Read time: 6-7 minutes. Potential triggers: contains details of depression, anxiety, trauma and PTSD.
I was recently interviewed by the extraordinary Kat Kennedy about my autism journey! She’s writing about sex and gender differences in various health conditions and how, so often, women go undiagnosed when symptoms present differently than how doctors are taught they should appear. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and ADHD are two such conditions. Many of the classic studies on these used only male participants and so many of the diagnostic criteria are based on the male experience.
My friendship with Kat Kennedy began as tattoo artist and client. Back in 2016, I created her first tattoo back when I was working in Cheltenham which grew into a full sleeve. Kat followed me when I relocated back home to Wales, and we finished the sleeve in 2018 just before she moved out to the scorching hot deserts of the US. Kat’s support of my tattoos, illustration and writing has been so motivating and comforting. Her posts have been a huge source of inspiration and courage and have kept me going in bleak times. I’ll never forget a quote she told me from one of her friends when we were discussing how overwhelming social media can be:
“We’re just not meant to process human suffering on this scale.”
Thanks for letting me be a part of this piece Kat – I’ve managed to keep a couple of succulents alive that you gifted me years ago, and the wonderful and kind letter you wrote when the sleeve was finished still hangs on my wall today!
1. Full name, age, occupation and city where you live:
My name is Lala Taylor, I’m a 34-year-old tattoo artist & illustrator based in Penarth, South Wales UK.
2. When did you receive your ASD diagnosis?
I received my autism clarification at 31 years old! I was diagnosed by a private therapist, who I’ve been seeing regularly for 3 years now. I had just opened my first business, 1 year into my 4 years sobriety and 4 weeks after a knee reconstruction.
3. When did you first suspect that you might have ASD? What were you experiencing?
I spent my twenties and thirties almost constantly confused and overwhelmed. I would often put this down to PTSD; I would blame the difficulty of my existence on the emotional/physical/sexual abuse and trauma I’d survived as a child and teenager, and this reinforced the justification of my struggles. Since being diagnosed with anxiety and depression at 19 with no follow up with a mental health team or offer of counselling, I’ve distrusted the mental health system in the UK and distanced myself completely. I tried a few private therapists in my early twenties which yielded no positive results – one of them took a phone call in the middle of the session, whilst I was reliving a fresh and particularly distressing traumatic event. Safe to say I never went back.
From my mid-twenties, I was chronically overworking and self-medicating with alcohol as much as I could get away with to ease the constant masking and shape shifting in social groups and work settings. During the last few years of my twenties, I continued to chronically overwork myself and began mixing alcohol with other drugs.
I always struggled to maintain relationships, especially romantic ones. I was regularly manipulated, used and lied to – I even tried to leave one partner multiple times before they would pull me back in. I eventually cheated on him just so he would leave me alone! I had a very small emotional vocabulary and couldn’t tell what I was feeling or what was really happening.
I would regularly find myself in friendships and work connections that were disrespectful, toxic and abusive. I always thought that I struggled to inherently know what was best for me because of my abusive childhood and teenage years, but deep down I knew it was something else.
I dated a woman in my late twenties with borderline personality disorder, which had a profoundly painful effect on me. I started to wonder if I may have a more complex disorder/condition myself that was playing a big part in my life without me knowing. ASD is often misdiagnosed as something else (like bipolar and borderline personality disorder) in women. This is because the criterion for autism is still based on male studies only. For decades, many autistic girls have flown under the radar along with the female indoctrination in schools and at home to be poised, pretty, polite, and passive.
Social media gave me small clues and hints which I identified with, which included routines, special interests, scripted responses, repetitive behaviours, self-medicating, difficulties with food/cooking, depression, missing social cues, fussiness, bluntness, perfectionism, and excessive planning. I spent a few months saving these autism posts in private, and after being unlawfully dismissed from a tattoo studio in 2018 just before a knee reconstruction, I made a promise to myself that I would find a therapist that specialised in CBT and diagnosing neurodivergent conditions.
I remember struggling at school and being mercilessly bullied. In the classroom, if I didn’t underline the date or title of the lesson perfectly, I would panic, suffer an internal meltdown and be unable to write anything else for the rest of the hour. My books became full of emptiness, save for a few scratched out words at the top of each page and watermarks from dried tears. I excelled in art and my talent was considered far beyond my years. I loved the praise (finally I could do something right!) but hated the spotlight this put on me. I often had my artwork and art supplies stolen and sabotaged by jealous kids. I spent my school years learning to hide, mask and please people that terrified and confused me.
4. Have you ever had any instances where you felt you were dismissed by a doctor when hoping to discuss suspected ASD (or another health condition)? Did you have to make multiple appointments before finally getting diagnosed?
My Autism was never dismissed professionally because I never presented the question to anyone outside of private therapy, I’m really glad for this. However, I have a lifelong chronic illness called Fibromyalgia which was dismissed by doctors and nurses for years before I got a private diagnosis last year (at 33 years old). I once had a nurse say to me “I have no idea why you’re here to be honest” after I wanted to know why I was getting outbreaks of shingles and cold sores every 2 weeks and wasn’t able to stay awake more than a few hours in each day. I was 30 – I went to the gym twice a week, had a good diet, never smoked a cigarette in my life and was 1 year sober at the time. I wanted answers to why I was so ill all the time. She thought I was wasting her time. I insisted that she refer me to a GP, and after listing years of symptoms to a doctor she booked me for a CT scan to check for cancer (which thankfully came back all clear). I paid for a private rheumatologist after a recommendation from my therapist and another GP (both female) who finally diagnosed Fibromyalgia in 2020.
5. Have you ever felt that this was because you were a woman?
Women are conditioned by society from birth to be naturally passive, polite, sweet and agreeable. Anger, frustration and sadness are all very unladylike. Women are called “crazy” and “psycho” for struggling mentally, and not being able to articulate themselves fully in the moment. They are also expected to take on the emotional labour of (cishet) men on top of their own. In my experience, women have two options: you are either a beacon of unconditional love, grace and emotional support (keeping quiet at the cost of your mental health) or you are a cold-hearted, crazy stuck-up bitch (for speaking up and putting yourself first).
