The power of sharing

Last week I spent six days at a residential campaign training. I was surrounded by people from across the world, from different causes and backgrounds, to explore what makes a successful campaign and to learn from our varied experiences.

I was there as part of a mental health campaign, bringing together those with lived experiences of mental illness to support young people to share their story and to tackle stigma. A stigma that often prevents many people from seeking help. Throughout the training we talked, we listened, we were questionned, we were made to think and we shared. It’s this focus on sharing, that made me think more than any of the other content that was covered.

From the first meal, sitting down with people who I’d only just met, I mostly listened. I heard stories of campaigns I knew little about, I felt their passion and eventually I began to explain why I was there. When I started to talk about my mental health, people listened and then began to open up to me about their own mental health experiences too. And this was powerful.

We often view life through a lens as we see it, spent in a bubble, with no real understanding of what goes on outside our world, other than what we see on the news, read on social media or hear from friends and family.  Until one day, when you sit down with people who have been there and hear their story. The saying “walk a mile in their shoes” stuck with me throughout the week because I know we can’t, we can’t live other peoples experiences, but we can listen and create a platform to share. Its hard for most people to really know what it’s like to be dyspraxic or how lonely mental illness can feel, unless of course you have been there yourself. Similarly I can’t begin to understand what it’s like to flee persecution in your country or to feel threatened because of your identity. We can learn so much from one another. It is often successful campaigns that bring to our attention issues beyond our world and the causes important to others. Some of these campaigns make us realise that we are affected too, encouraging more people to share their stories. In the days when I didn’t talk about my mental health or dyspraxia, I would read. Sometimes it was self help books, that I mostly found overwhelming and disheartening when I realised they didn’t help at all, but sometimes it was articles written by people who had been there too. It was these articles that really resonated and spoke to me.

The week reminded me of my time in India, when aged 21 I got on a plane to spend  three months with 47 people I’d only just met. We lived on a camp in the middle of the Thar desert, and had ample opportunity to share why we’d decided to spend such a long time, miles away from home. We also learned more from the locals than you can ever read. The stories of the market traders, tuc tuc drivers, shop owners, school teachers and street children will always stay with me. I often wonder how one particular tuc tuc driver is doing, where he is now and if he is still driving tourists around Jaisalmer. I realise I will never know, unless I go back to find those people who I met eight years ago. Their stories will have changed so much with time. We described living on camp in the middle of the desert as a bubble, even likened to Eastenders or a reality TV show. You couldn’t escape people knowing things about you and we began to forget what the outside world felt, smelt and sounded like. I wasn’t prepared for the culture shock when leaving India and returning home. There is certainly something to say about how an experience as profound as that can affect your mental health, both good and bad. Maybe I’ll write about it one day. Similarly, I didn’t prepare myself for how I would feel on leaving campaign bootcamp. As someone who naturally ruminates over everything, I have probably reflected on all that is possible, in the week I’ve been home.

Two weeks ago I shared my story in a secondary school, I told the young people in assembly of the times when it felt impossible for me to share. When I was consumed with feelings of fear about admitting that I really wasn’t okay. The young people responded with a round of applause at the end, something I didn’t want or expect. An applause that I hope encouraged at least one other person in that hall to stand up and say they have a mental illness too. Whether it is tomorrow or ten years time. I really hope they do. I want young people to be able to talk about the thoughts in their head, that are often easier to write down than express verbally. During times when I was ill, writing and language was a massive comfort to me. It became my safety blanket and I realised that I could at least share with myself those feelings, if no one else would read it.

The weeks training concluded with a session exploring sharing your personal story, appropriately bringing together the thoughts that had been buzzing around in my head from our first meal. Why do we share? Who does it help? What are the difficulties? How can we share? Does it even help campaigning? we pondered. I talked about the power I felt when I share, the feelings of unity and knowing you can empower those around you. I trained as a journalist last year because I was fascinated by the stories of others and I knew how powerful words can be. Last week has affirmed how true this is. Through language we can explain our story, educate where necessary and listen when our friends, colleagues and family are ready to share too.

