This was another post for Medium. You can read it here: https://medium.com/@puzzledbyadream/most-of-us-our-only-surviving-this-mental-health-awareness-week-and-we-cant-just-talk-about-it-9c880f8eacc4
I’m trying something a bit different with this blog post. In a perhaps misguided wish for a larger audience (sorry wordpress) I’ve decided to give Medium a try. You can see my post here: https://medium.com/@puzzledbyadream/whats-normal-anyway-weirdness-storytelling-and-being-your-own-bully-d9cf6b4d6dff#.ek8661wwr
I’ve always had a plan. I’ve always known where I was going and pretty much how I was going to get there. And although my plan has changed a fair few times, I guess I’m lucky that I’ve been able to stay in control of most of it in the past few years. I changed career , I got into my Masters, I moved to Bristol. I wasn’t prepared for things to suddenly not go to plan at all.
The plan was I’d move to Bristol, do my masters and work alongside it. I got a job with an education agency who promised me teaching assistant work. I enjoyed my summer holidays, my first as someone working in education. I had 2 weeks unpaid leave, but that was OK. I’d have work soon. Then the first week of September rolled around, schools went back but I did not go back to work. For two further weeks I phoned the agency at 7am every morning and then waited whilst my phone stayed silent. And then I struck lucky, I got a temporary role as a school receptionist. It wasn’t being a teaching assistant but it paid and was in a school. But I knew it couldn’t be forever, and half term came and went, also unpaid, and then I only had 3 days more work. And I started to get worried.
I’ve applied for a lot of jobs since the first week of September. For the first time in my life, and I know I have thus far been lucky, I have not got interviews for most of the roles I have applied for. Closing dates went, reply dates passed and one by one hopes were lost. It has been my Masters work which has suffered most, I want so much to do well but Maslow was definitely right with his hierarchy of needs, and it is difficult to focus on academic work when you are completely financially unstable. My mental health has suffered too, I am highly anxious. All I can do is worry and avoid those little responsibilities which seem so pale in comparison to being unemployed.
Faced with having to pay my rent and spending so many days without pay, desperation set in. The jobs I applied for became less and less to do with teaching. And finally I got an interview. For Tesco. The place of my first proper job and also my least favourite. Desperate times really do call for desperate measures. So now I have a job picking online orders for 12, extremely early morning hours a week until the new year. It feels like a step backwards, but it feels wrong to be thinking that. I got a job, it might not pay my rent initially but of course it’s a start.
Eventually a new plan formed, as plans tend to do. I will go against what I said and get a Professional and Career Development Loan, just as soon as they believe that I am on a valid course (but that is another story). Uni have loaned me the money for this month’s rent so it’s all a little bit less dire than it was. I have a casual job washing up plates and tea cups at a vintage fair once every couple of months. I sold my old phone. I am working on funding the contribution I need to make towards the laptop Disabled Student’s Allowance has deemed I can have to make uni life with dyspraxia a little bit easier.
It might be vulgar to speak about money, but I wish people did it more. I had no idea that as a part time student I’d be eligible for no help at all from benefits, and that agency work was so unstable. The government Postgraduate loan is fantastic for paying fees but very little help beyond that. Life gets frustrating when every job requires a driving licence but you had to give up learning because you took a minimum wage job to secure a different future for yourself. Life is frustrating.
Things will be ok. I will eventually find a job. Or 5 jobs. Literally whatever it takes to keep me afloat. I have not failed, I’ve simply hit quite a large bump in the road. But I am working towards my dream career and I have a new plan. Not the one I originally made, but resilience is being able to live with change. I have lovely friends, an excellent partner and I am surviving. And sometimes that is all you can do.
I found a blog from when I was 17 this morning. I won’t share it with you because it’s really not fit for human consumption. Teenage ramblings, a complete lack of understanding and self-awareness around depression: I just seemed so young back then. I suppose that I was. At seventeen I was obsessed, maybe unsurprisingly, with the song At Seventeen by Janis Ian (yes, the Mean Girls character is named after her). It speaks of being an ugly duckling teenager realising that it’s the beautiful people in this world who get the boys. This holds much less significance to me now, but when I was 17 it was practically gospel. I always held 17 as being a pivotal time in my life, it was the year I broke out, gained some independence. Now I look back on it, I hadn’t even begun to learn the lessons that would truly shape my life.
