With a bit of luck… Yenn Purkis

Jeanette Purkis 2006

This post is about the idea behind ‘luck’—the impact of people’s attitudes, motivation and aspirations. It is first and foremost my own experience of these things. I will preface the piece by stating that your attitude is not a determinant of good or poor character, that it is never OK to blame someone for not managing adversity well and that different people can respond vastly differently to similar things.

Autistic people often find they have a negative attitude and / or a pessimistic view. Sadly this is often due to the horrors which other human beings put us through, particularly in our childhood and formative years. One consequence of this is that when a person starts to expect the worst of others then that is all they see and they themselves start to come across as hostile or judgmental. This can serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy to their negative view. I somehow managed in my life to have that experience but to turn it around into a more positive view which, for me at least, makes life much easier to navigate. I hope some of the things in this post will be of use regardless what your attitude and approach to life might be.

Tonight I am at home and my mental health is misbehaving. The previous night I only had four hours sleep due to an elevated mood which was not making me happy but instead angry and stressed. I went to work today and struggled as I am in a new team and everything is unusual and worry about getting things wrong. The lack of sleep and jangly mood compounded this. When I got home I got into a stressful exchange on social media. I felt broken, sad and very focused on dark thoughts and fears. I ended up calling the mental health crisis team and spoke to a fellow that I hadn’t spoken to before who couldn’t work out who I was. However, while all those things were unpleasant in their own way, I did not once think that today was a bad day.

Today I had conversations with friends that I love and value. Yes, my workplace has changed but I reminded myself that I am employed in a good, secure job that I love and where I am respected. I had a cold shower as it was a hot day and felt the sensation of the cool water on my face and imagined the stress washing down the drain. I looked around at my home which is my favourite place in the world and I was grateful to be there. I viewed the call to the crisis team as being a means of maintaining my health and taking control, so as such it was a positive step. I am a highly motivated optimist who sees the world as filled with opportunity and wonder and can turn negative experiences into useful ones surprisingly easily. This has not always been me though.

I have been at both of the extreme ends of the attitude and motivation continuum through my life. I was a straight A student in high school, top of the year every year. I was at the captain of the school debate team and most feared by debate teams from neighbouring schools. I read my poems at school assembly, got high distinctions in all my piano exams and ended my high school career as dux of the school which resulted in a letter from our local Parliamentarian.

However, the outward appearance of a successful me betrayed the fact that something was going on in my life that few people knew about. Much as the teachers wanted me in their class, the bullies—of which there were many—wanted me to hate myself. Their torment was present on every school day, starting on the bus, then into school and then again home on the bus to round out my day’s abuse. Before high school I was a confident and optimistic girl, but by the end of year twelve I saw myself only in negative terms. Bullying had eroded my sense of self and the way I approached life. The worst thing about this is that it is still happening and countless people are subjected to bullying for simply being themselves. To my teenage self I felt like I was the only one and that I was expected to manage this all alone. The upshot of all of this was that I sought out poor outcomes and negative experiences. My attitudes were entirely negative and destructive. I sought out misery and defeat, so I became miserable and largely defeated.

The odd thing was that those incredibly negative attitudes somehow changed. I got to a point where I was staring into my own destruction as a recent ex-prisoner with no friends and nothing left to lose. As can happen, this rock bottom sort of experience led to me thinking I had a choice to either die or change. And so I changed. It is odd to remember this time. I had physical prompts to change my attitudes with an A3 sheet of paper with ‘10 reasons to make positive choices’. For many years, every day was an effort. It was like I was pushing against a tide of negativity and it was hard. Consciously I made positive choices, even when life was almost impossible. I was in a kind of state of attitudinal flux for some time where I was frequently faced with a pivotal choice. I decided to create a new character for myself. Over many years and choices this coalesced into who I am now.

It was not an easy path to take, but in the past few years the fruits of my efforts have paid off. I have been through, and continue to go through, setbacks and challenges, errors and defeats, as we all do. But now I consciously see adversity as a chance to learn to live and think better.

Now I am one of the ‘luckiest’ people I know but not through accidental good fortune. It would actually be just as easy to see myself as unlucky. All of this is a lot more complicated than trying to see things differently. I was in a position to do that so I could. As such, I don’t judge others’ attitudes. We see things the way we do and a negative attitude in a friend, colleague or family member is a reason for care and support rather than derision and annoyance. My experience demonstrates that attitude is a journey we are on through life and we—influenced by events on our lives and how we perceive them—can change it one way or another.

My attitude change was at no point inevitable. Things could have gone sour at any point. The best insight I have on this is to understand that where I put my focus is a bigger determinant of how I feel than the events themselves.  And I am eternally grateful for my ‘bit of luck’.

About Yenn Purkis

Yenn Purkis (formally Jeanette) is an author, presenter, autism advocate and community leader. Yenn is the author of six published books on elements of autism and has contributed to a large number of journals, books and websites. Yenn is a presenter and facilitator and regularly gives keynote presentations including at the 2013 TEDx Canberra conference. Yenn is a member of a number of committees and reference groups and is has a number of awards for leadership in the community, including the 2016 ACT Volunteer of the Year.