after they’ve ended, for example). Daphne Keen is an incredible Lyra and Ruth Wilson blows me away every episode as Mrs Coulter. The sets, the CGI, the characters’ relationships with their daemons, the complexity of the characters, even the introduction sequence are absolutely extraordinary. I’m so gutted that the series is over but I can’t wait for the next one.

Taylor Swift – I’m pretty sure I’ve always mentioned Taylor Swift but I probably always will. Her songwriting is incredible, she’s one of the hardest working people in the music industry, she’s generous, she’s intelligent, and she’s exceptionally kind. She’s one of my favourite singersongwriters and her recent album, Lover, is so, so good: one of my favourite albums of the year, possibly one of my favourite albums ever. It’s beautiful and vulnerable and special. She’s also been saying some very smart and very important things during her recent press cycle:

  • “I’m a woman, I’m not a coat hanger. I need to feel healthy in my life and I need to take pleasure in food and I need to not use my body as an exercise of control when I feel out of control in my life.”
  • “Do not let anything stop you from making art. Just makes things. Do not get so caught up in this that it stops you from making art or if you need to, make art about this. But never stop making things.”
  • “You’re not always going to be inspired and that’s okay.”
  • “If someone’s gonna take your hand, they’d better take your hand, scars and all.”
  • “I guess what I’m trying to say is that all any of the artists, or really anyone in this room wants, is to create something that will last, whatever it is in life. And the fact that this is an award that celebrates a decade of hard work, of art, and of fun and memories, all that matters to me is the memories that I had with you, the fans, over the years. We’ve had fun, incredible, exhilarating, extraordinary times together, and may it continue! Thank you for being the reason why I am on this stage, from the first day of my career until tonight.”
  • “I think that artists deserve to own their work. I just feel very passionately about that.”

And lastly, she’s fearlessly standing up for artists and their right to own their music. It’s a big, hard fight but she’s using her platform and her power in the industry (“as your resident loud person”) to try and change that. Of course, she’s personally affected by it but she could handle it in private. Except she’s not: she’s speaking out and working to create change. And as a new artist, I really appreciate that she’s trying to make the industry I’m entering fairer and less discriminatory.

I think I’ll stop there. I’ve got my Christmas wrapping to do and a Christmas tree to guard from some very inquisitive cats. I hope you all have a safe, happy, and healthy Christmas where you feel as special and beautiful as you are.

EDIT: Honourable mentions to Nashville and the lovely people there, Agents of Shield, and fairy lights. But if I keep going here, we’ll be here until 2020.

Books, Films, and TV of 2018

So the year is drawing to a close and I wanted to do a round up of the media I have consumed and enjoyed. Last year, I wrote a post called 2017 in Songs and I’m working on the 2018 edition but I also wanted to do something more because I read and saw a lot of good stuff this year. So let’s go…

BOOKS

It was one of my new years resolutions to read more books this year and I set a very achievable goal of five. I didn’t want to end up stressing about it and I’ve actually managed to read about double that. So I’m very proud of myself. Most of them I enjoyed but here are the ones that really stood out:

Turtles All The Way Down by John Green

The first book I read this year was Turtles All The Way Down by John Green. I could write pages and pages about this book (and I did) but I’ll keep it short. It follows sixteen-year-old Aza who struggles with OCD and anxiety as she juggles school and friends and investigating the disappearance of the local billionaire. I fell in love with this book from the first page; I loved the way Aza described her experience and I related to it so strongly. There’s something about the way John Green writes that really speaks to me and the story doesn’t rest on Aza’s mental health for the plot: it’s intertwined with several different storylines. I really liked that; it felt very true to life. Having felt very alienated by the books I had been reading previously, this was the total opposite. One of my favourite books ever.

“In some ways, pain is the opposite of language… And we’re such language based creatures that to some extent we cannot know what we cannot name. And so we assume it isn’t real. We refer to it with catch-all terms, like crazy or chronic pain, terms that both ostracize and minimize. The term chronic pain captures nothing of the grinding, constant, ceaseless, inescapable hurt. And the term crazy arrives at us with none of the terror and worry you live with. Nor do either of those terms connote the courage people in such pains exemplify.”

What We Buried by Caitlyn Siehl

I read several poetry books this year but this was easily my favourite. I loved it from the first poem. I love the way she writes – the language she uses and the way she punctuates the words – and the empowered feeling you get from reading the poems. I highlight my favourite passages in books and this one has a lot of highlighting!

“This is where we heal. This is where we hide. This is where we are found.”

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

I’ve really struggled to read fiction this year (Turtles All The Way Down was the exception) so I delved into the world of non-fiction and ended up reading and loving this book. Henry Marsh is a neurosurgeon and the book is a collection of his patients and his experiences. He has a very gentle way of writing that I loved and when I finished it, I had this odd feeling that I understood my own brain a little bit better.

