Hannah’s story: Creativity helped me find my voice

TMC Youth Board member, Hannah, talks about her own lived experience of neurodiversity and mental health, how creativity saved her life, and all about her desire (and what she’s doing!) to make real social change for young people “in the shadows”.

Creativity quite honestly saved my life. As much as that is such a cringey and cliché thing to say, the power of creativity is one we too often underestimate. Creativity is so much more than just art and drawing; it takes many forms including dance, music and spoken word. It gives us the autonomy to investigate alternative methods of problem solving, communicating and expression. For me, it is the way my brain is wired, a way of expressing the thoughts I cannot utter and my form of escapism to a place that just makes sense. Within creativity there are no rules or set answers but the freedom to be whoever I want to be.

My journey through life, so far, has been one of many trials and tribulations. In some ways I found my calling in creativity later on, but it has been the tool I have used to discover the real me, navigate my challenges and now my weapon of choice in the battle for social change and justice.

My path to this point in my life has been a difficult one, but one that drives my want to use creativity to empower social change. I grew up undiagnosed neurodivergent; I am autistic with a Pathological Demand Avoidance profile (PDA) and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). This meant the mainstream system didn’t work for me, however being female, no one picked up on the struggles I worked so perfectly to hide. I also suffered abuse in my childhood and had a number of other traumatic events. My brain did not learn or work in the same way as my peers, I couldn’t really make friends and the very few I bumbled alongside never lasted very long.

At 9 years old I developed an eating disorder and began having suicidal thoughts. For me the world was a confusing and scary place. I struggled to fit in and understand the world – I felt I was not given the handbook everyone else had to society and the rules to exist. I thought I was broken, damaged and fundamentally not good enough. I had been anxious my whole life and just after my GCSE exams it all crumbled around me. My mental health deteriorated, the years of masking and trauma had led to burnout and a full breakdown. I was suicidal. I was done. I felt I had nothing left to give this world.

I then spent the next 4/5 years in and out of hospitals. I ended up in PICU (Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit) on constant observations (when someone has to be with you at all times) due to the level of distress I was in. I was a revolving door patient, labelled difficult and too complex. I was told there was no hope and I would never change.

It wasn’t until 2020, at 19 years old, that I was told I was autistic. The world of neurodivergence was opened and an explanation that I wasn’t a strange broken horse but a normal zebra (a section from one of my favourite quotes about labels). Of course, this wasn’t an overnight transformation, but slowly over the next few years I educated myself, I learnt about autism, neurodivergence and I went on a journey of self-discovery. I did this through different forms of creativity. I began to use this as a way to express myself, a way to get lost, away from the noises of my own head. I used it to understand and investigate what neurodivergence meant to me. It allowed me to work through my own internalised ableism, my fear of being different and to cope with the constant discrimination and poor treatment by others.

Unfortunately, during my time in hospitals, I suffered significant abuse which led to even more complex trauma and deep issues with trust. During my hospital stays I was subjected to neglect, abuse and mistreatment – this, combined with my childhood trauma, has resulted in C-PTSD (Complex-Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). I was made to feel so broken, like a problem and a burden. I was repeatedly told I would never succeed. I had such a narrow idea of what success was from society and our school system. I believed success was this linear model. I forced myself to start four A levels in biology, chemistry, maths and psychology with the idea of doing medicine (to clarify there is nothing wrong with this, for some this is their success but success will look different for everyone!), something I never even finished the first year of. As the years went on, as I watched my peers continue to squeeze through the sausage factory which is our education system, learning to embrace the new freedoms of adult life, I looked on locked behind the doors of a psychiatric hospital and locked within the demons in my mind. Believing there was no way out or hope of a future.

Artwork from Hannah’s bullet journal (above).

In the end I had a choice: the way I was going was only going to end up one way. I was scared, but I quite literally had nothing to lose. For so long I felt unsure of my purpose, of what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t know who I was. I had spent so long hiding and masking I truly had no idea about the real me.

