“Do you miss your parents and friends?” Year abroad taboos: coping with loneliness, distance, and unfamiliarity

Last week Mia* in my Class 7 asked me if I’m living in Germany. For how long? Where? Why? She then asked if I’m living in Germany “all alone“. Her friend then chipped in, asking if I miss my friends and family. “When will you next see them?” They were really putting themselves in my position – their intent to understand me meant a lot.

Long distance friendships, relationships, and the often crippling feeling of being alone are huge challenges that everyone faces when on a year abroad. Leaving your family, friends and boyfriend or girlfriend behind intensifies the overwhelm you feel as you attempt to settle into a new place. In my experience hidden conditions like dyspraxia can exasperate emotions even more, causing some pretty erratic mood-swings. Loneliness is something I know a lot of people are going through, so why shouldn’t we talk about it, I thought.

I’m working in a school located in a town, near a city, but I’m living in a rural area (really a village). I only work in the mornings and in the afternoons it is easy to let myself feel a bit lost. I have to put more effort into going places and finding things to do that appeal to me.

Whilst it’s important to get involved in the workplace, it takes time to gain this sort of confidence. It’s equally important in the meantime to check-in with people from home – I always feel better after having talked with family and friends. It’s a sensible suggestion to try to join clubs and get involved in the local area, but this isn’t always practical if there isn’t a support network established where you are working. On the Erasmus scheme – and on summer courses like at Heidelberg – things are usually well organised, including the social aspect.

As an alternative to having friends my age, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my lovely landlady. She appreciates the company too. She often bakes delicious cakes, and is happy to talk to me about the history of the region, and tell me what’s going on in the community. She’s also helped me find out about a local choir – I’m looking forward to going along this week and singing again.

In the staffroom at school it can be difficult to know how to start a conversation or involve myself in one, as everyone talks too fast for me to process. Last week, however, I was invited on a teachers’ trip to Munster (will tell you more about the trip in my next post) and found that really helped me mix with more teachers. A teacher also invited me to go out for lunch with her, which I enjoyed – just knowing a few people makes a difference.

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Dusseldorf University Botanic Gardens

In October I will also be starting a part-time course in Germanistik (German Studies) at Düsseldorf University. I enrolled a couple of weeks ago (was rather impressed at how quickly I managed to find the Uni campus! It’s really nice – very modern and green)  After a language test at the end of the month, I should be able to attend seminars, and that will be another good way to fill up my afternoons.

 

It isn’t shameful to feel lonely sometimes


The important message I want to convey in another rambling blog post (sorry) is that it shouldn’t be considered shameful to feel lonely. It isn’t a personal failing to have experienced any of the above, because it’s very common, and a sign of strength to be trying your best to fit into a new place.

Don’t give up! I haven’t.

If anyone has a similar experience to share or has any more ideas for filling time, then please comment on this post – I always like hearing from people.

misspraxic

*I changed the names of all pupils to maintain confidentiality.

Dyspraxia Awareness Week 2015: Being at Univeristy with Dyspraxia and how you can support a friend

“Dys-what? Do you mean Dyslexia?”

A handful of my friends have admitted that they struggle to understand me, and how hidden conditions or specific learning difficulties can affect me in day-to-day situations. This article is for the kind and well meaning friends of Dyspraxic students – I hope it helps to explain from first-hand experience what it is like to manage and overcome an invisible set of struggles in the university setting.


It’s 6.45am, Monday. Time to get ready for a busy day at university. For breakfast, she takes out a bowl from the kitchen cupboard, and then a carton of apple juice from the fridge. Both the bowl and the apple juice somehow accompany her to the cutlery draw, where she takes out a spoon. She walks to the sink, then changes her mind and goes to the table, trying to remember what on earth she was intending to do with that carton of juice. She’s aware of a voice, her flatmate’s trying to start a conversation with her. Noise of traffic outside distracts her. What’s the time again? Before she can locate the answer in her jumbled mind, she senses the box of cereal now in her hand drop to the floor – crispy flakes go everywhere. Oops-a-daisy!

MEMORY; COORDINATION: A dyspraxic student might struggle with remembering lots of information or lists – we tend to get very easily distracted! This can lead to stressful situations in the university context, such as forgetting appointments, mixing up our diary or timetable. We also have to put extra effort into cooking, where concentration and multi-tasking are very important, but don’t always come naturally. Though I have learned to cook reasonably well (albeit rather slowly!) it does take a lot of effort to coordinate my movements, and focus on one task. It can be an even greater challenge when we’re stressed, or if our mind is wandering onto other matters.simpsons 2


It’s now 7.03. She’s missed the bus she was going to catch to campus. She anxiously waits for the next one, which is packed and standing. She wobbles about and feels unstable; rushed off the train by all the people around her. It’s now tipping it down, so she starts jogging. Her raincoat: she KNEW she had forgotten something. She slips in a puddle. Panic overwhelms her; her body feels drawn to danger like there’s some form of inbuilt magnetism in her body.

