Modern lighting is rubbish.

Nothing makes me a more committed proponent of the Social Model of Disability than modern lighting.

I am far more disabled, as an autistic person, than I once was. I’m far less tolerant of sensory triggers than I once was. Noise and bright lights are the things that get me more than anything, and more than they ever used to.

And yes, some of this is down to tiredness, lack of downtime or time and space to myself, and the fact that I have a lot more going on in my life than I did in my childhood, teens and 20s. But the truth is, I’m also better able to cope with a shit-tonne more stuff these days than I was able to in my childhood, teens and 20s. I’ve learned strategies. Approaches. Methods. I exercise. I eat healthily (most of the time). I do activities that nourish and fulfil me. I share and unburden myself in a variety of ways. I manage.

And yet, here I am, far less able to deal with noise and bright lights the ever before.

It can’t just be me, can it?

And no. It isn’t.

Modern lighting is rubbish.

Social media discussions abound with autistics agreeing on how the menace of twenty-first century lighting affects their lives. Some folks no longer drive at night. Some, like me, have never driven, but find ourselves in the absurd position of having to wear sunglasses more often at night than we do in the daytime.

I’ve talked several times on this blog about my need to get out of the house for a walk – sometimes quite late at night. And there always used to be something soothing about the way older streetlamps bathed the path, the entire view in front of me, in a warm orange glow. Although I love nature, and the colour green, I use an awful lot of orange in my art. It’s a colour I’m drawn to. Perhaps it’s to do with melatonin, and needing to find ways to wind down and draw myself closer towards a place of restfulness. After all, apps abound that allow us to adjust our mobile phone screen settings to warmer, redder tones at night-time to aid sleep. Plus, everything being bathed in an orange glow means the overall contrast is reduced. The view in front of me is less jolting, stern, and abrupt.

But nowadays, my soothing night-time walks are increasingly ruined by modern lighting. All over my city, the outdated orange lamps have been replaced by new generation LED street lighting, in gleaming, glaring cold-white.

And I know. It’s more energy-efficient. The fact its beams are more “directional” means there’s less light pollution (although I’m not sure how much the local wildlife appreciates something akin to daylight beaming down on nests, burrows and other habitats). The fact it’s closer to daylight means it’s easier to catch assailants on CCTV.

But it’s ruining night-time for me. Truly and utterly. And not just night-time.

There is an ever-increasing prevalence of this particularly cold, stark white “daylight-spectrum” lighting not only along the pavements I walk, but everywhere. Car headlights. Bicycle lamps. The ceiling panels of shops, classrooms, meeting rooms and buildings where public health services are provided. Nowhere can I escape from its obnoxious, searing glare.

I recently had to cease giving blood, something I’ve always been proud and happy to do. I am truly gutted that I can no longer do so, but the truth is, the environment of my local donor centre is no longer accessible to me, since it was refurbished with bright panel lighting. After my last donation, I was in bed with a two-day migraine from the overwhelm of the situation. The centre already had televisions to keep the plasma donors entertained, and a radio blaring to mask confidential conversations. That was already a lot to cope with, on top of the mild discomfort of the donation process itself, and the unnecessary chitchat from centre staff well-meaningly aimed at calming and reassuring donors, but no good for an autistic donor like me. They installed the new lighting to allow greater visibility to the staff setting up the blood collections. Fair enough.

It just means I can’t do it any more. It sends my anxiety levels through the roof. Were I not employed full time and the parent of young children, I might have sufficient downtime to recover from the sensory demands and overwhelm of donating. But that isn’t the case.

Neurotypical friends have queried my sensitivity to LED lighting in particular. They’ve argued that – if installed properly – it shouldn’t flicker (the issue many people perceive to be my problem, here). They can’t see why it’s such a problem.

But no. Whilst flickering is a huge problem for me, for the most part because anything that moves quickly, repeats, or rapidly changes is very distracting, that’s not what I’m talking about.

Beyond the fact that modern lighting is brighter, and if it’s LED lighting I can see All The Dotty Patterns Of Every Single LED, and that if the methods of diffusion/power supply/wiring/whatever are crap or cheap (or both) then it doesn’t work properly.

Beyond the fact that the contrast between it and the surrounding darkness is so stark that it’s an additional source of overstimulation (bear in mind, here, that I’m someone who even wears sunglasses on overcast days to avoid having to scrunch my eyes up whenever I’m outdoors). Beyond the fact that the latest car headlights dazzle and dizzy me to such a degree that I’m perpetually at risk of a migraine.

