X is for… some of the things I have eXcised from my life 

I have a lot of Exes. Not ex-partners so much, more ex activities. I often joke http I have no more vices other than buying nice things for myself and some people might think I am a property-owning professional employee who has never had a day’s worries… This is definitely not the case.

I have spent over ten years of my life in institutions. (‘Ooh’, I hear metaphorical readers say. ‘Which ones??’ Well about equal amounts of prison, mental health residential services and psychiatric wards with a smattering of homelessness and crisis housing thrown in and several years in public housing. The current incarnation of Yennski is a relatively new thing and in order to become that version of me I hav needed to ‘eX’ quite a lot of things from my life.

I had addiction problems for many years. I have a major issue with cannabis abuse for many years. People might think cannabis is more of a harmless drug but for me out brought on my first episode of psychosis and my understanding is that the reason I have schizophrenia now, almost thirty years after that first episode, is almost certainly heavy cannabis use. When people say it is a harmless drug I will remind them that if you are prone to psychosis it is not a mild or harmless drug at all. The problem with addiction is that you can’t just wake up one day and decide not to be addicted. For me it was around ten years of battling my addiction before I got clean and for others it take even longer. I simply couldn’t see my drug use as being a problem even though it clearly was damaging my life. I got there eventually but it was a hard road.

Another thing I have ‘eXed’ is criminal activity. I spent over three years in jail in the late 1990s and about five identifying as a criminal. It was awful and related to masking and being in denial about my autism. I got into that lifestyle through a partner who was very dangerous but I didn’t realise this. I spent six months in prison s a result of this man and after that became traumatised and institutionalised. 

Being a criminal fulfilled some needs for me, mostly company and boundaries. I was prone to loneliness and isolation so if all I needed to do was break the law and go to court I would get several months of round the clock company! I also became terrified of life in the ‘real’ world. It was too big and scary. I am not proud of the things I did the but I recognise why I did them. Excising myself from the criminal lifestyle was at once easy and incredibly difficult. In practical terms it was easy: I threw out my address book as everyone in there was a drug addict and/or a criminal. I stopped seeing any of the people I had known in the preceding few years and I changed my behaviour. I was also supported by a mental health residential service. The hard bit was letting go of my entire world. -all my friends and people I knew and the containment of living behind prison walls. The best part of this – and the catalyst for me changing –  was my parents who always stood by me. I remember them going overseas shortly after I was released and coming back with loads of thoughtful gifts for me. It was just lovely.

So excising things from my life has ben liberating if challenging. I think for autistic folks making major life changes is particularly hard but in my case at least, very much worth it.

And Sunday 5 February will mark exactly 23 years of me not being a prisoner. I am celebrating by having lunch with some of my close friends – none of whom are remotely criminal!! Seems fitting to me.  

W is for… Work

I have a book called The Wonderful World of Work. It is my second book and is an instructional activity type thing for autistic teens to help prepare them for a career. On the morning that it was published, the publisher posted about it on their Facebook page. The first comment on my lovely new book was this: “The world of work for autistic people is horrible, not wonderful. I won’t be buying this book!” I was of course quite horrified by this reaction. I mean they had a point! Maybe I shouldn’t have written a positive book about autism and employment? Thankfully future reviews and commentaries on my second contribution to the literature on autism were much more positive but it got me thinking.

I couldn’t work for many years. I was simply too anxious and too much of a perfectionist. And earlier in my life I was in prison and psychiatric wards pretty much non-stop for five years so paid employment was a fair way away from my mind. By the time I worked out that I wanted to change my ways, I realised that work was a very important thing. I was desperate to work but it took many years to get to a place where I could work. I did what I would now call controlled challenges in order to build my confidence to work. I started by volunteering at a gallery. I really enjoyed this and it wasn’t too stressful because I wasn’t getting paid. (At this point in my journey I worried about being in paid work and costing the employer lots of money or making mistakes). After my volunteer job I started a small business editing videos for my art school colleagues. And then I got a job talking about autism to school kids which I loved – yes, I have always loved public speaking! I wrote a book in 2005 and it was published. This gave me enormous amounts of confidence and within three months of it being published I applied for public service graduate roles.

