I have always found traveling and navigating myself around on public transport very difficult and stressful, I first mastered the art of catching a bus confidently into town on my own when I was 17 and shortly after that I took off and caught my first train alone when I was 19, a massive mile stone in my life marking the start of my freedom and independence. I don’t know how much of my difficulties with traveling are caused by my Dyspraxia or anxiety, so I’m concluding that its a combination of the two. Since I caught my first train, with a lot of support from friends, family and a few supportive youth workers who were a big part of my life at the time, I have never looked back. My friends are scattered right across the country so being able to visit them by train is a very useful skill to have, and one challenge that I am so grateful that I overcame- just a little later in my life than everyone else but that’s okay because I got there eventually. Since I discovered that travelling was pretty cool and could take me to my friends, I have explored many cities in England, been to folk festivals and to India. I think maybe India needs a whole blog post of it’s own soon, it was very much out of my comfort zone but an experience that stays with me to this day and gave me the confidence to just get out there and do it. My friends were a massive support to me before I went, when I was at the airport and panicking that I was about to get on a plane with 47 other people I had never met, to live in a country miles away from home for three months and when I came back with many stories of adventures to tell. The 47 people turned out to be the most amazing and lovely people to share the experience of India with, so I didn’t have anything to worry about. Whenever I find myself struggling or doubting myself, my friends always remind me of India and how much I achieved while I was out there.
This week I had to travel to Manchester for one of my oldest and most loyal friends birthday party, who I met when I was 18, at Folkworks Youth Summer School, the one place that gave me a social circle that I had never really had before. I was respected and valued, a place where I could just be me and be proud of that. Thank you to everyone I met at the Folkworks Summer School over the years who made that part of my life so memorable and positive.
I have caught the train to Manchester many times, but still the thought of something going wrong causes anxiety and fear, As I have mentioned before in this blog, my Dyspraxia makes organisation incredibly challenging. I have to pack my bag about five times because I am so terrified that I will forget something, otherwise I will really struggle to leave the house at all, let alone on time. I am fortunate that my friends are very understanding and rarely get offended if I am late or do not come at all. I was determined to actually get there this time because birthdays are important and my friends are also very important to me, so having an anxiety attack and giving up on the day was definitely not an option. To overcome this I give myself extra time to prepare myself, long before I have to leave so that I am not in a mad rush. I always make sure that I am at the station early so that I have enough time to work out what platform I need to be on, navigate through the crowds and make sure that I find the right train. When I first started traveling I used to carry a train timetable with me and tick off the stops as they came up but now I am comfortable with the route, I don’t feel I need to do that. When I first started catching trains, the thought of coping with changes caused far too much fear, but now I have realised that if I need to change anywhere, it will be useful to change at York because It’s become a familiar place and is a smaller station that I can confidently navigate myself around. This week I changed at York, and caught my connection within plenty of time.
I made it to Manchester Piccadilly station without any disasters and found a suitable place to sit down to mentally prepare myself for the next part of my journey. I texted my friend to let him know that I had arrived and he suggested getting a tram to near where he lives. I have caught the tram in Manchester once before on my own and a few times with other people. The time I did navigate Manchester’s tram network alone, I was so proud of myself and thought that I could do it again, this time without constant texts of reassurance talking me through every step of what I must do. I think its always important to not be afraid to ask for help, I have improved my confidence with traveling only with lots of help, support and patience from other people. If I had been told to get a tram without being told exactly what to do, It would have been twice as hard for me to achieve. When I was younger I used to be very embarrassed and self conscious about my difficulties, but now I accept them, talk about my worries and embrace what I have to do to overcome them. Sometimes traveling doesn’t always run smoothly and this was a time when I put my fight or flight responses to the test. Fight or flight is our bodies reaction to danger, when we feel threatened we get ready to fight the danger or go into flight and escape. This creates the feelings of anxiety and the physical symptoms associated with this. The diagram below is very useful in explaining some of the science going on in the body when you are forced to go into fight or flight.
I find it interesting that our body has an inbuilt stress system to let us know when there is a threat around the corner, but it is also highly problematic because my stress system often gets it wrong. I would understand if it wanted to warn me that a lion was around the corner ready to attack because that would be quite a lot of danger and a warning would be good so that I can hide, but so far I have never been attacked by a lion.
There are lots of sensory issues related to Dyspraxia that I haven’t gone into great detail about in this blog before. For me this causes a heightened sensitivity to sound, temperature and textures of some foods. Some people with Dyspraxia also find touching and physical contact difficult but this doesn’t seem to affect me. So being in a busy, crowded, noisy train station with hypersensitivity and your body going into fight or flight isn’t necessarily the best combination. I set off for the tram stop, only to be greeted by a nice man in a yellow jacket telling me that the trams aren’t running from Piccadilly and wouldn’t be running for 10 weeks. He mentioned something about a bus but because my body was going into panic and I suddenly felt disconnected, I didn’t take in or process what he was saying to me. Looking back there was probably an easy solution to my dilemma, although the idea of a bus in a city I don’t know very well seems to heighten my anxiety further.
I made my way out of the tram stop and back up the escalator, where I sat and cried in the middle of Piccadilly railway station. I was so scared, I really wanted to go to this party but there seemed to be too many barriers in my way. I also felt a bit silly because any ability to rationalise the situation just completely went out the window. Eventually I calmed down enough to text one of my friends an update about my lack of tram. I explained that I physically couldn’t find an alternative way to get to the destination on my own. This is because I don’t deal with change very well and was terrified of my flight or flight symptoms resurfacing in the middle of a strange city, with no easy way to escape. Luckily my other friend rang me up and talked me through what I had to do, I calmed down considerably and began to rationalise and problem solve my situation. I knew that if things did go very wrong, there were people who would come and rescue me, but I didn’t want them to rescue me just yet- I wanted to try and work it out for myself. Eventually after a few phone calls later, I concluded that the easiest thing to do to prevent my body from thinking its in danger was to get a taxi to where the trams start again. I found a taxi, that had a very angry and rude taxi driver inside it- not what you need when you are trying to prevent you body from feeling threatened and you want to get to your destination with as little stress as possible. When I arrived at the tram stop, I was so pleased to be free from the angry taxi man and continuing my adventures through Manchester. Eventually after some initial confusion over the ticket machine, I made it safely onto a tram that was going the right direction. I was so pleased and reassured to meet my friends at the other end, proud that I had overcome the challenges I had faced with quite a lot of help along the way- but I did it! It is often overlooked how much time, effort and energy it can take to accomplish such a task, I was very drained afterwards, both emotionally and physically. My fight and flight mechanism went back to normal as it realised that my friends were not danger. The stress and confusion was worth it because I had a really good time that night, I find social situations challenging and was scared that I would become ill, occasionally I did feel as if my fight or flight was going to start up again, but then before it had a chance to do anything, it assessed the danger and realised that I was safe. It is so important to talk about situations that cause you concern that others may sail through, because without my friends having as much understanding as they have of me, I wouldn’t have got the help and support I needed to overcome my difficulties and to feel so positive about it. Throughout my life I have developed many coping strategies to compensate for my Dyspraxia, and this one trip alone has given me many more to add to my list. I feel incredibly empowered to move on and make progress with what I have achieved so far; Dyspraxia does not close doors but opens them as people and society develop more of an understanding of you. Thank you to all those mentioned in this blog who have contributed to my journey of understanding myself so far.