Read time: 50-53 minutes. Potential triggers: contains details of depression, anxiety, emotional/psychological/sexual abuse, family and relationship trauma.
Letting GROW: How the pain of both can feel the same, and that there’s beauty and grace in-between the “ie” and the “ow”…
Grief is inevitable, but growth is optional. Finding space for both in our lives can sometimes be a challenge. It seems counterproductive in life to open the door and invite grief in for a visit, or schedule in time to allow for growth. Sometimes, we cling to what we can control and lock the door on grief: we keep ourselves busy and ignore the sadness that gives life meaning.
“Life is growth, and if it does not involve a perpetual passing away, then we can neither grow nor live in any meaningful sense. And eventually, by accepting this truth in our honest grief, we will be ready to let the first rays of light penetrate the darkness.”
— Derren Brown, “Happy”.
How many deep, Romantic introspections and Narcissistic exhalations of one’s inner experience does it take until you’re qualified as a real blogger? Asking for a friend(!)
It’s 2019. Along with opening and running my first business, whilst recovering from a knee reconstruction – I was able to realign my priorities and start regular therapy. I’d had sessions in the past, but the timing wasn’t quite right and the professional wasn’t the right fit. I found an incredibly effective CBT counsellor, and was diagnosed Autistic at age 31 after voicing some concerns that I might be on the spectrum. I spent most of the year doing lots of journaling, inner child work, boundary-setting and hardcore self-care around tattooing. I began to slowly and painfully crack open the hard, convoluted walnut of my past traumas with weekly sessions of CBT. I was doing all this work for me, not particularly for anyone else. The fortunate side-effect was that I started to show up better for others in my life, personally and professionally. An unfortunate side-effect, was that it made me pretty emotionally unstable at times. Discovering I was autistic, played havoc with my autism. Facing the source code of my unhealthy coping mechanisms made it difficult to cope with my usual routines. I started questioning everything about myself. My new thought patterns were catching old triggers like trip wires. The psychological land mines would detonate: I would have to (quietly, calmly, socially acceptably as much as possible) ride out the shock and emotional fallout, heal in solitude, and use the new space for better things.
Growth is never easy, and it almost always requires pain along with joy. It is in the space between joy and sorrow that our hearts are strengthened and our bonds renewed.
— Trisha Lundin.
I ran so far away from myself, during a long time of survival in the earliest, most formative years of my life – that I forgot how to come back home to myself, for decades. I denied and shut off my (autistic) inner child, my inner strength and full potential. I have spent a lot of time and have done a lot of work to rise up to meet myself. I still have a lot of work to do, and I’m really excited to learn even more. I’ve been mapping out what my “higher self” looks like – how she would respond, what she would look like, what she would be working on next. Ironically, whilst I was working on my better self, I was very much sat rotting in my “lower self”. It reminded me of last January, when I was writing lists of all the things I wanted to do when I could walk again, whilst I was sofa-bound with a freshly reconstructed knee.
Merry CRUSHmas! 🎄
It’s 2019.Christmas is always tough for me. It puts things into a harsh perspective. Like slamming a sharp festive cookie cutter down onto my reality, during the bleakest days of midwinter and at the very end of the year – just when I’ve got past the gorgeous autumn leaves, cute layers and Halloween stuff. Some years, I’ve spent them completely alone for days, hardly eating, mostly drinking and crying; or at friend’s houses, excessively drinking and taking drugs. I’m usually adopted by some current partner’s family, or sheepishly herded into inclusion by friends. I’m forced to face the ‘Crushmas Roulette’, and it varies every year: will my alcohol dependant mum’s health get worse before Christmas? Will she want to see me this year? How long will I be able to spend with her? Will she become angry/aggressive? Will I be able to leave my darling cat in her care for a week this year? Will he be safe? How will I manage a week in Devon? What if his dad doesn’t like me? What do you buy dads for Christmas? Will I be the only person not drinking? I wonder if I’ll get bath bombs this year? I made a difficult decision to cut contact with my father in November. He fled to Australia to pursue his own happiness and escape his mistakes when I was in my early twenties. He was reduced to a few polite phone calls and greeting cards a year, which felt safer. Therapy gave me the strength to actually come to terms with and say out loud some of the things he did (that I could remember). My inner child was finally speaking out, heartbroken and angry. He never made any attempt to resolve or make amends for his historic alcoholism and physical, emotional and sexual abuse, before and after he left. I muddled through and tried to make the most of the cards I was dealt, struggling to accept it for years and years. Alcohol has been a consistently destructive force my whole life, and is an incredibly effective dissolving agent: it dissolves families, marriages, friendships, jobs, bank accounts and neurons, but never problems. I spent months writing the email, he replied with patronising denial and zero remorse. I chose not to reply back: I had finally got it off my chest and out of the pit of my stomach. I finally let go of trying to understand such a dysfunctional person, because dysfunction has no logic behind it. Now that I had closure, I prepared myself as best I could for the real grieving to begin.
I quite like the uneasy calmness and existential dread that January always brings. The first 2 months of winter always kill me. The slowly darker days, miserable weather, then the crushing bottleneck of Xmas and NYE: then, a sadly confusing emptiness for the first 2 weeks of the year. The only part of Crushmas that was bearable this year was “us”. Unfortunately, it didn’t hold up against the pressure.