Applying for the public service was a big deal. I was fairly certain I would be refused due to my schizophrenia and my extensive police history from the 1990s but I figured that if I didn’t apply but would have won a position I would have missed out big time. However if I applied but was unsuccessful I would have lost nothing. ‘Give it a burl’ thought 31 year old Yennski and so I did and I was successful.

I am still in the public service sixteen years later. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I had to answer a LOT of questions about my past but I got the job and hav now been promoted twice and worked in a range of really interesting and rewarding areas. My job has funded the purchase of two properties and I am financially independent and doing meaningful and rewarding work. I absolutely love my job.

But what about my reviewer and the world of work not being wonderful for autistic people? Well they still have a point as for many autistic and neurodivergent people work is stressful and even traumatising. I have also had some of those kinds of jobs in the past. 

It is quite common these days to get people listing all the positive attributes of autistic employees…attention to detail, pattern thinking, focus, passion, loyalty, that sort of thing. I wish we didn’t need to do that because we lived in a world where employers were aware of the skills and gifts we bring to our jobs. There is still a ways to go in that area but things hav improved in the 31 years since I first joined the workforce. Employers need more uncerstnnidfng and knowledge of autism. I think it is definitely changing but it is still the case for many autistic people that their world of work is not wonderful. We also have very high rates of unemployment, underemployment and being in unsuitable work. I want to live in a world where the world of work for neurodivergent folks is a lot more likely than not to be wonderful! 

V is for the trouble with saying someone is ‘Very unlikely’ – challenging stereotypes and representation

I often get told I am very unlikely and unusual. My previous clozapine nurse would call me ‘an anomaly’. A psychiatrist in one of my hospital stays said that 3 percent of people with schizophrenia have insight into their illness and I was one of that 3 per cent. I am an ex-prisoner who has not committed a crime since 1999. If you follow the stereotypes I suspect I am totally impossible.

But evidently I am NOT impossible because I exist. However I exist in a world full of stereotypes, assumptions and judgement. I think the assumption and stereotypes hold people back and reiterate negative views about people. We can be hamstrung by these assumptions and they influence how people treat us. And the assumptions around pretty much all the groups I belong to are largely negative. 

I have recently been taking some downtime and watching TV. I like TV. It is varied and engaging and a great distraction from mental health issues. However I have noticed a lot of unhelpful representations of groups I belong to on TV. Essentially and with few exceptions, people with schizophrenia in TV dramas and movies are always violent. In fact the term psychosis when used in TV and moves is used interchangeably as a term for violence, despite this not being the case at all. People with any kind of mental illness are portrayed as manipulative and untrustworthy. And don’t get me started on depictions of ex-prisoners! You can guarantee that if a character in a movie or TV drama has ben in prison that they will reoffend and probably kill people, even if they were not in prison for violence. It absolutely infuriates me. And then there are the depictions of autistic characters, which historically have ben very unhelpful. Thankfully this has changed in recent years with greater influence form autistic advocates. There are some autistic characters being played by autistic people which is great. Hannah Gadsby is challenging stereotypes and Chloe Hayden is doing good things on Heartbreak High. We need to avoid being complacent in this space though as things can change and there is no guarantee it will be onwards and upwards into the future.

In terms of me, the stereotypes are really harmful and not just if you are actually me. For people to focus on how I am apparently unusual actually makes it harder for others in similar situations to me. We are ALL unusual if the starting point is a stereotype. We need to see people as individuals not a list of stereotypical attributes and assumptions. So stop with the telling people they are an anomaly and just see people as who they actually are. 

Yennski on their soapbox 🙂

U is for… Unsolicited advice

This one is a tricky one. Tricky because I usually dislike being on the receiving end of it but then I go and dish out advice like it’s lollies! I think everyone has experienced this. There are a few areas where this is a big thing, such as parenting, buying or renting property and health issues to name a few. I remember someone telling me I should put honey on the golden staph infection in my leg a few years ago and being very peeved!