At 25 I’m hitting yet another chapter of my life, or maybe it’s one of those sections in a chapter after a set of stars. I’m going back to uni to do a Masters, something I never thought I’d be able to do, and I’m moving to Bristol. When I was 17 I was also preparing for university, the first time around. I dreamed of life away from home. I never imagined I’d go into teaching. In fact there’s a lot of things I probably assumed would be different about being 25 all those years ago, and I should try to make sure those assumptions don’t shape my thinking too much in the present.
I think I assumed, at 25, that I would be in a stable job. As it is I’ve gone from fixed term contract to temp job to fixed term contract, and this is just the way of the world now. Part of this is my fault, giving up my dream of working in environmental science (because it so much wasn’t my dream any more) has meant throwing myself into an even more underfunded and uncertain profession. Having just completed a teaching qualification in a year, half the time it usually takes, it feels like a step backwards in a way to be going into learning support work. At the same time, however, you can’t teach students with additional needs without experience, and experience is the most important thing now. I’ve settled myself down at the bottom again, and I’m working my way up. The next 2 years of my life will be spent studying and working with living in a city I love as a sweetener. Getting into Bristol University was huge for me. That’s certainly something my 17 year old self wouldn’t have believed.
Another area that feels a little like a step backwards is going back into shared housing, but since I’m moving in with two of my best friends it actually feels nicer than living alone. I have no idea what I thought my living situation would have been like at 17, but I probably assumed that once I lived alone I would stay living alone. I’ve loved having my own places, but right now living with friends, having company and a social life is so much more important. Something that struck me from reading the blog is that I was so lonely as a teenager. My friends seemed to be constantly drifting away and I spent all my weekends with my mum or in coffee shops. I’m still partial to reading a book over a chai latte, but I have the option now. And I’m so pleased.
At seventeen I wrote “I need to get used to casual relationships, because I think that’s how things are going to be”. The funniest thing about this is that at that time I hadn’t really had any relationships at all. At twenty five I’ve finally sworn off ever getting into a casual relationship at all. I’m too old for people who don’t want to commit to me now, too old to be messed around. Around me people my age are getting married, having children and buying houses. This is so far outside of my experience I find it hard to fathom it at all. When I was 17 I think I assumed I’d have been in more than relationship when I hit 25, but this is something I am coming to accept as I get older. I don’t especially want to get married and I certainly don’t want children yet. I guess what I crave is stability, and that’s a thing I’ve always craved. I know it will happen, I will meet somebody and settle down. It worked out for Bridget Jones after all, but then she is a fictional character. I’m not quite on the shelf yet.
Things are always up in the air, things are never settled, but this is partly my doing. This all makes for an interesting life if nothing else. Something that feels like a marker of adulthood is buying my first ever bed and mattress, one that is new and belongs only to me. Its things like this that tell me I’m slowly getting there. I know you never truly feel “grown up” but sometimes I have flashes of it. I feel like I’ve nearly grown into myself. And part of that probably is Janis Ian’s words having less meaning for me now.
There isn’t a song called At Twenty Five. But Wake Up Boo! by The Boo Radleys is actually one of my earliest memories and has the line “25, don’t recall a time I felt this alive”. Well, here’s hoping hey.
I wasn’t worried when the referendum was called. I mean, it wasn’t really going to go the way of Farage, was it?
I wasn’t worried when the Gove and Johnson joined the Leave campaign. Nobody likes them, right?
I wasn’t really worried when the polls dipped in Leave’s favour, and then back again. I really thought the undecideds would swing it for the status quo.
I wasn’t worried by Lexit. Because they were such a tiny group.
I wasn’t worried when there was a battle on the Thames. I thought it showed what a farce the campaigns really were.
I wasn’t worried when the newspapers put their cards on the table. Perhaps I should have been.
I wasn’t even worried when that graph showed the older population wanted Brexit when the younger did not.
I started to get worried when the Newcastle and Sunderland votes came through. But still, it couldn’t really happen.
But then. This morning. Farage’s maniacal grinning face.
Now I worry about my friends who live in the EU.
I worry about the economy.
I worry that now Cameron’s resigned we might get Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Look at me, I’m not even pleased he’s resigned!
I’m worried we have no plan now.