I was in a beautiful relationship for most of last year; with someone I’d vaguely known for about 6 years. He looked like me, so naturally I was pretty attracted to him! We had lots of mutual friends in common – he was very supportive, respectful, intellectually and emotionally nutritious. Before we dated I told him I was recently coming to terms with my autism diagnosis. He explained that his brother was on the spectrum and in full-time assisted living, and he suspected that he was on the spectrum himself. He was a qualified hypnotherapist, a naturally calm and rational person that I could confide in and trust. As our relationship progressed, I shared things with him that I’d shared with no one else on earth outside of my own professional therapy. He helped me to help myself, and I used hypnotherapy for months to reprogram my brain and process stress and trauma subconsciously. During a panic attack that was brought on by pain during the first few months of my knee surgery recovery, he was able to calm me down, put me under hypnosis and I slept it off. He inspired me creatively, and I produced some great artwork because of him. He meditated and loved yoga. He had some previous experience with polyamory, and had the same conclusions about it that I did. We had lots of stuff in common, like Star Wars, Japan and nerdy science stuff. We were both gluten-intolerant, which made food choices easy. We could keep up with each other in intelligent conversation. He made me laugh. He did my washing up without being asked. My therapist once referred to him as my “soulmate”, which felt pretty wholesome. There were lots of other great things, but I’ll leave it there. I realised a few months in, that this was maybe my first proper ‘grown-up’ relationship. He confirmed that it was his first proper relationship too. We went on amazing dates and had great weekends together. I had made a decision in my early sobriety that I wanted to rise in love, not fall in love, and felt like it was going in the right direction.
Despite describing myself as a “hopeless romantic”, I really believe, the perfect partner, “the one” and “soulmates” do not exist. Your only hope is to pick someone that shares the same core values, views and opinions, someone who respects and compliments your own lifestyle and routines – and work to create a beautiful life with that chosen person. Love takes practice, patience and perseverance. Great relationships happen by choice, not chance. Always easier said than done, however.
“What makes love so compelling? The fact that this is the one, short life we have and we might spend a large part of it with this other person. That here is someone to cling to and grow with for our allotted lifespan. Here we are, broken and fraught in our own way, loving another who is broken and fraught in theirs, and who happens to love us too. But if we knew we were to have endless love for all eternity, there would be no reason to feel excited about this one. Love is a risk: we attach ourselves to someone and they to us, and we face the world together.”
— Derren Brown, “Happy”.
The things you ignore in the beginning become the reasons you leave in the end.
In my state of proud excitement and being stupidly in love, I forgave and ignored a few snags and red flags that conflicted my own values and beliefs along the way. He lived in Bristol, which was usually a 60 mile round trip and 2-3 hours travelling via public transport. It was a big commutement. He had plans to buy property for himself in Bristol, and despite the relationship progressing and getting more serious, he remained very clear that he had no desire to relocate anywhere else. Bristol is extremely triggering and sensory overloading for me. He had quite a serious office job that I struggled to connect with and understand. His work and his lifestyle was “Bristol”. My business, most of my friends and poorly mum are all in South Wales. My home, my lifestyle and my heart is “Wales.” Although it was suggested for the first few couples of months that he hardly drank anymore and didn’t enjoy it (“sober-curious”), he very much still enjoyed drinking. Most of his closer friends loved drinking too. He had no tattoos, no plans for tattoos in the future and little interest in my career. I preferred this over someone who might ‘use’ me for tattoos/status, but he didn’t even like being at my studio or the idea of attending tattoo conventions. We talked for hours and hours about the world and everything in it, but he had an intense passion for left-wing politics and was very vocal about it – it conflicted against my own friendly neighbourhood anarchism and political neutrality online. He had lots of intimate friendships, all women. At the beginning I assumed they were all like sisters to him, completely platonic. I later learnt that he’d been in previous relationships and had very ambiguous, complicated history/chemistry with almost all of them. There were lots of other not-so-great things, but I’ll leave it there. We were so compatible in so many other ways, I worked hard to try and adjust and adapt. It was the healthiest relationship I’d ever had to date, so figured these things were just teething pains that could be communicated on and worked through. We had a great foundation, and believed it could hold up to whatever came next.
I know that every relationship involves compromise, and their differences can often compliment yours. Relationships are about both of you becoming better because of your differences. He would reassure me that although there was clear evidence to me to suggest this really wouldn’t work long-term, he told me he loved me and wanted to be with me. I loved him too, and really wanted to stay together. So, we kept going…
“The older you get, the deeper the love you need.”
— Leonard Cohen.
He’s very funny, and naturally flirty. He adores female attention and being fussed, and makes it very easy for him to be fussed, adored and looked after by women. I remember looking forward to meeting his very best friend of years and years for the first time, who I imagined was like a sister to him given how much he talked about her and messaged her while we were together. There were hundreds of photos of them together online. Within minutes of being with them both in the same room, I could instantly feel something between them. He played with her hair in front of me whilst we were talking, and I said to myself “this is totally fine, they’re just close, as long as there’s no history or chemistry…” He once asked both of us to have a race and see who could braid his hair the fastest. She was in a relationship with someone for about a year, but kept her status as “single” online. A couple of weeks of processing and a couple of therapy sessions later, he brought up another story about her over Sunday dinner, and I calmly asked him if he’d ever slept with her. He struggled to swallow his food, and admitted they used to hook up with each other on nights out – he would end up looking after her when she would get blackout drunk, calling an ambulance, making excuses and generally being very codependent for years. I told him that I used to have crushes on people like that. He admitted that for a long time, he really liked her. He assured me that it would never happen again, and that it was different now. One of the reasons he gave, without any hint of humour, was that she refused to date anyone with better hair than her. I was really grateful for the honesty, but I struggled to digest the rest of my dinner and the new information that day. If you’ve ever seen Fleabag, you’ll understand how many times I had to resist the urge to break though an imagined Fourth Wall with a concerned, side-eye stare.
