Moving On: The Light at the End of the Tunnel

In September, I made the most significant choice of my life so far – I began college. For my international readers, this is an alternative choice for the two years at school, where different courses are offered to the exam-based ones found at school. I’d found a course that I was so excited to begin, a BTEC Level 3 Extended Diploma in Applied Science (Forensics), with the Level 2 version as a back up if my GCSEs didn’t go to well. Fortunately, they did! I finished school with all As and Bs, which, considering I wasn’t in school much but put a lot of work in, isn’t too bad.

So, I was ready to begin. I’d had a support worker already in place – something that my diagnosis allowed me easy access to – and had toured around the college a few times, to get a feel of it. I remember on one of these tours, a tutor – who teaches me now – asked if I was looking forward to the course. I answered that I definitely was. She then asked if I was looking forward to making new friends. I paused for a moment, unsure, and simply replied “I’m not too sure that’ll happen”. She assured me it would, and I have to say she was right!

On the first day, I was scared but excited. I was away from school, and it was all I could have wanted, but I also didn’t want to be alone. By the break, however, I’d managed to make three friends, something that shocked me quite a bit. I’d felt alone throughout school, feeling like I was an outsider and, towards the end, the person who only seemed to receive comments of “Oh my god, you’re actually alive?” when I felt okay enough to attend lessons. But at college, everyone was new. Standing there in my Harry Potter top, being open about who I am – including having anxiety and being autistic – I made friends who were fine with it. It was the first time I’d gone into friendships knowing who I was and saying it from the start. It’s another one of the times that makes me so glad for my diagnosis.

I have friends who like the same things as me, at times are as ridiculous as me. Friends who are happy to go and get piercings with me. Friends who are comfortable with who I am, making me more comfortable with who I am.

Over two months after starting college, the change in me is quite incredible. I’m looking into university as a serious possibility at the end of my two year course, while also knowing my boundaries in that respect, and not looking at universities too far away from home. I’m considering learning to drive and looking at places I might be able to work in the future. I’m able to rationalise anxiety that’s normal and anxiety that’s not. I’m able to get myself out of bed and get myself ready for the day, without needing everything talked through. I’m the most independent I’ve ever been – I’m fine with leaving the house alone these days, while also taking my family up on the offer to go out with them when it’s there.

This isn’t to say I’m fine the whole time – there has been shutdowns, stress and difficulty with understanding the world around me. Those things aren’t ever going to change – I’m autistic, it’s who I am. I’m more able to deal with it, though, because the environment is different. As my mum – a teacher – always says ‘School is a place where square pegs are expected to fit in round holes’ and what we’ve noticed is that college is not that. There’s so much less fitting in, less ‘you must sit here now, still and quiet, but move in exactly one hour’ (even if that’s when you’ve just about got settled), less pressure to be who you’ve been for the last five years. It’s a fresh start and one that’s changed my life.

This, however, isn’t just an update about me. It’s my offer of guidance, in a way. I know quite a few people have read this blog and got in touch with my mum, realising the situation applies to their family members. I want to stress that there are options, ways to make things easier while school is still compulsory and there are people who’ve been through it all before (like myself!). For this reason, I want to remind people that you can comment on my posts or email me directly ( at proudlyautisticblogger@outlook.com) if any of this resonates with you. My experience with school and the difficulties it brought along were awful in some ways, but if I can take anything positive from it, and use it to help others, I’d be happy to.

I’m also looking to make some more ‘A Guide To:’ posts, but they require a lot of fact-checking and time, so they’re entirely dependant on my college workload. I’m hoping to write some shorter posts, like these and memory posts, while those are in the works. Thank you to everyone who’s been reading, commenting on and sharing this blog – it means a lot!

The Stigma of Medication

Anxiety, with my name in the same sentence, has been a word I’ve heard for a few years now. However, last year, autistic burnout pushed my anxiety to the limit. I became increasingly socially anxious and hit the point where I was scared to leave the house, let alone attend school. I’d tried therapy in the form of CBT and it just made things worse for me. I was eventually referred to a psychiatrist because I was only sleeping a few hours a night. The appointment rolled around and I was given a prescription for melatonin, the natural sleep hormone, to regulate my sleeping habits. At the end of the appointment, something unexpected happened – I was given some information about an antidepressant drug to help my anxiety and, the knock-on impact of it, low mood. I was told to seriously consider it as an option that could improve my life.