I’m worried that we aren’t big enough to actually go it alone.
I worry for the EU migrants living and working in this country. I worry about what would happen if they were repatriated. Who’s going to fill all those jobs?
I worry for everyone in receipt of EU grants. Much of Britain was built on them, much of the arts are funded by them. You can bet your last, lower valued pound that the money spent each week on the EU won’t be spent on these projects. I work in FE and we get those grants too.
I worry about Human Rights. I like having them. The Tories do not.
I worry about travel. About being able to live where I want. About house prices and rental prices.
I worry that my generation is going to be the tester for all this. We’re going to have to live with the effects the longest and so few of us voted for it.
I worry that we won’t have any control within the single market, even though we’re going to be trading in it.
Seriously though. Tell me what the good part of this is. On the world stage we just look like xenophobes with no common sense. I like being European, I’m fine with migration. And I’m worried.
Just over a year ago I lived in a lovely mezzanine flat with a balcony. I had a graduate job. A boyfriend. I didn’t have many friends. I lived in Bath. A year ago things began to change and now my life is unrecognisable from that life that I had before. It wasn’t a bad life but it was missing an awful lot, and the year from then has been quite a journey.
The first thing to go was the boyfriend. At 20 months, this had been my longest relationship. But we were upset with each other more than we weren’t, and at the stage where we should have been discussing moving in together and beginning adult life we were at a stasis where I was ready and he was not. All around us couples lived together, were planning trips to Australia together, some were even (and I have no idea how) beginning to buy houses together. But we weren’t there yet, and it began to be clear that we never would be. So he told me he didn’t see a future with me, and we split up. At first I was gutted, but only at very first. As time moved on and the initial grief began to clear I found that I missed him less and less. I got used to living an independent life again, which was ironically the sort of life he’d wanted me to lead whilst in the relationship. I made friends and so began one of the better summers I’ve ever had.
Before we split up, we’d started going to a board games group in a local pub, where we met a couple we vaguely knew from political gatherings. After the break up I continued going to the board games group, and this is how I met my best friend. The group was so supportive and lovely and we quickly began meeting up outside of Tuesday nights. A trip to VegFest, a highly spirited birthday party and then just the usual hanging out sort of friendship ensued, and soon I began to feel like part of the furniture, something I hadn’t felt since university. This is when I really started settling into Bath, 18 months or so too late, and I began to love my city with a deep passion. I went for bike rides, cycling as far as Bristol and Frome, I spent time in summer parks and summer pubs. Little did I know that the next thing to go would be Bath.
I hated my job. Everybody knew I hated my job. It was a pretty boring subject by about May. I worked for a water company doing a sort of combined map-making and data entry job and I was bored out of my nut. I didn’t like my colleagues, or the journey to work, or the cold building, or the pressure to learn to drive in order to progress. I started looking for other jobs as I was put on an informal disciplinary due to the sloppy nature of my work. The truth was, I could do the work very well, I was just too bored to want to do so. Initially I looked for work in the environmental field, but this is notoriously tricky. And one day, during my searches, I spotted a job at a college which would train you up to be a lecturer.
I’d had wonderful experiences working with people with learning disabilities in the past, and I’d often said that if I hadn’t gone into Geography I would have become a special needs teacher. And so here, all of a sudden was my chance. I was so excited at the prospect of the job that I applied straight away, and then panicked immediately afterwards that I hadn’t done a good enough job on my application. Thankfully I must have been wrong.
My workplace was a signal blackhole, and on a fresh air/phone signal break at work I received a voicemail inviting me for an interview at the college. I quite literally jumped up and down with delight and booked a day’s holiday for the interview straight away. It was finally here, my chance to leave the drudgery of the job I hated so passionately. I had to do well.
First came the assessment day, then a formal interview, and then I got the job. I am still semi-convinced that my experience of working in a library got me the job more than my passion for teaching, but whatever the reasoning, life was about to change an awful lot.
I had 6 weeks to arrange somewhere new to live in a town I didn’t particularly want to move to. Weston-Super-Mare does not have the best of reputations, and Bath was going to be a particularly hard act to follow. A landlady on SpareRoom invited me to look at a bedsit she was renting, and although I was swapping a kitchen for a kitchenette, the Best Sofa Ever for solitary armchair, a balcony for no outside space and a double bed for a single, it was cheap and so I agreed to move in.
