Disability and Art

To me, disability and art goes hand in hand. When I struggled to communicate what I needed or wanted as a young child, I would draw pictures of it and then show my mum. When I felt isolated or misunderstood at school, I would walk around the playground, daydreaming about the different artworks and stories I could create. I had trouble understanding faces and emotions, so I drew them over and over to understand them better. I would go to the library and draw with my peers as a way of relating to them in ways I couldn’t with speech. I use my voice through art and I always have, because for me, art is about communication, from vague to complex ideas, for others and for myself.

Art has taught me things that I used to find hard to grasp and it bridged that gap between myself and others. My autism has informed my art in ways that I hope other neuro-divergent people would also understand. I used to be ashamed of my condition and how I believed it limited me, but now I’m proud of the unique insight of the world, its living inhabitants and complex topics that it has given me. Art has helped me to tackle the problems and trauma in my life that I hope makes others feel understood and validated too.

About a year and a half ago I went through my first psychosis episode that hospitalised me for nearly two months. A while later I was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder which is a combination of schizophrenia and a mood disorder. It completely changed my life and this new disability has brought so many new trials. But art, like always, has helped me. During those days in the psychiatric ward, I would spend my time painting and therefore processing my reality and emotions. At that time I found it hard to communicate what was happening for me, even to myself, so I would dump my thoughts, hallucinations, fears, questions and feelings onto a canvas. Just like when I was a kid, art helped me connect to others and myself in ways I couldn’t without it.

Art has the power to let us process emotions and become more brave with each stroke, which can be difficult to accomplish with those unable to voice their truth in other ways. Everyone who picks up a paint brush or a pencil or anything else to make a mark is a leader. It means having the courage to convey your being to others, communicating feelings and thoughts that can change the world and the way people think and act. People with disabilities often are incredibly insightful and wise and so their art is vital in our society that goes against emotional intelligence. We are needed.

Trauma Unpacked

“I’m bad!” “I’m worthless.” “I’m a waste of space.” Do these thoughts sound familiar to you?

I’ve been having two kinds of intrusive thoughts recently, and the first ones are like what’s written above – thoughts that we latch onto so tight, despite seemingly having little to back it up with. Sometimes we have a lot of reasons though, which are either delusional or correct, but the point is that the thoughts are intrusive.
I’ve also been experiencing a different kind of intrusive thought; memory stabs – a new name that I like to call them. To me it is like a flashback, but instead of a whole scene, perhaps you see a recognisable snapshot. Or one word or sound triggers a whole event in your mind, or a feeling of pain, disgust or fear you’ve felt in the past suddenly overcomes you in the present. Whatever it is, they all usually feel like a sharp shock, which is why I call them a memory stab. At least that is what it is like for me, but I’m certain that the equivalent is different for many.

Most of everything I experienced in 2016 I considered one whole lump of bad squished together, like something that can’t go down my throat, which I usually categorised as ‘Japan.’ That is unfair of me since the country itself isn’t to blame. That’s like travelling to New Zealand, getting mugged and then saying that the whole country is bad because of it. Every country and culture has something terrible, toxic or backwards about it, some more than others, and that’s okay. It’s good, in fact. Humanity is the world’s worst relationship. If we accept that we, no matter who we are and what country we come from or live in, are free to live, then we must also accept that everything that is a product of us are free to live as well.

In a black-and-white perspective, humanity harms the earth and the life it holds and therefore we are bad and should not exist. That is an acceptable perspective, perhaps the most noble one. An optimistic perspective is that humans are needed to keep on living, because we matter – we live and so our love, art and beauty lives on too. This is true too. Pessimistically, none of this matters, we shouldn’t care because everything dies anyway. Another acceptable perspective. And finally, in a “grey” perspective; this all is true, but our flaws or negative traits do not make us less worthy and the good can only exist if there is also bad. Therefore, yes, we are destroying the world by living on it and being its worst relationship, humanity is an incredible source of love and beauty that we should treasure, everything dies so we don’t need to take everything so seriously, and it’s okay to be flawed and to have “bad” traits, because that’s the nature of all life. Should we exist or not exist because of all of that?

No matter who we are and what country we come from or live in, we were born and therefore continuing our legacy of goodness, shittiness, a mix or both, neither one and everything else that perhaps I’ve forgotten to mention. The differences between countries, cultures, groups and individuals are necessary, because nothing is categorically “bad,” or “good.” Our morals, codes and values are personal and are not universal. To create one true mindset that is “The Right One,” is to create an impossible God. Everything is flawed, including the country I am talking about, Japan, but the same experiences could happen in many other different countries. I just wanted to make that clear.