GROSS-MOTOR CONTROL; BALANCE; SPATIAL AWARENESS: Dyspraxics are said to have a “clumsy gait”. The condition can significantly affect balance and gross motor movements. I’m very heavy-handed and seem to be “accident prone” – I once broke a washing machine simply by opening the door! People with dyspraxia may also mix up their left and right (last week I had a jig with someone in the corridor because I couldn’t figure out how to dodge around them). I struggle to map-read, due to poor sense of direction and spatial awareness (sense of ourselves in relation to our surroundings). At home or far, dyspraxics can feel lost, so the Google Maps app is a must-have.


By the time she eventually gets to the first lecture (after bumping into a bunch of baffled students) she is exhausted. Coughing, whispering, and moving: she simply can’t follow the monotonous voice of the lecturer due to all the background stimuli.

AUDITORY PROCESSING: Students with dyspraxia may have slow auditory processing (so listening in lectures can be hard, we hear words but often miss a LOT of key info.) Try to be patient if you know your friend struggles to process info – perhaps give them one instruction/piece of info at a time so they have time to think about it. Chances are they care very much about what you have to say, but might also get carried away talking about something they are passionate about, and struggle with speech cues.


The tutor picks on her and asks a question. Because of all the sensory stimulation surrounding her though, she can’t form the words to respond. In group discussions she doesn’t always time her contributions properly, so by the time she’s thought of something good to add, the conversation has moved on!

LANGUAGE AND COMMUNICATION: Dyspraxia affects the way we process language. At times I find it hard to express myself properly and select the right words, despite knowing what I want to say. We want to keep up with and understand the pace of human communication, but sometimes we are significantly slower to follow conversations and can misread subtleties (notably sarcasm and irony). Group conversations are most challenging as there is more to focus on. [Some people have Verbal Dyspraxia/Apraxia, which affects speech and pronunciation of words].Simpsons


She tries to write down everything she hears in the class, really wants to get all the good ideas down, but she can scarcely read back her own handwriting (it’s a unique scrawly style). How is she going to manage to write her essay if she has no notes to work from?

FINE-MOTOR CONTROL: As well as struggling with gross motor movements, fine motor skills (coordination of muscles and bones in small movements) can be tough too. Writing can pose a problem for many dyspraxics. I have poor pen grip, and it hurts to write for hours at a time. Students with dyspraxia often have extra time in their exams to compensate for this difficulty, and the use of a computer to type makes a huge difference. Note taking is a challenge, but sitting at the front of the lecture theatre and using a voice recorder can help alleviate this stress.


In the evening she is peer-pressured into meeting with her friends; she never was terribly assertive. Trouble is, they’re meeting at a bar, and the noise and lights and business overwhelm her before she’s even attempted to order a drink! She can’t tell them that from fear of embarrassment. She has a Dyspraxic Moment and trips in the bar, without even having taken a sip of alcohol. It’s all too much, she just wants to get home.

OVERWHELM IN SOCIAL SITUATIONS: Social situations can be emotionally exhausting. It’s hard to suppress the fear of committing another Dyspraxic Disaster and have a good time. ‘Social awkwardness’ seems to follow me around. It may seem like a dyspraxic student is in their own world, but it’s important to consider that, chances are, they are really trying to listen and concentrate on what you’re telling them.


She already has class work to do when she gets home. She is determined to find the answers to her assignment questions, though it takes her a long time to scan through the sea of text to find the relevant information – comprehension never was easy.

VISUAL PERCEPTION; READING: Dyspraxic students may take considerably longer to read, or plan/structure an essay – that’s because we have so many great ideas in our brains (did I mention how creative dyspraxics can be!?), but sometimes aren’t very efficient in sorting through them. [Some people might also have Visual Stress/Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome (a condition I will write more about in a future post) and use coloured filters or glasses to help them read faster.]


After much perseverance the words start to jump around, so she puts the book to one side, and tries to relax. It takes her a long time to fall asleep – her mind running through the events of the day.

STRUGGLING TO RELAX; EMOTIONAL DIFFICULTIES: Relaxing and falling asleep can be difficult due to the sheer quantity of information to process and think about. The amalgamation of several things going wrong in one day can result in anxious feelings building up very quickly – we tend to get easily tired because of the overload to our sensitive system, so we do need to take breaks and spend some time alone, perhaps a little more often than non-dyspraxic students. If your friend needs extra support to help them cope, this isn’t a weakness.


The above isn’t merely a bad day – similar logistical nightmares are a regular reality for many dyspraxic students who struggle on in silence.

The condition can affect a student profoundly and threaten to impact upon their wellbeing, so it’s useful to have at least a basic awareness of general difficulties faced.

• Try to be reassuring in overwhelming situations and respect your friend’s wishes in social situations (going out for example) – dyspraxics don’t cope well when over-stimulated
• Listen and be thoughtful instead of coming across as critical
• Don’t be afraid to ask if you don’t understand something – this will mean a lot to your friend, and show how much you care
• Try to be patient and try not to take something personally
• Separate the person from their condition and love their quirks too if you can, because dyspraxics can be very caring, compassionate, and creative people too!

