Read time: 27-29 minutes. Potential triggers: contains details of depression, anxiety, trauma, ablism, unfair dismissal at work.
BREAKDOWNS & BUCKETS: Feeling lost or stuck? You might be trapped in a Crab Bucket™. How my breakdown last year became a breakthrough and a blessing: leading to my Autism diagnosis, my own business and the start of an incredible healing journey, out of the bucket and beyond…
For my entire life, I’ve always wondered why it felt like I was playing life stuck on HARD MODE… Getting sober 2 years ago started a chain reaction of events and circumstances that I could never have imagined.
“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”— Cynthia Occelli.
If you ever feel guilty or uneasy when sharing good news and positivity – you’re sharing it with the wrong people.
Crab mentality, also known as crabs in a bucket mentality, is a way of thinking best described by the phrase “if I can’t have it, neither can you”. It’s a metaphor for how humans respond when they see someone else around them achieving some kind of self-improvement that they can’t achieve themselves. The metaphor is derived from a pattern of behavior noted in crabs when they are trapped in a bucket. While any one crab could easily escape, its efforts will be undermined by others, ensuring the group’s collective demise. Crabs can resort to pinching, pulling off arms/legs and even killing their fellow crabs if any of them continue to try and escape. In human behaviour, this can look like undermining achievements, snide comments, belittling positive changes, ignoring, bullying. They do what they can to hinder progress, or even stop the person from simply trying to succeed. Promotions in the office due to sheer focus and hard work get dismissed as unfair, weight loss and new exercise routines can be met with jealousy and sabotage, holidays and travelling can be sneered at. Cutting down drinking can be met with surprise bottles of wine and extra boozy work lunches. Encouragement of unwise and damaging decisions. People with the crab mentality feel insecure when they see other people improve, and assume that they are failing because other people are succeeding. For crabs, and humans – misery loves company. Bad tribalism.
“We are built to be tribal. But sometimes that tribalism goes too far. The worst type of tribalism is groups aligned to destroy other groups, such as through ethnic cleansing and genocide. We have heard the word tribalism used a lot today in reference to our politics. Today in our political world, we have “bad tribalism.” Bad tribalism is a group identity that fosters the bullying and scapegoating of others not like you. Bad tribalism joins people out of anger, jealousy, and spite, not for collective well-being. The unfortunate irony is that bad tribalism is easy to provoke, but not healthy to maintain. Staying angry is stressful, and large doses of stress are bad for our health. At the same time, good tribalism is difficult to build, but healthy to maintain. When we connect with others to ensure safety and good health, we lower our own stress.”
— Elizabeth A. Segal, Ph.D., PsychologyToday.com
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”— Jim Rohn.
In my whole career, I’ve worked at and visited almost 20 studios around the UK. Unfortunately, in my experience, most tattoo studios are Crab Buckets™: breeding grounds for bad decisions, gang tactics, shitty behaviour and Drama Triangles. They’re usually alco-centric, narco-centric performance platforms of enmeshment and trauma bonds. The bad ones will trade healthy behaviour and professionalism for late nights, late mornings, hangovers, overworking and undercharging, lack of boundaries, lines in the bathroom, “after work beers” and smoking weed during work hours. Aren’t we supposed to just do our job, in the cleanest, happiest and most mentally healthy way possible? I wanted to be better, but couldn’t navigate myself out of the environment. I felt stuck, completely lost and unable to really ‘fit in’ anywhere and call it home. Every time the cycle repeated, I thought to myself “it’ll be different this time, it’ll be better.” The only problem was, I didn’t know how to function inside any environment that wasn’t dysfunctional…
🎉 Today’s a great day.
1st December marks the 1st anniversary of my own little micro-studio, YAY! What an insane, amazing, wonderful year it’s been…
My first appointment were those Stitch & Toothless cuties! Line-work was done a month prior. Thanks again to the lovely Leann! I’m so happy with how these turned out.
Since opening my own little business last year and going independent, I was able to confront A LOT of things that I had kept under wraps for a long time, but didn’t have the psychological, emotional and financial capability to tackle any of it before.