The biggest problem I have with lighting that mimics daylight is that I can’t ever get away from the intricacy and complexity of my visual environment. I can’t switch my brain off, and I can’t switch off the stuff it notices all the time. And with modern lighting, All The Bloody Details are even more blindingly, bastardly illuminated than they ever were before.

As I have described on so many occasions, my brain notices way more of what I see than the brain of an average neurotypical person. And this is why, despite needing glasses or contact lenses to correct my shortsightedness and astigmatism, it feels like seeing in ultra-HD all the time.

Noticing all the details that others don’t see can be super-cool – joyous, joyful, life-affirming – when I’m happy, healthy, alert, well-rested, and not in anyway stressed. It can be a lot of fun. But when I’m not feeling great, I’d like to switch it all off, or at least adjust my mental screen resolution down a few notches.

I never get the chance to have things nicely toned down. Sometimes, I would like the things I see to be a little more warm and fuzzy. And now even the pavements I walk at night are spiked with cold white.

I pretend I don’t care about wearing sunglasses so often. I affect the kind of nonchalance that says I’m merely (neuro)queering my own sense of identity, femininity, disability, autistic-ness; I’m camping it up and revelling in it. And it’s often true that I am doing these things. And I really do like sunglasses. I like the way they look on my face. They’re a favourite fashion accessory, whether or not they’re also a disability aid.

But there are times when I feel deeply depressed that this is increasingly my reality. That the world at large has deemed that this is the way lighting should be, and the way our environment should be illuminated, the way it needs to appear, and that I am the one that must make adjustments. I am becoming The Person Who Always Wears Sunglasses. This is a new part of my identity, and I have no choice in the matter.

I find myself more and more frustrated that everything’s so much brighter and visually busier than it used to be. I’m no different. I’m no more or less autistic than I used to be. It’s my environment that has changed.

I just want to turn it all down. And I want my old night-times back.


[Featured image description: a grainy black-and-white photograph of a street at night, with parked cars to the right of the picture on the same side of the road as the photographer. On the opposite side of the road is a brick wall, with bushes and trees growing over the top. The scene is illuminated by the white blobs of street lighting, and the headlights of an approaching car.]

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Connecting

We’re nearly at the mid-point in January 2018, and I’m only just now writing my first post of the year. I didn’t even do an end-of-year retrospective to see out 2017.

Initially, I was reluctant to do so because the final few months felt so negative. My anxiety and stress levels during Autumn and early Winter of 2017, brought on by matters entirely outside of my control that are still yet to be resolved, had put an unpleasant slant on the entire year. Besides, a lot of people I know had a rough time that year. 2017 wasn’t something I wanted to celebrate.

And then curiosity got the better of me, and I watched the video Facebook had “made” for me to summarise my year. And what did it feature? My beautiful, happy children. Plus a handful of very positive posts about things I’d done to increase autism understanding and acceptance over the course of the year. My Times Higher Education article.  Professionally, I kicked ass.  In other ways, I merely got by, but that in itself was something to celebrate.

Of course, we often self-police our own social media profiles, personae and presence, airbrushing, sugar-coating and self-censoring to project the image we want the world to see. But still, I reflected back, and realised that, on a personal level, a lot of good stuff happened to me in 2017.

I still didn’t have time to do my big retrospective, and anyway, I’m often scornful of such things. They seem so contrived, and the point at which our calendar flips over is so arbitrarily set. But one of the biggest highlights for me about last year, and something I want to truly build upon and expand in this, was connecting.

Connecting with other people like me.

I spend so much of my time trying to “spot the autistic”. And I often forget that most people I’m surrounded by are not autistic. I still often assume, because it is my reality, that everyone experiences the world the way I do. It’s only recently that I realised just how different my reality is from that of the majority, and I’m still coming to terms with this. Maybe I never will come to terms with it entirely.

I never really forget that I’m autistic – why would I want to? It’s who I am – but in those moments when I’m jolted from a reverie and suddenly remember how much of a minority we are, I feel momentarily crestfallen. How can it be that there are so few people like me? How can I have spent so much of my life alone?

Not literally alone. The “atypical” autistic socialises, networks, interacts. She has close friends and family. She has social circles. She gets things wrong a lot, intellectualises every interaction, and internally she may struggle profoundly, but still she has many connections, and many of them are meaningful.

