“I really admire your tenacity to conquer adversity,” I’m told. I’ve accepted these compliments, that my achievements have been noted and that I’ve had some degree of impact on other peoples lives. We all crave attention. Human connection. To feel appreciated. Other people really do matter in shaping who we are. But adversity? Now in my 30’s, I’m at an age when people ask more emotive questions with difficult answers. Many with few clear answers, if they have answers at all. I should understand who I am. There should be a plan. And one thing people don’t give you, is the tools to reconcile the fact that you’ve “conquered adversity” by the age of 31.
I’ve been reflecting a lot recently about belonging and what it means to belong somewhere, to feel connected to others, to a community. We often, if you’re anything like me, hope to have more friends who understand, who get it. People who you don’t have to over-explain things to. One of my earliest memories of belonging, is my involvement in a youth organisation, the woodcraft Folk. A much better youth movement to scouts and guides. A hippy version if you want a comparison. Through woodcraft we’d go camping, and create communities. These communities were made of young people and adults with shared values, built on an ethos of friendship, peace and cooperation. The lyrics of one of the songs we used to sing around the campfire have stuck with me all these years;
“This shall be for a bond between us, that we are of one blood you and I, that we cry peace to all and claim kinship with every living thing, that we hate war and sloth and greed, and love fellowship. And we shall go singing to the fashioning of a new world.”
A song I sung around a campfire, as a round, is more poignant today than ever, the inequalities that covid-19 presents, the Black Lives Matter movement, Brexit, Trump and June being pride month. I was singing for a better world in 1995, a world where everyone could be included. We should have sung louder because I don’t think everyone heard at the back. Quite a heavy song for a seven year old to be singing, and of course I didn’t understand all of the nuances of it at the time, but I understood that it meant we must be kinder. If a seven year old can get that, what does it say about people “protecting” statues that don’t need to be protected? What does it say about grown adults who troll other adults on social media? People who think workplace bullying is acceptable? Or that their disability is an excuse for harassing others? or adults who demand that their story is the right story and the only one that must be told. That other lived experiences don’t matter?
I’ve always felt some kind of otherness, that I was different to other people. Explaining your summer to your classmates at your middle class school, where people often don’t leave the North East, let alone the small suburban village. Most people I went to school with went to the local uni to study business studies, married someone from school, buy a house in the same village, bring up children there, who then go to exactly the same school. The only connection I have there now, is I’ve been going to the same hairdressers since I was about fourteen. I was very very different to the people I went to school with, and these differences were very much down to dealing with “adversity” and developing the social values because of this. I very much cared about other people who felt different too. I knew I didn’t always fit in with school life, so I found my belonging elsewhere.
I always remember a conversation I had with a late friend, about 2am one August morning. He told me that he worried that he was too quiet, that he didn’t always fit in and people wouldn’t notice if he wasn’t there. We went to the same music summer school, he played fiddle like me. For the first time in my life I found other teenagers on mass who liked folk and traditional music too. There has always been an inclusion in folk music, I haven’t felt anywhere else. We could connect to other people, not just through a shared interest, but through the music we played together.
I told him that he always always had a place within our group of friends there and that it wouldn’t be the same without him. I’m glad, we got to have that chat but I wish I could have said more. Knowing what I know now, I really wish I’d given him more time. Since our conversation, I made an extra effort to ensure he felt included and that anyone else I met had somewhere they could belong too. I made sure he was invited up here when I had people over and that no one ever felt left out. We clicked because we were both a bit different. He couldn’t make it to my 21st because my birthday is at a ridiculous time near Christmas, and making plans is always near impossible, but I made sure he knew I wanted him there. I sent him a message so he knew he would be missed and we would make plans for the new year. That’s important – making the effort to invite people – even when you’re certain they won’t be able to come. It’s all about the inclusion. Those words “I don’t always fit in” have stuck with me. They’ve stuck with me, because there have been times in my life when I’ve felt exactly the same. That I don’t always belong too. And now, I’m at the stage of reassessing my belonging again.
I’ve dealt with my otherness by making sure other people around me feel included. And have a place to call their own. I went into a line of work where inclusion is at the heart of what we do. Ensuring young people can belong. Creating communities that come together. Developing the human need of connecting with other people.
I’ve volunteered to give others a place to fit in too. All of my life because of that one conversation, I’ve made sure friends and strangers alike are given a platform to participate and belong. In my 20’s I went back to Woodcraft to volunteer as leader, I took children and young people away on camps, facilitated wide games, bivyed out under the stars and cooked pasta for the masses, because I believed so strongly in continuing my search for a new world. My days with Woodcraft came to an end when my friend died, and I looked up to another woman a decade older than me, who it turned out was ultimately bad for my mental health. Grief compounded this. Ending that friendship probably more dramatically than neccessary was something I’d needed to do for years. She led me into a false sense of belonging, an unhealthy sense of belonging.
Since recognising that I do have this difference called dyspraxia that won’t go away, not like involvement in a youth group or a music session, that I can literally stop attending. I can’t walk away from myself, as much as that sounds appealing sometimes. I’ve done the opposite of denial as a teenager, and really accepted who I am. Supporting other people to understand themselves too. It was great until I started questioning, why? Why did I do this? Why have I spent years talking about a difference that for all of my adolescence I’d kept hidden? As you may know, and I can talk more openly about this now as I don’t have any volunteering responsibilities, I’ve been trolled, bullied and harassed online by people from a community I thought I’d belonged. A group of people I’d really invested my time in. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve questioned who I am, like really questioned my identity, and distanced myself from anyone who felt like a reminder on Twitter. Do I feel more at home in the neurodiversity world? Is mental health twitter better?
I desperately wanted other people to feel like the could belong too. That inclusion was at the heart of it. I’ve always done it for other people, and never myself. Being so invested in one community has made me forget something important, that having a diagnosis of dyspraxia is only one part of my identity, who I am, where I belong. I would never force friendships on people just because they have dyspraxia too. Having more to talk about means conversations can last three hours and don’t dry up after ten minutes. Those shared connections go further than something, that is intrinsically who I am but isn’t all of me. My friends are writers, musicians, vegetarians, cat owners and self doubters too. Some have “conquered adversity”. Some have not. They are people I want to meet up for coffee and not feel like we’d run out of things to say. And dyspraxia, whether they are dyspraxic or not isn’t always mentioned. I’ve now realised that it isn’t, and was never my responsibility to make myself belong.
Belonging is something we all have the responsibility to achieve. Not for ourselves but for other people. I learned that it was up to me to include my friend and other friends who felt different too. No one should have to feel that no one would notice if they weren’t there. We should all be able to fit in somewhere. It’s other people who create those barriers and make that seem impossible for some. People who talk about themselves but rarely about others. Shouting that their story is more important. It’s never you and always about them. Since trying to work out where I belong (or don’t belong) again, that 2am conversation is more vivid than ever. It was about eight years ago but doesn’t feel that distant.
I learned to really really value my friends. And that other people’s actions make people feel excluded, we all have a responsibility to include. And listen. Listening is important because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t know all of this. Or maybe I would but it would be all about me. We all have the responsibility to listen. To include. To make fitting in less of a mountain to climb.
I wish more people understood that responsibility.