This business move started out as a product of sheer adrenaline and fear…
Late 2017, I was suddenly kicked out of my full-time job of 19 months one day with no notice, no real explanation and nowhere else to go. I was confused, devastated and unable to talk about it. I somehow stayed sober, and kept going.
I won’t go into a long, pitiful story of gory details. One day I’m telling my coworkers how excited I am about the staff Christmas dinner, the next day I’m silently, furiously packing up my stuff with everyone watching and a taxi waiting outside. I was utterly ashamed. In less than 24 hours, I found out there had been issues for months that weren’t discussed and campaigns/plans to have me out for ages. One of the owners of the studio, who isn’t a tattoo artist, stormed into the studio during work hours to verbally abuse me (loudly) whilst clients were getting tattooed. I didn’t have a chance to defend myself, and any defence I calmly attempted to make was dismissed before I could finish, so gave up and agreed with everything she said. She stormed out of the studio in tears, past clients getting tattooed. They moved in 2 other artists that day, who were good friends of theirs. They’d moved them in last minute because their last studio had suddenly closed down. I wasn’t told about any of the drama that was going on, but found out about it whilst I was setting up and tattooing a very delicate and personal tattoo for a new client. I packed up my stuff the same morning 2 other people were unpacking theirs. I scraped together what was left of my dignity and self-respect, and disappeared for good. I’m so glad I managed to hold back from lashing out. I considered them family, they considered me a problem. The last thing I was going to do was prove them right in my final moments in that building. I couldn’t change their perception of me. It all was a nasty combination of bad luck, bad timing and good intentions – with the wrong people.
“When we avoid difficult conversations, we trade short term discomfort for long term dysfunction.”— Peter Bromberg.
Tattoo studios don’t have HR departments, and don’t care about things like unfair dismissal, discrimination or loss of earnings. If they decide they want you out, you’re out. I had bookings I had to contact and rearrange myself, and clients had to retrieve their own deposits from the studio themselves. I didn’t know how I was going to pay my rent and bills that month, let alone be able to think about taking anyone to a small claims court. I closed my diary and lied to so many people. They said that if I told everyone what had happened, I would just be “playing the victim again”. My mental health was at absolute ground zero. I wanted to either kill someone, or kill myself. Mental breakdowns are sort of a death: the death of a current system of thinking that is no longer working.
I was almost 1 year sober at the time. Bookings were increasingly scarce, I had an impending knee reconstruction that I was desperately saving for, due to be scheduled over Christmas time. My mother’s health was deteriorating further. Somehow, I still didn’t manage to drink or take drugs during all of it. Despite how bad everything had become, I knew that it would be even worse if I wasn’t sober. I knew that if I didn’t stay on track, I’d be dead.
I was never told the real reasons why, just that ”the timing never seemed right” and that I would be “too fragile” to handle any feedback they had. I just had to accept it, keep my mouth shut, move on and learn from it as best I could. I survived on travelling and working hard at guest spots, where I managed 5 stays around the UK in about 6 weeks. It was a blur of train rides, suitcases and AirBnBs, trying to save every ounce of energy and positivity for my clients and their tattoos. Most evenings I would kick myself when I was down, yelling at myself in my head: “why didn’t you just ask them if something was wrong?”, “you asked for a shop meeting but you should’ve kept pushing it!”. After I was done yelling, I realised – it shouldn’t have been my responsibility, it should’ve been theirs.