And it isn’t that I don’t still love my non-autistic friends and family. There is more than one way to find connections with others; more than one thing I can potentially have in common with another individual or group.

There is a lot of love in my world.

But we still need to connect with people who see the world as we do. I need this, at least.

From way before my formal identification (I’m moving away from “diagnosis” as a preferred term, folks), I was connecting with other autistics online. This was valuable. Insightful. And hugely helpful.

In 2017, I began to connect physically with other autistic people.

Not all autistics like actual physical contact – I mean, in this case, touch. I’m one of those who sometimes does in some circumstances at least, but I’m selective, and also responsive. With autists far more than the rest of the population, I can usually gauge pretty quickly whether a hug is going to work or not. Sometimes, the urge to hug is instantaneous, generous, and entirely mutual. And this is a wonderful thing. That deep pressure, that warmth. It’s beautiful.

But it isn’t necessary for meaningful connection.

The best thing about physically being around other autistics, is feeling able to be myself. Feeling able to be…autistic.

Imagine a world in which you are almost never allowed to sit, stand or move in a way that is natural to you. A world in which you are forever monitoring, checking, analysing and editing your behaviour in real-time. Forever conscious that the way you naturally want to behave – need to behave – in order to feel comfortable and well in your own mind and body, may not be acceptable to others, and thus may need modifying.

And this is all on top of potential difficulties with the processing of verbal and non-verbal language, and the need to cope with potential environmental distractions, information overload, or sensory overwhelm. It’s exhausting. This is the world of the “mildly” autistic.

When I’m with other autistic people, it isn’t like that. We understand each other, we accept each other, and we accommodate each other. I revel in being able to move, speak, and emote like an autistic person, and in seeing others do likewise, unchecked.

In the past year, I’ve met autistic people. In “real life”. I’ve met up with individuals. I went to a local PARC event in November 2017. And with another late-diagnosed female Aspie colleague, I’m in the process of setting up an informal peer support group for autistic staff at work – we’re currently a very small, select group and have met just once so far, but in time I hope this will grow.

In the meantime, the two of us who are organising the group also meet separately. We have coffee, or lunch, and we talk as friends.

It isn’t just autistic people, of course. There are other people with whom I can be myself, and these are predominantly other disabled people, and other people whose brains are wired somewhat differently from the default. My network of disabled and neurodivergent friends is growing, and whilst our challenges may vary, there is a mutual appreciation of the difficulties we each face, and recognition of each other’s intrinsic worth as people.

Somebody I know who is bipolar, and with whom I delivered a well-received conference workshop on neurodiversity back in September 2017, is one of very few people I’m comfortable having lengthy telephone conversations with.  We’re very different in the way we each see the world, but he accepts my weirdnesses, and I accept his. We celebrate these things. We check in with each other and support each other.

Alongside that gorgeous, proprioceptive loveliness, firm physical hugs release oxytocin. The “love hormone”. The deep pressure of physical contact, and this surge of love, is what made me love carrying my babies in slings, and makes me dread the time when my younger child is too big to sleep cuddled up on my chest.

But the surge of love and emotional well-being can come from many forms of connection.

Here’s to much more of it in 2018.


[Featured image: two people hugging, with one person facing towards the viewer. This person is light skinned with red hair and a purple top – their arms are around the shoulders of the person turned away from view, who is blonde haired, wearing a green top. The two people are surrounded by rainbow colours, radiating outwards.]

And now I draw in colour.

I’m a little sporadic with my blog posts at the moment. Things have been busy.

We’re approaching Christmas, it’s the end of a long and very difficult term at work, the kids are full-on, I’m tired, and whatnot. And the truth is, the past few months have been somewhat dark. That happens sometimes.

But something else has happened.

I’ve been drawing. More, and more, and more.

I love to write. But my occasional brain-body disconnect means that no matter how adept I am with words, I can’t always summon them to the fore. Images flow from my mind to my hand to the paper far more readily.

Since I wrote my lament at the loss of my one true passion, I’ve been reclaiming it. And the funny thing is, even as my days have sometimes been very dark so far this autumn and winter, my drawings have been vividly bright.