I try not to do this as I find it infuriating when others do so for me – well most of the time. Sometimes a person will give me advice which I didn’t expect but which I actually find helpful. For kids – and some older kids – parents and older siblings are pretty good at handing out advice whether you want it or not! Managers at work can do so and perfect strangers can as well. Social media is a hotbed of free and often unwanted advice! Be it about about your choice in home decor or whether you are or are not autistic – some people on social media do seem to enjoy dishing out their thoughts on what you should do or which things your should purchase or how to live your life in any number of rather irritating ways.

There is a sort of intersectional issue here as well. I was talking with a lovely friend about this post just before and we agreed that advice given to Disabled folks often – although not always – has an ableist element to it. There is an assumption that Disabled people are somehow inferior or unable to know our own minds or navigate life (apparently) as well as our abled peers. 

The medical system is premised on power dynamics and viewing patients / consumers as needing fixing and needing a lot of advice. Because of this we can get a lot of unsolicited advice and when we do not follow it we are viewed as being non-compliant or even that we are sabotaging our own health care, even if this isn’t the case. Obviously medical professionals have experience of medical and health-related things but often their advice goes beyond the bounds of their medical knowledge and actually isn’t very helpful – or wise. I have found that having schizophrenia and being Autistic and ADHD means people make assumptions about me – what job I might do, my relationships and interest in sex, how much money I might have and indeed how well I might manage that money and where I live – and whether I rent or own property. Usually people get all of those matters totally wrong as I am not typical in how I live my life as an Autistic and schizophrenia person. This just demonstrates to me that people should hold off from the advice until they have all the facts!

I mentioned my own issues with giving out unsolicited advice. It really bothers me that I do it. I think it comes from the place of my experience. I have a VERY wide experience of life and I have learned insight and wisdom in my almost 49 years on this planet. But I ned to know that my experience is not the only experience and maybe if I suggest something that worked for me that it might not work for others. 

I find I need to pull myself up on the advice thing. If I don’t enjoy people doing it to me than I should not do ti to others. There is a power relationship here – assumed or real – and I like to avoid those where I can. So hold off on giving out unsolicited advice and if you see me doing it please remind me and I will stop!

T is for… I’m Trans enough thank you very much!

I imagine that anyone reading this blog probably knows I am non-binary / transgender. It is something I am pretty keen on getting out into the world given how mach horrible bigotry there is. What people might not know is that I am guilty of some unconscious bigotry myself…against myself!

When we talk about gender diversity, one thing we discuss is gender expression. That means how you express your gender identity to the world. Everyone has a different gender expression – not just trans folks. When I was a teen and twenty-something my gender expression was quite typically masculine. I had a shaved head, wore flannelette shirts and work boots. Bus drivers and others usually called me ‘mate’. It was many kinds of awesome!

As I grew older my expression changed. I started wearing jewellery and even on occasion wore a frock! Why did I do this? Well why wouldn’t I? My gender identity remained the same through the years from then until now and now my I think my expression is androgynous and slightly feminine – if one has to assign it a description. I am agender, meaning I am neither male nor female and have no sense of gendered identity. If you ask Yenn whether they are a boy or a girl they will say ‘no.’ and they will be right. 

 My identity is not under question but I have struggled with people telling me how I should express my identity. I had one person say I shouldn’t wear a dress because I am non-binary! Who know that my dress had a sense of its own gender?? Also, if I shouldn’t wear a dress then am I allowed to wear pants? They are ‘masculine’ after all! And really mine – and everyone else’ gender expression is not a matter for criticism or judgement.

All these people and society telling me how I should dress really did a number on me, hence the bigotry I levelled at myself for some time. I used to really worry that I wasn’t trans enough. I felt like I needed to b ‘more masculine’. Of Course this is total nonsense. If you feel trans you are trans, simple as that. I learned that if I identify as trans that that is all I need to do. There are no exams for trans identity. If you identify as trans then you are. It was quite a liberating thing to come across I must say.