I had a feeling no one liked me there anymore, but didn’t actually believe it was true. I figured it was just my own paranoia. I thought it had something to do with my sobriety, or that I have a blind spot for subtle social cues…
My mind was racing for weeks/months, working backwards and replaying things over and over. I started remembering little things dating back about 8 months – like walking into rooms when people were talking and hearing abrupt silence as soon as they saw me. Comments like “you’ve changed”, “I miss the old La”. Spending days off and early mornings deep-cleaning the studio myself. Being the first one in to clean and set up whilst everyone else ran late. Bookings being messed up. Being blamed for things that were not my responsibility, because they were more emotionally involved with the real person at fault. I remembered the things I did – like always talking about sobriety. Saying things like “sobriety has given me what drugs and alcohol promised me” to my client whilst someone was talking about the benefits of smoking weed to their client. Taking ages to sort my head out and find a place to live in Newport after moving out of Bristol, and complaining/despairing about it. Shaking my head at people’s stories of heavy drinking and hangovers. Proudly announcing my new gym/exercise routine. I was really annoying, and definitely wasn’t the best version of myself at times. I worked much differently than they did, and did things in my own way. When I look back with hindsight from the correct perspective that I am actually Autistic, I am able to forgive myself and have compassion for myself now, when I did not have compassion by others before.
Statistics show that only 15 percent of adults with autism are in full time employment. That means that there are hundreds of thousands of adults whose often unique skills and talents are not being utilised in the workplace or recognised across society as a whole. Every one of these individuals will have their own story of disappointment, rejection and embarrassment that they can’t just fit in at work, mixed with the sad knowledge that they have so much to give an employer simply because of their autistic traits.Kay Lomas, researchautism.org
I was too distracted and wrapped up in myself. Bookings were scarce. My mum was becoming more ill. I saw my estranged father briefly for the first time in 7 years, it brought up a lot of stuff and made new wounds when he left again. I was enjoying being sober and single for the first time that summer after a short, unhealthy relationship/breakup. I redecorated my home. I was worrying about my knee-op and worrying about recovering. I was getting up at 5am, training twice a week in Cardiff at 7am before being back in work for 10am. I should’ve realised what was going on sooner.
Funny thing is, your ego can have you crying over a closed door that had nothing left behind it. I realised that as I transitioned from my old self into the new, that I’d tolerated some pretty bad behaviour and bad professionalism, even in the studio that I considered my “home” and “family” I realised that anywhere that reminds me of those things will always be dysfunctional.
“FRAGILE”, OR FORMIDABLE?
3 weeks after losing my job in that studio, I celebrated my 1st year of sobriety on the 29th October. Although I’d made plans to properly treat myself that day, it didn’t feel like a victory. I spent the day travelling to a guest spot week at a studio in Bristol over Halloween, which was super fun and rewarding. I was exhausted and overloaded, but managed to keep my head above water. The AirBnB had a great bathtub and lovely hosts, so there was definitely another win.
I opened my own little business inside the gym that was helping me prepare for the knee reconstruction.
I managed to get my little studio up and running myself: 2 weeks before the operation date, which was 5 days before Christmas and in amongst a horrendous heartbreak (cheating/ghosting by a Paramedic, tragically ironic!). It made the hospital visits, stays and complications even more stressful. I managed to afford to take 4 weeks off to recover from the surgery. I mostly looked after myself, and planned how I would raise myself up from the tar pit. I sent an invoice to the Paramedic a few months later – for emotional damages, expenses and most importantly, wasting my time. I still keep in touch with one of the women he was dating the same time as me, a then 21 year-old pole fitness student Jess. We compared screenshots, anecdotes and supported each other through the bullshit. Solidarity and feminism done right. Jess, you’re strong, beautiful and wonderful – thank you.
“Fear-based decisions make people more likely to feel they’re not the authority of their own life: make more love-based decisions!”— Karamo Brown.
Recovery is a process of UNCOVERING and RECOVERING who we truly are.
Trauma is the gateway to addiction. Connection is the remedy to addiction.
I got sober in 2017.
I started the year with a funeral: someone who ended their life, aged 33. I’d only met them once in life, but went to support my ex-partner and friends there. Going to that funeral broke apart and changed me, but what I found the most astonishing was how people behaved. Good people, chemically destroying themselves in unity, all agreeing “it’s what they would have wanted”. So many people turned up, utterly devastated. Getting fucked up at a funeral of suicide seems all the more tragic, spreading further the pain and manifesting more harm. I couldn’t quite understand it, but I joined in anyway and felt disgusting the next day. It should never have happened. I was utterly overwhelmed, and wanted to try and make it stop somehow. I realised that I could stop the harm I was doing to myself, and in turn pay respect to their life by learning and living better. Rest in peace, you wonderful soul.
