I have mentioned many times in this blog the words ‘ not fitting in’ and ‘feeling different’ but what does this actually mean? what does it really feel like? For the purpose of awareness week let me explain more…
When I reached my 18th birthday I thought, great! I’m finally an adult! It was all very exciting for all of five minutes when reality hit and I came back down to earth. Most 18 year olds are going out clubbing, drinking, learning to drive and eventually moving to halls of residence for university- this is the stereotype we all assume young adults live up to but I wasn’t doing any of this. I could barely catch a bus at 18 and I easily got lost in my own town- I had very different priorities to my non dyspraxic counterparts and I was very much aware of this.
On the eve of my 18th birthday I sat up in my room and had a moment to think, I knew that I wouldn’t be having a big party- to be honest I wouldn’t have wanted one and wouldn’t have had anyone to invite anyway. I was going to turn 18 quietly and I was very scared of becoming an adult. In these few quiet moments on my own I was probably feeling a bit sorry for myself, I felt that I hadn’t achieved as much as I had wanted to by 18. I was at school doing my A levels and aspired to go to university, but other areas of my life felt like they were lacking and I suffered from crippling panic attacks. I knew that in a few months time when I left school my life was going to change forever. I didn’t realise it at the time but I lacked the basic skills to make me feel like an adult- to make the transition less scary and more exciting. I was jealous about the social activities I would hear about at school, the endless 18ths taking place at the rugby club (the cool place to have a party back in the day) and those that were seen as the popular crowd. I wish I could turn 18 again- now that I know so much more about the world.
I know now, with eight years hindsight, my worries didn’t matter, I didn’t need to do all of that stuff at that age- but because you’re not acting or doing what you should be doing by a certain age- society sees you as a bit of a weirdo or outsider. I was different but I didn’t want to be that way. I wanted the friends, the parties, the drinking and people to look to me for advice, although in some ways I didn’t want any of that- I wasn’t ready to be that kind of adult just yet. It’s like when you’re a kid and you really want the biscuits on the top shelf, but you know that you can’t have them until after your tea, although that doesn’t stop you staring at them and wishing for them. I wished for things that I just couldn’t have at that time of my life. I had to work on some basic life skills first that I hadn’t learned yet that everyone else took for granted and had learned at a much younger age.
It’s difficult when people don’t understand why you don’t enjoy the same things as them, things that all young people do, they’d assume that I’m not bothered or that I’m a bit of a recluse. I really wasn’t I was just being who I wanted to be, doing things that I felt comfortable with and not what society dictated I should be doing because I was a young person. I was also into Folk music which didn’t help and wasn’t cool amongst the majority of my peers at sixth form. I was a young person but I was also an Alice, a Dyspraxic and a Geordie- this goes back to the concept of labels, we shouldn’t be defined by our labels and expected to conform to certain things because of them. I want to explain this to you, to help you understand your friends, family members or children, this feeling of standing out, what does it feel like? What has society done to make it so obvious that they don’t fit? I didn’t fit and here’s why.
My brain is wired differently, so this means when I have to learn something new I always have to take the scenic route- there’s no short cut option in the Dyspraxic brain. It simply takes me longer to do things, longer to learn, longer to acquire the skills needed to be an adult and longer to process what I have just told you so that I understand (and can remember five minutes later.) Something that takes someone a year to learn might take me five.
If you are a regular reader of my blog you will know that I went on to go to university and did very well, but its what went on away from the lecture theatres and seminars that people didn’t get and to this day I don’t think people understand. Why I wasn’t doing what people expected me to do as a student and the affect of being suddenly thrown into an environment that I wasn’t ready for.
The first thing people do when they go to university is move into halls of residence and even to a different city. I did neither. I stayed at home throughout my three years at university and I’m still at home now. I spent eighteen years of my life trying to orientate myself with the town I grew up in, so moving to a new city would have been an incredibly overwhelming task and not something I would have been able to emotionally cope with at that age. I refer back to the basic skills I mentioned earlier, these basic skills being cooking, organisation, remembering to eat and successfully getting from A to B without too much of a disaster. I struggled with tasks in the kitchen and I still do struggle to some extent with cooking, having difficulties with coordination makes operating a tin opener (I still can’t use a tin opener- I don’t know what I’d do without ring pulls!), pouring a kettle, using knives and handling hot pans such a challenge. I have to think about my movements very carefully before I attempt to do the action. Processing and sequencing difficulties also means that following recipes takes so much longer for people with Dyspraxia.