Why now? I’m not quite sure. But where once I drew in nothing by greyscale, I’m rejoicing and revelling in colour as I did when I was a small child. And where once I drew nothing but people, I’m now drawing landscapes, fantasy scenes, monsters, repeating shapes…and people. A stylised landscape: the foreground, trees, rocks and a crow in silhouette; behind, also silhouetted, a river and a town with smoking chimneys; behind, hills in reds, pinks, purples, and browns, and a cloudy sky

Perhaps it’s because, after so many years of confusion, self-scrutiny, and self-doubt, I finally understand something of who I am. I’m more comfortable with who I am. I like who I am. And even as I struggle with overwhelm, the weight of uncertainty, of change, and of responsibility, and with negotiating even some of the basics of adulting, I encounter the awe-inspired, imaginative child inside me somewhat more these days. I welcome that child.

Why do I choose the colours I use?

My favourite colour is green. I love the natural world.

And yet I’m hardly ever inclined to use it in my drawings. I’m drawn towards warm, fiery tones, or otherworldly palettes of turquoise, pink, and purple. I feel compulsively drawn to these hues. Perhaps it’s because they reflect something of how I see the world – the way so many colours other than green seem to shimmer and glow like fairy lights against the green background of nature.

Perhaps I’m simply drawn towards the fantastical. So often, I’m overwhelmed by too much of the mundane.

Whatever it is, it flows. Alien city scape, with orange sky, binary sun system, and tall skyscrapers in a range of colours. An elevated railway runs across the centre of the image, and spacecraft of varying sizes fly across the background.

The perfectionist in me often curses my still-developing, still-emerging technique. I have a way to go. And at the moment, my scale is small. An A5(ish) plain-paged Moleskine journal that fits in my bag; a collection of Stabilo fine liner pens.

I have a sense that I’m probably going to want to go bigger at some point.

But for now, I’m just enjoying it. I’m taking joy from it.

And when my days and nights are dark, that’s what matters.


[Featured image description: alien desert landscape in oranges and reds. A rough, stony, curving road runs through the middle of the image, along which three distant silhouetted figures (resembling an adult and two children) walk. In the background are cliffs, hills and volcanoes in purples, blues and browns. A binary sun system shines in a darkening sky. Strangely coloured desert plants dot the scene.]

All images ©️ A.R. Nibbs 2017.

Sweet abandon

Three silhouette figures, one adult and two children, dancing, surrounded by swirling colours and musical notation.

[Trigger warning: mental illness; self-injurious stimming (as well as the good stims that are hard exercise and dancing).]

The Saturday just gone:

So it’s happened. I’ve finally realised that I am definitely properly depressed at the moment.

I’ve thought I was, then thought I wasn’t; thought I was, thought I wasn’t. For a while now. I kept thinking my quick bouts of misery were a symptom of autistic burnout, or simply an acute pang of painful response to the occasional sudden rise in the immediacy of The Problems I Am Dealing With Right Now; something unexpectedly looming large on the horizon that sees my legs crumpling beneath me as I tumble to the ground.

But actually, these acutely painful moments have been mere spikes in overall negative emotional noise level. The low-level hum of depression, sometimes infrasonic, has been gently oscillating along in a line beneath the crashing noise of all of my day-to-day experiences for a fair while, without me properly registering it. But now I have. The pitch and the volume have risen, and it’s too loud to ignore. Is it a moan, a whine, a whistle, a hiss, or a wail? I’m not quite sure. But it’s sustained, and it’s loud.

Saturday morning. My daughter is watching a film in the living room downstairs. My husband is sleeping in. My son and I are in the big bedroom, playing with Lego. I watch him, I interact with him, and all the while I feel simultaneously both utterly nothing and utter despair.

I’m not quite fully there.

Later, my daughter joins us. The two of them both at work with the Lego; absorbed, building; each doing so in their own age-specific, personality-specific way. I interact with these two beings whom I love more than anything in the world, but I am removed. I am exhausted.

Then the wooden train set comes out.

Somehow, most of it ends up not on the floor of the bedroom, but outside the bedroom door, on the landing. Right where it’s a large, jumbled collection of small wooden trip hazards at the top of a very steep staircase.

I repeatedly ask my children to tidy the pieces up, or at least to carry them through the doorway and into the room, away from the stairs. They can be pretty good at tidying up. Sometimes. And I need them to understand why leaving toys on the stairs isn’t the best of ideas.

But they’re too intent on what they are doing. They don’t even hear me.

My requests get louder and more urgent.

(I still remember to use the word “please”, however.)

Still they are oblivious.

Eventually I lose it.

I scream and shout. I disappear into another room to smack my own head repeatedly for 30 seconds or so, before returning.