It took me nearly 11 months to get fully sober. I started with drugs, then alcohol 5 months later. I just couldn’t pretend or hide anymore. I finally took responsibility for my own life. After years of running, hiding, self harm and trauma, I paused to reflect. Around the same time I was coming to my absolute limit, Russell Brand wrote and released his book on sobriety, called Recovery. This was the real catalyst of change for me.
I had NO idea how sobriety would completely transform not only myself, but my entire life.
My sobriety disrupted many people that were in my life. I started to fall out and lose touch with lots of friends, family and co-workers as I transitioned from my old self to the new. It was really hard to see everything I was so familiar with fall apart and change so quickly and so dramatically. Many people with autism hate disruption of routines and comfort, and holy fuck it was traumatic.
I kept it real quiet at first. I remember seeing my best friend from Southampton for the first time in ages. She drove up to South Wales to visit, and didn’t know I was 2 months sober at the time. I bought us dinner and gifted her my bicycle: I wasn’t able to ride anymore because of ongoing injuries. Long story short, I told her that I was sober and pretty serious about it. Shortly after that, she announced she wanted to visit another friend: she left my house and drove to a bar in Bristol to drink with another tattoo artist, either staying at his place that night or driving back to Southampton from the bar. I thought she was joking until she walked out the door. She ate the food I bought, took my bike and left. She’d been my friend for years. I was devastated and felt sick, I kept yelling in my head “we’d been through so much together, worked together, lived together! She has a boyfriend! How could she just leave like that after coming all this way to see me?”. I paused, then realised: “We mostly drank together, complained together, partied together… She wanted to drink that night, why should I stop her? Let her go.” I remained her friend for a year after that, but it was never the same. I wish her well and hope she’s happy. I started to notice more toxicity in the relationships I’d chosen to maintain with people: when people would make little digs at me, put me down, nip at me. I realised my whole life was a bit of a Crab Bucket™ – sobriety was the first step in climbing out.
If I’m not careful, I get sucked into people’s melodrama. I start worrying about everyone in the situation and hyperfocusing on it – trying to understand everything about their problems, and ultimately, try to solve it all. I start mimicking the people around me, copying behaviours. To me, love is always conditional. I feel I have to be of use to people, and require feeling liked and needed to be of any value. Every day I have to work really hard to feel worthy, valuable and deserving. The curse of codependency!
As my mind got clearer and clearer, started seeing so much more. I started feeling better and better, and started to lose interest in my usual habits – complaining a lot, self deprecating humour, ranting etc. I even started eating less sugar. I noticed a part of my mind still craved the familiar, it still wanted all those people and situations. They’d become the last artefact of my old life, and I still craved bullshit. I stayed in the bucket and kept hanging around people that had quite frankly lost interest in me. As the months went on in sobriety, I realised it was the first time I was acting like “myself” since I started drinking 15 years ago. Turns out, the “real” La was a super awkward, Autistic weirdo who had got really good at pretending she wasn’t. I still crave bad stuff when I’m feeling low and run-down, but nowadays it’s just excessive, unhealthy amounts of aggressive sex and chocolate. Not exactly replacement behaviours, but I’m working on it!
My confidence grew with my sobriety: I started using it for stupid things. Like telling someone I used to work with for years, that I’d always had a crush on them. It lasted 3 months! I was still attracted to people who were irresponsible and drank/partied a lot. Their behaviour still seemed sexy, funny, spontaneous and appealing. I feel it was still a part of me that was holding onto that state of mind, even just a little. I stayed sober on dates, whilst watching them drink. Sometimes they wouldn’t drink either, maybe to impress me or try and prove a point. Most of their conversations revolved around drinking/drug taking, or ex-partners. I realised that this was just another trauma-bond, and that I still had a lot of healing to do. They started drinking again and hooked up with someone else after I left – and later got back with their ex for the 3/4th time. I went celibate for 3 months, joined a gym and redecorated my home. I don’t know what happened after that, but truly hope he’s happy now. I’ve now learnt NOT to chase things that were never, ever meant for me.