I had only just learned how to get a bus when I was 17, the only bus I could catch on my own was one bus into town and back. When I was in town I would always stick to the same route and area. My parents used to drive me to lots of places, I didn’t have the orientation and spacial awareness to successfully navigate myself to new places. I couldn’t and still can’t read a map. I also couldn’t cross a road on my own at all, I still panic around roads now but I’ve got better- sometimes I can’t see the car coming and judging distances is a nightmare. I would see other people my age going here, there and everywhere. They were enjoying being an adult and starting to be free but I had to rely very much on my parents. I felt suffocated by this. It wasn’t by choice though, it was out of necessity. People often have the assumption that I chose to live at home, that I could have moved out if I wanted to- but I couldn’t. I stayed at home because I had no other option and it’s the easiest way to give me time to grow and develop at my own pace, and not at the pace that society wants us to. When at the end of lectures people were going back to halls to continue to get to know each other, I was going back home- this didn’t help my social life and wasn’t ideal, but it was the best possible solution to my situation.
Another massive part of university is Freshers week, but what exactly is Freshers week? I defined it as absolute hell when I was at university. Instead of uniting me with other students it served to create a bigger divide and heightened the feelings of not fitting in. Most of Freshers events are centred around drinking and clubbing- the rule to having a good Freshers seemed to be to get so drunk that you can’t remember it. When I was 18 I didn’t really drink and I hated clubbing, so during Freshers I basically felt like an alien from another planet- I didn’t fit in at all. When people were going on nights out, I was left out. I went to some of the organised day time events, I remember enjoying a hypnotist show but it wasn’t the same as the evening activities. I didn’t like drinking much because having Dyspraxia sometimes feels like you are drunk, the effects of alcohol just exacerbates my already bad coordination and I don’t like that feeling. I find it really challenging when I can’t coordinate my body to do what I want it to, so the thought of actively making yourself uncoordinated- the very thing I had been trying to develop strategies to overcome all of my life, just didn’t make sense to me. My idea of a terrible night out is at a night club, the hypersensitivity and sensory overload of the noise, heat, lights and crowds is physically painful. In a night club I feel anxious and the flashing lights makes me feel dizzy and causes my eyes to ache. I also struggle to judge distances of the objects and people around me in the dimmed light of a night club setting. There wasn’t anything for people like me at Freshers, an alternative for people who don’t want to go on a pub crawl or clubbing to the early hours of the morning. To this day I believe that Freshers weeks aren’t inclusive, they only include the section of the student society that fit into the stereotype of what students are meant to be. The rest of us literally get lost in the crowd. Despite this testing experience at the start of my university life, I was growing as a person, little by little I was learning things about myself, about how to interact with people- I was learning lots of academic stuff too but learning how to be an adult was the most important skill I’d developed. I learned to be comfortable with being me, what I do and how I feel- and not to feel embarrassed about it. At one time I felt pressured by society but now I feel free from these constraints.
Eight years later, I have been to university again to do a Masters and have moved on from that 18 year old girl who was very unsure of herself. I’ve found what I enjoy and people that I can try and fit in with, most of the time I feel inside the crowd. I will go to the pub and I do drink these days, but I never drink so much that I can’t stand up and most people accept that. I do sometimes feel a bit different when people are drinking more than me, and I’d rather have my bottle of water some days but I know that I don’t have to be like everyone else- and if they don’t like it, well that’s their problem and not mine. I still can’t stand night clubs and that will never change, most of my friends aren’t into clubbing though so it doesn’t seem to affect me as much as it did at university. It sometimes gets to me when people just assume that’s what young adults do without considering the different types of people that make up our population and that we don’t have to fit into one stereotype. I still live at home and I will eventually move out- I won’t be here forever! Although right now I need to continue building up the skills so that I will be able to thrive when I do eventually fly the nest. Improving my sense of direction will make a massive difference in my life and decrease many of my current anxieties- maybe that should be my next goal. One thing that I’ve wanted to do more than anything is learn to drive, my independence and sense of direction would improve massively with a car. However as with many disabilities, the process of learning to drive isn’t so easy. I’m on a waiting list at the moment to be assessed to see if I will be able to drive, there is a chance that I will never be able to and if I’m honest that will really crush my dreams, but if I am allowed to learn to drive, it could take years and years. It’s a long road ahead of me, but a very exciting one.
I wanted to write this post because a theme running right through my life is not fitting in, being on the outside of an invisible wall and being the person that is seen as a bit different. It’s so important that people understand exactly why people don’t fit in- or that society doesn’t fit in with our way of thinking (a more positive way of putting it!) We are all different, we need to embrace these differences, create environments where people feel included and avoid setting unrealistic expectations that some people will struggle to meet- but that doesn’t mean never, everything is always possible. I am always very happy to explain to people why I do things or avoid certain situations and I’d much rather they ask questions to have an understanding than develop a warped assumption. I truly believe that we will all reach where we want to be in the end, just for some of us it will take a bit longer than others- it doesn’t mean we won’t ever conquer our journey. The next time you see someone who seems a bit different or isn’t fitting into the ‘norm’, have a chat with them- you may be surprised by what you learn 🙂