A sudden improvement, and a blogging update

Last post, I was a little bit at the end of my tether. My work was teetering on the rocks, and I was feeling like a bit of a let-down. So I tried to remember my usual coping mechanisms for stress, and to make myself feel more productive, I wrote a slightly cliched blog post about them. Oh and I also prayed. A lot.

In the fortnight since then, my faith in myself and the power of prayer has been restored. Tentatively. Last week, the end of my probation was fast approaching, and was mainly hinging on my speed and accuracy during a certain task. Miraculously, with a target meeting technique I’d thought of but never tried, I did it. Long story short, my boss was pleased with how quickly I’d improved, and has extended my probation period by three months. Woo!

Right now, I’m hoping that things will keep looking up, and that this isn’t just a one off. I can’t help wishing that autistic miscommunication wasn’t an issue, and that I could have passed the first time just like anyone else. But my parents think that people on the autistic spectrum should be entitled to a longer trial, and to be honest, I’m just grateful to have got as far as I have.

I mean, this past fortnight has gone better than I dared hope, and now the pressure is less intense, I can feel the difference physically as well as emotionally. This improvement, hasn’t come without its cost, however, and over the past month or so, I have sometimes had to resort to going in even earlier – meaning getting the bus – at 7.07am, then getting home nearly 12 hours later and revising anything I still haven’t conquered. On the plus side, I have taught myself how to do Excel formulas! VLOOKUP, anyone? On the minus side, I am exhausted.

Which brings me onto a quick word about blogging. When I started my Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/unwrittengrace/?ref=br_rs), I pledged to write a blog post every week, give or take the occasional break. I started doing it every Sunday. Then recently, I switched to Saturday. Then every other Saturday. Now it’s getting tricky. I’m commuting and working dawn till dusk every weekday and I’m juggling choir, the gym, church and its worship band in between. And now, all my Saturdays are completely booked up until August.

I’m not going to give up my blog unless I give up breathing, but right now, finding a slot for it is about as easy as finding a bus on a bank holiday. If I can stick to the two week regime, I will. Otherwise, I may blog on a free weekday evening. I may blog on a Saturday or a Sunday. I may revert back to my old habit of blogging on some random day every month or so. I’m unlikely to keep it this way in the long term, but for now, so be it.

 

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Managing stress

As I have been getting fully immersed into my new job, it has not been without its stresses. On top of new skills to learn and remember, and targets to meet, there is also the added complication of autism and communication. And now the end of my probation is looming. Joy.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about facing your struggles under pressure, it’s that you can either be overly humble and self-deprecating, or you can look for ways to improve and press on with your head held high. Chances are, there are people around you who want you to come out ok. And take it from me: letting your mistakes overwhelm you won’t solve anything.

Which is why, when under stress, it helps if I break down whatever I am dealing with into manageable chunks. Like essays at uni. I’d look at the topic I need to discuss, break it down into the main points, divide the word count between them, and voila, my essay had a skeleton. Figuratively speaking. Now I’m applying the same principle to work: look at my email of targets, organise all the notes I’ve made since day one, and highlight the things I haven’t mastered, so I can revise them. Somehow, these things seem less scary when you can see what you’re facing and how to face it.

Besides, in doing that, I feel like I’m setting reasonable goals for myself. It’s just a question of paying attention to your capacity, and, when setting goals, starting small. Often I make a list and highlight the priorities. Sometimes I just try one thing at a time. Either way, it feels both proactive and like I’m taking some of the pressure off. My worst habit, when facing any kind of workload, is to aim to achieve as much as possible, and between not having superpowers and being too stressed to do anything, I’m left feeling like a waste of space.

For now, though, my main coping mechanism is determination. Not from ambition, or a naturally motivated personality; if I relied on sheer character, I would still be in bed. The fact is, these past few weeks have been hard, and I’m scared. Scared of failing, scared of being a disappointment, scared I will lose the desire to prove myself. So while I run on fear-fuelled determination, excuse the decline in the quality and quantity of my writing. And remember: when things get challenging, you might not have control over the events around you, but you do have the power to keep trying.

 

A lucky break

For my 25th birthday last week, I asked my mum for a job. Not a massive pile of presents. No party. Just an actual paid job that I could keep for more than one day. Not an unreasonable request, right?