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Speaking to those who are sitting where I used to be…

This week I was invited back to my old school to talk about mental health in assemblies as part of Mental Health Awareness week. I was honoured to be given this opportunity but also terrified, school hadn’t always been a happy place for me. The night before I asked myself, “what exactly have I agreed to do?” and woke up asking the same question. I arrived at school this morning and the main hall was set up for exams, my mind raced back to some 10/12 years earlier when I was sitting in that main hall, ploughing through my GCSE’S and A levels. I gave three assemblies to different year groups, talking about my own experiences and making my former tutor cry as a result. Her words at the end: “I would have never imagined you standing up there, doing this when you were at school,” have stuck with me all day. I’m proud to have been able to speak to the young people who are sitting where I used to be. I thought I’d share what I told those young people:

The rest of this assembly is going to be a bit more personal, but I hope more profound and meaningful.

I’m going to start by telling you that this absolutely terrifies me. Mental health is all about talking about how we feel, so I’m going to tell you how I feel. I would have never believed, when I was a student here, that I’d be back in this main hall giving an assembly and discussing my feelings on top. So yes, I’m terrified but very proud to be here and honoured to be kicking off Mental Health Awareness Week.

I left Whickham just over ten years ago now (which is pretty scary!) While I was sitting in this building, learning about Shakespeare in English, practicing my violin in Music and trying to get my head around algebra in Maths, I was also dealing with uncontrollable feelings of anxiety. I never did get the algebra, but I did eventually start to understand that it is okay to talk about the thoughts in my head. I began to realise that it was perfectly normal not to feel okay, and that I was part of a 1 in 4.

It all started when I was 12, in year 8, during a PE lesson. It was a nice summers day and we were outside playing netball. I started to feel hot, at first I put it down to the weather but it felt like it was more than just this. I couldn’t vocalise to anyone how I felt, and this made the feelings worse. I felt faint. I thought I was going to throw up. I needed to sit down before I fell over. I just didn’t want to be around people or in a game of netball at all. I managed to get away from the game and the PE lesson, after comments from my teacher saying that “I was walking funny.” No one ever asked if I was okay, when I was in the middle of what I now recognise as an anxiety attack. At the time, I was a scared 12 year old girl who just wanted to run away from it all. I walked back to the changing room, turned off all the lights and lay down on the floor in the dark. I felt alone, worried and I couldn’t talk about how I was feeling because no one gave me the tools to know how. Eventually teachers noticed that I was missing from PE, and the school nurse came to find me. She took me through the school to her office. As I walked along the corridor, I didn’t say a word, I was still feeling the post anxiety brain fog when you feel disconnected from the environment around you. I was overwhelmed by these feelings and my eyes started to fill with tears. Holding back tears, I asked for a glass of water and on her return she handed me the glass of water, and a leaflet about bullying. There was no mention of mental health and that what I could be feeling was anxiety. That day I spent the whole of lunchtime crying in the toilets, I didn’t know what to do.

As I got older the anxiety stayed with me. I’d be scared to go to school and tried to isolate myself from everyone around me. I adopted my own methods of self-care, I played the violin to distract myself from my anxious thoughts and wrote down how I was feeling in a diary at the end of each day. I came to school hoping that I wouldn’t be picked on to answer a question in maths and that we wouldn’t be made to do group work again in History. Getting something wrong, and everyone laughing filled me with dread.

In 6th form, the stress of exams and the feelings of what am I meant to do with my life? resurfaced. But this time it was slightly different, the fear of having to leave school and go to university took over. I developed anxiety and depression, but still as best I could, kept it hidden. I didn’t talk. No one had any idea. Eventually my feelings started to affect my school work, so I ended up talking to my youth worker, the first person to mention the words “Mental Health” to me. She encouraged me to ring the Samaritans and kept me talking when I felt low. So, I spent much of year 12 and 13, standing outside the school gates, during lunchtimes, breaks, and frees talking to whoever happened to be at the other end of the phone. No one had any idea this was going on or that I felt so lost with my thoughts. I then opened up to my history teacher, who dealt with my personal statement anxiety and sat with me while I explained how I was feeling on bad days. Filling in a UCAS application form, when your brain is telling you you’re awful and that you won’t get anywhere anyway, is a mountain to climb that few understood.

Eventually I did go and see a doctor, and several years later accessed talking therapy and a prescription for anti-depressants.

In the last few years, I have cancelled plans with friends because I was too anxious to leave the house, had an anxiety attack on a train and waited three hours at a station miles away from home before I felt okay to travel again and I have convinced myself many times that no one can possibly like me or want to spend any time with me. Now I work for Time to Change, because I don’t want young people to go through what I went through. I want you all to know that it’s okay to talk if you’re having a hard time. I’m sure there are many teachers in this room who will listen.