Afterwards, my husband finds me sitting at the top of the stairs, glum, despondent, detached. I burst into tears, and struggle to stop.

***

We agree that although I’ve promised our daughter I’d take her to the school Christmas Fayre (and it has to be me who takes her), afterwards I can go off and do my own thing for a few hours. I plan a trip to the gym.

Husband takes our son with him on an extended shopping trip. The girl and I do the Christmas Fayre thing.

She does a few messy crafts, a find-the-word treasure hunt, and eats too much sugary stuff. I try not to get too exasperated with the busyness and loudness of it all, but she loves it. And I love that she loves it. She has fun, and comes home with me, happy.

And I disappear off to the gym. I exercise with sweet abandon.

60 minutes of “Around the World”: a random-generated programme of hard hills and sprint intervals on the stationary bike. I sweat. My heart thumps. I breathe. I focus. And although I never exercise wearing headphones or earbuds, the hi-NRG dance music on the gym stereo this afternoon works well to keep my legs pounding. On the hills, I push down the pedals in time to the beat. During the sprints, I do my best to beat the beat, spinning my legs faster and faster. I lose myself in movement, beats, vocal samples, distance log, timer, calorie counter, and revolutions-per-minute.

Core work, stretches, home. Food on the table.

And then, the thing that I need perhaps even more than the gym.

It’s Saturday night, and my daughter wants to dance.

***

I’m glad that we’ve resurrected our living room discos. When I was pregnant with her brother and got too big, too much in pain, and too uncomfortable, we stopped. And for a long while afterwards we didn’t do it. But over the past few months, we’ve started dancing again.

And tonight, I dance with sweet abandon.

We always start with the same sequence of four tracks: ‘Nice Weather for Ducks’ (Lemon Jelly); ‘Treachery’ (Kirsty McColl); ‘Brimful of Asha’ (Cornershop – Norman Cook Extended Remix); ‘Squance’ (Plaid).

Whatever else we play in the middle (eclectic, but still very much the playlist of a ’90s indie kid), we always slow down and end with ‘Cole’s Corner’ (Richard Hawley). My daughter likes it that way.

For a while this unvarying start and end to our playlist used to grate (and I’m sure it still does with our neighbours). I have so much music. There’s so much of it my children haven’t yet heard. So much more variety than they’re ever willing to hear. I want them to enjoy it all.

But really, I don’t mind the repetition. It’s comforting to my daughter, and after all, I was the one who introduced these songs to her.

Tonight, I’m relieved to hear them, in the specific order we always play them. And whatever else is lurking in my collection, the songs we tend to play are the types of song that make my kids happy.

My “style” is a flailing mix of mangled Street Dance, distorted Twist, skewed Salsa, and a whole lot of jumping, hopping, twirling and swaying.

Sometimes I pogo. Sometimes I waltz. Sometimes I bring in body-weight training moves from the gym. Sometimes my daughter and I join hands. She grins. My little boy weaves between our legs, spins around, stomps his feet, and giggles. During ‘One Step Beyond’ we all run repeatedly around the room in a big circle. My children laugh and smile.

The physicality is all. My very being craves it.

I was already sweaty from my gym exertions. And now I sweat again. I don’t stop. There’s no point, until all of us are ready for it to stop.

Sometimes, I let my body fall from side to side, catching myself by engaging my core or gripping a piece of furniture before I land. Everything moves. Everything must move.

My body loses itself in sweet abandon to the music.

Even as my children slow and tire, I carry on (for a while, at least – I’m not so divorced from their needs that I can’t tell when it’s time to bring things to an end).

My little boy watches, content but approaching sleepiness. My girl intently examines the Pete Fowler designs on some Super Furry Animals CD single cases, still listening to what’s on the stereo, still requesting more songs.

And eventually, it is time to stop. We slow things down. ‘Cole’s Corner’ has its spin, and I, the sweating, panting, dishevelled beast that I am, cuddle my children close. They smile again – at each other, at me, to themselves.

It’s story time. And soon it’ll be bedtime. I’ll cuddle them close again before they go to sleep. Later, I’ll shower and crawl into bed myself.

And no matter how desperately sad I was that morning, when I finally lay my own head down later that same night, I go to sleep replenished, nourished, and filled with love.