In the summer, I spent a weekend away in Birmingham getting tattooed for 2 days. He spent the same weekend in Bristol, with one of his single female friends. He hadn’t told me much about her, other than he referred to her as a “Power Woman” from London. Despite earning a good salary from her profession, she had made plans to sleep on the floor of his tiny studio flat for 2 nights instead of sleeping in a hotel. He had agreed the plan with her when he was single, months before we started dating. I had no right to try and change it, I could only be patient and focus on my own plans. They spent the weekend drinking, catching up and reliving uni nostalgia. She left him at a bar in the early hours of the first night to sleep with a stranger, and came back to his flat later on the next day. I really struggled to understand and accept it. He couldn’t see a problem with any of it, and assured me it was all completely normal and harmless. I trusted him, but I had no idea who she was. My autism allows me to notice patterns of behaviour others seem to miss. I spent a very painful weekend being tattooed and shamefully searching Facebook for an hour to find out more about the woman that was spending the weekend with my partner. Her Facebook posts of him involved declarations of how good looking he was, sultry looks, lots of hearts. Maybe it was all related, maybe it wasn’t. I actually met her a few months later, and to me she just seemed like a lovely professional woman in her thirties who struggled with boundaries and growing up. She mentioned she’d started dating someone and it was going really well (almost the length of time we had been dating) and that she proudly hadn’t slept with him yet because she was serious about it. She drank heavily that evening, answered work emails late into the night, ended up in a student bar and slept with another stranger. None of this is particularly bad, but I personally define “Power Woman” very differently. When you don’t drink for a long time, you can see from the outside exactly what it does to people and how it effects their lives. I tried my best to be friendly with her and thanked her for the Christmas card addressed to the both of us. She ‘unfriended’ me shortly after we broke up. I later removed myself from his other friends.
I’ve dated many men with weird Oedipal friendship groups and ex-partners as close friends, and it usually involved lots of lying, sometimes cheating and later returning to those ex-partners. Maybe this time, it was a chance for me to make peace with that part of my past. I’d deemed this new relationship as healthy, so surely even the unhealthy parts were due to my own jaded, warped view and nothing to do with him. I thought the problem wasn’t the weird collections of women themselves, but the way I was relating to the weird collections of women. I examined my own sense of femininity and self esteem over and over, checking myself for anything I needed to improve on. The more I got to know myself, the more I became sure that it wasn’t because I was intimidated by them in any way or insecure about myself, I just wasn’t interested in getting involved with that dynamic again. The more I saw it for what it actually was – a big sexy sad crab bucket. Maybe it was all normal for him, but it wasn’t normal for me. It was a useful marker and gentle reminder for me to hold fast on my standards and self worth. I feel these unhealthy monogamous traits are the opposite to polyamory: an environment in which you can be a lot more honest about your feelings towards your friends and your sexual appetites, invite in extra partners, and use boundaries and close communication to keep it healthy. In theory, anyway. In my experience of polyamory (and monogamy) over the years, more people = more problems! I was done with subconsciously picking men where there was always “other female interest” of various history/chemistry in close proximity, or that had obstacles of distance, complicated situations or lifestyle choices. There’s literally hundreds of less complicated people nearby, who share similar goals, attitudes and opinions on life and the world – and whose life would compliment my own. Why wasn’t I going for them instead? Because it’s a challenge for the ego to convince them to chose you.
If you’ve ever seen how successful, beautiful and funny my best friends of 10 years are, you’d understand that I’m not intimidated by other women easily. My other close friend is a gorgeous 5.11” police officer, self employed florist and leading lady in theatre productions. Their sparkling traits do not dim my own shine. I feel more beautiful, empowered and successful when I’m surrounded by these kinds of people. I’m so proud of them and love to celebrate their achievements, and in turn it inspires me to keep going and keep believing in myself. Supporting more of the good things I love to see in others and want for myself, keep me focused on all the things I’m striving to create and what I already have to be grateful for in my own life. It stops me wallowing in my own tar pit for too long. I’ve also been a life model for 12 years – I find being in a room completely naked, staying perfectly still while being studied to create beautiful paintings and drawings, incredibly relaxing. I love to model in many ways, and to observe being seen by other people creatively is very nourishing to my self esteem and self worth. By becoming part of a creative process in a very different way to my own tattooing and illustration, I’m crystallised inside the art and the process, not just in the outcome.
He once told me he was curious as to why he had so many female friends, and wanted to try CBT therapy to find out more about it. I could have told him why, but I didn’t want to. My therapist confirmed it was unhealthy but very normal, and gave him a name for a highly recommended, fantastic therapist in Bristol. I suggested it, and he turned it down with a thin excuse. He hadn’t ever really come to terms with his own autism, and I think missing social cues and boundaries in his friendships was sometimes happening. He denied his autism and my own at times, explaining that meltdowns were just me being grumpy, or say things like “it’s just traffic”. He was right, it was just traffic, it was just cars and noises. It was also Autism, and very overwhelming at times. You can’t talk someone out of an autistic meltdown. I started to feel ashamed of being autistic, and started to hide it from him and ‘mask’ more.
I have platonic male friends that I’ve been friends with for years and years. I wouldn’t stay the weekend with them like that, but understand that other people are not me. I love attention, and I love women too. I have loved women, and it’s an amazing and beautiful thing. I like to look visually pleasing to myself and other people with similar tastes, but know that underneath the 5.10” long frame, the flowers, awkward charisma(!) and tattoos – I’m pretty abrasive, brutally honest, intense and disruptive. I’m not deeply liked by many people, and wouldn’t want to be. I have a very small group of close friends (all women, all of which I haven’t slept with). I’ve been drawn to and collected many father and mother figures in my time (both toxic and healthy) so I could recognise and understand why it was happening, and was able to offer compassion and patience for it. I discussed it at great length with my own therapist, trying to understand it so that I could try to accept and tolerate it. For the first time in my life, I was doing lots of work on myself, not just for me. I wanted to overcome it, because I truly wanted it to work and was fed up of being repeatedly blamed and accused of having an unfair reaction to those close friendships. He was extremely defensive and protective of the unhealthy behaviour and codependent tendencies. The beautifully healthy relationship became peppered with old, familiar feelings of guilt, shame and not feeling good enough. I spent my own birthday surprising and spoiling him, with a weekend away at one of the best spa hotels in the UK. It had been on my ‘bucket list’ for years, and felt absolutely incredible to be able to finally do it. Obviously he loved it, and loved me for it. I loved it too. Deep down, I knew a part of it was a show of force to those close to him, and to cheer myself up. It was also during the early months of composing that email to my father, titled “my surviving suicide note”.