“…More than that, the operation involved the brain, the mysterious substrate of all thought and feeling, of all that was important in human life – a mystery, it seemed to me, as great as the stars at night and the universe around us. The operation was elegant, delicate, dangerous and full of profound meaning. What could be finer, I thought? I had the strange feeling that this was what I had wanted to do all my life, even though it was only now that I had realised it. It was love at first sight.”

FILM

I’m not much of a film watcher – for some reason, watching a film feels like more of a commitment than starting a TV show. But I made an effort this year to watch more films and watch more than just the things that I naturally gravitate towards. Having said that, my favourite films of the year are all pretty representative of my taste in films…

Wonder Woman

I grew up watching Justice League on television with my Dad and with my brother so those superhero stories are very important to me. I wasn’t ready to watch it right away but when I did, I loved it. And I feel like my Dad would’ve loved it as well. It looked beautiful and the acting was beautiful and I loved every second of it.

Edge of Tomorrow

In a dystopian future, humans are fighting an alien race called Mimics. When one man starts to experience the same day over and over again, it gives him an unforeseen advantage in battle. I am a sucker for this kind of film (and a strong female character!) and I’ve watched it multiple times since my first viewing.

Love, Simon

I read the book that this film was based on (Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli) and loved it so I was really looking forward to the film. It follows Simon Spier, who is keeping a secret from everyone he knows: he’s gay. But when a classmate threatens to out him, everything changes and he is forced to choose between his friends and the anonymous classmate he’s fallen in love with over email.

TV

It’s one of my favourite things to curl up with a good TV show and binge watch the whole thing in one day.

Queer Eye

Is there anyone who doesn’t love Queer Eye? It wasn’t something I expected to love but the overflowing positivity just captured my heart. While the physical makeovers in these men might be the most obvious changes made, the emotional one is the most powerful. There is little (if any) media that encourages men to take care of themselves and be kind to themselves and so this show is a big deal. I have to admit that I haven’t finished it yet but that’s only because I don’t want to have no new episodes to watch.

Frequency

If you love sci fi and police dramas (like me), then this is the show for you. After a freak lightning storm, police detective Raimy Sullivan is able to communicate with her father in the past via an old radio. An attempt to save his life causes devastating changes in the present and between them, they have to try and fix the timeline. It’s addictive and intense and I loved every second of it.

Episodes

During some downtime (and some much needed rest time) in Nashville, my friend Richard introduced me to this show and I am so, so grateful. It’s a comedy about two English television writers – a married couple – going to the US to recreate their hit show. As you can imagine, it doesn’t go exactly as planned. Because of the blend of British humour and American humour, I feel like there’s something for everyone: it’s dry, it’s direct, it’s subtle, it’s not subtle, all at the same time. I love it so much that I’m in the process of watching again, with multiple different people because I know they’ll love it too.

Burden of Truth

So I watched all ten episodes in one day because it’s that good. A successful lawyer returns to her hometown to uncover the truth behind a group of teenage girls getting sick. It’s full of twists and turns, family secrets, and some great LGBT representation. I’d write more but I don’t want to give anything away!

The Split

Another legal drama, this one about a family firm that begins when the eldest daughter, Hannah, leaves to work for a rival firm. The six part series follows their cases and their relationships and the return of the father who has been absent for thirty years. It stars Nicola Walker who I have loved ever since I first saw her in Spooks (as Ruth Evershed) as well as Stephen Mangan, who stars in Episodes.

Unforgotten

More Nicola Walker! I loved the first two series of Unforgotten so I was very excited to see the third and it absolutely lived up to my expectations. Each series features a handful of different characters and their lives are weaved together until we understand a historic crime and despite this format, each series has been different and surprising and heart wrenching. Nicola Walker in particular was fantastic and I really, really loved that they explored the toll that such a difficult job can take.

Agents of Shield Season 5

I have mentioned my love of Agents of Shield before and that was only strengthened by this latest season. Daisy Johnson is my hero and it was awesome to see her be even more interesting and amazing in this season. And it’s been renewed for a sixth and seventh season!

Lucifer

Another awesome recommendation from Richard. The devil decides to take a holiday from hell and takes over a nightclub in LA (and it turns out he’s hilarious). He teams up with a police detective and shenanigans ensue. I love it. It’s funny and smart and thought provoking: there are some great questions about god and religion and faith in there. All of the characters are interesting and complex and I don’t want to get to the end. Fortunately there’s a new season on the way.

So there you go. My books, films, and TV of 2018. Hopefully there’s something in here that appeals. What have you been reading and watching this year?