And in general terms, how people identify their gender is correct. It is not up to anyone else to cast judgement or give advice. This is true of other identities as well. I am autistic enough, Asexual enough and schizophrenic enough, I do not need to justify my identity or expression to anyone. Basically we are enough just as ourselves.   

S is for… schizophrenia 

CW: mental illness 

I am 48 years old. I was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1995 and have spent ten years of my life – over 20% or my time on this planet – in institutions of one sort or another. I have taken heavy duty medication for over 25 years. While I see my autism and ADHD as important parts of what makes me Yenn and I sometimes view them as friends, schizophrenia – for me at least – is often viewed as my worst enemy. I sometimes imagine my illness as being like someone who hates me and wants to see me suffer and fail. I would not wish my illness on anyone and if there was a cure for it I would take it and then take it again, just in case it didn’t work the first time!

I have learned to live with my illness – for much of the time. How it manifests for me is that I have episodes of mood issues and psychosis, usually treated with hospital stays and changing medication. It takes a lot out of me and is utterly terrifying. I see psychosis as being like a waking nightmare. I am inhabiting a different universe to others and everything is dark and scary. Ghosts and beliefs I am dead and in purgatory are my constant companion. The worst thing about having a level of insight is that I know something is wrong but I can’t work out how to fix it. I feel myself looking down on myself and saying ‘stop this! Just stop this!’ But I can’t use my willpower to make the illness go away.

One of the worst things about schizophrenia is the stigma and attitudes of others. Even the kinder people seem to have prejudicial attitudes around the illness. Apparently I shouldn’t be doing any of the things I do because I have schizophrenia. I work in a professional role in government administration, I write books and give talks and I own property. Many people think that those with schizophrenia can’t do those kinds of things. We also aren’t ‘meant’ to be in relationships or have kids! The stigma and attitudes in this space often hold people back from achieving things they would like to achieve. Even I thought this. I moved to Canberra in 2007 to take up a public service role. I assumed I must be cured of my schizophrenia because – to my mind at the time – people with schizophrenia weren’t public servants! I didn’t see a psychiatrist in my new home in Canberra and instead saw a GP to prescribe my anti-psychotic medication. I continued to think I did not have schizophrenia up until 2010 when I became very unwell with psychosis and spent the next three years trying to manage severe illness.

I didn’t accept my schizophrenia in any real way until about 2021, having had the same diagnosis since 1995 and finally thinking maybe all those psychiatrists saying the same thing might be correct! It is not a diagnosis I have really embraced until very recently. Now I keep meeting other people with schizophrenia – including some autistic ones – and it is a libration. The illness is a huge challenge for me but being in touch with others with similar experiences is fantastic. 

And just a couple of concluding points… schizophrenia is NOT a ‘split personality’, psychosis does NOT mean violence and people with schizophrenia are in all areas of life, they just might not tell you about it due to fear of stigma. I am proud of myself for managing challenges and doing the best I can to change the world as much as I can in the mental health space as well as the autism / Neurodiversity one. While my schizophrenia poses a number of very difficult challenges, I have learned a lot through managing it and I feel like it has increased my empathy and emotional intelligence. I hope I remain free from psychosis for as long as I possibly can.  

R is for… remembering Major Tom 

CW: death of pets

Sadly this weekend I had to farewell a member of my household – the beautiful kitty Major Tom. I only had him for just over seven weeks but he made a big impression and was much loved. Major Tom was FIV positive (the cat version of AIDS) and had a range of other health issues. He was somewhere between 8 and 10 years old and was a stray when he was rescued – firstly by Canberra Street Cat Alliance and then by me. 

Why on earth would I have adopted a cat with so many issues? Well if you met him you would understand. He was a prince among felines and an absolute  gentleman. He was never aggressive with me or to my knowledge with anyone else. He loved affection and cuddles. I had such a lovely time smooching with him and giving him pats and love. 