We shouldn’t be scared of talking about mental health, we all have good days and bad – but it’s when we stop talking, the good and the bad can develop into mental illness. I hope this small snapshot into my life at Whickham has shown you what talking can do. It is often down to that supportive teacher or friend who takes the time to listen.

 

 

 

 

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Remembering to stop

This month, and I might even go as far as saying year, has been the busiest I’ve ever known it to be. I’ve felt exhausted and have had moments when I literally don’t want to see anyone. And that’s saying something, considering I was doing a Masters in Magazine Journalism last year. Journalism school is definitely a different kind of exhaustion.

For years I’ve been the worst at not being able to evenly space things out, I don’t understand how people manage to have a life full of enough, but not too much all at once. I’ve always done absolutely-everything-all-at-the same-time or absolutely nothing, and as a result get depressed, and feel that there should be more in my world than four walls. So, I then try to make everything happen and eventually burn out, because there is suddenly too much for my brain to process. I’ve never found the “just right” recipe. I know it’s there somewhere, because some people have managed to do just enough without being overloaded. Or so they want you to believe.

At the beginning of this year, money was running out, my energy was non-existent, I was missing friends that don’t live around the corner and I felt that good things could only possibly happen to other people. I had the prolonged post university feelings of “what now?” I generally, often have all of the feelings one person can possibly have at the same time, and as past experiences have shown, this is difficult for some people to keep up with, but this time it felt different. My answer to these feelings is normally “do something big” “go away” “Do something you’ve never done before.” This was probably why, aged 21, I went to India for three months, with 47 people I didn’t know. I was seeking adventure, or possibly to numb the nothingness I felt post university. It turned out to be the best decision of my life, and I speak of those times with fond memories often, but at nearly 29 I couldn’t just run away from it all, half way across the world again. I realised that I had to face realities. Doing big, random things isn’t always great for your mental health.

I sat down, and began to make a list. In the middle I wrote “what would make me happy?” and noted down work, friends, things to do, as answers to this question. I was at a crossroads, one answer to my current nothingness was to move 300 miles away for a job, to a town I’d never been to before but nearer to a few friends or to stay here, build my career, learn to drive and be more financially able to visit long distance friends. I eventually chose the second of those two options. It didn’t make sense to force myself to deal with everything in my life changing.

When applying for jobs this time around, I kept the question “what will make me happy” in my mind, and this possibly helped get me here. I’m coming up to being in both new jobs for a month now, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been but knackered. I also now have a driving instructor, and this will inevitably take a good portion of my time and money. In April, I’ve travelled to London for meetings, came away from youth sessions genuinely feeling that I’d done something great with the young people, my baby sister turned 19 (how I don’t know, I’m sure I was only pushing her around in her pram yesterday…) and volunteered to lead ice breakers at a conference again in June. I’m also very much aware that being knackered all of the time isn’t great for my brain, or anyone else’s for that matter. No-one wants to deal with an exhausted Alice.

We are conditioned to expect that by a certain age this will happen, I’ll achieve that or my life will look like this. For various mental health related reasons my life hasn’t looked like it should and I’ve been very conscious of this until as recent as last month. Hence the attempting to do it all mentality, and then breaking before I’ve made anything of what I was trying to do. I’m still doing it all, but this time I’ve remembered to stop. At a recent meeting we were asked “What are you going to do tonight for self care” A question I’ve always struggled to answer myself, but here I was in a group of people I’d only just met, about to explain my strategies to look after myself and my brain. I talked about my cats and sleep, two important things that help when I’ve had a particularly difficult day. The other day I recognised that I needed to go for a walk after work and I’ve been going to bed no later than eleven for the past few months. I’m slowly learning that to do it all, you have to take some time out for yourself too – and – touch wood, I’m doing well so far. Honesty is also a brill tool, I’m so much better at explaining to friends that – no I don’t want to see them – and that it’s not anything to do with them, I just don’t want to see anyone. You’ll find that the good eggs amongst the crowd, will respect that. And the best eggs won’t stop trying to contact you.

Hopefully once my routine with work/driving lessons/deciding the volunteering I can do without breaking has settled down, I’ll be able to see lots of you for proper catch ups.