I bid a cheerful farewell to the water company in August. There was no love lost there and working there feels like a lifetime ago now. I commuted from Weston for a week before leaving and whilst paddling in the sea on the back from the train station one day I felt like maybe I had made the right decision.
So now I teach Personal and Social Development in the mainstream, Computing and Leisure Pursuits to students with SEN and work in the library, all the while completing the hardest teaching qualification ever to exist. Usually you do the Level 5 Diploma in Education and Training over two years, but we were to do it in just the one. There are 16 assignments, 5 reflective pieces and 8 teaching observations. All to be completed whilst working full time. The 8 of us on the graduate team have cried together more than I care to admit, but we get each other through, sharing knowledge from our specialisms and bemoaning having to stay until 9pm on a Tuesday night.
Life looks so very different now. Many of my weekends are taken up with assignment writing, and I am 40 miles from my friends. It’s a little bit lonely, but my life often has been. Having the love and support of the friends I made in Bath has made all the difference, however. I see them a lot more than I expected, and we drink gin and play with rats and have barbeques and play boardgames. Sometimes it feels like leisure time is sparse, but what I do get is certainly well-spent.
Doing a teaching qualification is an absolute rollercoaster of emotions. A bad lesson can ruin your week, whereas a good one can make everything feel worthwhile. Sometimes it’s the smallest wins, like an autistic student asking you for help, or a PSD class where everyone engages, which get you through the week. Observations, where an assessor watches you teach, are brutal. You get told what you did well, but also what didn’t go well, and sometimes it’s not easy to hear. I never considered myself a perfectionist before starting this job, but when I don’t get the grade I wanted for an observation I feel like I have failed. At the time of writing I’ve only got two more observations to pass which need to be graded as “good”. This is not impossible.
As we near the summer term, thoughts move to the future, life beyond the graduate internship. I have found the confidence to apply for an MEd in Special and Inclusive Education at a Russell Group university, and I am waiting to hear if I’ve got in. Regardless of whether I am successful, my future is very clearly in Further Education, and I am determined to carry on working with students with additional needs. I care so much about my students, and I find it hard to believe I was ever in a job where I did not care so very deeply. Pipelines are difficult to care about.
I hope to move to Bristol in the late summer to once again be in close proximity to my friends and finally living in the place I set out to move to all those years ago. I’ve survived all that life has thrown at me so far, so I feel prepared for everything that will come.
My relationship status changed, but it was me who changed my career. This has probably been the least settled year of my life, but it’s been an adventure. Having good friends and a vocation has made my life so much the better. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
I was a confident child, believe it or not. I auditioned for every school play, always had my hand up in class and cultivated a loud speaking voice so that I would be given good parts in said plays. In fact I was a bit of a show off. As I got older, however, the differences between myself and my classmates became more obvious, and throughout secondary school I was very badly bullied. Instead of being a confident, extroverted teenager I retreated into myself and began to find fault with everything I did, because it seemed everybody else found fault with it too. And there began my journey with constant low self-esteem.
At the beginning of this year I didn’t like myself very much. It’s hard to admit that but it certainly isn’t untrue. I thought I was selfish, that I didn’t help myself, that I was lazy and that I never seemed to say the right thing. I didn’t believe other people liked me very much, and as a consequence, I felt this was a self-fulfilling prophecy at times. When you don’t like yourself it’s very difficult to understand that other people like you, and you push people away. Still I don’t make the effort I should with people because part of me believes it isn’t worthwhile and that I am not really worth knowing. And I absolutely know this is irrational but it’s hard to believe the rational when this part of my brain is shouting so loudly. I stopped writing because I didn’t think people would want to read what I wrote. However, I made some steps to change this and slowly but surely the above is becoming less true to me.
Back in April this year I started to get ill. I was constantly anxious, incredibly unhappy and couldn’t seem to focus on anything. I started crying for what felt like no reason and developed a fear of walking past the living room in my house due to a housemate who wasn’t very nice to me. I went to the doctors and was diagnosed with depression, although really I felt like the anxiety was the bigger issue. I was given the option of either a low dose of medication or talking therapy. Something about the medication scared me so I decided on the latter and joined a very long waiting list whilst concurrently managing to get a bit better without outside help. Whether this means I wasn’t actually depressed I don’t know, but all I know is that I felt very bad and had thoughts of hurting myself during this period, and I needed help.