Almost every night for the last couple of weeks I’ve been having nightmares about being trapped in Japan and being unable to leave, and about an ex I had, either hurting me in the past or in new ways in my dream. I’ve been having these kind of nightmares for years now, but for some reason I’ve been having them almost every night recently. Like I said before, it is unfair of me to name the trauma I experienced as “Japan.” The reason why I use that word is because I do not want to think about the specific situations I experienced in that time of my life.

In 2016 I stayed in Japan as an exchange student for 9 months and I must admit that even though I am talking about the bad experiences I had, there were also lots of beautiful times and kind people I met during that exchange too. I am grateful for those good memories and I’ll treasure them forever.
I believe that the trauma from the whole experience was from a lot of different things, bunched together as if it was one. It was the harmful experiences I had, some of the toxic people I met, the loneliness I felt in a room filled with people, being in a culture that looks down on emotional expression, my limitations not being respected or cared for by me, my situation back home and my mental health at the time, which all tainted the whole experience.

I find it really hard to think about the details of each situation that hurt me. It feels like I’m reliving it if I try. I’m working on that. When I first came back from Japan in 2017, the year that everything changed for me, I had a lot to process. I did not want to admit to anyone that my exchange was traumatic to me, not even to myself. People asked me about it, not caring and not having the time for a truthful answer, and so I hid behind, “It was a great experience!” Which is true about some parts of my exchange. I travelled to see beautiful places, I met some wonderful people, I experienced new and exciting things and the food was fucking fantastic. I don’t want to seem ungrateful, because I truly am lucky to have those memories.

The problem is that it was too much. I have autism and I have limitations, but I did not respect that. I told myself that the only thing that mattered was that I get through the whole exchange, to prove to others and most importantly to myself that I am just as capable as anyone else. I wanted to prove that I was good enough, strong enough and normal enough. I was ashamed of being autistic, and I treated it like it was a dirty secret for my whole life. It made me feel like I was bad or dumb or like there was something terribly wrong with me.

It still feels weird accepting that my autism affects some of the things I can or cannot do, without feeling ashamed because of that. It’s okay if I need time and space to recover after situations that take energy, that I struggle socially and that my limitations of what I am able to do without falling apart is different than others. That doesn’t make me weak or bad. But in 2016 I felt like it did. It certainly didn’t help that I didn’t take my medication at the time. I’m not sure why I didn’t. Perhaps I was being unconsciously self-destructive.

Back to the memory stabs. I think that the reason why I keep getting sudden snapshots in my mind about 2016 is because my brain is trying to tell me that I need to finally start unpacking my experience in Japan. I am definitely not a detail-orientated person. I’m good at looking at the overall big picture, but when situations come that require me to look at the details, I feel not in control. It doesn’t help that I have big chunks of memory loss about 2016, which I heard could be a result of having mental health issues. And it also doesn’t help that as soon as I try to remember things my mind instantly wants to reject it and run away. It’s hard work processing memories.

I’ve had a few therapists in my life, but for most of them, I only talked about the now, such as what happened last week. I never really delved into specifics about things in my past. I really am in need of a therapist as of now, but I have a fear that being unable to articulate and communicate what exactly happened in Japan will make me feel invalidated. My mind says they won’t understand, they can’t help and that they will secretly judge me. After being hospitalised three times since 2017, (for nearly 3 months overall) I am tired of feeling like I need to prove myself. It’s like I am fighting for my life to just be validated. I have all these fears, but still I want to try to get help. I want to heal.

I hope that people in a similar boat as me will feel understood by reading this. I feel sad, because there was so much I loved about Japan and how beautiful it is and I want that back. I want to be in control of my hurt, to be able to live fully despite the harm. I hope that for you too. Facing the details of your trauma is incredibly hard, but whatever you are experiencing, big or small, you are always growing, even when your branches are cut short.

Testing Limits

I have known that I have needed to write about at least a slither of my experience in 2016 even while I was living through it. I could write a book on just that year alone, but as I struggle to even think about some of those memories, let alone speak or write about them, I know that I need to start at the first step, which for me is just writing something – to try to capture a moment, no matter how fleeting.

So many people have asked me the question, “How was it?” whenever I mentioned the fact that I spent three seasons in another country. I know that these people mean well, but I also know that they are looking for the “correct” response, which is the one I always give. “It was such a great experience! I really have learnt so much from it.” This statement is true, it was a good experience, at least partly and I certainly learnt and have grown from every moment I spent on Japan’s soil. I still fully stand by my belief that if you have the opportunity to go on exchange, please do it! It is honestly an experience that is quite unique and is something that could not be replaced by any other. I saw so many beautiful places, met so many wonderful and nurturing people and I have so many exciting memories. My exchange involved a lot of beauty, fun, excitement and happiness, so why is that every time that the topic of my exchange in Japan is brought up that I get a huge lump in my throat and I begin to tear up?

