Today Friday 18th December, it is my birthday- it’s also exactly a week until Christmas. I’m one of the lucky or unfortunate people (whichever way you look at it) to have everything together. This article articulates the Christmas baby highs and lows (actually mostly the lows) well. I’m sure when I was born my parents didn’t envisage bringing a Dyspraxic, who’s defied everyone’s expectations of what is possible, into the world. I bet they didn’t imagine what was to come in my early childhood. That first label of ‘floppy baby’ was the beginning of people trying to define me. Despite this, I was just seen as ‘Alice’ by everyone around me growing up, and this sense of normality made the judgements of the doctors and teachers easier to comprehend. I’m 27 now, and since my last post, I’m pretty happy with that fact.
This time of year, as well as being a time of my own personal analysis about how old I’m getting, is also a time of reflection for those of you who aren’t Christmas babies. Christmas baby or not, everyone is reflecting at this time of year- and wondering how they can loose the unwanted weight or start that fitness regime they’ve been trying to launch for their last ten years of existence. However for many the season to be merry, is also a time of great stress and worry. Since I started volunteering for one of the leading mental health charities on their helpline a few months ago, I’ve realised this reality more. There are so many lonely and isolated people in society, that in many ways become invisible, unless you either experience this extreme despair yourself or you work with those who have no one else to turn to, no one to talk to and no one to listen. I’ve seen how for some, Christmas can be the worst time of year, a time when people struggle and a time they feel so cut off from everyone around them. I hear ‘Everyone’s happy around me, why can’t I be?’ A question that is very hard to answer but easier to offer empathy. I recently watched a documentary about rich people at Christmas, and it made me feel physically ill- people were spending millions and millions of pounds on things they probably didn’t need- even the crackers cost a fortune. Christmas tree decorations that only come out once a year, were worth more than the amount of money I am ever going to see in my life time- I do not understand this world, and I know that many of us will have the same reaction- total confusion and possible anger. I then watched a documentary about living on the poverty line at Christmas- the contrast couldn’t be more clear, these people were desperate but they were also incredibly determined- making the best of their situation and making people realise, that there are still thousands of children living in poverty in the UK. As much as I despise these fly on the wall, reality documentaries- It is so important to raise awareness of the realities of Christmas time for some people. It’s not always about the mulled wine, bright lights and mountains of food. The people who I speak to on the helpline, are over the moon by me just giving up my time, to listen, when quite often they don’t have anyone else. Sometimes I rarely have to say a word, but they are still so grateful that I am just there. Listening, reflecting and caring.
As a Dyspraxic and also someone who has struggled with the associated mental health problems of anxiety since my late teenage years, Christmas time has become much more of a worry as I’ve got older. As a child I loved the magical surprises that Christmas would bring, waking up in the morning wondering what Santa had brought and going down stairs to see the tin of Roses chocolates in the place of the mince pie, whisky and carrot that we’d left out the night before. As I got older, I saw this joy through the eyes of my little sister who is ten years younger than me, so it all remained magical for a bit longer than it probably should be. As kids we didn’t get much, which is probably why I’m so angry at people who use their own wealth as a means of power. We weren’t particularly poor, but we weren’t well off either- we were just comfortable. My early Christmases can be summed up as endless books and pens- I was happy with this and so was my brother. One year we were given a Playstation 2- but that was an exception to the rule, and not the norm as it is in some families. I wasn’t brought up to be materialistic, and this has formed the basis of my morals and values, and the desire that I developed aged four when I first realised that I was ‘different’, to move towards just being pleased with being me. I wanted people to see me for who I am and not through the endless labels that I’ve had attached to me. There isn’t an exact formula that makes happiness, I have just about as much knowledge of maths needed to realise that no such equation exists, happiness is a very personal thing and something that certainly can’t be brought. The people in that first documentary, were probably reading from a different maths book to the rest of us (not that I ever read any maths books) but you get the idea.