By the time I got to see a Mental Health Practitioner from LIFT Psychology at my local surgery I was having a lot more good days. And when he asked me what I needed help with, I decided to go for a root cause and said that I had very low self-esteem and that I would like one to one Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Unfortunately the MHP seemed to be under a remit to not put people on the waiting list for this and instead encouraged me to sign up to one of the group CBT sessions. I was getting a bit peeved at this point as I didn’t even need to have an assessment to go to one of the group sessions and could sign up for one under my own steam so I stood my ground and asked to be put on the waiting list for the one to one sessions. I am so grateful that I felt strong enough to do this; I am extremely worried for those people who approach the same service whose mental health may prevent them from asking for what they want in the same way.
So why did I opt for CBT? Well I’ve had person-centred counselling twice before now and have never found that it helped me very much. I am already an open person and able to talk about my issues and so I found that speaking to a counsellor just dragged up things from my past which weren’t helpful. I’m not saying it didn’t help at all, but it certainly didn’t help as much as it could have done and I always found myself feeling much worse when I came out of my sessions.
Whereas in counselling you should be lead to your own conclusions, in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy you are given the tools to change the way you see the world and the way you react to situations. Rather than talking about the past you discuss how you might handle a situation in the future, or you discuss in rational terms something which has been bothering you that week. It seems to work.
I was offered 6 sessions of CBT focussing on self-esteem. I soon discovered that the course was the same as the course offered in a group format, but being one to one it meant that we could discuss the way the tools could be applied to situations which were relevant to me. My therapist was young and relatable and very patient with me, and where as I dreaded going to see my counsellors I quite looked forward to CBT.
CBT is hard work; it requires homework and constant thinking about what you are thinking. If you think something negative you are encouraged to think about why you are having that thought. The main basis of CBT is described in the diagram below:
There are four ways you react to a situation; you have thoughts, emotions, behaviours and bodily sensations. So for example if you are scared of heights and you find yourself up a church tower you might experience the following:
Thoughts: “I am scared; I don’t like heights, what if I fall? What if someone else falls?”
Emotions: Fear, panic
Behaviours: Refusing to climb higher, clinging onto something
Bodily reactions: Crying, shaking, hyperventilating.
In CBT it is believed that by changing one of the above you can affect all four of the reactions, and usually the easiest reaction to change is either thoughts or behaviours. So in the situation above (and I have deliberately chosen something that doesn’t apply to me here) you might instead think “I won’t fall, I am safe, and I am with people who won’t let anything happen to me” and instantly you have reassured yourself about the situation. Sounds difficult? It is, and that’s why there’s so much homework involved in CBT.
You might also find you can change your behaviours, as I mentioned above. When you don’t feel comfortable with something then you tend to avoid situations which might make you uncomfortable. Using an example which is relevant to me, I don’t feel comfortable starting conversations with people online because I don’t believe people want to talk to me. However, through my CBT I was encouraged to start doing this as my irrational brain (my monkey brain as it is referred) was winning out over my rational brain. And so I am still trying to work up the courage to do this but I know that by changing this behaviour I will become more social and speak to the people I want to speak to.
Another issue I have, and apparently this is very common, is that I assign a lot of blame to myself when things go wrong. This can be a small thing like saying something that stops the flow of conversation, or a big thing like thinking I have fallen out with somebody. I was encouraged to draw pie charts and to think about not only my contribution to that situation, but that of other people who are involved and outside factors. For example if you say something and everybody stops talking it could be that something happened somewhere else in the room that distracted people. In some ways it is self-absorption which leads to people taking all the blame for a situation, but I have been told not to think of it that way.
When I began the course I was told that the biggest thing I needed to aim for was to become my own best friend. Because if I am not my own best friend, how can I show a version of myself that I like to other people? A few months on from my sessions and I don’t feel that I have achieved this, but I do feel that I am beginning to get there. I know the things I need to work on, and I know that I can’t attribute all blame to myself when things go wrong. I know that people do like me, and even if I still don’t like myself as much as I could do, that perhaps I am more worth knowing than I first thought. It is going to take years to undo the damage from school, but I feel I have some of the tools to tackle this. And so in 2015 my one hope is this: That I can become my own best friend. And I hope the rest will follow.