This journey of self-discovery took many years. It started in 2020 and it still continues to this day. In truth, the largest part of this work occurred to me only last month. I discovered that I have two massive passions in life: two things which drive everything I do. One being a love of performing and expressing myself creatively – this is something that massively helped in my journey to discovering who I am. And the other, which is the drive that gets me up each day: social change.

Throughout the next few years, I joined many charities in various lived experience/youth voice roles. I also created my own blog, which I hoping to utilise more this year – my desire for change and for creating a world that was more bearable for people like me. I have been lucky to work with Mind in a variety of capacities, including as a Youth Consultant, Young Minds as a blogger , The National Autistic Society as a Young Ambassador, The Mix, Beat and The PDA Society to name a few. I am also a public advisor with the NHS.

Through all these charities, I have had so many different opportunities to contribute to social change. I have done presentations, public speaking, pitches, training, videos, been on youth boards, a young ambassador, written letters and rallied for change. This ultimately led me to The Mighty Creatives and being on the Youth Board. Another charity I am currently working closely with alongside The Mighty Creatives is EDA (Emotion Dysregulation in Autism). They are a mental health charity for autistic young people and are doing amazing work in supporting young people who have been in inpatient services, alongside training different professionals to be able to support autistic young people better. I most recently got to share my lived experience at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, as well as be part of some of the training EDA delivered. These two charities in particular have helped me get my voice heard, make change and have supported my confidence and self-esteem so much.

Hannah’s digital artwork about PDA.

I had found my solace. A place I could escape, a place I could be me, no judgement, rules or expectation. I found tranquility when lost in art whether that be singing, music, drawing, dancing or acting. In these moments I am finally free from the world and able to express myself in the way I find best. Bullet journaling has quite literally become my therapy and I could honestly spend hours creating, painting and drawing.

It wasn’t, however, all plain sailing. As with most things in life, there is no happily ever after. As I found my passion for creativity and started to reach out to share my love with others, the true scale of social change required in all aspects of life became even more apparent. For me I felt that once I knew who I was and what I am – labels and all – then others would understand my difficulties, accept and accommodate me. How wrong I was.

Another piece of artwork from Hannah’s bullet journal.

‘I don’t want to be included – I want true inclusion’ was the blog I published after the first amateur dramatic group I attended told me I was ‘too autistic’ to be an actor and that maybe I needed to go to a group for those with specialist needs. This was just one of the many stories I have in relation to ableism, discrimination and other things along this line. My potential to add value to a situation rejected because my inclusion left others feeling puzzled and uncomfortable.

It continues to baffle me how, in this day and age, people still discriminate against things just because they don’t understand. I believe discrimination comes from fear and that fear comes from a place of ignorance and lack of education. However, we cannot just sit back and accept this. It’s this damaging narrative which plays into the idea that different equals less. It was at this point that I realized that, however uncomfortable it maybe, I need to fight for change within our society. That, in truth, we do not all start on an equal footing; that there are young people, who through no fault of their own, are in the shadows of our society. Disproportionately disadvantaged in a system which just seems to further widen the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. It is this that drives everything I do.

I joined the Youth Board here at The Mighty Creatives to be a part of this. To be a part of the movement. To be a voice with young people. To turn the light on those of us in the shadows and to use the power of creativity to make impactful change. It’s not easy, there are plenty of knockbacks, but that is why resilience is key. I have had to be resilient my whole life and when fighting for change resilience is everything. Speaking up and being the voice for change is vulnerable and opens you to pain and suffering. But it also is so empowering and when you make even a small change, it is all worth it.

For me this is just the beginning, I have been with TMC for less than half a year and already have felt welcomed, valued and listened to. I cannot wait for what the future holds, not just in terms of my work alongside the charity but my future – something I never thought I’d say or even see. To anyone reading this feeling lost and in the dark, there is light and there is hope. Hold on.

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