10 April 2014

My Competitive Strategies

Strength. What is strength? What does it mean? To me being strong is not hiding your weaknesses, or ignoring them. Rather it is acknowledging that those things are there, accepting and embracing them as part of what makes you who you are and then overcoming that to become all you want to be. To quote Nelson Mandela "I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear". To be afraid but to do it anyway, to succeed anyway, that is strength. 

We all have these situations where we fear something, we fear being different, fear failure, fear being great - there is always something. I fear not reaching my potential, wasting my life and time, not being understood. In fact I also fear the things I do most of the day, feeling anxiety that does not match the importance of the situation. I live in a constant state of fear and anxiety because I feel inadequate when I have to ask why or what you mean. I fear getting it wrong because this has happened so much to me and no matter how much it doesn't get any easier to deal with.

But I am alive. I am here alongside you, living a life, my life. It is probably not like your life, but who has the exact same life anyway? I am guilty of forgetting that being alive is a wonderful thing no matter how anxious you are, how much you fear or how difficult things seem to be - living is good. I have succeeded at something just because I am here.

I can only live my life in the way that makes sense to me. And through that I am free and it is ok. Things are going to be tough, problems will surface and obstacles will be there but I will find a way to stay free, to achieve my goals and be all that I was meant to be. All my life without realising it I have been creating and adapting strategies in order to cope and get the most out of my time here.

A lot of my blog posts recently have talked about how I have been struggling with my concentration on simple day to day things and in how I have struggled to cope with the feelings this brought on in me. But this struggle has always been the same albeit sometimes to less of an extreme. I think a lot, some might say obsessively, I prefer intensely and I have been racking my brain about what I was like years ago, did I have these challenges and how did I cope? And the answers are interesting, or at least they were to me. 

I am exceptionally good at repetitive tasks but they bore me, I need to approach them in a certain way to be able to do them. In my second job I was working on a project and did the same work all day long, everyday. I struggled greatly with this, my mind would wander and I'd daydream about fighting and all kinds of things. I could put together a work process in no time at all but I couldn't sit and read the 10 page guidance notes and updates and meeting minutes that were provided about what the work was for and how it should be conducted. It got to the stage where my manager would just highlight the things I needed to consider that might not be obvious to me. I could just 
see the logical processes and how it needed to work so to me reading all this repetitive documentation was pointless. 

But the data work I had to do was so monotonous - it amounted to a lot of proof reading, data checking and cleansing. As it was I couldn't approach this at all, I tried to do the work but would drift off staring into space. This was pre-diagnosis and I had nobody really giving me any strategies to cope or any understanding of why I couldn't maintain my attention on my work. I realised I was struggling to start and I was losing track of what I had done because there was no order or structure to the work. So I made a few rules and a logical approach to follow and I set about doing the task like this which worked great for a while until the novelty of following the new process wore off and I was stuck again. 

Now I am a fighter, I am very competitive and I was very aware of my drive to win and succeed, kickboxing seemed to be the only thing I could really do long term with any success. It seems like I work at my best with a little pressure and competition. So I thought why not see if I can apply how I am in kickboxing to other areas and made it a competition. Every hour I was determined to improve my record of how many data records I had successfully got through. In the second hour the improvement was slight but after this it would be 50 records more and more and more as I got used to the process and the work just became automatic. I became so in tune with what I needed to look for, correct and match that my brain only saw what it needed to and cut the rest out. I reached phenomenal work rates in the amount I was getting through each time beating the previous hour and throughout this time you couldn't reach me, I was so focused on my activity, on my competition. 

And thinking back further everything has always been a competition. Working in a warehouse I'd "compete" against all the other workers, wanting to pick more items than anyone else, I'd get so frustrated when I couldn't find an item because it slowed me down... In my first job every piece of work given to me I had to do as quickly as I could to surprise whoever gave me the work and similar to my second job, when entering orders I conditioned myself to see only the necessary fields. There was competition with myself in that I was always striving to add more tasks, more responsibilities to my workload, to handle more and more.

All this competition produced great work but I could not give myself time out, I had to maintain that level of activity all day everyday and naturally this just wasn't possible. I'd get burnout and again be unable to concentrate but overall it all balanced itself out as when I was so focused on my work I was doing vast amounts in such a short space of time.

My mind has to be occupied with something constantly or I just drift off. So now the challenge is how can I keep it occupied, how can I create that sense of competition again in my daily activities and how do I start? I know that I will find a way to do this because the alternative is to do nothing and I can't do that. And right now this is tough, it is frustrating and I get really angry with myself. I am even more anxious because I feel I am getting nowhere but I have encountered this before and I dealt with then just like I will now. My history tells me that although I have those fears, those obstacles I am strong enough and driven enough to overcome them to succeed. And the difference now is that I know. I know what I am dealing with and that has to give me an advantage in producing a new strategy that will enable me to get the most out of my life.

5 April 2014

World Autism Awareness Day - In Good Company

Well Wednesday 2nd April was World Autism Awareness Day and in recent months I haven't been doing much to raise awareness or in fact I haven't really been doing much. Since I injured my ankle I have really stripped things back and it wasn't until I did that that I realised just how much I had needed to. I got to the point where I was struggling to do simple things. Then it changed to some days I was getting on really well then other days it felt hopeless. Stripping things back gave me space to let my stress levels reduce and then reflect upon where I want to go and what I want my life to be. As much as I love fighting so much of my focus goes into this and with the extent of anxiety and stress I was under I needed to switch my focus - being injured, as unfortunate as it is, gave me that chance. Normally training and fighting help me manage stress levels but the better you are at the sport, the longer you have been a champion, the more pressure there is to keep there at that level. And this didn't make me feel I could allow some of my fighting focus to switch to the rest of my life when it really needed to.