Goodness, was it really April when I last wrote a blog post? I really have been neglecting this blog, but there are several reasons I haven’t felt able to write, some of which I may write about in the future. For the moment though I will just concentrate on one of the more exciting things: I have, once again, moved house.
It’s been a funny old year living in Bath, with 3 addresses and two jobs to my name. My last move was once again out of necessity, and possibly the best decision I’ve made. For I now have my very own flat. However, there are certainly some pros and cons to this living alone business, and I’ve listed some of them below.
Pro: You get to do what you want, when you want and nobody cares.
This is by far the best thing about living by yourself: the freedom! Want a shower at midnight? Go for it. Want to spend your evening eating a ready meal in front of bake off? That’s all fine. Want to make jam at 10pm because your blackberries look like they might go mouldy? Not a problem (also, true story). When there’s nobody else in the your residence then you can’t be judged for what you do and nothing you do can annoy anybody else (apart from your neighbours if you live in a flat like I do). It’s fantastic.
Con: It’s really, really expensive.
Anybody who follows me on social media will know this one was coming, but even though I knew living alone would be expensive, I wasn’t quite prepared for it to be this expensive. Part of the issue for me is living in an expensive place; if we imagine the west of England to be London, then Bath is basically Kensington or somewhere expensive like that (Stokes Croft in Bristol is Hackney, obviously). Add to the rent all bills, including internet and expensive “economy” 7 electricity and you could quite easily get yourself in a pickle. I’ve tried to cut down my bills by shopping around for the best internet deal and paying everything by monthly direct debit. I also switch absolutely everything off at the switches when I’m not using it. Somehow, though, I’ve still managed to leave my main light on whilst I was at work…
Pro: You only have to tidy up your own mess
Something about having your own space means you feel more obliged to keep it tidy, even though oddly people are less likely to see it. I suppose that if you know that your washing up will stay washed up and that nobody’s going to leave tomato soup all over a surface you’ve just wiped it’s not such a losing battle. It’s almost like in the 2 weeks I’ve lived here I’ve developed less tolerance for mess. I even spent my Friday night hoovering… But it’s nice to feel proud of your own space.
Con: Everything falls to you.
You do have to sort out everything yourself, but actually that’s not really a con, it’s just part of being a grown up.
Pro: The aloneness
I can’t describe how amazing it is to only see people when I want to see them. I’m a bit of an introvert and I just don’t always want to be dealing with people. In my old house I couldn’t even sit in my own living room, here I can be anywhere in the house with no fear of awkward conversations or being told off for something ridiculous. You also never have to listen to people’s disgusting bathroom habits. It does mean you have to make an effort to either invite people to your house or go out to see people, which leads me to my last con:
Con: The loneliness
I have to say, so far this hasn’t been much of a problem for me, as I see people at work and see my boyfriend at weekends, but I fear (as I do with many things) that my social anxiety will mean I end up shutting myself off from people. I don’t think living alone is inherently a lonely thing, but you have to see people. In my former houses I was lonely because often the people I lived with weren’t friendly. When I worked at the outdoor centre I almost longed to feel lonely because of the 9 other people I lived with. But I see this flat as a fresh start, and a way to build up my social life in Bath. I’ve been here a year and I’ve made some headway, it’s just a case of knowing where to go next, and also completely changing my attitude towards contacting people. I think my first step will be a housewarming as I’ve never hosted my own party before, not even at university.
Overall this has been an overwhelmingly positive move, and once I get used to having a little less money I’m sure I will be absolutely fine. I love my flat and I feel far more relaxed since I’ve moved to it. Here’s to starting afresh; same place, new job, new flat, better life.
I grew up wanting to be a journalist; I wanted to be one right up until I took my GCSEs. And then I had a change of heart and did a Geography degree at university. It seems, though, I’m still chasing the urge to be published, and today it happened:
It’s not in print, and I’m not getting paid for it, but my writing is on the website of a national newspaper. I am really proud of myself, despite the horrible comments. I just wanted to share that.
About two months ago I took up ballet as a hobby. Now, as a 22 year old who’s never danced a step in her life outside of PE “dance” lessons, this might seem like a bold move. But what really surprises even myself is that I’ve chosen one of the hardest modes of dance to learn, and I have dyspraxia.
