I developed a reputation in 2014 for being a dedicated and hard working political campaigner. On four separate occasions I heard people tell someone else that I was good at it and ‘enjoyed’ it. I have no idea where they got their information, but the notion of my enjoyment is fundamentally false. As people who have read any of my autism stuff will know, I frequently put on a mask and try to pass as neurotypical. It’s a false personality, created not of lies but merely omissions of fact, a neglect for the truth of who I am.
The mask I wore to canvass completely covered my truth. I was not me on those days, I was a good little activist, campaigning for Yes and later the SNP, saying exactly what I was meant to say. The politics of it was the only truth, after all if I didn’t believe it why would I campaign? But how I said it and when I chose to speak was an act designed to stop people from being put off by my true autistic self.
The first time I went canvassing was in March 2014 in the long run up to the September 2014 Scottish independence referendum. I was in my last few months of secondary school, at a time when I had few friends and an almost nonexistent social life. I would see people posting pictures on Facebook of all the things they’d done at the weekend while I sat alone reading. I had made my decision on how to vote in the referendum back in 2013, and I had become somewhat obsessed with reading about the referendum.
It was doing this that I found out about the Generation Yes campaign launch in Glasgow, seeing it as an opportunity to get involved with the campaign for independence, actually do something with my weekend, and possibly make some friends. And so I attended. Thus began my involvement in the independence campaign.
Over the course of the following few months I would campaign on a Tuesday night in East Kilbride, a town near where I lived, so as to avoid the houses of my school bullies in my own area. Once exams were over and I’d left school, the frequency increased massively. That summer I did two things with my life – volunteered at the Glasgow 2014 commonwealth games and campaigned for independence. Given the short length of the commonwealth games, you can conclude how much time I spent campaigning.
Given my lack of friendship and struggles with finding autism-friendly employment, in my desperation for something worthwhile to do and a way to pass the time I pushed myself to my limits with the campaigning. In such a polarising high-profile campaign, there were naturally a considerable number of people on both sides who felt incredibly strongly about it. Some of these people were prone to harassing campaigners from the other side on the street. I still had issues with confrontation stemming from my childhood experiences, and as such this was incredibly damaging and hurtful to me.
On days when such a confrontation had occurred, be it on the street or on the doorstep, I had to take the following two days to calm down, often shaking and crying and doubting myself and everything I believed in for several hours after I returned home. I entered a rapid cycle of campaigning until burnout then repeat. It was unhealthy, but I didn’t tell anyone because at the time I kept my autism a closely guarded secret.
After the referendum, I joined the SNP and became involved with SNP Students, joining their National Executive Committee in my second year of university. As part of SNP Students I again attended campaign days where we would canvass in the run up to the myriad of elections there has been since then. It was expected of me, and I didn’t want to let down all those who by that point believed I was an avid campaigner.
As the months passed, I gained new friends from university, who were not involved in political campaigning, and many of whom disagreed with my politics. Campaigning was no longer the only social life I had. And with this new comparison of activities, I discovered that I did not enjoy campaigning nearly half as much as I thought I had. The stress of having to make eye contact and small talk with a hundred people in a few hours may have seemed enjoyable compared to the loneliness of the nothing I’d had before, but now it seemed only to be stress.
This revelation showed me that canvassing is something that is inherently harmful to my mental health, increasing stress and anxiety and making burnout worse and more frequent. I began canvassing to distract myself from the emptiness I’d felt in my life for all my secondary school years, but at that point I’d have taken almost anything over being alone. Though physically capable of canvassing, it was harming me mentally.
Since those days, I’ve discovered the autistic community on twitter (I briefly joined some FB groups but there was so much confrontation and discord in them that it made the twitter arguments look like friendly banter) and begun to accept myself for who I am. I have made friends, lost a few, and made more. I actually have a social life that doesn’t involve campaigning or any kind of organised activity. And I know the truth of why I went canvassing – to fill a void.
There is a stigma around refraining from an activity for mental health reasons. Many people seem to believe that if you can do something physically then any mental reasons are excuses for laziness. This is something I’ve seen in political circles. Since I’ve done it before, I must therefore be able to do it now. This is based on the false premise that nothing has changed.
I am exhausted. All that life I said I have now is draining me. Academic struggles, the pressures of socialisation, and all that has happened since 2014 has exhausted me. In school I found academic work easily, and I had nothing else happening. That’s a lot more time for recharging. These days, during term time, I’m busy nearly every minute of every day and there is no time for a break. As such, my ability to cope with stressful situations is lessened.
Canvassing is the most stressful campaigning activity to me because it involves going to people’s doors and disrupting them in their houses. While I, a politics geek, get excited if a political canvasser arrives, others react in the way I do when it is someone selling something – irritation and resentment for the presence of a disturbance. Partly due to my experiences in school, I can’t stand it when people are irritated with me or resentful of my presence. On a street stall, people approach me, which makes it easier as they want to talk (and if they start yelling there will be someone else to argue with them).
To go canvassing now would be dangerous to me – if I was yelled at or personally insulted I doubt I could wait until I got home to burst into tears, and frankly that is not behaviour you want from one of your party campaigners. In my attempts to help, it’s likely that I would end up doing more harm than good if I try and canvass in the state I’m in these days. I can still post leaflets through doors or stand at a street stall, but I don’t want to canvass any more.
The line between ‘can’t’ and ‘don’t want to’ in this is blurred, to me it is both at the same time, but to some others they deny my inability and insist it is solely lack of desire. Right now I would like to make one thing clear: it is perfectly possible that I could go canvassing tomorrow and not burst into tears while I’m out. But if I did so, I would go home that night exhausted, climb into bed and sleep for about 14 hours while shaking in fear and stress. That would not be me being able to do it – that would be me hurting myself.
I need to make one thing abundantly clear – ability changes. What an individual can do today, they may not be able to do tomorrow. What I could do three years ago, I cannot do in 2017. Life interferes and changes things. It can hurt or it can help, but it never allows anything to stay the same.
Things may change again, and in the future I might find myself doing what I did in 2014, to the detriment of my own health for a cause I believe in. But don’t hold out any hope. I am not in control of the factors which affect my disability. As for right now, I’m not going canvassing and if anyone gets annoyed at me, I’ll just send them the link to this.