I’m the happiest I’ve been in a while, and this is totally down to supportive people saying lovely things, realising that my life will look very different to other peoples and that it is absolutely okay to stop, so my body and brain can have time to recover. I feel so wise saying all of that, and I’m not even 30 yet…

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On fitting in and moving on

My life has been full of asking myself “do I fit in here?” and not knowing quite how to answer. Sometimes I do, other times less so. School was full of realisations that I’d never be “popular”. Like most young girls looking for an identity – or someone I could at least identify with – I looked up to people, probably the wrong kind of people for all the reasons I shouldn’t. In my work with young people today, I know that girls in particular seek out this identity and are often influenced by others around them, but if you are in anyway perceived as awkward or vulnerable you feel incredibly lost and are often left behind. I know that being part of a group gives you a sense of power and belonging. I also know most of us want that.

My personal statement for university was easy to write, I’d hand written four pages in no time. The teacher who was tasked with cutting it down, was clearly amused and we spent hours in the 6th form common room working out how I could cut my life down to 400 characters. “NO, you don’t need to name drop the MP’S you’ve met,” she’d say. I was going to study politics. My personal statement was different to most people’s. I wasn’t an allrounder. I wasn’t head girl. I didn’t do sport and was never in any of the school productions or musicals. I was never invited to the mysterious prizegiving that seemed to be an exclusive “invitation only event.” (It only became clear what actually happened behind the prizegiving closed doors when my younger sister was invited a few years ago and I watched her receive a prize.) I couldn’t ride a horse. And I left swimming and gymnastics in primary school. I have vivid memories of girls in my year riding their horses to school, a sign of the kind of school I went to. I did however play an instrument, and after years of tying got into the local youth orchestra. My fiddle playing and more accurately my fascination with folk music formed half of those four hand written pages. It was a time, when if you weren’t going to go to music college or pass your grade 8 by age twelve – the music department apparently forgot you existed. Although folk music was the opposite and helped me to fit in, the belonging that I spent years looking for.

My personal statement was made easier to write by the values that came through and  that I really did feel proud of everything I had achieved. So the MPs names really did need to go in. A teacher once wrote in my report “She has a great sense of justice and fairness”. I was brought up to stand up for what I believed in, and for the rights of others. To shout about things when they don’t go well and with a background of feeling that I wasn’t listened to, I spent my teenage years preparing for a life where I was going to change the world. Taking an “unauthorised” day out of school to attend a “don’t attack Iraq” protest was careful preparation for this. Or at least that is what I thought university would bring me. I wanted to study history because my history teacher believed in me, but I wanted to study politics because for a moment I believed in myself, that I could stand up for others who struggled to find a voice. I was surrounded by socialist ideologies growing up, with Guardians, Radio Four and Woodcraft Folk not too far away. A world where at the best of times we were listened to and worked towards a better world, and at worst were so liberal and often turned a blind eye to some situations, that would horrify my middle class secondary school. I spent my summers camping in fields, singing around campfires, trying not to fall into open trenches and talking to people who really thought they had the answer to the worlds problems. Maybe if all world leaders spent a week at a Woodcraft Folk camp, the world would be a better place. This is what we all believed. I’d go back to school wishing that society could be one massive woodies camp (later that turned into folk festivals) and assumed that I could talk to people about the same issues I discussed in my woodies bubble. It was a bubble, a bubble that made not fitting in anywhere else seem not so bad. I debated with people about my vegetarianism and why I boycotted Nestle. I spent RE lessons arguing with anyone who held views that worried me. I made it clear that I was up for a debate and whilst I thought this was a good thing at first, I quickly became the butt of everyones jokes. They began to laugh at me, and I became known as the clumsy, hippy, vegetarian. If you ever want to fit in anywhere, don’t decide to put up “Baby Milk Action” posters around your school or set up an environmental club. I did everything in my power not to fit in with the popular girls. On starting university, I quickly realised that people don’t always study politics because they want to make things better as I did, they also do it because their dad is mates with David Cameron and someone at a Tory party conference said they should study it. I also discovered that you’ll meet friends, who like you don’t quite fit in, but will suddenly disappear, I wasn’t even dropped, she literally vanished. I’m glad that happened at that time in my life, because now I’d probably overthink it until there was nothing left to think about. Anyone disappearing from my life now without a trace, immediately makes me think the worst. So please don’t do that.

Recently I had a discussion with a friend about the pressure young people are under these days, I’m of the generation when social media was around but was only a small part of our life. I remember using a landline to phone friends, and spending hours chatting crap because that was how we did things then. I had Myspace, and some prehistoric thing called Beebo. Facebook had only just come on the scene and if you wanted to chat to anyone instantly you’d wait forever for MSN to load (on the family PC) or pick up the landline. Now if you are socially awkward, quiet or a bit different – you are also all of those things at home, online. The one place where I’m sure you want a break from not fitting in.