I was diagnosed with dyspraxia at the end of my second year of university after years of struggling and not really realising anything was wrong. I’d always been rubbish at PE, I found it impossible to organise myself for school, and the poor quality of my handwriting lead to me being told that examiners wouldn’t bother to read my exam papers. I was also clumsy and a little bit rubbish at making friends. However, nobody picked up on this, and I didn’t even hear about dyspraxia until a boy joined my school who also had it.
Oddly, it wasn’t finding out about dyspraxia initially that made me think I had it. I was fairly intelligent, extremely good at English and Geography, and so I just assumed I was fine, and that it was just bad luck that I couldn’t catch a ball and had the drawing skills of a 5 year old. I didn’t even think about how I’d been slow to reach my milestones, or how I couldn’t ride a bike or swim until I was 7 or 8. I just assumed I struggled because I did.
It was when I took my GCSEs and had my exams transcribed (a teaching assistant wrote out any words which couldn’t be read) that I started to twig that maybe it wasn’t just hard luck that I couldn’t write legibly. But I still didn’t ask to be tested for dyspraxia as I think I thought that I might be making it up. By the time I got to university I knew this wasn’t the case, but it still took me until second year to get tested (and there’s a classic dyspraxia symptom right there, disorganisation!).
So what is dyspraxia? At a base level, it’s a disorder of co-ordination and fine motor control. It’s sometimes referred to as “developmental co-ordination disorder”, and this makes sense as it’s something you’re born with. Dyspraxics learn to walk later than other children, and may have problems with their speech. However, dyspraxia is usually not picked up until a child is at school, as being a little late at crawling or walking isn’t seen as all that unusual.
It is unfortunate that most symptoms of dyspraxia are particularly evident in a school environment. At school you don’t have anybody to help you tie your laces, you have to learn to write, you have PE. And there’s also hidden traits as well. Dyspraxics, alongside dyslexics, do not have a good working memory. This is the memory which allows you to do mental arithmetic or write down a phone number as someone is saying it to you. In fact, for most dyspraxics, just being told something is a guarantee that it won’t be remembered, although most of us develop coping mechanisms (I put everything into my outlook calendar at work, and write things down if I’m being given a list of tasks). Dyspraxics also find it hard to organise their thoughts, as well as their lives. I could never, ever remember homework, or which books I needed to take in, my brain just didn’t understand how to do this. I did, and still do, live in a pretty much constant mess. Neatness means very little to me! An unfortunate side effect of not remembering books is that I used to carry all my school books in a rucksack to and from school. When a teacher told me I would hurt my back doing this, I started taking textbooks out. However, this meant they were usually in my locker or under my bed when I needed them in a lesson.
PE was a constant nightmare for me. I was always last picked for teams, and everybody used to complain if they had to play with me. I never had any idea where a ball was at any given time, and even if I could see the ball I just didn’t have the hand-eye co-ordination to catch it. Fortunately, several years after everyone else, I’m now actually quite good at catching. Dyspraxia is a little like an iceberg, as you get older the traits are less visible, you learn coping mechanisms or you just get better at things. However, even though it’s less visible on the outside, it’s still very evident within. When you have to try many times harder than everyone else to do “normal” things it gets very tiring. I have to put so much more effort into organising myself than the average person, and even then it’s rare for me to leave the house without forgetting something. Even walking down a street is a minefield at times; just how do you know which way to walk round someone who’s walking straight towards you? Mind you, my friend used to pull me out the way of lamp posts.
I lived with all of the above for 20 years before I got the magical email which let me know that, actually I wasn’t a freak, and I wasn’t just a bit useless at everything. I was dyspraxic, I had a specific learning difficulty. And actually, it explains everything. Why I’m rubbish at sport, why I don’t remember things, why I’ve always been seen as that little bit “different” to my peers (more about that later). It even explained why I learnt to read at such an early age and have a good writing ability, as well as why I seem to be able to retain ridiculously obscure facts when I can’t remember phone numbers. Dyspraxia is something of a blessing as well as a curse, and what I lack in sporting skills and non-verbal communication, I more than make up for with my verbal communication skills. That’s all a specific learning difficulty is really; a discrepancy in ability level between different skills.