“It’s very hard to be compassionate towards people when they’re hurting us.”
— Brené Brown.
Whilst juggling the relationship, my business, therapy and physio, I struggled with some professional boundaries in the summer. I had to overcome online and offline intimidation and harassment from a few obsessive, mentally unstable and angry former clients. I doubled-up on therapy and self care and kept moving forward.
Coupled with a relationship that was becoming increasingly unhealthy, I became really ill. My immune system kept flaring up, my digestive system was all over the place. I had chronic inflammation in my joints and my throat/stomach. I was sick some mornings, my hair was falling out. I was having breakouts of shingles/cold sores each month. I lost my appetite, I lost all my energy, I was sweating and having nightmares at night, and my nutrition levels crashed. I was having meltdowns and panic attacks more frequently. I stopped training and had to knock down my hours tattooing to keep producing my best work. I was disassociating. On my 2 year sobriety birthday, I slept most of the day and managed to speak to a doctor in the afternoon. She asked me what if I’d gone through any big changes in the past year or so. I laughed, and listed everything. I told her about the sudden loss of my job in late 2018, creating and opening my private studio myself whilst being cheated on/ghosted, a few days before a knee reconstruction which I mostly recovered from alone. The therapy, the autism diagnosis, the online/offline harassment. Encounters with extremely toxic people. Confronting the reality of my father and subsequently cutting him out of my life just before Christmas, dealing with the deteriorating health of my mother. Her response was incredibly supporting and caring and I broke down in tears. After hearing all of my symptoms, she recommended I get booked in for a CT scan on my torso.
“Growth” started to become a less positive, more sinister word.
For most of December and January, my mental health was hovering between extremely low and absolute rock bottom.
Hot and cold, blood of stone.
I had two tickets to see Devin Townsend beginning of December, that I had been looking forward to since I bought the tickets back in March. To say I’m a huge fan of his would be an understatement. I usually go to gigs and festivals on my own these days, as I can’t find anyone who shares the same enthusiasm as me for the music or the timing isn’t right. I was hoping to take my partner with me, but he dismissed wanting to go at all for months: “ask someone else first, I’ll go if no one else wants to”. So I did, I posted online asking if anyone would like to be my +1. He changed his mind within the hour, declared that he’d love to see me at a gig that he knew would make me so happy. We went, and he really enjoyed it. Obviously I had the best time, but I’d already started to wonder how long I could stay with someone that found my enthusiasm and energy both adorable and intolerable. I thought of all the pubs in Bristol I’d sat in to support his comedy gigs and take photos for him, and the comedy gigs we went to together to support others and see people he loved. The Ninjutsu training I went along to watch. I already had a list of guest-spots in Scotland that I could tattoo at whilst he was doing Edinburgh Fringe, which was a future plan of his.
From Devin to Devon: although at this point I couldn’t see us working long-term, he reassured me that he still loved me and wanted to be together. I agreed to spend Christmas in Devon, having not met his father or brother before. It was a beautiful and calm week, mostly because I had reached a level of stress and illness that I declared “no stress and drama”. What I really meant was “no more conflict and difficult conversations”. His family were lovely. I covered my tattoos out of respect to his father, I knew how much he hated them. I was told on Christmas day “don’t joke with my dad about tattoos.” Unfortunately, I’m a tattoo artist of 9 years and fucking hilarious, so there wasn’t much I could do in that department. I even managed to keep up with never ending conversations about politics and history. I kept my chin up, smiling politely. I kept my mouth shut when I realised they were drinking to get drunk every day, despite him playing it down when I asked him a few weeks before. I stayed quiet when I could hear my partner slurring his words and smelling of alcohol when we went to bed. I watched his hangover sweat from him the morning after, and heard the familiar mumbles of denial. I bought him drinks from the bar when he asked for them, as I didn’t want to bring up a difficult conversation in front of his friends who I was meeting for the first time. He knew I had managed over 2 years without buying alcohol (except when it’s for my alcohol-dependant mother), but must have forgotten. I shouldn’t ever have to ask someone to stop drinking, it’s not for me to decide. Continuing to date and drink in front of someone who’s famously sober and proud, with a dying alcohol dependant/alcoholic mother, would be like dating someone who has a mother dying of cancer and insisting on booking solo weekends away to Chernobyl. There’s plenty of women who he could date instead, who didn’t have alcoholic parents growing up and is enthusiastically sober now. There’s only so much I can make peace with from my past, and only so much I can tolerate as a sober adult. Alcohol is a proven carcinogenic, as well as depressant. I came home exhausted from masking and spent days in a sensory hangover that I recovered from in private. I got Jedi: Fallen Order and a coffee mill for Christmas, and I gratefully spent the last few days of the year back home escaping reality, trembling with caffeine and smashing The Empire.
Sobriety doesn’t happen by osmosis. Simply dating or spending time with a sober person may involve short-term relief and occasional breaks from drinking completely, but it doesn’t offer a long term solution. That is always entirely down to you. I’m so happy and grateful that I inspire so many others, but I cannot do the work for them.
Home wasn’t a consistently safe space for me as a child, and was routinely locked in my bedroom in the dark. During conflict, the bathroom door was always lockable and my choice to do so. I still love the sound that a bathroom lock makes, and the sound of a bath filling with hot water. As an adult, locked toilet doors at events and parties provide the same relief, and can enjoy a bath for hours and hours. I was able to manage Christmas a lot better this year because I was allowed to spend so much time in here. The tattoo on my thigh reads “Formidable” – both the English and French meaning. It was a celebration of overcoming and fully recovering from a skiing accident I had in the French Alps 4 years ago (it frames the surgery scars) and to symbolise letting go of the F words I used to call myself or were put on me by others (“fragile”, “failure”, “fuckup”) and give myself a new, strong and sexy F word. My therapist was impressed!