Schools expectations made me so naive that I thought going to university will get me a good job. That somehow it will all fall into place when you get a degree certificate. It didn’t and it probably won’t for most people, unless you have rich parents with “connections” who can get you contacts and a job in the city. I’m 30 this year, something that I’m trying not to think about until I have to because I know I’ll have to mark it in some way and I’m useless at being responsible for other people having a good time, who probably won’t know each other as that’s just how my friendship groups work out. I digress, but the point is at almost 30 I’m “just” on the cusp of working out what I want to do and moving on (or forward.) It’s taken me a decade to realise that things won’t just come to me over night, my degree won’t “open doors” on its own and it will take years of failed jobs, periods of signing on, education and different friendships for things to finally start to fall into place. A few months ago I found out that I was offered two part time jobs, in fields that are so important to me and make everything I’ve worked towards worthwhile. One job would have been quite enough, but being offered two at practically the same time was quite something to get my head around. Having two come along at once has been overwhelming, exhausting but brilliant all at the same time. I felt like I had status again, that I had something to work for and that I fitted in. I’ve mentioned before my limiting options, which has meant retraining several times and a few jobs that didn’t suit me or the way my brain works, not everyone has these kind of setbacks and without them I would probably have got here much earlier than almost 30. Ten years ago I didn’t want to be here (physically and emotionally) but a lot can happen in a decade, some things don’t seem as important and we learn to pick our battles. I fit in now more so than I have ever done before, which is a brill thing in itself. I’m privileged that I have had the luxury of education and time to deal with life’s difficulties, so I can work out what I want to do. Most people don’t have these opportunities which results in years in a career that’s not right for them, with little guidance. I still stand by what I said in my personal statement when I was 18; to speak for others who find it difficult to find a voice, so they can be listened to. All things considered, I’m doing just that, although in a very different way to how I imagined back then.

During a late night, alcohol fuelled chat, a friend once said: “I’m Scared of the future, but it will all be okay.” I wish I could develop that kind of optimism.

 

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“But it hasn’t happened to me yet. Will it ever?”

I have historically written an end of year review or roundup of some description, but this year for various complicated reasons, I didn’t feel up to writing one. For as long as I can handle, I’ve decided to have a break from social media, something that all of us should do for our mental health from time to time. Friends can still contact me by text – and I welcome this – I don’t think I could completely detach myself from conversation, but having some distance from “the best version of ourselves” isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

When I was growing up I made plans, and then when things didn’t go as I’d hoped, I would often negatively blame myself. Or more often in later years, was negatively blamed by other people because of how they see me. Most vivid example is a former manager questioning my abilities because I didn’t appear how he expected youth workers to be. I was quiet/thoughtful/reflective – he wanted a “loud, bubbly Butlins style rep” which I am not or will never be. At the time I ruminated for days about how I could be this better person, that everyone seemed to want. I was convinced that it was up to me to change. After a while this becomes a vicious cycle. We are intrinsically programmed to compare ourselves to others, where we go on holiday, the cars we drive, our education, what people eat and even our accents. If someone sounds a bit “southern” we immediately decide that they must be “posh” and if they have an accent, they’re definitely “common”. To fit in, one of the first things we do is try to alter the way we speak. If someone appears more quiet at school than others – they’re probably struggling or are not as capable as other people. Judging our capabilities on who we appear to be can lead to some pretty awkward and difficult situations. I was bullied for being the “posh girl” at school. My vegetarianism and dyspraxia probably didn’t help matters either.

Ten years ago I wondered where I’d be in a decade, I was 18, had just started university and “had my life ahead of me” or so everyone kept saying. We map out our future, moving away, relationships, driving, children, careers. We assume that all of these things will happen. An eleven year old in a youth club recently told me how old she wants to be when she has kids, it was younger than I am now – planning starts from such a young age – and working with young people, I see the comparisons they make and know all too well the damage it can do.

Now I am that decade on from when I first started university, I’m still living at home, yet to learn to drive, marriage and children are miles off and I haven’t found a full time job. I have often thought that all of these things, the plans we make as children, the “hopes and achievements” books we fill in during PSHE and the picture we paint of our future, are milestones that happen to other people, and not me. That my plans will never happen. That I have essentially failed at everything I set out to do. Anxiety you see is a bitch, and is probably the worst bully I have ever known. I wanted to write down how I am feeling, or have felt, not for pity or to moan, but to challenge the “perfect picture” we paint on social media and in person. And sometimes, the best thing we can do is step away from everything and really make plans that matter. My plan for today was to have a shower, and it felt brilliant to achieve that. It’s the small goals we need to instil in our young people, that will eventually, in time, feed into those big goals.