Last Saturday’s playlist

  1. Lemon Jelly, ‘Nice Weather for Ducks’
  2. Kirsty McColl, ‘Treachery’
  3. Cornershop, ‘Brimful of Asha’ (Norman Cook extended remix)
  4. Plaid, ‘Squance’
  5. The Bees, ‘Chicken Payback’
  6. Beck, ‘The New Pollution’
  7. Belle and Sebastian, ‘I’m a Cuckoo’
  8. Bassment Jaxx, ‘Good Luck’
  9. Madness, ‘One Step Beyond’
  10. Madness, ‘Baggy Trousers’
  11. Super Furry Animals, ‘Golden Retriever’
  12. Super Furry Animals, ‘Northern Lites’
  13. Eels, ‘Last Stop: This Town’
  14. Richard Hawley, ‘Cole’s Corner’

[Featured image description: Three silhouette figures, one adult and two children, dancing, surrounded by swirling colours and musical notation.]

A passion, stolen

As a kid, most of my spare time was spent drawing. It was my earliest passion.

I was no savant. But I suppose, on reflection, I did have at least some innate “gift”. The people I colourfully produced aged just three, in bright felt tip, were anatomically correct (in as much as having, for example, five fingers on each hand and articulated limbs), and incredibly complex.

Relatives and family friends recall me feverishly creating drawing after drawing, eagerly quick-fire-switching between each colour (but always carefully, but with lightning action, replacing the lid of each pen after use).

When I entered primary school, I had an awareness that I was somewhat advanced compared to my peers, and sensed that this singled me out in a way I couldn’t quite place, but didn’t like. I intuited from early on that I was somehow different, and desperately wanted to fit in. So I copied my classmates’ clumsily executed, anatomically incorrect scrawls, in the hope of escaping attention. I was doing this at age five. But adults questioned me on this practice, and encouraged me to stay true to myself and embrace my abilities. I drew. And drew. And drew.

Never what was in front of me. Always scenes and characters conjured up in my own mind. But always produced with the intention of seeming “realistic”, however fantastical the subject.

I recall, at around six years old, having an argument with a classmate who refused to draw a nose on her depiction of the face of our teacher – we were making “Get well soon” cards as she was ill in hospital, and most of us had decided to draw her recovering in bed. When my friend got up to go to the toilet, I spitefully snatched up her card and drew that nose.

Around seven or eight years old. A documentary about the autistic savant architectural artist Stephen Wiltshire was showing on TV. I was captivated watching him draw and paint intricate architectural wonders from memory. A telling exchange from the time:

Me: “Mummy, what does ‘autistic’ mean?”

My mother: “Oh, it’s when someone is lost in their own world.”

Me: “Oh, I think I must be autistic, then.”

Ironic, huh? I think at the time, I was interpreting the word, and my mum’s explanation, as meaning “artistic”. After all, like Stephen Wiltshire, I loved to draw.


I drew and drew and drew. Never still life or landscapes. Always people – no scenery. Just groups interacting socially, or individuals, their outfits, hairstyles and accessories lovingly and meticulously detailed. And always from my imagination.

I attended the village youth club. As other kids shot pool, played board games, or ran round and round the building outside, I drew.

“Why do you do that here? You can just draw at home, can’t you?”

I wasn’t quite sure. I think I just liked the sense of being around others, but without actually having to interact. I did interact with the adult helpers. Mostly, I talked to them about the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats. Not in any way autistic. Not in the slightest. Oh no.

At school, I was held spellbound by the elaborate creative projects dreamt up by my teachers in those years of freedom prior to the introduction of the English National Curriculum. Entire classrooms converted into rainforests. Imaginary monsters conjured out of paint spatters, with each child creating our own monster’s name, character and back story. Exercises in using grids to “enlarge” the designs of postage stamps or food packaging labels. Collage. Tissue paper. Clay. Papier-mâché.

And whilst other children would play games in their spare time, I would draw. And draw. And draw.

In secondary school, I had access to a wider range of materials. My imagination grew as I, my brain, and my body did. In one class during the early years, our tutor group was asked to make clay studies of people. Deliberately stylised and “cartoonish” – we were encouraged to think about how we might easily represent their essence in exaggerated, simplified form.

My clay man, sitting on the floor with legs outstretched and crossed, was listening to music through a Walkman and headphones. Eyes closed, singing along, with beatific facial expression, seeming to beat his hands on his legs in time to the music. Lost in enjoyment.

He was covered in clear glaze. The shape and form spoke for themselves and needed no further adornment or colour.