I grew stronger, and in growing stronger I grew louder. I started speaking up about things that weren’t right, about people and clients that were being unreasonable and ridiculous. I started being more honest when speaking. I started charging and pricing my time more accurately, my sense of self-worth started to increase. I started to stand up and flex my muscles, literally and metaphorically. Projecting my voice more. Everyone loves a strong woman until she actually starts showing and using her strength. Suddenly, she’s too much. She’s forgotten her place, “too big for her boots.” Too loud, too much attitude. These women are coveted as ideas, as fantasies. Not tolerable as living, breathing humans, threatening to be potentially better than they could ever be.
‘A lesson is repeated until it is learnt.”
After that breakup, I joined a specialist gym at HANGAR in Cardiff with personal trainer Matt Bowring and commuted from Newport twice a week for 6 months. We were focusing on building strength and preparing me for the knee reconstruction. I was hyper-focused and determined – getting up at 5am and making it to the gym for 7am, before getting back to Newport again for work. My personal trainer was fantastic and incredibly patient, and didn’t see me as a lost cause. I fell in love with the gym instantly. My confidence skyrocketed – I started wearing nicer clothes, treating myself better. When I told him what had happened with the studio, he told me that there was going to be a licensed treatment room inside the gym available in December…
After the sheer amount of rejection, missing hints and certain comments in 2018, I genuinely started to wonder if I was “on the spectrum”. I followed my gut and took 2 autistic spectrum tests online (scored 88% on the 1st and 38/50 on the 2nd). I managed to afford to take 4 weeks off – and in that time I mostly looked after myself, and planned how I would raise myself up from the tar pit.
I made a list of things I wanted to do when I could walk again. Start weekly therapy sessions, treat myself to brand new boots. Start hiking again, climb a mountain. I imagined running, being able to weight train and do yoga again. I told everyone it was almost full healed, even when the stitches were still in, even I was still in crutches. It was mind over matter – The reconstruction was successful, and I healed in record time for someone my age and the scale of the existing damage.
As soon as I could drag myself in, I marched into therapy on two crutches in January 2019. I have been to counselling etc in the past, but had very poor experiences with them professionally and just wasn’t ready. I chose a private CBT counsellor who had an ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) background. I began therapy with the CBT angle, and only brought up autism a few sessions later. The first few sessions addressed the PTSD I’d suffered from losing my job, the 2 short relationships/breakups and having a particularly traumatic hospital experience and recovering from surgery alone. When I raised the concern myself, she smiled. “ASD” was one of the first things she wrote down in her notes during our first session!
After that, and a lot of doctors/hospital visits, I was professionally and medically diagnosed as autistic with multiple associated conditions/chronic illnesses. I had to navigate and learn to process and manage this with no support outside of therapy, whilst continuing to work hard running/operating my own business, still recovering from a knee reconstruction. I’ve always tried to stay positive without being “fake” – and maintained upbeat professionalism online as much as possible, whilst recovering and healing in private.
(I chose not to follow a clinical “government” diagnosis, as I feel I don’t need to access extra support, and do not work for a company or have an employer. Over the last 10 months, my private therapist has helped me process the diagnosis, grieve my “old self” and helps me manage my life and my autism every week)
“Changing bad tribalism into good tribalism: How can we invoke healthy forms of tribalism and lessen bad tribalism? First, recognise that groups built on the foundation of hate, disdain, and anger build those traits in ourselves. With the constant urging of bad tribalism, we stay angry, and that can affect our personal well-being. Second, we can step outside ourselves through empathy and see the world from the view of others. When we use empathy to understand others, we see how we are similar, how we are all human beings. Empathy can broaden our sense of connections to others, and that diminishes bad tribalism. Ultimately our goal should be to build the tribe we all belong to: that of humanity. When we can see each other as human beings, we change bad tribalism into good tribalism. We are part of the work to ensure the survival of our shared tribe of humanity.”