Recently I was cleaning out my desk and I came across an old notebook, hardly touched, that had several pages that 14 or 15 year old me wrote in. If the words were summarised it would be,

Living in Japan will be so challenging, so difficult and incredibly hard. But I will get through it, I have to, because I need to prove to myself that I can.

When I was 4, I believe, I was diagnosed with high-functioning autism, or Aspergers, depending on the year and what the doctor was most comfortable with, and ADHD. There are so many stories I could tell about my beginning years, how I was a horrible, tantrum-throwing brat and about my struggle with words, speaking, reading, writing and mostly understanding humans and what was socially appropriate. That will be another blog post, because I have a lot to say on the matter. However, when I was a bit older, I became so grossly ashamed of how hard I made it for my parents who raised me and also I became grossly ashamed of who I was as a person.

I believe when I was around 8 or 9, I made a promise with myself that I would be well-mannered, polite and most importantly, that I would try my best to be what I considered, “normal,” aka: neurotypical. I did not want anything more in the world than to be able to do what I thought everybody else could. I did not want my condition to define me, but by striving so hard to be “normal,” I completely rejected who I truly was and I simply did not accept any weaknesses from myself. I worked so hard on understanding what all the different facial expressions and body language meant, what was considered socially appropriate, to always think hard before I opened my mouth and essentially, how to act “appropriately.” I transformed from Satan’s loud and angry spawn to a quiet, polite, but constantly self-judging child. I worked hard on my studies, thinking I would dazzle everyone and become a doctor or lawyer, as I used to be a child who almost did not make mainstreaming education. I wanted to be perfect and I allowed no mistakes. But the most reoccurring thought in my mind was, “There must be nothing that I can’t do. And if there is, I will do it anyway. I will never let my condition stop me or tell me that I can’t.”

I have a lot to thank myself for, due to having that mindset. If I didn’t work as hard as I did basically “studying human behaviour,” and improving my reading, writing and speaking, then just maybe I would not have the capabilities that I do today. But this adamant goal I had to “pass,” was actually incredibly toxic and harmful for my self-esteem and acceptance of who I truly am. If I wasn’t perfect, I punished myself and made myself do it anyway. This mindset followed me way into my adolescent years and it was a reason, if not the main one, why I needed to go on exchange in Japan, that I had no choice but to. I needed to prove to myself that I could do something that involved going against almost every single one of my limitations and what I considered, “flaws.”

So when I got the response back from my application for an exchange in Japan, I was crushed and offended by the word, “No.” Their reasoning was that because I had autism, that an exchange would be impossible for someone like me – I would not be able to cope. This reinforced the insecurities I had about my capabilities and made my blood boil.

“They are judging me based on some meaningless words on paper! If they met me, they would know that I am more than capable and hardworking enough to be able to do this!” I would angrily tell anybody who would listen.

I still believe that an organisation should not judge someone’s applicability based on their condition, but even so, I have often asked myself, “Was this one decision the catalyst? Would my depression have gotten as bad as it did if I never went to Japan?” I admit that a lot of things that contributed to my mental health was because of my experience as an exchange student and I made certain decisions that had terrible consequences because of it, but I also am aware that my mental health became a problem years before I even considered going on an exchange. The jury is still out on this.

After they declined my application, my parents and I worked hard on changing their mind. And it worked! The organisation had several meetings and one day I got the response I was looking for – that I were to pack my bags because I was to arrive in Japan very soon. I was leaving one month after than originally planned, therefore cutting my 10 month exchange to 9, but I was so incredibly excited – the thing I worked so bloody hard to be able to do, was now a reality!

It is so interesting to reflect on this experience and through writing these words, I now understand that I must continue. Those 9 months in Japan was a rollercoaster like no other. The lessons that I learnt from it that I hold the dearest to my heart, are that I could no longer hide from who I am, that my condition is not something I should be ashamed of and most importantly, that it is okay to have limitations. Through it I learnt to shed myself from having to be “perfect,” or “normal.” I learnt so many things about myself and how that even though I am very capable, acknowledging my weaknesses does not make me weak. The only reason that I lasted the entire exchange was because I was running from the reality of these limitations that I had. Yes, I am now able to be proud of myself to have achieved something that was honestly really difficult for someone like me, but there was a lot that could have been avoided if I just allowed myself to be human.

Not only is it okay to make mistakes and to be gentle with your limitations, but it is also crucial for building character and to achieve true wonders…

The wonders of being human and therefore flawed.

This is part one of, ‘Testing Limits,’ as I want to explore with further blog entries my experience of the lows and highs of living in Japan and how I came to this lesson of teaching myself self-acceptance. Thank you for reading, (you are wonderful!) and allowing myself to explore a topic that I have struggled with talking about truthfully until now. Love and light and please always choose compassion.

Proud to be neurodivergent!