“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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