2021: in review

Another difficult year is coming to an end and, like most of us, it looked nothing like I’d thought or hoped it might. Usually I love new year’s eve, not in the sense of going out and celebrating – in that respect I think it’s overrated – but as a reflective person I like the clean slate, new term, fresh start feel of it. This year that feeling is lacking, though – it feels like hope is in short supply, but I’m hoping I can still reflect in a way that’s helpful (even if the only person who reads this is me) and look ahead in a way that gives some sense of promise.

If you’ve read any of my annual review blogs before, you’ll know I like to look at the year from every angle – what I’m proud of, what I struggled with and what I learned. It’s also around now that I offer a reminder of which words I chose to set as a direction for my 2021, before setting new ones at the end of this post.

A year ago today I sat down and said that in 2021 I wanted to: create (including submitting more writing), connect (in particular finding creative ways of connecting in isolation), and grow (confidently moving towards the life and future I want). Let’s see how I did, shall we?

Work

This year I was lucky enough to extend my project at YoungMinds, and so continued running my young storytellers’ programme, which has gone from strength to strength. Highlights from the year include:

  • Recruiting and training 10 more young people with diverse stories and experiences
  • Organising for 2 young people to speak to the Prime Minister in March
  • Supporting and coordinating the participation of 1 young person in this year’s Children in Need documentary about the youth mental health crisis
  • Enabling young people to share their views and experiences with advisory groups for organisations such as ITV and Headspace
  • Developing my understanding of storytelling for social change and trauma informed practice

In the summer, I was also lucky enough to take on a couple of fun freelance projects – designing and running a workshop for The Literary Consultancy on zine making and self-love, and creating illustrated posters for a climate change exhibition.

Creativity

This has been perhaps the most wobbly year yet for my creativity, with the weight of the pandemic and its impact on my life causing a pretty major creative block – predominantly in my writing – for about three quarters of the year. Creative outlets are part of what make me feel like myself, and writing is a core part of that, so it was tough to not feel connected to it when I needed it the most.

So, a lot of this year was spent trying to figure out how to reignite that spark. Something that often helps me when I feel stuck with my writing is to play with other things, so over the spring and summer months I experimented with various mediums, including drawing, collage, macrame, embroidery, blackout poetry, and so on. It may not have been a quick fix, but managing to keep on creating in one form or another is something I’m grateful for.

Ultimately, the solution to my writers’ block came towards the end of August, when I took some time off work and decided to design and run my own personalised at-home writing retreat. I themed each day around either a specific writing project or a type of writing I wanted to play with. I found things to read, learn from and exercises to do and committed myself to spending at least a few hours a day following my plans.

I wasn’t sure if it would be helpful, but figured it was worth a try, and thankfully it made a massive difference. I managed to clear my head, resolve some road blocks in my work in progress and have fun with writing again. I spent the following few months focused on the first draft of my second book, which I finished writing just yesterday. I’m proud of myself for not giving up, even though it was really tough to work through.

Another area of writing I developed this year, after dipping my toe back in the waters in 2020, was writing poetry. It’s a form I lost confidence in and always felt the most vulnerable sharing, but this year I decided to push through that pesky self-doubt. Taking part in opportunities like Red Sky Sessions from Apples and Snakes made a big difference to my confidence and focus, topped off by having a poem published in a dream publication of mine in November. Popshot Quarterly chose to run my poem “My Sadness Lives on the Internet” in their “uncensored” issue and I couldn’t be more thrilled both with how it turned out and being able to pick up a magazine my writing was in from a local high street shop for the first time.

All in all, whilst I didn’t submit huge amounts this year because my struggles with writing, I still managed far more than in recent years, submitting to 12 publications, and applying for 5 development programmes. I’m still waiting to hear on quite a few outcomes, but I was proud to have had another poem as well as an essay longlisted for publication this year too and for believing in myself enough to try. I hope I can keep this momentum up next year.

My final creative win of the year was starting a newsletter – Curiously Imperfect. It was an idea that my last year in review blog prompted – as I got thinking about how many lessons I learn from the messy parts of life, despite being a perfectionist who likes planning. I decided to write more about that each month and ironically I think my carefully crafted content plan – and life’s recurrent habit of getting in the way of letting me follow it – taught me a lot about letting go. I’ve not held myself to being perfect with it, only writing it in months where I have the energy or am in the right headspace and honestly, I’m proud of myself for that. Although I’m possibly a tiny bit more proud of the fact that, back in April, my newsletter was recommended on national radio in Ireland, alongside my long time writing deity Marian Keyes. That alone (in my book, at least) means 2021 couldn’t have been a total wash out.

