I’ve wanted to explore this topic for a while, but I didn’t really know how to or what to say. I’ve touched on mental health briefly previously in this blog, but now I feel it’s the right time to focus a whole post on this very important issue. I feel that the affects specific learning difficulties have on mental health, is sometimes forgotten about or overlooked. People often focus on the physical problems related to Dyspraxia and acknowledge very little about how a condition affects you emotionally. I think that this is partly because it can be so hard to talk about.
Growing up I have always felt like I didn’t fit in, that I wasn’t like other people my age and that I stood out as being a bit odd. I was a tall child, much taller than other children when I was in primary school, I’d bump into things, spill things and I always fell over in the playground- the first aid room at the school became a second home. People noticed my clumsiness and began bullying me for being different, both physically and emotionally. Eventually children started excluding me from their games, sometimes I’d try to join in, but I found the social interaction so difficult- this made it almost impossible for me to form strong close relationships. Most children instinctively know how to make friends, understanding non verbal cues and the tools needed for communication, whereas for many people with Dyspraxia, these skills need to be learnt. At the age of 8, I simply hadn’t progressed as far as my peers so began to get left behind in the playground.
I began to resort to playing on my own because I simply couldn’t work other people out, I was confused and looking back probably very lonely too. Teachers saw how far behind I was socially, so began to assume that I wouldn’t get very far academically. They couldn’t have been more wrong. I felt marginalised by my peers and written off by my teachers, the people who were supposed to support me. I was a very emotionally drained child but incredibly philosophical and optimistic, I’d wish for things to get better, once I even wrote a letter to Santa asking for things to be okay at school. I developed this resilience that has stayed with me throughout my life, I created strategies to block out what I was feeling, one of the most powerful coping mechanisms that has helped me to come to terms with and understand my Dyspraxia is music. I’d use music to escape the world so that I felt calm and relaxed. One of the most proudest moments of my life was when I started learning to play the violin, the school seemed to be against the idea, they couldn’t see how a Dyspraxic child who really struggled with coordination and couldn’t tie her shoe laces, could find the fine motor skills to learn to play a stringed instrument. I proved them wrong and found something that has remained with me throughout the many challenges, ups and downs.
As I got older the anxiety and low mood stayed with me, as a teenager I found more things that frustrated and annoyed me, some things that made me embarrassed or just want to hide. I found that people used to patronise me because they didn’t expect me to be as academically capable as I was. I’m not by any means a genius, I just achieved more than they expected anyone who had a statement of special educational needs to achieve. As I became a teenager and at this stage was very aware of my differences, I began to develop more severe anxiety symptoms. Situations involving people began to really scare me and I began to get very physically ill, to the point that I would try to avoid interacting with people- pretty difficult in a massive secondary school. I’d go and sit in the music room at breaks and lunchtimes, offering a temporary escape from it all. I began to feel incredibly paranoid about what people thought of me, I know this stemmed from the years of bullying- I’d develop negative thinking about myself ‘I’m stupid’ ‘no one will ever like me’ ‘I’m a rubbish person.’` These thoughts would go round and round in my head, and were affirmed when people avoided me or made a comment. I’d begin to believe that no one will ever want anything to do with me, heightening my feelings of loneliness. On really bad days I’d resort to self harm and punishing myself for being so ‘stupid.’ At the time I didn’t realise what I was experiencing was anxiety, and now I have realised that my mental health problems are very much linked to my Dyspraxia and the feelings of being frustrated, confused and disenfranchised that have been with me for most of my life. I was at my lowest at school but I knew that I had to get through it so that I could achieve something, despite how much the prospect of school and the thought of people terrified me.
My life as an adult, who only very recently started to understand my Dyspraxia and mental health is very much shaped by the experiences as a young person. Anxiety and more recently depression has stayed with me, it has taken different forms and I now have more coping strategies than I ever had before. I encounter new situations that worry me or make my body go into panic, sometimes resorting back to the self harm and I still have to work very hard to understand people. I still try to avoid these situations by opting to be alone rather than being surrounded by friends, despite wishing that I was able to make more of an effort with the friends I do have. I have always found it very hard to trust people, I don’t think that will ever become a walk in the park but I have found it easier to find the words to explain why I have these difficulties- so incredibly empowering. Recently I have built up the confidence to seek professional help and to talk about how I am feeling. This has enabled me to develop strategies to deal with the negative emotions and symptoms, and to explore the many positives of being me.
The challenges and barriers that I have to overcome as a result of being different can make me feel very very sad. It takes me so much longer to do things, not always ideal for the fast paced society that we live in today. However I am happy being me, it’s taken me a long time to get here, I might sometimes not seem it or wish that the anxiety attacks would stop, that I’d have more friends or that things don’t effect me as much as they do, but this makes me who I am and has made me realise that it doesn’t matter if you don’t quite fit into the box. I think it is important to understand how you feel but to also talk about how being diagnosed with a specific learning difficulty or neurological conditions can make you feel and behave. After years of wanting to change who I am and believing that there must be something wrong with me, I have gradually moved towards feeling more positive about myself, who I am and where I want to be in the future. Eventually I hope that I am able to help and support others to understand their differences and to feel comfortable about who they are. Hopefully one day we’ll live in a world where people are more tolerant, supportive and accepting of those with invisible disabilities, when we are judged on what we can do rather than what causes us fear and anxiety. I have definitely learnt the hard way that it’s okay to feel ‘different.’