I won’t lie, job hunting can be soul crushing. Voluntary work is great for what it’s worth – it keeps you busy, sharpens your skills, and contributes to society – but when people offer it as a groundbreaking idea that isn’t filling most of your CV, you can’t help wanting to see the back of it.

So when my internship ended, I started editing for my old university, (re)learning Chinese, and applying for jobs. Lots of jobs. Come Friday 8th December, I got a packaging job. Come Monday 11th December, I unceremoniously lost it, and cried in my room for about two hours. Before carrying on again.

In the weeks that followed, not much changed. Step one: look for jobs. Step two: apply for job. Optional step three: attend job interview. Step four: either get rejected, or never hear back at all. Step five: repeat indefinitely.

Last week, while no different, was looking pretty hectic; you spend ages waiting for a job interview, then what do you know, two come up. The first one was for another Christian bookshop in Leicester. Just a quiet job in a shop, reading the books, keeping everything tidy, and trying not to mind when customers blame you for not having a certain book in stock. All familiar territory, and I aced the interview effortlessly.

The second one, two days later, was for a copywriting job with an online textiles company, also in Leicester. I dressed smartly and looked friendly, and still managed to misunderstand a couple of questions they asked me, and not finish the task I was given. I didn’t think I’d come across well, but hey, let’s put it down to experience.

The following day, I got a phone call from that very company. I gave some good answers, I was told, and my interviewers were impressed. I listened politely, and, with resignation, waited for the inevitable “but…”

Except this time, it never came, and was instead replaced by an offer of full time, paid employment starting on Monday, only three days later! If job applications are like Willy Wonka chocolate bars, then it was this one that had the golden ticket, and I spent the best part of that weekend in a daze as I tried to rearrange my entire weekly schedule in my head.

And now, after what (I hope) has been a successful week, I still can’t believe my luck. I’ve spent each day editing details on the company’s database, and writing product information to go on their website, and my brain is reeling from all the new things I have had to learn. I’ve also spent each day leaving the house at about 7am, cursing the unpredictability of buses, and trying not to fall asleep on my feet. But the nature of the work very much fits my skills, and I love it. My colleagues are friendly and welcoming, good at banter, and also creme egg and spoon races. And you know what? If this means proving myself wrong about my employability, and the world wrong about Aspies managing adulthood, then it truly is a lucky break.

Purpose

It’s a common image, isn’t it? You study, you graduate, you see the rest of your life ahead of you, and you’re desperate to find your purpose in life. And then you despair when you realise you don’t have one. Right?

People have many different opinions on big topics, like purpose, and fulfilment, and some might even say destiny. At university, with all the learning you’re (hopefully) doing, it’s so easy to think the world is your oyster from then on. And optimism is important, because you need to feel like you have something to be really living for. But adulthood is hard, and if you only expect to be moving forward on a steady upward slope towards your dreams, life will be disappointing.

Then at the other end of the scale, you could argue that there’s no point dreaming. Nothing lasts, nothing is certain, and you’ve just got to deal with whatever you’re given. I’ve never been inclined to agree with this attitude, because you never know what you could achieve if you keep dreaming and planning. But even just writing that argument has got me wondering: is there any truth in that?

After months of job hunting, disappointment, and finding ways to stay busy, I’m struggling with feelings of disillusionment at the moment. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I’m working on book drafts, Demon magazine editing,* and this blog, and have often considered starting podcasts. Writing is how I communicate best, but sometimes it feels like nothing more than an old childhood dream. As a Christian, I hear, or read about, so many inspirational stories about people who have beaten far worse odds and survived by the sheer strength of their faith, and as much as I keep praying, I can’t help wishing I had that strength.

Facebook, by the way, for all it’s many fine qualities, does nothing to help here. Rather, it taunts you with glimpses of how successful your friends and acquaintances seem to be, whether socially, romantically, or in the world of work. Thus creating a standard that is about as reachable as the end of a rainbow. But your goals in life don’t have to be like that.

We all seem to have a need for certainty in our lives. It’s like a basic emotional need so that we have at least some foundation for the way we live. I do believe in having a purpose, but I also believe there is a trick to it. You’re not born with it, you don’t find it – you choose it, plan for it, pursue it, and if it doesn’t work out, you choose another. You might not have full control, but the direction you try is your choice.