Life

2021 saw some pretty huge life changes for me – primarily moving flat (because one year isolating in a tiny studio is one too many) and then, as a result, adopting a furry best friend. As a life-long dog person, I can’t tell you how much I did not see becoming a cat lady in my future but I can honestly say it’s the best decision I made this year. I have a constant pal to talk to, sing at, cuddle and to shamelessly share photos of in group chats when the rest of my life is isolation offers me very little to say. Truly, though, he’s single pawedly rescued my wellbeing as this year has gone on.

(Still) going it alone

Last year I wrote about the difficulty of going through the pandemic on my own and had hoped that this year that might change, but… sadly not. I have spent the vast majority of this year completely isolated, mostly only leaving the house for healthcare appointments. Not enough people seem to realise (or, at this point, care) that so many disabled and vulnerable people have yet another full year of lockdown style conditions under our belts, or that the government’s reckless and anti-scientific policies around the pandemic (combined with society’s happiness to look the other way) have kept us here.

I’m trying the best I can to remain resilient, to do what I need to protect myself, but it gets increasingly hard when you’ve only been ok to see friends one time in an entire year and haven’t seen your only parent without a mask in over 5 months. When your world is reduced to the space of your flat. When the world is happy to go on without you and to start removing a lot of the access that had been helping the you to stay and feel connected now they don’t need it anymore. I wish that finding a way to live with the pandemic which didn’t erase or harm disabled people was something I could feel confident would come in 2022.

Ableism en masse (again)

The last point leads me onto my second. I’ll admit, I hadn’t thought that this year could be worse for ableism than the last but somehow society achieved it. The embrace of “freedom day” when it put the vulnerable at increased risk, as the government silently removed all the protections of shielding. The cry that high cases numbers are fine when even a mild case for many could cause severe complications if not death. The idea that a “mild” variant is ok to spread when the previous point still stands. The idea that it’s inevitable, so maybe let’s just get on with it. The continued chorus of “the vulnerable can just stay home so we can get back to our lives”.

It’s exhausting to live with a chronic illness, let alone to navigate a pandemic whilst sick and vulnerable, without society making it so much harder and repeatedly reducing the value of vulnerable lives. My trust in the inherent goodness of people has shrunk even further this year, as I’ve sat at home wondering why my life, my freedom and the safety of people I love don’t seem to matter to anyone at all. I miss my life so desperately but other people’s actions are making it impossible for me to safely get it back. I wish more non-disabled people would advocate for us and act with us in mind to bring this nightmare closer to an end next year.

Burn out

And finally, another appropriate transition point… burn out. I’ve been off work since the beginning of December because, after so long trying to hold myself together in isolation, to care for my physical and mental health on my own, to try and stay hopeful that things could get better… I hit a wall.

Omicron emerged just as I was beginning to think I might win some freedom back – that my booster would protect me enough against Delta to be able to live a bit again. That hope vanished before I’d even hit the two week mark post jab, and I really struggled with the loss of it. I was too drained, too angry, too hurt to keep on going and pretending I was ok. Watching the world around me behaving in ways that harmed me whilst acting like it was normal.

I’m not sure I feel anywhere close to myself again yet, but I’m relieved my work were so supportive of me needing to tap out. It was a lesson in not letting myself push on too far without help – which I have been doing for a long while now. I need to figure out how to start coming back from this but it does feel more achievable knowing I have the right help on call.

Find community where you can

This year, more than any other in my life so far, having community support has been essential. It’s been increasingly hard to find through the year, as my life feels more and more distant to the one most other people are living, but I’m grateful to have found it online in the disabled community again.

Having other people who are going through the same situation as me, with all the same fears and many of the same complexities, has helped me to not feel entirely alone. It has helped me to feel cared for, even though the lack of care from beyond those living through the same experience has been disheartening. I’m grateful for the closer bonds I’ve formed this year which have helped me to keep going. It’s proof that community is always out there if you need it, you may just have to look a little harder before you realise it’s there.

It’s ok to prioritise myself

I’ll admit it – I’m a bit of a people pleaser. I’ve always been headstrong and focused, held firm in my own beliefs and values, followed the path that’s right for me… but I’ve also been someone who wants everyone else to be ok so much that I’ve often focused on that at my own expense. More comfortable protecting the peace than I was my happiness and peace of mind.

One thing about going through a global crisis on your own is that you learn the importance of responsibility to yourself. This year I’ve finally begun to think about what I want (and need) and to try to honour that more instead of pushing through when I’m not well enough, trying to hide it when I’m struggling, smiling through events or interactions that might please others but ultimately hurt me. The world isn’t going to stop turning if I step back, say no or ask for help a little more. This year I’ve been learning to choose myself because, so much of the time right now at least, I’m all I’ve got.

And finally, reflecting on all of the above, I’ve picked three new aspirational words that I want to guide me in 2022 whatever the year ahead holds:

Invest – in myself, my boundaries and my happiness

Grow – as a person, writer and artist

Dare – be braver, bolder and more open to change

I’ll see you here in a year’s time to tell you how it goes.

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