I admitted to him that I was struggling to stay sober after everything that happened at Christmas. He proudly announced he wouldn’t drink on NYE, for me. The last few days of December and NYE gifted me with one if the worst periods of my life. Given the fact I was only a week or so away from my CT scan, it terrified me. I’ve never been in so much pain, in that way. I couldn’t breathe deeply, walk or maintain a consistent trail of thought for long. I’d maxed out on painkillers by the late afternoon of NYE, meditation and CBD oil did nothing. I got on the wrong bus at Bristol and ended up in some random part of the outer boroughs, wrestling a panic attack/sensory overload. I left my suitcase on the bus. He was in a bad mood that day, either because I’d missed the bus and was late or because of something else. We managed to pull it together, get the suitcase back and have a nice time. It felt like a small victory. I left his home in Bristol the next day, and a couple hours after I left, he half joked via message that I hadn’t been giving him enough attention lately. I absolutely lost my shit. If I’d had a few more days between Christmas/NYE, I might have handled it better. Maybe not. Everything I’d been trying to manage behind the scenes, burst into the foreground. It took me days to recover, and still feel like I failed him.
I was doing the best I could to the best of my ability at the time: meditating, writing/journaling, keeping on top of eating regularly, supplements/medication/CBD oil… I even started drinking less coffee. I completed my taxes instead of binging Netflix, cleaned my flat instead of depression sleeping. I was taking walks in the park, having a short sun bed sessions every week (I still put suncream on my tattoos!) and made sure I had some kind of healthy routine on days off. I was chasing up diagnosis’s and having tests. I stayed sober, somehow. I kept on top of my emails/admin like a boss, and even hired an assisting team to help run my business and create some professional distance from me and my wonderful clients. I was tattooing part time to rest and look after myself. I even managed some extra self care treats, like taking myself to dinner. I really felt like none of it was working, but then I realised I was still breathing.
Here’s a short summary of the books, without reviewing them too much. I hope if you do read them, you can get as much out of them as I did.
The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts by Dr. Gary Chapman is a book about how to communicate better with your partner(s). It helps you understand how people best interpret love individually, through 5 types: Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Acts of Service, Physical Touch and Receiving Gifts. I listed them in order of what I consider to be most important, from highest to lowest. Some people want a diamond watch, others just want the time. I chipped into it as I was reading the others. It’s a comparatively shallow and dogmatic read compared to the other two, but has some really valuable parts. There’s also some cute, insightful quizzes you can do online.
School of Life by Alain de Botton is a book about emotional intelligence. I consider it to be a general handbook for living a more richer life, full of really useful ‘life hacks’. I dove straight into the Relationships section whilst I was reading Happy, and particularly loved the “Choosing a Partner”, “The Hellishness of Others”, “The Longing For Reassurance” and “Partner-as-Child” chapters. “Emotional intelligence affects every aspect of the way we live, from romantic to professional relationships, from our inner resilience to our social success. It is arguably the single most important skill for surviving in the modern world. In The School of Life, de Botton introduces the gathered wisdom of ten years’ innovative research and conversation, teaching and listening, about the nature and practice of emotional intelligence. Using the combination of social analysis, philosophical insight and practical wisdom which has come to define the School of Life’s essential work, it works through five core areas – Self, Others, Relationships, Work and Culture – and shows how none of us will be perfect but each of us can be a little bit better. Rigorous and revelatory, humane and hopeful, Alain de Botton and his team of experts present The School of Life: a comprehensive guide to the modern art of emotional intelligence.” – alaindebotton.com.
Happy by Derren Brown is like an illusionist’s guide to living life illusion-free: offering wisdom and calling on popular philosophy to teach us how to conjure up our own happiness, and learn to find magic in the everyday. A self-proclaimed avoidant and advocate of Stoicism (the foundations of CBT therapy), Derren embarked on a career in hypnotism whilst living in Bristol, and is now a successful and acclaimed magician and mental manipulator. He found himself pondering how to be happy after the breakup of a long-term relationship with an artist – and he’s found that it’s simply a trick of the mind. You can talk yourself out of sadness, and into happiness. I started reading the book a few days before the breakup: in the earlier chapters on relationships, anger and hurt, I found myself identifying with the avoidant/attached narrative and found some other parts hard to digest. The book is particularly meaty, for many reasons. Schopenhauer, the German philosopher, was clearly autistic by the way – he had the same routine for 27 years, and pushed a woman down a flight of stairs for talking too loudly outside his door? He also had a string of poodles named Atma his whole life, always eternally named Atma. I wonder if Derren is on the spectrum too. During the month of daily reading that it took to get through it, I saw myself through the eyes of my very own avoidant hypnotist in Bristol, struggling to date and cope with his attached artist. I thought to myself more than once, “I need to leave the poor boy alone”. As the book progresses into chapters like ‘Relinquishing Control’, through to philosophy, Stoicism and how to apply the methods – I was able to get through the first and worst few weeks of the breakup more comfortably and productively. He’d actually recommended this book back in 2018. It was a bittersweet irony that the book that made me initially interested in him was the book that made me realise we were ultimately wrong for each other, and that we needed to be apart. It really helped me grow and improve.
“Trying to improve your way to acceptance feeds the false idea that only an improved version of you is acceptable.”
— Lisa Olivera.
Still feeling like I wasn’t good enough until I’d made as many changes and improvements as possible, I kept reaching outwards, grasping for answers and solutions. The relationship and the professional conflict I’d endured last year had made me question everything, and I felt like I couldn’t trust anyone anymore, including myself. I figured that if we both eventually moved in together, we could help look after each other. Sharing the same soil, we could grow together.
“To love someone long-term is to attend a thousand funerals of the people they used to be. The people they’re too exhausted to be any longer. The people they don’t recognise inside themselves anymore. The people they grew out of, the people they never ended up growing into. We so badly want the people we love to get their spark back when it burns out; to become speedily found when they are lost. But it is not our job to hold anyone accountable to the people they used to be. It is our job to travel with them between each version and to honour what emerges along the way. Sometimes it will be an even more luminescent flame. Sometimes it will be a flicker that disappears and temporarily floods the room with a perfectly and necessary darkness.”