Not long after I got injured I had this weird thought. I thought of the Lego video games where you can switch from character to character in order to complete specific actions that only a certain character could do. In my mind I felt like something like this happened, I visualised it happening. In the days following my injury I thought heavily about my fighting performances, I watched the videos, I pictured it in my mind. I pictured myself fighting fights that hadn't even happened. And then watching those fights in my mind, I took all the elements that make me this formidable fighter and champion who does not give up on the mats and 'drag dropped' them into my 'normal' self. To me it was a transferal of my skills, my focus and my desire to succeed to where it was most needed and that was in picking myself back up and getting my life back on track. If you want to look at it another way it was like the aliens stealing the talents of the NBA basketball stars in Space Jam, reapportioning talent elsewhere. I knew I could not train, I could not fight and I wouldn't be fighting for some time, so I was putting those fighting resources elsewhere. Honestly for me it is not that unusual. I often have to approach life as though it is kickboxing and fighting to get anywhere, I trick myself into it all being connected to how well I will fight so that I do it. What was weird in this circumstance was the Lego switch / Space Jam thing - just visualising that shift...but in a way I needed to do that too. Because I didn't believe I could do it anymore - rebuild myself that is.

But once I had visualised that I felt rejuvenated. I felt focused and strong to rebuild myself. I hadn't felt that kind of optimism or belief for some months. With some help I took control. I got my whiteboards on the wall and made plans, I considered what was important, what my short term goals were - to sort my ankle, to get some daily routine, to deal with events coming up - and I concentrated on achieving those with a view to then build up to the next lot of things I needed to regain some control over. I looked at what my problems were that were preventing me from doing these things and with help worked out some possible solutions to try. These haven't all been successful all the time but they have helped. I needed help to do these things, to get myself together, from professionals and from friends - some practical help in putting my plans together, in deciding what I needed to do first, in preparing for events and also some help in the form of reassurance and help to understand. I have needed pretty constant reassurance, some of which I don't always believe straightaway and I have been less sure of everything. I've probably had what were essentially the same conversations hundreds of times over the last few months because I have been that unsure, anxious and in need of reassurance.

So where am I now and what does this have to do with World Autism Awareness Day? Well when things are going well for me I don't always feel like I struggle that much. I feel positive about who I am, I feel positive about my diagnosis and I am confident in my ability to achieve. I like to be positive and talk positively about where I am in my life but I feel that I almost forgot that the struggles and challenges do exist and do need to be acknowledged. It is the very fact that I am so positive and just brush off how tough it actually is for me to get on in the world that means I don't always get the support I need. The fact that I can stand up and deliver a talk really well, really confidently is often what most people see, what they don't see was the stress in me getting to the venue for the talk, the agonising over what will happen, where I have to go, what time I need to leave, do I have everything I need, who am I meeting, is someone helping me get there, what do I take, is my speech good enough, the fact I cannot read the audience and how they are receiving my talk....they don't see me changing my speech every day for the last 2 weeks, reading and re-reading until I get it perfect, they don't see me virtually shut down afterwards on the way home, rigid and tense with stress and unable to speak about it, they don't see me struggle to get up and fulfill daily activities the next day and possibly the day after. But my love for and the sense of worth I get from speaking makes up for these things and again how good I feel affects the impact these events have on me, but there is always an impact. 

How things have been for me recently has made me reevaluate the importance of giving a balanced view, of being positive but also of acknowledging the struggles - this was what I wanted to share for World Autism Awareness Day. I don't want you to underestimate me or what I can do but I don't want you to think it is all easy and that I cope fine all by myself. I am a fighter and if I want to do something I won't let anything beat me but it comes at a huge cost and I am not achieving my potential - how can you be when you get to the point where your life has to come to a standstill on a regular basis? Even just looking at the days following events like competitions and speeches - those days are wasted. I have all these skills, all these qualities and talents, capabilities most would wish for but I struggle to connect these and link in to the rest of the world - I'm like an island full of resource with no bridge or connection to mainland and that is why I need you to be aware, why I need you to accept this is how I am and maybe if you can why I need you to help me connect.

Anna Kennedy and I at Red2Green
I spent the evening of World Autism Awareness Day with my friend Anna Kennedy at charity Red2Green's launch of the In Good Company project. The videos feature adults on the autism spectrum sharing their personal stories and strategies they have developed to overcome challenges in order to help others get a better insight into the world of some people with autism. They also help to highlight the diversity of those on the autism spectrum and that people are unique and present differently. There is also a link on the channel which also gives instructions on how to make your own In Good Company video so that you may share your experiences living with autism should you wish to be involved.

I filmed for my video back in August just as I started training for the World Championships, I had had a steroid injection in my ankle as I had bursitis so could not kick or move much and I have since gone on to win another world title. I was happy with the outcome of my video but found it difficult to watch with the audience. Partly because I realised how far away from the person I saw in the video I had gotten and partly because I was anxious about how other people would react. It was good for me to watch my video because it reminded me of who I am and what I can do.

You can watch my video here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ucBVt8ung6M