I regularly wonder what could have been but wasn’t. You know, “Well I could have lived there but didn’t” “That person might have been good for me if I’d given them the chance” “What would have happened if I’d got that job?” You know, we all do it. Now I’m in the last year of my 20’s and wondering if my 30’s will be “like” or very different to the last ten years. My dyspraxia means that naturally some things are going to be more difficult than others, so finding a job to “get by” until something else comes along isn’t an option. Although this knowledge didn’t stop me trawling through the internet recently thinking “well if there are no jobs in youth work, and I haven’t got the necessary experience required in most journalism job ads, what’s the worst that could happen if I apply for a job in retail, or a bar or a call centre? I mean, everyone else does it.” I’m beyond complaining or even attempting to explain this type of “barrier” or even these thoughts, that often come and go. We all want to change for other people, to fit the “essential and desireable” in a job spec or to simply impress our friends or colleagues. But sometimes, we just can’t. We can evolve but who we are is always going to stay the same. This is one of the most important things I’ve learned this year. Telling yourself that “you’re fine” is probably one of the hardest things to do.

A friend recently told me; “we are all on our own unique timeline”, and after a while I’ve began to see how this is more true and relevant to society today than ever. We will all get there, but some of us might choose the train, and others will prefer the bus.

 

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“I hear you are not to do heavy work” – dyspraxia, mental health and an Indian anniversary

This week is Dyspraxia awareness week, alongside it also being World Mental Health Day – both are very relevant and important to each other. It is also 7 years on Thursday since I got on a plane to India. 12th October 2010 is a date I’ll never forget – so it all ties in nicely. I’m hoping that if you’ve read this blog before, you’re at least a little bit aware of what dyspraxia is, and you should be if you know me. If you’re not, google or reading back a few pieces is a good place to start. This time I wanted to write something a bit more specific to my life, right now.

People always knew something was ‘ up’ with me and I was diagnosed as dyspraxic at a relatively young age, but didn’t begin to understand it or even accept this diagnosis until well after university. I was just going into third year when I started to consider what being dyspraxic may mean to me. And it was only on a three month trip to India, when I really started to work out who I am. A programme that I wouldn’t have got a place on, had I not talked about being dyspraxic in the interview. For the first time in my life I had to be completely honest. Admitting to some things that I’d barely told my closest friends was hard. It was in India, in the middle of the Thar Desert where I started to keep a journal and to answer the many ‘why?’ questions that I had developed a catalogue of over the years. “Why am I worried about being lost in India forever?” “Why was the sleeper train so traumatic?” “Why was the uncertainty of India more difficult for me than the others?” “Why did I spend the first few days in constant tears?” “Why was the flying fox zip-wire more challenging?” “Why were some relationships with the Indian men who befriended us difficult?” AND “Why did I have an anxiety attack on top of a camel?” I haven’t written about this in any depth before, although if you’ve ever spent a bit of time with me I’m sure you’ll be aware of some of the stories from the above. When you’re living in the middle of nowhere, with only chai (a dog not the drink, although probably the drink too) to keep you occupied there is plenty of time to think.

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Chai the dog…

In the summer before going to India I was going through a pretty bad mental health dip, to the extent of someone who was ‘looking after’ me at a music summer school, sitting me down and making me phone the Samaritans. Sufficient time has passed since, and World Mental Health Day seems an appropriate time to talk about it. I was broken, lost, waiting to hear about India (I later found out I’d got a place that week) and trying to process not a new diagnosis but a very new one in my head. Graduating from university with no guidance as to what my dyspraxia would mean beyond education was difficult too. I was used to always having someone to go to, teachers, youth workers and the pastoral staff at summer school who probably did more for me than they were paid to do. When I turned 21 it felt like this had all been taken away and I now I had to be an adult, which is hard for someone with so many unanswered questions.