 

 

*The Demon is the magazine of my old uni, De Montfort University. Despite my lack of interest in sports, I’ve somehow become the News and Sports editor. My role comprises correcting other people’s work, repeatedly announcing deadlines, and reeling at the thought that I’m the only person on the team who remembers when the Demon was a newspaper. Riveting stuff.

 

Less employable?

A few weeks ago, as some of you are aware, I had a bit of a setback. Three months after I finished my Christian bookshop internship, I got a job as a packaging assistant at a warehouse, and was elated. I spent the whole day filling Land of Soap and Glory gift sets, moving faster than whenever I exercise after weighing myself. Apparently I didn’t start meeting my targets until the afternoon, but not to worry, other workers apparently took weeks to speed up.

So I went back for day two and got sent home for not working fast enough. After being given no training, no target, and no way of knowing how close I was to meeting it. Way to dramatically change the mood.

I sometimes think that having a learning difference and trying to find a job is the human equivalent of being one of the “less adoptable” pets at an animal shelter, overlooked because they have a medical condition, or are old, or need to be rehomed in a specific kind of environment. And lets face it, having Asperger’s does make some things harder. It also makes other things easier. But it’s the potential disadvantages that most people worry about.

From my experiences as an intern, and as a volunteer at various places, the main things I struggle with are speed and interpreting other people. Despite my frequent complaints about rude customers, the bookshop was probably the most Aspie friendly environment I’ve worked in. It required attention to detail, a love of literature, and an approachable, customer friendly manner. But then I also had to frequently ask customers to pause the lengthy set of instructions they were giving me, and repeat back to them what I think I’d understood. Then of course they’d rephrase everything, and I’d have to ask again.

As for speed, university taught me a lot about writing a whole article in the space of half an hour. What it didn’t teach me was how to stop being dyspraxic and chuck exactly the right number of toiletries into a gift set, and complete an unknown number of packages at top speed with no training.

Yet so often, the reason I work more slowly is because I’m trying so hard to do it perfectly. My blog posts, while not perfect, are a testament to this; I spend all afternoon trying to think of a great topic, and the best way to word it, and usually start writing at 5.30pm! In a shop, I’m happy to do the long, detailed tasks, like sorting and stickering and tidying, because I thrive on precision.

I’m also very firm about adhering to rules and commitments. Apparently that’s a bit of an Aspie trait. I’m rarely late, I don’t cancel plans unless there’s no choice, I do what I’m asked the first time (usually), and I don’t break rules. At the bookshop, we were frequently left short of change for customers whenever random people came in asking us to change a £20 note for them. I pulled a few strings, and now the shop doesn’t give more than one £5 and five £1 coins.

I suppose what I’m saying is: future employers, don’t be put off by words like “Asperger’s” and “autism”. If you don’t understand, just ask – if you don’t get given an explanation anyway. If the job vacancy has attracted the interest of someone with a learning difference, then maybe the nature of the work is right up their street. Keep an open mind, and a giving attitude, and you’ll have one happy employee. Provided you keep them for longer than a day.

Customers versus shop assistants

A while back, I found a quote on Facebook, which – to paraphrase – went something like this. When a shop assistant goes home, and someone asks how their day at work was, you, as a customer, are part of the answer.

I’m coming to the end of my Christian bookshop internship, and I have seen all manner of customers. Different ages, races, walks of life, you name it. Many interactions I have with them are fairly bog standard. Hello, can I help with anything? I’ll have a look…they’re right there/no we don’t have that in stock. That’ll be pounds, do you need a free carrier bag? Thank you, have a nice day!

And some people know exactly how to brighten someone’s day. Some regulars actually give us chocolate. Or a bottle of juice each. Some even need a listening ear. They’re ill. Lonely. Disillusioned. They see the shop as a safe place to vent, and I always feel honoured to have gained someone’s trust.

But of course, some drive you crazy. They expect all shop assistants to know everything. They take it very personally when something they swear we had 10 years ago is unavailable. Before opening time, they might be waiting outside the unopened door, then getting huffy with us for not opening, because they need to get back to where they’ve parked illegally. Or they come waltzing in straight past the opening times stuck at face level, one minute before closing time, and ask when we close. Before spending ages browsing.