— Heidi Priebe.
My physical and mental health was in serious trouble, and my relationship was beginning to rot. He saw me at my worst and most vulnerable, which must have been terrifying. I snapped at him more than once. He started becoming avoidant and dismissive, I started becoming attached and clingy. When I started getting fed up and distanced myself, he would lean forward and seek out attention. Although we were discussing the idea of him moving in with me for a bit to see if we liked living together for the future, it was only a way for him save more money as a deposit for later buying property in Bristol. I spent days sorting, throwing out and giving away belongings, rearranging the bedroom. I was convinced that I could change his mind (if only he could see how great things could be if he moved in, how great I really was!) he would want to stay. He became easily flustered and stressed, and snapped at me too. When I behaved more like him, he behaved more like me. I was so tired of the games and role reversals. We were no longer rising in love, we were both sinking. I’d received some comments online from a fake profile, and wasn’t sure if it was someone from last year who was trying to get at me again, and had no idea if they’d try to work out where I lived and follow me home. As things got increasingly worse with us, I told him I was at my absolute limit and begged him to come and talk through things at the beginning of January – he instead spent the weekend with friends, leaving the names blank for me to assume which ones. “Probably a chance to get drunk too”, I thought. I felt like I had died. I deactivated and deleted all my social media for two days. I buried my phone and iPad behind my sofa cushions and shut myself in my home; I mostly read, cried and wrote. I later worked up the energy to visit my mum and my best friends. He’d promised to help me financially that weekend as I had taken a lot of time off over Christmas, and had ran through my savings when I was unwell and working part time to keep producing my best work. I had to borrow money from my mother’s funeral fund instead.
He came over 2 days later – I’d invited him over to talk and said he was welcome to stay over afterwards. Instead of trying to resolve things, he broke up with me. 3 days before my CT scan. He admitted he was scared of my meltdowns, and told me that if he ever moved back to Wales permanently, he knew he would resent it. He told me he was done, and started to unpack the things of mine from his flat that he’d brought with him from his bag. He had no intention of staying over that night. My reality cracked open. I broke down, begging and pleading with him to stay. I had a panic attack/meltdown, but hid in my bedroom to make sure I didn’t scare him. He followed after me, and quietly asked me to hand him the front door keys so he could leave whilst I was sobbing in the dark. The potential reality of facing the scan without him was unbearable, and the reality that I had somehow ended up in another relationship that left me just before another serious medical procedure was fucking abhorrent. After declaring that I would move to Bristol for him (I wasn’t thinking straight) and lots of tears from both of us, he stayed, but it was only out of pity. An hour later, he turned down an offer to be my +1 at my best friend’s big event before I could finish speaking. I slept on the sofa that night to make sure my cat didn’t disturb his sleep for work the next day, and cooked us breakfast early the next morning with tears rolling down my cheeks. I was relieved we were still together, but I wasn’t happy anymore.
The relationship had become terminally ill. There was no future.
He came with me to the scan – his 8 years previous experience as a radiographer and my own meditation made it bearable. I spent the evening fussing and giving him a back massage a few hours after the scan (Dr. Chapman would define back massages as both an “Act of Service” and “Physical Touch” in the Love Languages book). He had complained/joked a week before that I hadn’t been giving him enough attention lately, and wanted to make him happy. Both my arms and wrists were sore from the 5 attempts to get a line in to pump my body full of contrast fluid. I was trying everything I could to try and re-connect and repair. I can still taste the Omnipaque sometimes. Communication and “Words of Affirmation” are really important to me, especially then. Towards the end, he put off having big conversations for as long as possible, and there would be days without any messages. In the final two days, I sent him a little photo that I’d created (it was really funny) to try and lighten things up and show him I still cared. He ignored it.
Love cannot hurt us; it is person who doesn’t know how to love us that causes pain. Any relationship that is ruined by having conversations about your feelings, standards and expectations was never really stable and healthy to begin with.
Someone’s best effort at loving you may not be the thing that you need. It doesn’t mean they’re not trying hard enough, or that they don’t love you enough. It means that’s all they’re capable of doing, and you have to decide if that’s what you’re willing to live with.
All this energy that I was putting into a relationship that wasn’t going anywhere, I needed to start putting back into myself.
The next day, I saw my therapist to get her advice and perspective. She was equally disappointed to hear how it had deteriorated, but assured me it wasn’t beyond repair and that it was possible to overcome everything I’d mentioned. She suggested couples therapy, which I knew he wouldn’t agree to. She also suggested he explore an Autism diagnosis, to help him better understand himself and how it effects him. Without an equal effort of understanding/growth, or any attempt at coming to a compromise from him, it would never flourish. It was crystal clear that at some point, for whatever reason(s), he had simply changed his mind about me. She could see that I was done, and we were done. I had given up begging, pleading and trying, and decided in my session to finally finish-off the breakup and put “us” out of our misery.
After reaching outwards for so long, I reached back into myself. I spent the rest of day taking care of myself before the breakup and making sure I treated him, me and us with respect: I started with therapy in the morning, followed by a manicure/pedicure in a massage chair. I made stock orders, got some important admin done and made appointments. I went for a walk in the park, then took myself to dinner. I waited until I knew he’d be home from work to message him. I admitted that I didn’t have the strength to travel to Bristol just to break up (again).
…“Let’s both save our dignity, save the drama and stress and leave it here today. Thank you for loving and supporting me, and teaching me that it is possible for me to have a healthy relationship with someone. Thank you for teaching me that I also have the strength to notice when it becomes unhealthy/unsustainable and take action. I’ve never loved anyone like I loved you – thank you for teaching me how. Don’t worry about me, I’ll be okay. You’ll find someone better suited and when you do, you’ll know for sure and it’ll feel right.”