A Yenn does better with a cat and Major Tom was a most excellent cat but he was very sick. When I adopted him he had an infection which was treated but he did not recover. Yesterday morning I took him to the vet for the last time. I had realised he was probably going to be saying goodbye so I gave him all the creamy treats I had in the cupboard as those were his favourite – and by that time were the only thing he would eat. I had a beautiful cuddle with him before he went to the vet which lasted for over half an hour and he just purred and purred. It was like he knew we were going to be parted and he wouldn’t see his favourite human again.

The vet was lovely.  When we said goodbye I was holding Major Tom and telling him how much I loved him. He just slipped quietly away. One minute I was holding my cat and the next he was gone. Even though I only knew him for seven weeks, I really miss him. Having such a sick cat did not do good things for my anxiety and mental health but I never regretted having him. I saved him from a scary life. While I only knew him briefly it was an absolute pleasure to be his human. I hope he is in a good place wherever he is now and I am glad he is at peace and no longer in pain. When I said goodbye to him I thanked him several times. And I am so grateful to have had him in my life, albeit briefly. 

I think I will be finding myself another cat in the relatively near future. The loss of major Tom is pretty raw still so I doubt I will be rushing out and getting another cat next week. However, I know that I do better with a cat. My friend that I had lunch with today said she saw how happy I was when I adopted Major Tom and she is right. A Yennski does better with a cat. Thank you Major Tom for being in my world and giving me joy and love. I am sorry to see you go. You will be missed. 

Q is for…. Quirky! Overcoming the (perceived) need for conformity 

Content warning: bullying 

There is a saying that the coolest adults were unpopular at school. I am not sure how ‘cool’ is defined but I do agree with the sentiment. I was certainly not in any way shape or form cool at school but I like to think I am pretty cool now!

Quirky is a positive quality in my mind. Being a bit left of centre, a little idiosyncratic is a good quality. Despite my current view it took me a long time to accept my own quirkiness. 

When I was at school I would have done anything I possibly could to have been accepted by the ‘cool’ kids. Instead they – and it seems most of the other kids too – took it upon themselves to bully me and make my life unpleasant. I tried as hard as I could to fit in. I changed my fashion sense to be a bit more like everyone else’s. I lost my English accept because nobody else had one. I even changed the spelling of my name, thinking that removing an ‘e’ would make me less of a target! I never achieved coolness at school.

My wish to fit in and be how I thought everyone else was followed me into early adulthood. I masked like nobody’s business and tried to be socially accepted. I was actually quite good at hiding my quirks. I was so good I believed my own performance! I was ashamed to be my true self.

Thankfully my life changed. I matured and built my self-esteem. I also wrote a book which changed my world. The book was all about my journey as an undiagnosed autistic person so I had put my autistic experience and my true self out into the world in book form. I started to feel proud of who I was – autistic, Queer, schizophrenic and everything else that I once would have hidden in shame because it was quirky or unusual.

I now love my quirky Yennski self. I am proud of my various differences and unique take on life. I know that I have as much right to exist and thrive as anyone else does. I would so much rather be quickly than ‘ordinary’ – whatever that is! Quirky is a good quality I think. So many Neurodivergent people – including me – are beautifully,  wonderfully, fantabulously quirky. Yay to that! Let us celebrate our quirks. 

P is for… passing privilege – What it is, why is is not necessarily a good thing and how it supports allyship

Some of you might wonder what the topic of this post means. Basically passing privilege is when you belong to a disadvantaged group but people cannot tell this from looking at you and assume you are from a privileged group.

For me I have a few passing privilege experiences – particularly in terms of invisible disability and my gender identity. The assumption I think is that passing privilege is something a person probably wants to have as it shields them from random bigotry and ableism from strangers. I have friends whose gender expression is more ambiguous than mine and who people are more likely to assume are transgender and I have friends who are wheelchair users. These friends are on the receiving end of nastiness, bigotry and paternalism and everything that comes with it. I do not have that experience – and I usually have  to come out to people for them to know I am Queer or Disabled.