Another thing that frustrates me is when people ask for a very specific item, but can’t give me a title, author, or publisher. A Moroccan leather Bible? Tempting to say “Damn, sold the last one five minutes ago.” A Church of England booklet on the rite of confirmation? Said customer was very cross with me for not finding this, when they’d come “all the way from London” and we’d “never let them down until now!”

Yes, some people can be downright unpleasant. We recently had someone ask us to change a £20, and make it quick, thank you very much. We were reluctant; having done so earlier had left us short of change, and we needed to preserve what was left for real customers. The person asked if we would give them change if they bought something, and got angry when they realised we had enough for that. They were more cross with my poor colleague, who was trying to explain to them, and even said so to “reassure” me. You know how it is when you feel more angry when someone messes with your friend than with you? I do!

This, by the way, was hours after my other colleague, who speaks English as a second language, got yelled at by someone for struggling to understand them and not speaking clearly enough. And about a week after I listened to a customer’s complaints about life and compliments on my job performance, only to learn they had been banned for making sexual innuendos.

To finish, I would like to thank every customer who shows nothing but respect, good manners, and the occasional treat (!!!). And to the minority? Kindly remember that shop staff are not God, or computers. We just want to survive the working day, and get home to our families. Don’t you?

Ode to Jennie – marriage, madness, and much more

Image may contain: 3 people, people smiling, glasses and close-up

At a wedding, you hear all manner of speeches. And I never did get to give my “intern of the bride” speech. So here it is.

After 10 months of messing around in a shop together, on Saturday 1st July I got to celebrate the marriage of one of my dearest, craziest friends Jennie, and fellow New Wine course member Jan*. It was fun, it was heartfelt, and it was an event that my colleagues predicted from the moment Jan became the intern at the bookshop where we work. Well, that’s what they say. Jennie hotly denies it.

Anyway. My first memory of Jennie, assistant manager extraordinaire, was at my interview last August, as Jan’s potential successor. Picture it: the bookshop’s back office, papers and packaging everywhere, and me, dutifully answering every question my now-boss was firing at me. Jennie, meanwhile, was sitting to one side silently judging me. If she had a beard, I bet she would have been stroking it.

Weeks later, and the dynamics in our relationship had changed enough to be able to communicate “difficult customer alert!” with just one glance. We bonded over our love of to-do lists, and it wasn’t long before the ones she wrote for me included “squash the world in a garlic press” or “High five yourself and then the nearest apple.” And when our conversations got too weird, we mastered the ability to stop whenever a customer came in, and resume without missing a beat once the shop was empty.

For all Jennie’s quirks, the main reason we’ve become so close is that we never felt under pressure to befriend each other. I mean, we’re super introverts. We don’t thrive under high social demands. Although I did rely on her to show me how things were done, other than that, we happily kept our heads down until we were comfortable enough to talk properly. I’d say that was a major breakthrough.

And somehow, we just connected. I love it when that happens. She has shown infinite patience with me, by the way, no matter how many times I screw up because I thought I knew what to do. Wedding preparation has been stressful for her, but throughout it all, she has remained kind, funny, and brilliant at everything she does.

She has also very generously given me a say in certain aspects of the wedding. I have to say, I think my suggestion of a giant, hollow chocolate orange as a carriage was a stroke of genius, even if she did say I’d be the one pulling it. And her hen do: 9.30am – 5pm, in a Christian bookshop, selling books, eating biscuits, and winding each other up.

And now the wedding has come and gone. Apart from anything, it was fun! It was another bonding experience with the other New Wine interns, and we had a lot of laughs playing air guitar in time to some good old disco music. I feel honoured to have attended, and know that they will have a wonderful, long life together. Jan is friendly and funny, and it has also been a pleasure to get to know him along with the other interns.

Now, in just a few weeks, they are moving to Mattersey, Nottinghamshire. Jan will be going to Bible college. Jennie will have a new job. I’ll be twiddling my thumbs in a shop where no-one sneaks up behind me, then laughs when I scream. Or finds endless good things to say about me no matter how wrong I prove them.

Jennie, thank you for a great year. Keep on doing amazing things in life!

 

 

*Think German, and pronounce the J as a Y. Please. He gets sick of being mistaken for a woman.