So, why did I take up ballet? Well, it’s simple really. I finally feel like I wanted a challenge. When you find quite a lot of things very difficult, it is sometimes a step too far to push yourself beyond just doing what everyone else does. But I challenged myself when I was an outdoor instructor, and now I work in an office I felt I needed something else to get my teeth into. I’d always liked the idea of doing ballet (although I wanted to do gymnastics when I was little!) and the thought of being graceful intrigued me.
What I didn’t realise when I took it up is just how useful ballet would be. It means I spend an hour a week thinking about my entire body, how I hold myself and what each part is doing. It enforces a consciousness I don’t really have naturally, and it helps my spatial awareness as well as my co-ordination. It means I have to know my left and rights, something I find ridiculously difficult. And, as well as all this, I get to dance. And who doesn’t like to dance? I have to try a lot harder than everyone else, but I’m usually not the only person who doesn’t get an exercise right first time. By the end of last term I could do all the exercises, even the echappes (changing feet from fifth position to second on demi-pointe) I found so hard to keep up with at the start. It’s so rewarding to work hard and get results from my body. The final real benefit to ballet is that it gives me an hour in which I think of nothing but where my feet are and I whether I’m standing up straight. All my worries and anxieties just don’t exist when I’m executing a grande plie. I’m more concerned with getting back up again!
So that’s the physical and academic side of dyspraxia, but what of the social side? The most profound effect of my specific learning difficulty (SpLD) is that it’s caused me to have serious issues with “fitting in” and making friends. Somehow I’ve always been marked out as a bit weird, and I’ve perhaps not naturally had the friend-making skills of others my age, in fact I always wanted to hang out with adults when I was a child and it’s perhaps telling that a lot of my friends even now are older than me.
As you might imagine, this made school absolute hell. Primary school was pretty much OK, I wasn’t massively popular but people let me get on with my slight oddness (playing imaginary games in the playground at the age of 10 anyone?). I had some friends, and I didn’t really have any enemies, so this was all fine. It was when I got to secondary school that everything kicked off, and I’m never quite sure what I did. In year 7 I made a fair bit of effort to fit in, and I even thought I’d made friends. And then the bullying started, and it didn’t stop until I left school in year 13. My lack of social skills, as well as my clumsiness and all the other effects of my undiagnosed SpLD meant I was a bit of an easy target. I didn’t know how to deal with bullies, how to reply to cruel words. Usually I would just try to ignore them, or walk away. Worst was when I burst in to tears.
By the age of 13 I was not in a happy place. I used to dread going to school, and would mope around the school library hiding from pretty much everybody. It seemed at this time as I walked through the school grounds that absolutely everybody had some sort of comment to make towards me. I lost all my so-called friends as they were embarrassed for me. I withdrew into myself, I would tell people to go away if they tried to speak to me in the library when I was reading. Fortunately for me a particular friend of mine realised I could do with a friend and didn’t let this put her off. I became very worried to go places by myself, I was obsessed with nuclear war and the end of the world. I was so very unhappy and anxious and the comments and the laughing just didn’t stop.
Even into sixth form children in the lower years would say things to me. By this point I had given up on trying to fit in and had made myself almost as weird as possible just to give people something to laugh at (one such instance made my sister cry with embarrassment). I constantly got into trouble in sixth form for wearing my “hippy clothes” and I loathed school so much I started skipping lessons. I later found out it’s very common for undiagnosed dyspraxics to become disenfranchised with school, and whilst it’s all my own fault I only got mediocre A levels, I do feel that not having had any support contributed towards this.
When I left school and went to university the bullying nightmare finally stopped. At least in reality. However, I still carry around each and every thing that was said to me whilst I was at school. I assume that people in the street must be thinking how weird I am, I don’t think I am attractive. I don’t think people want to know me, and I think this is why I don’t seem to be able to make lasting friendships. I find it hard to make the first move to contact people because, hey, why would they want to hear from me? And it’s still making me miserable.
I fear I am baring too much of my soul here, so I’ll stop. But dyspraxia has shaped my life in so many ways, some of them extremely good, but it’s also caused me a lot of grief. I wouldn’t swap who I am though, for despite the feelings I’ve described above, I’m extremely proud to be myself, and really I always have been. I don’t pretend to be anybody else because I only really know how to be me. I just wish I believed that people would accept it!