— Elizabeth A. Segal, Ph.D., PsychologyToday.com
Those 6 months were completely life destroying and life changing. I have had to completely rebuild myself, and am navigating most parts of my life all over again from the correct perspective (finally). There has been a lot more darker things I’ve had to deal with too, which quite frankly will stay between me and my therapist.
V for VICTORIOUS, not “VICTIM”.
I created my studio myself. I built all the furniture myself, and have brand new top of the range everything. I’ve spent 14 months recovering from and processing everything that happened. I can do things my way, set up and clean everything in my own way. If I want pink kitchen roll, I can buy and use as much as I want! I’m no longer using worn-out, cheap furniture that didn’t belong to me. I’m no longer paying 40% of my earnings every day to 2 people who complained that I used too much kitchen roll to clean with, while they own a large rural house with a swimming pool and vintage cars. When I was being screamed at that day, I was told I was “ungrateful” for everything they did for me, and I understand how they felt that way. But I thanked them so many times, over and over for 19 months. They did not thank me for the 19 months I earned my keep and tried my best to make things work, but I didn’t expect to be thanked. I was happy to do it and be part of the team. Expecting loyalty and conformity in return for helping someone is just a form of control. Gang tactics. Staying in that studio for as long as I did, commuting from Bristol for 5 months in the beginning, turning down job offers in other studios and making a 60-70 mile round trip every day by train and bus, choosing to stay even when bookings were bad and people didn’t want me there anymore, keeping my mouth shut even when I was being abandoned by the people I’d pledged “loyalty” to, now that’s commitment and dedication. Now, I thank my clients more, over and over. They’re the REAL stars, and always were! I’m now able to dedicate myself to the most important parts of tattooing, as much as I am able to. If you want something done right, do it yourself.
What if simply being autistic and not fitting in gives us the need and drive to create our career paths by working freelance, by being entrepreneurial, by making an income out of a hobby or by working creatively or in scientific research?Kay Lomas, researchautism.org
Would we really want to lose that unique pool of talent to a big corporation just for the sake of being able to fit in? It seems vital to me that each unique autistic person is given the opportunity and support to succeed at work in whatever career path they want to follow. I believe those of us who have a voice must speak up for the rest of our community when we can. There’s an awful lot of work to be done before we see any percentage increase for employment levels realised.
Surround yourself with people who will help and celebrate your improvements, and empower you to be a better version of yourself. Pulling someone down will never help you reach the top.
Cultivating a positive, fulfilling life will be almost impossible to do surrounded by negative, unfulfilled people. One of the biggest tests of your strength and commitment to a better life is to be able to pull yourself out of the bucket on your own. You can’t change how other people think, so in order for these destructive thoughts to not affect you, move on and spend your time with people who are more supportive. Attend seminars, listen to podcasts, read books, go to galleries, conventions and shows. Replace self-harm with self-care. Don’t let the crabs get to you down!
Earlier this year, the studio sent me back some items of mine I’d left behind at the studio the day I packed up and left; along with a note wishing me good luck with the new business. I sent them a big bunch of flowers to say thank you, and sorry for leaving them behind.
When asked what forgiveness is, the Sufi holy man replied:
“It is the fragrance that flowers give when they are crushed.”
People with autism deserve a place in society and the tribe of humanity. Let them thrive like flowers: they may grow differently, require different soil. Require different conditions to live. Some may flower less than others. But that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to live and bloom. I hope to raise awareness, offer support and shed light on this beautiful community of rare and precious talents and perspectives.
Traditional tattoo history in the UK has come from seedy beginnings and back alleys, shrouded in mystery, criminal gangs and bad behaviour. It was a big boys club, when clients were second-rate citizens next to the prestigious artists. Tattoos were reserved for criminals, sailors, soldiers and sex workers, and were a symbol of unsavoury, low-brow taste. Bad tribalism. The real roots of tattooing come from good tribalism, thousands of years ago to this present day – symbols of growth and special occasions between communities, ways of connection. Tattooing is a ritual, a sacred event.
🦀 Let’s get out of our buckets and into the tribe, where we all belong.