Fellow Dyspraxic, Rosie has written a very useful article about how to cope with being Dyspraxic, anxious and in the middle of the Christmas hype. As lets face it, the three don’t naturally go well together- but they can be together, with the right strategies- that’s the important bit. Dyspraxia, anxiety and Christmas can be compatible- you just have to know how to make them that way. The thing I find most difficult to deal with at Christmas is crowds of more than about ten people- this makes shopping or just going out in general highly problematic. City centres are generally busier places at Christmas, full of stressed people trying to shop. Since I started doing my own Christmas shopping from about fifteen- I’ve hated it. Not so much choosing gifts for people, but the process I’ve had to go through to get there. Going into town around Christmas requires more energy, than any other trip to town. Coping with crowds and surviving without having a panic attack, can sometimes be like wading through treacle- but not always impossible. Dyspraxia causes people to struggle with spatial awareness, so in a crowded place, when you can’t judge how far away the person in front of you is and whether your bag is close enough to hit a small child in the face as you walk past- can be very frustrating, especially with angry Christmas shoppers around you. I once knocked over a display in a shop, and got so embarrassed that I ran out (my attempt at running is questionable) and abandoned my Christmas shopping altogether for that day. After a days shopping I come home feeling exhausted, coping with processing all the new sensory information and concentrating on navigating yourself through busy places really takes it out of you. My feet also hurt, I’m flat footed which means I don’t have any arches on my feet, as is the case with a lot of Dyspraxics- this can mean that standing up or walking for long periods of time can be excruciating.
Another new reality I’ve found since I’ve started working, is staff Christmas nights out. Over December I’ve seen many discussions on social media where people are describing being worried about their own staff Christmas parties- this reliably informs me that others have these feelings too, other people are just as terrified as me about going out at Christmas. Bars and restaurants are so much more busier at this time of year, on top of having to deal with the social anxieties of having to spend time with the people you work with- although at the moment I am fortunate to work with some lovely and understanding people. It’s very difficult to describe what social anxiety feels like to those who are naturally very social and out going, some of my anxieties stem from my difficulties with short term memory and processing conversations, so that I can both follow them and understand what’s going on- as to contribute appropriately and successfully. Sometimes I literally have no idea what to say. Going out with your work colleagues is very different to going out with your best friends, it’s so much easier to say to your friends, ‘actually I might need some help with that.’ Carrying drinks from the bar is one example, I am terrified of dropping or spilling drinks in the middle of a crowded pub and making a fool out of myself. Small things matter so much to those of us who struggle with simple everyday tasks. This year I cancelled on my work do, because it conveniently snowed but also as more time passed, the more worried I became about the event. There’s so much to consider, that for others may never cross their mind on a night out. I will get there though, just maybe not this year. I’ve realised that although social anxiety can be incredibly isolating at times, I’m definitely not alone as other people feel these feelings and have been there too. A quick Google search confirms this, by the amount of articles written about how anxiety often accelerates around Christmas time. In this article, BBC news explains how the Christmas period, is anything but happiness for the socially anxious, describing both the feelings and symptoms associated with this, and ways you can improve your own mental well being over the festive season. I’ve also started to meet others with Dyspraxia, particularly other Dyspraxic young women, and this has been a real light bulb moment for me. The realisation that there are others who understand and see the world in a similar way to me.
Christmas is a time of happiness and a season to enjoy what you have, but it is also a time when many people struggle, whether it is emotionally or practically. I’m fortunate that I’ve developed the strategies to overcome many of my Christmas challenges, I avoid crowds as much as I can and only go shopping if I have to. The most successful strategy so far for present wrapping has been to just get my sister to do it for me, it’s great and takes much of the stress of “why won’t this paper stay where I want it to” away. I also find that people are less patient and understanding around Christmas, they will just see you as being rude when you accidentally knock into them, and of course I’m not going to take the time to explain to a complete stranger why I sometimes struggle to stay upright. For this reason (and many others) so much more awareness needs to be raised of invisible disabilities but also how for some of us Christmas time isn’t always the merry and happy season that we all imagine. It can be hard, and for those who call mental health helplines, it can cause feelings that many of us can’t even imagine. We need to support each other all of the time, but more so at this time of year. Happy Christmas everyone.