How has social action changed my life? | social action | #iwillWeek

This week is #iwillWeek, a week celebrating youth social action coordinated by the #iwill Campaign for which I am a 2019 Ambassador. You can read more about the campaign here and read my case study profile here. In a similar post to this one, I wrote specifically about being a Scout and this week I also had a post published on the #iwill site about inclusive social action.

Today for #iwillWeek the theme is evaluating impact, and with that no only comes looking at data, but stories as well. Some of us who are part of the most vulnerable groups of young people have found our home and life and passions within social action, and it’s so important that this is recognised.

I talk about parts of my story quite often, but in case you don’t know much about me – I was ten years old when I lost my best friend and began to find out that something was wrong with my body, and I was spending a lot of time in therapy and waiting rooms. It wasn’t really until I was in Year 9 that things really started to turn for me though, with me beginning to have panic attacks and starting my time in CAMHS. In Year 10 I went into a mental health unit for 4 months and in the same year, I became significantly more chronically ill and began to identify with the label “disabled”, as well as being diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

There wasn’t really a proper start to my social action virtually – I’ve been tweeting about politics, mental health and LGBTQ+ issues since I was about thirteen, and blogged on and off about the topics too. It not only helped me with my identities, but let me support others and understand them. I love online activism because it gives me a purpose, especially in times when I can’t move from my room due to the pain I’m in.

My favourite part of my social action, though, is volunteering – and that’s what really changed my life and continues to do so. I began working with the Cub Scouts a month after I came out of the inpatient unit when I was still finding my feet again, and I fell in love with it immediately. The kids we work with are so intelligent and have so much to offer the world, and it’s so brilliant to watch them grow. Running badges that mean a lot to me or are similar to my own hobbies, like Disability Awareness, Chef and Scientist badges is always fulfilling, and I love running nights like ones for UK Parliament Week as well. More than anything, I love giving back to a community that has offered me the world over the last nine years and got me through so much.

During my time at Sixth Form I also worked with a GCSE Science class each week, and although it was such a different age group to work with (sixteen year olds are just slightly different to eight year olds), I loved it just as much – it provided challenges and definitely meant I built up my resilience, but there were also the lessons where something clicked or they worked well.

Lastly, my most recent time volunteering was with a little organisation local to home called the Square Peg Foundation who run stay and plays along with other events for disabled children and their parents. I helped at the stay and plays twice a week during the summer and I’m going to be helping at one of their Christmas events. It was such good fun to sit and play with cars or lego or helping with painting, but more than that I got to know the kids and their parents and I like to think that I might have had a little impact on some of their lives.

In the future, I want to take even bigger steps in my social action – I want to work with schools or other groups, talking about my experiences with mental illness, disability and LGBTQ+ issues, as well as my social action. I gave a talk to the staff at my secondary school about my ASD and it was one of the best things I did during my time there, and I’d love to work with more teachers or other adults who work with young people about it.

My social action is such a huge part of my life and I can’t imagine it not being so. I’ve gained friends, skills, and a life beyond my illnesses or my academics; I’ve got more confidence than that Year 9 ever imagined she would. I’d recommend it to anyone, no matter the organisation or charity, or whether it’s in person or online.

On leaving school, change and recovery | mental health

Change has never sat well with me. I dislike uncertainty, I hate my life being in other people’s hands; even if it’s in my own, I hate the choices and the need to put trust in myself, something I’ve never quite had.

I always knew I was going to be somewhat emotional about leaving my school, with so many of my teachers having been such a solid support system, some for three or four years – but I wasn’t ready for how much reflection it would cause on how much has changed in the last few years for me. I didn’t realise how much it would truly, honestly hurt – a cause for celebration, but also of confusion and sadness; beginning a new period of having to be truly honest with myself.

It’s caused flashbacks of my time in the unit, and at my first secondary school where my mental health deteriorated so significantly; a whirlwind of shouting and alarms, being left alone in medical rooms at my worst and being told I was faking it. It’s hard to cope with when such negative memories pop up almost insidiously at random. I remember parts of those times in such a vivid way that it’s made me stop a little bit dead in my tracks, at the strangest of times.

Simultaneously, I look at more recent times. I remember my GCSE results day surrounded by some of my favourite people; the after-school sessions where I would finally grasp a concept. I can look over the memories from this year, of the support when I came back from my pain programme, the meetings with the two teachers who I worked on my EPQ with – me being slightly (very) forceful with my debates and them playing devil’s advocate, slightly teasingly so. I am not the girl who cowered away with one small poke anymore.

It’s interesting to see what change does my state of mind even if I’m at the strongest I’ve been in the longest time. I wonder if it is out of sadness, or vulnerability, or a weird bittersweet nostalgia. Maybe it is more about how much support the school I have just left gave me in comparison, and less about the nastier set of memories which are popping up. Maybe it is the people I have left behind, or I will leave behind in September. Whichever way, it hurts.

I’m letting myself take some time, I’m allowing myself to feel this way, even if it might not be quite right. I’m letting myself bask slightly in pride, something I have never, ever let myself do.

I’ve gone from the girl who started having panic attacks and had them at one point twice daily, to the one who had to spend time in an inpatient unit, to now having only had one panic attack in 6 months and having been out of therapy for 2 years in August. There were weeks at a time where I told my sixth form team I was going to drop out every single day, but now I’ve finished. I did it. Regardless of the piece of paper I pick up in a month, I did it.

I’ve told myself this is an overdramatic reaction, because in the grand scheme of my life this is nothing. But regardless of if it doesn’t matter to me when I hit 70, at the moment it’s been a huge percentage of my life – especially when I have had so much happen to me in the last 5 years. I saw someone I haven’t seen since I was 13 a few days ago, and when they said “well, fill me in then!”, I realised just how much has happened, how long these few years have felt.

And in that, it makes me laugh because apart from my family, barely anyone who was in my life back when I started to have be that girl I said before – the girl who had her first panic attack in her form room and thought that’d be the end of it – is still in it now. I doubt those people would even recognise me. I think I’m glad of that.

So maybe I am being melodramatic. I’m sure I am, and I’m sure at some point I’ll be annoyed at myself for writing such a over the top blog post that’s less factual or cynical than I was aiming for this newer blog. But for now, I’m letting myself have this one. I think fifteen year old Charli deserves it.