When people me I always think they might think I am a lesbian woman but that is it. When I say I have written books on autism a lot of people think I am an academic, parent or professional. In terms of my gender expression, these days I get a lot of people assuming I am female. While these things might sound like a positive they really aren’t. Instead of facing direct transphobia and ableism when walking down the street, I face erasure. Every time someone says ‘ladies’ when referring to me I die a little inside. I really don’t cope with being constantly misgendered. When I was younger my gender expression was very much the expectation of a male. Bus drivers would call me ‘mate’ when greeted with my checked shirt and work boots and shaved head and I loved it. I am tempted to change my expression (clothes etc) to to being more masculine so I don’t get mistaken for a woman every single time! However, it is not me that needs to change.

So passing privilege enables me to not be attacked by strangers but it comes at the cost of my my various identities. Passing privilege has one very handy impact which is that is make me a pretty good ally if any of my my friends are being attacked by bigots. I think it would be nice if these considerations were unnecessary and people were respectful and understood that a person’s gender has nothing to do with their physical appearance. I shouldn’t have to change my style because people assume I am a girl. People need to understand that gender expression, gender identity and biological sex are different things. People need to understand that many disabilities are invisible and autistic people don’t have a big sticker on our heads sating ‘autistic’. Passing privilege shouldn’t be necessary as a ‘thing’ because we should all be able ourselves and express our identity in whatever way we like.   

Old? – on being 48, feeling 19 and why attacks on bing ‘woke’ are not really new

In am 48 years old. When I turned thirty I had lunch with my mum. I said to her ‘I might be thirty but I feel 19.’ My mum, who at the time was in her late fifties, said ‘yes. Me too.’ This was quite an eye opener for me as I considered my mum quite old. Now I am 48 – getting closer to my mum’s age at the time – and I certainly don’t feel old, and yes, I still sort of feel 19! 

Age is an odd thing. It is probably the only area of privilege / disadvantage where both ends of the spectrum can experience disadvantage. Young folks and old folks alike can face ageism. It is also something which is relative to where you are at a particular point in your life. I remember thinking thirty five was really old but now I think of thirty five as young! 

People around my age and older often find ourselves being nostalgic for earlier times. People can think that things were somehow better when we were younger. This is not new and has been going on forever. We can also get a bit judgey abbot younger people! I know I do and I absolutely hate it. I am always open to listen to new and different ideas and I really don’t like being ageist when I catch myself doing so. I think a lot of autistic people who are older can be more ‘young at heart’ and relate better to younger people

I actually quite like being older. People seem to listen to my opinion more and not dismiss me so much. I look considerably younger than I actually am which has fed into this. However, I am aware that as I get older still this will probably change. Assigned female at birth older people are often on the receiving end of being ignored due to their age. I guess I have that to look forward to!

As a transgender person I am grateful to be free of the transphobic prejudice which some older people have. Although this bigotry is not confined only to older people and older people can be inclusive and respectful around gender diversity – just look at my awesome parents who seem almost entirely free of bigotry and have oodles of love and respect for me! However, it does seem to often be younger people who are more respectful and understanding around gender.

And now it’s time for my age-related soapbox… When I was a young person there was criticism around ‘political correctness’. Political correctness was often seen as a bad thing. This was actually just a way to attack people from groups facing disadvantage and be racist, ableist, transphobic etc. We now has the terms ‘woke’ and ‘cancel culture’ which to my understanding are similar things to ‘political correctness’. Sadly some people do not seem to have moved on from when I was a young person and use these terms to attack people and to be bigoted. I fail to understand how it is a good thing to be disrespectful or bigoted and I fail to see how sticking up for folks and being a genuine ally is a bad thing.

I just want to sign off with saying I like who I am at 48. I don’t actually feel any age as a ‘number’ but I have done some good things in my life and I am working to leave a positive legacy, make a difference and generally rock the casbah and so forth :).