I saw him for what he really was: exhaustedandoverwhelmed. I had already imagined his life without me: I pictured him getting in the door to his own Bristol home, to someone who he could share a bottle of wine with and talk about his office job, who would get along with all of his friends, and accept and love them regardless. Someone he could discuss more with his father. Maybe someone who practiced martial arts and was passionately into talking about politics too. Maybe someone who wasn’t autistic, or someone who didn’t have more issues than Vogue(!). I imagined them talking about buying a larger property in Bristol together one day, and drinking together at Christmas. My heart swelled at the potential happiness that lay ahead of him, far past me. We didn’t fail, we simply expired.
When we waste time chasing someone to give us love, there’s an unmet internal need for love and nurturance toward our inner-child. When we abandon ourselves for someone who’s undeserving of our energy, our inner-child is usually hurting deeply and feeling afraid to be alone. The excitement of trying to prove you are so special, lovable and worthy that you can change someone’s mind or behaviour, is draining your energy on so many levels. We’re all going to have days where we show up as the worst version of ourselves, but at the end of the day, we all deserve to be with someone who we know is in our corner. Someone who loves us on the hard days and treats the relationship as precious, sacred and deserving of protection and care. I wasn’t willing to throw it away because it was getting tough, but he was. I needed to let go, too. I had someone else more important I needed to take care of.
He replied back quickly, compassionately and calmly. He admitted that he was hurt and saddened, which I found hard to believe at that point but took his word for it. He said he was happy to end it via message. We said goodbye.
“When we consider that these things we value are only here for a while and will eventually turn to dust, we both remind ourselves of their worth and align ourselves with Fortune. The Stoics tell us to think, when people die or things are destroyed, ‘I gave them back.’ What we have lost was never ours; we enjoyed them for a while and now they have returned to eternity. In the case of a broken vase, this may be a helpful thought; in the case of a lost loved one, perhaps it sounds like a meagre comfort.”
—- Derren Brown, “Happy”.
The CT scan and test results all came back negative. I broke down and wept with relief, but still didn’t have any real answers. I’m still sick, and it’s pointing more to Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS)Hypermobilty type: (h)EDS. I’ve been on the waiting list for a diagnosis for over a year, as I wasn’t able to afford the diagnosis privately along with private CBT therapy without it affecting my business.
Cheat code for forgiveness!
Most of us are trying our best, me included. Despite this, we’re all going to hurt people as we muddle through figuring it all out. We don’t need to take it so personally when it does happen. When you learn that a person’s behaviour has more to do with their own internal struggle than it does with you, you can welcome in grace, understanding and compassion.
Repeat this until you really, truly believe it:
“They were doing the very best they could at the time”.
You’re released from being angry. The pain changes. You’re able to start grieving the loss of a person that you needed in your life. The person you wanted them to be, the person you expected them to be. The person you thought they could potentially be.
Your memories and dreams of them can be examined and torn open. Inside the rift of your reality and life experience, there is new space to welcome in grace, growth and maybe a little bit of love and forgiveness. Maybe some pity and self-righteousness too, which is okay. Boundaries are still essential of course, and letting go with love is possible. Closing the door on someone who shows no remorse can be a silent forgiveness, and an ultimate act of self-care and protection. Healing always comes in waves, so keeping riding the tides of pain, anger and sadness that come up.
We’ve all been through terrible, horrible and shamefully dark periods of our lives. Wouldn’t you want that level of compassion from others, for them to be able to hold you and support you and say “you were just doing the very best you could at the time. We forgive you.”
We can never ever know if people are actually doing the best they can at the time. Most of the time, they’re probably not. But one thing you can guarantee is that your life will be easier and happier when you assume that they are. It’s not your job to control others or persecute them for it.
I forgive my mother, my father and all of my partners. I deserve peace now. I’ve spent years and years with both my fists raised up in front of my face, and it’s blocked my perspective.
It’s been exactly one month since we broke up. I’m eating reduced Valentine’s Day chocolate (16th is the new 14th!). I’m still sober, and he’s back to drinking like he used to with the people he’s used to. He’s moving into a new place and getting that mortgage he always wanted – I’m moving closer to work, my mother, my sister and most of my friends. I spent Valentine’s night drinking mocktails and watching Taylor Swift on Netflix. I’m lining up guest spots, hikes and travel destinations for 2020 with the cat on my lap. I’m cooking dinner and seeing my best friend later. I’m not sure what I’m looking for in terms of partner(s) now. All I know is that I just want to keep writing. This has been one of the most powerful and cathartic outlets for me. Knowing it has helped so many others brings me to tears. I’ve helped people get sober, process trauma, get out of relationships and get into therapy. If I keep speaking my truth with real love, the truest and most real love will come back to me.
Doctors can diagnose and treat you, but they don’t make you healthy. Surgeons can repair you, but they don’t heal you. Teachers can teach you, but they don’t make you learn. Trainers can train you, but they don’t make you fit. Coaches can coach you, but they don’t make you rich and successful. At some point, you have to realise that your growth is your responsibility.
It’s been 4 weeks since the breakup. I still miss him, of course I do. I love him too much to be with him now, as I know it’s for all the wrong reasons. I’m glad that I ‘gave him back’. I love myself more now that I was able to let go, and choose myself and my independency over the familiar trap of codependency. I’m really proud of the progress I’ve made, and am really looking forward to whatever comes next.
“What I miss most is how you loved me. But what I didn’t know was how you loved me had so much to do with the person I was. It was a reflection of everything I gave to you, coming back to me. How did I not see that. How did I sit here soaking in the idea that no one else would love me that way. When it was I that taught you. When it was I that showed you how to fill, the way I needed to be filled. How cruel I was to myself. Giving you credit for my warmth simply because you had felt it. Thinking it was you who gave me strength, wit, beauty. Simply because you recognised it. As if I was already not these things before I met you. As if I did not remain all these once you left.”
— Rupi Kaur.
Always remember: NO ONE is more equipped to love you than you are.
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 bucketmentality, 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? 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.
Kay Lomas, researchautism.org
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.