I remember walking outside of the appointment, feeling angry. I didn’t need medication to mess with my brain. I didn’t need sorting out. I was fine. My mum and I argued a little. I wasn’t expecting it at all – I went for sleeping medication, nothing to do with my mood.

I was on a beta blocker, at the time, for physical anxiety symptoms, but my psychiatrist told me that they don’t normally prescribe them as they don’t do much in the long run. I was so annoyed that someone could say it wouldn’t do much, when it had already helped me so far. The idea of physically calming me was so far from the idea of something changing my brain.

The drug selected for me was sertraline. It’s an SSRI – a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. Serotonin is often known as the ‘happy hormone’, thought to be responsible for good moods and positive emotions. An SSRI stops the nerves reabsorbing it, to allow more of it to reach more cells without being absorbed. At the time, I didn’t really understand this and just thought the medication would mess with my brain, not necessarily in a good way.

Time helped me come around to the idea, along with the thought of a school trip weeks away. The school trip would mean I’d be away for 5 days, in another country, taking vast amounts of beta blockers to remain vaguely calm. It was at that point I realised something needed to change. I couldn’t be taking medication that would only calm my heart rate for the rest of my life when the issue – that caused all these physical symptoms – was anxiety. I knew those would be days I couldn’t hide away – something that I thought was fine. I hadn’t realised that I only took one beta blocker a day because I was only going out for a few hours. Sometimes, when you’re at rock bottom, you need a change of perspective to realise how unhealthy things are.  Thus, within a few days, I was taking sertraline.

Around a week later, I woke with uncontrollable shakes in my hands, I couldn’t stop them. I realised not long after that it would have been a side effect. At that point, the medication didn’t have an effect so it seemed so pointless, but as time wore on, I slowly improved. I went on the school trip and was okay. It was such a gradual change but slowly I was noticing I was okay. Every single thing I did wasn’t questioned by the anxiety telling me I couldn’t do it because it would go wrong. I could talk to people again, with some nervousness, but I wasn’t avoiding it completely. I began laugh again, something I hadn’t even noticed was missing. I’d get out of bed. I’d leave the house. I’d be part of my family again, not just someone who stayed in their room all day because that’s what felt safest.

There were times when I wasn’t doing so well again, though. Times where I began to slip into my old habits. This time, however, I had a solution, and my dosage was upped. I’ve been on sertraline over a year now and on the same dosage for quite a while. I’ve got my life back, really.

It took me a while, but I realised something not too long after starting to take medication – it doesn’t matter! I need medication to increase my serotonin levels in the exact same way I take iron tablets to increase my iron levels. It’s simple a measure to allow me to function in a way that other people can do without medication. Mental health care, and it’s the same with physical health, is not a one-solution-for-all.  Everyone is different so their bodies are different and will respond to different measures differently.

And then I realised loads of people take similar medication. So many people of all ages take SSRIs and other similar medications to help their mental health. For some reason, caring for yourself by taking painkillers when you’ve falling over is seen as good while when you metaphorically fall down, and your mental health isn’t great, similar self care is seen bad.

Medication for mental health issues is so stigmatised. In most of the media, therapy is the answer. Within a few sessions, everything is sorted and there’s no looking back. It made me feel almost alien – I needed medication and other people didn’t. Therapy worked for others and it didn’t for me. Antidepressants are always made out to be a big deal. You never see anything casual about it. There’s not a TV show where a character suddenly goes “Oops, I forgot to take my medication, I’ll take it now”. It’s always an issue and not normalised in the slightest. Where are the people saying “I need medication to help me, so what?!”

Sometimes we’re given an alternative and it’s someone saying “I don’t need medication, I’m better than that”, which is really harmful. It brings a level of elitism to mental health discussions, the idea that if you don’t need medication, you’re better than others. Again, different things work for different people and you’re not better than someone for finding something that works for you.

My point here is that despite the stigma and the initial feelings I had (probably caused by said stigma) I take medication for mental health issues and that’s fine. In fact, it’s brilliant, because it allows me to live again, something that seemed impossible.