I was talking with some of my colleagues at lunchtime yesterday. I have an amazing workplace and my colleagues and I get along very well. My supervisor has a young son and she was relating a story where she was telling her son about a cassette tape she used to have with laughter on it. She said to her son that when you hear laughter it makes you laugh. Without thinking I sad ‘Oh no! I hate hearing laughter.’ I went on to explain to my colleagues that in an environment with any people – even those who I know like me – when I hear laughter I become very anxious. When I was a a child and teen when I heard laughter it was almost always coming from bullies and their supporters laughing at me for, well, daring to be myself. My colleagues were horrified by this. It was actually a nice moment because their reactions demonstrated that they really care for me. In fact one of them said she would try not to laugh. I reassured them my rather visceral reaction is always followed up by my (mostly) logical brain reminding me that nobody is laughing at me. The conversation was one of those moments where I am reminded that my experience is a bit different to that of many others.
This post is about what the world gives and what we can do with it. I’m not sure if people know Mexican artist Frida Kahlo but she was an amazing painter who used themes from her own difficult life in her work. She has one called ‘What the Water Gave Me’ (pictured), painted from the perspective of what she can see in her bath. Instead of a plastic tug boat and a rubber ducky, the water is full of memories and experiences from her life. I have loved this painting since the first time I saw it when I was about 16. Life gives all of us things, some good, many not. The positive ones often get overlooked, particularly when they are eclipsed by struggle, misery and abuse. My first thought is that that some of things life gives are lasting and will stay with us forever.
My second thought is that while those damaging experiences may well follow us for our whole life this doesn’t mean we have to be enslaved to their influence. One thing I really struggle with is school kids on the bus. If I get on the bus and find myself surrounded by high school kids or even near a couple of them, I am in a heightened state of anxiety and expect them to bully and ridicule me. I cannot change this. I finished school 26 years ago so I think that reaction is here to stay. But when I am asked to speak to hugh school groups, I will usually say yes. When I am on stage at school assembly talking about my experiences as an Autistic student, I am filled with the same sort of anxiety as when I am on the bus with the school kids or indeed, when I was a school kid myself. But instead of letting that defeat me, I use it to reach out to kids who might be being bullied and I suppose that I probably reach out to kids who are bullying as well and tell them how trisection felt. It is a difficult thing to do but I use the anxiety and damage done so many years ago to hopefully help others avoid having to go through what I did.
My final thought is possibly a challenging one. It is taken directly from my experience – which is what I know best. This is a difficult thing but I am far from the only person to achieve it. Adversity, suffering, misery and defeat can become the anchor point from which a better life emerges. It is hard, it requires support form others and courage and sheer determination but it can be done. I did it. And I am not really any more or less special than anyone else. For everything I did to address my past there was a motivating factor and somebody supporting me – most often my parents and a cat or two.
Twenty years ago I was a desperate person. My home was prison and it really was my home. I was terrified in the outside world. I didn’t know what to do without the rules of the institution and the other, probably more stringent set of rules which governed interactions between the inmates. I hated my life but it was safety of sorts. My limited world or four walls and the sound of keys and women yelling to each other from locked units was what I chose, several times. At 23 my life was gone. The seeds of my wretched existence were sown though bullying right through school, sexual assault and my own anxiety and self-hated, but also my own negative world view. My isolation and alienation from the ordinary world drove poor behaviour and bad choices much in the way my passion for positive change drives my choices today.
The journey from there to here was not a clear trajectory. I had setbacks and made mistakes and found myself looking into the abyss many times. I mark my life in terms of the years since my release in February 2000. It is like my own personal Year Dot. When governments talk about Year Zero it is never good but for me having the opportunity to clear out everything I knew and start form scratch was so beneficial. I am not so much an exceptional person but a very determined one. I refused to allow myself back into he world of crime and drugs.
At this point it leaves me reflecting that while I did nothing good and my life was harmful to myself and others, what that dark time in my journey gave me is now of value. It has become a launchpad for who I am now. My life is like night and day. While that awful time in my twenties is something I am ashamed of and wish had never happened, I can now derive some positive value from it. I have gone from being unethical, violent and disengaged to being consciously ethical and kind. I know exactly how I want to be because I have had to make a conscious choice about what I wanted my ‘new’ character to look like.
So I guess with these things even the most appalling experience can be of some value if it is a motivation to support and care for yourself and challenge those who would hurt and destroy you. It is that concept of using adversity as something to learn and grow in spite of. It doesn’t make the adversity OK, it doesn’t excuse people who mistreat or invalidate you or your own poor choices. It is more about accepting something awful has happened but instead of just leaving it to be horrific, you can add value to those horrors to help you on a path to a better understanding of yourself and hopefully an improved life.