In India, their understanding of mental health and any disability that you cannot see, is very different to what I was used to. We were being looked after by a local Indian company called IDEX and it became very clear that I would have to make my mental health as invisible as possible. The times of late night chats with pastoral teams were long gone. Although the support of the six girls in my room meant the world to me. When I found out that part of the work we’d be doing would be construction work in a local village and after realising that my dyspraxia may make this difficult, I approached one of the directors, who I assumed was in charge of the Indian side of the programme. “I’m dyspraxic, I’m worried about the construction work” I said. I was still learning how to verbalise what being dyspraxic meant. I continued to talk about difficulties with coordination. He reassured me that he would pass this onto the staff member in charge of my group. During the first afternoon of construction work, that actually entailed moving one pile of rubble from one side of a school yard to the other,  our group leader, who we all knew as “Uncle G” pulled me aside. He was seen as a wise man and an elder, being an ex school teacher. “I hear you are not to do heavy work,” he said. ‘That’s not quite it’ I thought, but didn’t feel like explaining in front of the others in my team. He then proceeded to tell me that my job was to pull weeds out of the ground, while the everyone else was set to work on tackling the rubble. I felt singled out and isolated. That what I was doing had no meaning. But I knew that any understanding of dyspraxia in India was non existent, Uncle G thought he was being helpful but had actually excluded me from the rest the group. I wished I hadn’t said a word.

In the years since India I have learned that practical tasks aren’t my forte, I’ll never work in a bar and learning to drive this year is going to be challenging. No one explicitly told me this, (and if I had been pigeon holed in this way I’m sure I would have bitten the persons head off), I’ve had to work it out for myself. I’ve also learned that ‘trying hard’ is very rarely seen as ‘the best.’ And this upsets me. The idea that those who don’t get ‘the best’, don’t try hard, upsets me more. When I recently challenged someone who held this view I was told, “That’s just how things are and you can’t change it. Employers aren’t interested in how hard you work, they only care about your grades.” I missed out on a first at university because of mental health, and people often put several identifying factors together and assume the opposite to reality. I can hardly write ‘I was confused about who I was at the time but was nearly there’ on an application form. I went to the kind of school where everyone was expected to go to university and to do well. In general people with dyspraxia often have to justify themselves or offer explanations as to why they do things, have or haven’t achieved certain milestones. Moving out, driving, and a stable career spring to mind. I certainly see it in my relationships, and India is an example of when I had no option but to do the opposite and keep quiet. I wanted to get through three months alive and would spend my weekdays hoping that the following weekend would be okay. We’d all leave the safety of camp at the weekend to go into nearby towns, that can be dangerous for a white, young western woman, and being dyspraxic made me more vulnerable. Being genuinely pleased that I’d lived through another weekend seems odd to most people but was perfectly rational to my anxiety. I didn’t talk about these fears while I was there, I just got on with it and dealt with the dogs, cows and men as best I could. I wouldn’t change going to India at all, I generally had the best time, and have stories for times with friends at the pub that seem to never end.

When I was younger and started to apply for jobs for the first time, I tried a lot that made me feel vulnerable or extenuated my weaknesses. I trained as a teaching assistant shortly after India with a view to going into teaching. I quickly realised that the practical tasks and admin required in a primary school would cause me problems. I fell out with the photocopier most days and my difficulty making displays around Christmas prompted funny looks from the teachers. With this teaching assistant qualification, I signed up to an agency. After a short time with them I realised that someone ringing me up in the morning asking me to get to a school often in an area I was unfamiliar with in an hour, was making my anxiety worse. “Why can’t I just do it?” I asked, every time I turned down a job because I physically couldn’t get out of the door without an anxiety attack. I then failed getting onto a PGCE because of my poor performance in the Maths test. Shortly after realising that I needed to be out of the education system, I trained as youth worker. I’ve had to work around practical tasks and ensure that I put as much planning in as I need in my current job. This often means going to places the day before so that I can become familiar with a new area. Putting me on a football field at the beginning was a disaster, but I’ve slowly learned to verbalise my dyspraxia and to answer the ‘why’ questions, that seemed impossible to get my head around when I was younger.

Now I’ve found out (as of today) that I am due to graduate with a Masters in Magazine Journalism next month. I am beginning to look for media jobs, and this time I have more understanding than ever before. I’m also leaving university with very little knowledge of ‘how to find a job in journalism or writing.’  This lack of guidance hasn’t changed and like times before I’m going to have to work out ‘what’s next’ for myself. I am also realistic, and don’t expect anything quickly. Going through stages of trial and error, a trip to India and testing out disclosing different bits of information to different people has all helped me to accept myself. If there is one thing that you are going to take away from dyspraxia awareness week and World Mental Health Day, I’d hope that you understand that it’s just as important to prepare someone for what their difficulties may mean after education and away from any safety nets that they are familiar with, as it is to prepare them academically. It really can be quite difficult and confusing without that preparation…