Later, when several of our pieces were on display in a case along the Art and Design (A&D) department corridor, someone asked one of my teachers if they could buy my piece. My teachers asked me, but I refused. I was too proud of it to let it go, and it sits on my parents’ living room bookshelf to this day.

As I continued through secondary school, I continued to find solace in drawing as life got more and more difficult. I’d graduated from bright, multicoloured felt tip to pure, grayscale pencil. But I still drew nothing but people. I drew. And drew. And drew.


Of course, when it came time to choose our GCSE options, there was no question that I’d be taking Art. At every parents’ evening, my teachers had told my mum and dad that they were certain I was destined for art school. No doubt about it. I was a polymath in everything but PE, but art was my one true passion.

And so came the beginning of the end.

The class I was put in was allocated to a wayward, alcoholic teacher who was approaching retirement. A man with his eyes off the road. Off the ball.

We drew. We created. But I had no idea where we were going. There was no inkling of what syllabus we were meant to be following. I knew from friends in the other classes that there were certain things – topics, tools, and techniques – that we were meant to be covering as part of the GCSE Art curriculum. Only our class wasn’t covering them. The uncertainty was alarming.

And then, strange things started to happen. At one point India, and Hindu mythology, were given to us as sources of inspiration. My teacher was starting to construct large sculptures of bamboo and tissue paper. One, in particular, with a likeness to the elephant god Ganesh, seemed to have a vague connection to some of the 2D work I was producing on paper.

And so it came to parents’ evening, towards the end of that first GCSE year.

When my parents arrived home, they were spellbound. In awe.

“Wow, sweetheart. We’ve seen your sculpture! It’s amazing! Wow, you’re so talented, we had no idea!”

(Or words to that effect.)

“But…I haven’t made any sculpture.”


And from there, it all unravelled.

In a state of panic, my incompetent, booze-addled but nonetheless artistically adept teacher had somehow recognised he was doing his star pupil a disservice; letting her down; putting her at risk of never achieving the dizzy artistic attainment levels she was so easily capable of reaching. And in some misplaced attempt to help me along, he’d constructed a work no 15-year-old would ever have been able to produce, and passed it off as mine.

Of course, I couldn’t accept the dishonesty. The deceit. How could he lie, on my behalf? How could me make me complicit, force me to lie? Regardless of how I progressed through GCSE Art, I wanted all the work to be my own.

I was devastated. Traumatised. And, if I’m honest, utterly weirded out by the whole thing. It was bewildering, and disturbing.

I sat in the headmaster’s office with my dad, tearfully recounting my side of the story, all the while wondering what the hell was going to happen to my class, my GCSE grade, and my future.


The following academic year, my teacher was no longer at the school. I have no idea whether he was dismissed entirely as a result of what occurred with me, or whether this was merely the tipping point. The other members of the A&D department mucked in, clubbed together, and worked to help our class get through our second and final year of GCSE Art.

I made my portfolio, documenting the supposed journey in the development of each piece of artwork. I made it after the fact.

Like someone with innate abilities in mathematics, I couldn’t show my workings. It all just “came out” when I put pen to paper. So, I just made it all up, fabricating the connections for the sake of meeting the requirements of a curriculum not set up for people who thought about, or enacted, the producing of art in the way I did. The portfolio made logical enough sense. I was good at being creative, in making up a decent story. The school kept the portfolio, with my permission, after our GCSEs were complete, to be shown to future students as an exemplar. I got an A.

By my love affair with art was over. A lifelong passion, sullied. I couldn’t bear to study it beyond that point.


My parents never forgave the school. Art had been, according to my dad, “the only time I was ever truly spontaneous”.

A few years passed, and I started to dabble in drawing cartoons, primarily of favourite bands. A few were published in fanzines. I’d moved from grey pencil to black pen-and-ink.

But I’d missed out on those years of formal training that I’d always anticipated being my natural, written-in-the-stars trajectory. It still pains me that I am far less “skilled” in formal drawing techniques than others who have studied art to a higher level than I.

And instead of following my childhood dream, my birthright, I spent another 15 years or so trying to find a new niche. There was so much I was good at, but very little that ever lit my inner fires quite like drawing.

I was the victim of theft, the stolen goods my earliest, most cherished passion.

And whilst I try so hard not to regret, it is something I will never truly get over.


[Featured image: plain black background imprinted, in stark grey upper case, sans serif letters, with the words “A PASSION, STOLEN”.]