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I’m in my 20’s and lonely

Last week I took myself out for a coffee. As I sat down to my cappuccino, I wondered, how many people close to my age feel lonely just as I do? And why do we never hear about it? So I decided to write about it…

One thing that is rarely talked about and should be discussed more is being young, with your life ahead of you, opportunities at your feet… and lonely. I have felt loneliness in varying degrees throughout my adolescence and 20’s, some times were more difficult than others. There has also been times when I haven’t felt lonely at all. No one wants to talk about it because it’s hard to say to a friend “I’m feeling a bit lonely today”, probably much harder than telling someone you’ve just had an anxiety attack or you’re having a bad mental health day. Loneliness seems to be such an alien concept.

Young people feeling lonely is almost forgotten, like it shouldn’t exist, but it should be talked about more – on social media and in person. 18-35 year olds are more likely to experience depression due to loneliness than the over 55’s. Yet we feel ashamed to speak these statistics. I always remember going to a doctor worried about my mental health aged 16, to be told I’m “too young to be depressed.” It’s no surprise why it took me years to get help after this. We’re too young to experience depression and too young to feel lonely. So who are we meant to be? I recently read an article about a study revealing that one in four girls are diagnosed with depression before they turn 14, and sadly you can see why, given the mixed messages we receive about who we should be or become, and the overwhelming pressure put on young people.

I’m at the stage now, when I’ve finished a second masters, everyone I met at uni are a distant memory, most of my ‘local’ friends along with both siblings have now moved away and I’m still living at home with parents. There is so many stereotypes about young people, who we are, who we should be, what we should do and where we should be by a certain age. The list is endless. “So are you going out tonight?” a taxi driver recently asked me, (on a rare occasion when I wasn’t asked why I’m don’t drive – but that’s another blog for another day…) As if a 20 something is only defined by wild nights out on the town. I forget the last time I stayed out past 11. “No” I replied. “Just staying in tonight.” The conversation then moved on to an interrogation about my job, why taxi drivers choose this tactic to make conversation I will never understand. I’ve heard many similar stories to mine.

The majority of friends live two hours or more away from me, and like most things visiting takes planning. Even when I can visit, train tickets are expensive and unaffordable to many. The days of ringing someone up and popping out for a quick coffee are long gone. Going from seeing people everyday at uni, to this suddenly not being there is a transition we are rarely prepared for. This feels like a different kind of loneliness to before, now it feels more profound. As if the decisions I make in the next few months mean more.

Above all being in your 20’s can be utterly confusing. You have to decide on a career, that often takes a few go’s to get right. You can’t afford to move out, or to live where the well paid jobs are or at least jobs in your field. And if you’re like me you can’t get ‘filler in’ jobs to get by. You have friendship groups from different parts of your life and deal with the constant comparison this ensues. If you haven’t chosen the settle down and have babies route yet, you find yourself fending off a barrage of questions as to why. Of course there are some exciting things to being 20 something too – being in the position when you can still make decisions that can reflect the direction of your future. As scary as this also seems.

There are campaigns in the media to ‘end the stigma of mental health’ that I really do support but rarely conversation about the affect loneliness has on young people. Loneliness is silent. Rarely talked about or understood – but it should be. Having days when you feel particularly lonely should be something you feel able to share. Not feeling awkward that you’re not a typical young person or that you’re not living up to the expectations of society or random taxi drivers. When I was a student, I was asked if I go out every night or ‘just’ study. As if the latter is perceived as boring or dull. That you’re not a proper student if you don’t live the lifestyle everyone expects. The most I did was have a couple of glasses of wine at home in front of a film, the reality of the pressures of an intense Masters degree.

I have realised after feeling the most lost I’ve ever felt in the last couple of weeks, periods of adjustment are something we all deal with to varying degrees throughout our lives. The difficult times post university are sometimes clouded in the exciting, new opportunities and people that student life brings. You’re so engrossed in the student bubble, that when this time comes it’s more of a shock to the system. My time since university has been made easier with Twitter and friends being helpful several hundreds of miles away over the phone. I’m lucky, as I know so many people don’t have that. My loneliness and anyones loneliness would be made easier if more of us talk about it, that we’re prepared earlier for feeling lost and confused, and that most of all we understand that young people can feel lonely too. And probably more so than older generations because we are expected to always be out and about, enjoying what is said to be ‘the best time of our life.’ And we are often perceived as odd when we’re not.

 

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