[Note: please do not take this blog as a stereotypical depiction of dyspraxia. Not all dyspraxics share the same traits – I am sharing my personal experience with a view to helping others gain a better understanding of some aspects of dyspraxia, though this blog is by no means an exhaustive/comprehensive list of traits.]

This Dyspraxia Awareness Week (11th-17th October), I challenge you not to judge but to listen, and not assume a hidden condition defines who your friend is as a person – there is so much more to a person than their difficulties, and as their friend, you can help to bring out their best qualities.

– misspraxic

Tips for settling into University as a dyspraxic student

Starting at university, moving to a new place, meeting new people – it’s a daunting transition for anyone, but can seem even more of a struggle when you’re also managing a hidden condition like Dyspraxia. To have worked hard to get into university is an incredible achievement, so well done!

Before I started my course at university, I was very apprehensive – especially about how I would socialise and make friends, how many times I would get lost, and how I would manage practical things like cooking. I really could have done with some reassurance that I could do it, and some advice for managing the first few weeks.


It’s OK not to participate in everything in Freshers’ week or in the first term

Don’t feel you have to take part in absolutely everything that’s happening in Freshers’ week, or that you have to read every advertising flyer thrown at you. There will be so much packed into the week – so many different kinds of events on offer, ranging from society fairs to introductions in your academic department.

During my Freshers’ week, I felt rather overwhelmed on numerous occasions. It’s OK to feel tired and emotional and full of information, this is completely normal. Often I would need to go back to my room and have an hour’s break from people and events, just to recharge.

I would say that it’s very important to pace yourself; whilst you want to make a good first impression, you also want to survive the first term without burning out! You have the whole three/four years of the course to try things, so don’t feel you have to fit it all into a week.


Staying organised (as much as possible!)

After each lecture, try to get into the habit of filing your notes in a sensible place in your folder – I colour-code my folders (a different coloured folder for each term) and use dividers (a different section for each module).

If you record lectures using a voice-recorder, try to get into the habit of connecting the recorder to your computer and saving files, so you don’t risk losing something important! Create folders (and folders within folders within folders if this helps you) on your computer, and create desktop shortcuts so that you can easily locate work you need to access regularly.

I found using post-it notes really useful, especially in a range of colours to differentiate between social events, academic commitments, volunteering etc.

Carrying around a small notebook in your pocket to jot down times and details of events can be a life-saver.
Make the most of your noticeboard – stick up a calendar and your post-it notes so you have a visual reminder of what is happening, and when.


Planning ahead

If you’re as indecisive as I am, getting ready for events in Freshers’ week can be rather stressful. I would keep changing my mind about what I was going to wear, and consequently end up arriving somewhere late or rushing. Pack your bag and lay clothes out the evening before, so you have less to think about and decide in the morning.

I don’t have a reliable sense of time, so time can go by quickly without my knowing. One thing that does help me, though, is considering time as a visual concept – I have to physically draw out my timeframe for the week on my calendar, and before booking appointments, I work backwards in time. This way I can make sure I have more than enough time to get ready, and to walk to the location of the lecture without panicking. If you can, plan in an hour’s extra time to compensate for any possible lateness.


Cooking

If cooking is something you are really worried about, you can buy ready meals very cheaply from supermarkets. Don’t attempt anything too complicated or time-consuming – this could be stressful if something goes wrong and you don’t have much time. Try to move around the kitchen slowly – coordinating food preparation can be a challenge, but I find that the most accidents happen when I’m rushing.

I find that the thought of cooking can easily overwhelm me if I don’t write down what I’m planning to cook for the week. In my notebook I plan which meal I’m going to have each day – you could write a few notes to remind yourself what you need to take out of the fridge/freezer, what extra ingredients you might need to buy, and how long it could take you to prepare the meal.

I also recommend preparing a packed lunch the evening before uni, so you can make sure everything is in your bag for the next morning.


Try to be assertive

It’s important not to let yourself feel pressured into doing things you don’t feel comfortable doing, particularly in Freshers’ week. Don’t feel pressured to go to the Freshers’ ball or clubs if you don’t want to – if it is something you would like to try, you could wait until you have found like-minded people, friends that you trust, so you feel more comfortable and safer going out with them. If drinking or going out isn’t your scene at all, don’t give up on the social side of university. Your Students’ Union might also be running more chilled events such as film nights, so check that out.

Definitely make the most of society fairs, but don’t sign up to everything (can be an information overload!) Have a think about your interests and what would suit you as a person. If you’re into the outdoors, for example, it’s likely there will be a hill-walking society that will run trips at weekends – this could be a good opportunity to get away from campus.

Ask about the volunteering projects available at your university – not only will this look impressive on your CV, but can be very rewarding. I took part in a weekly volunteering project last year, and felt very good about myself as I was helping someone.

If you isolate yourself and don’t make an effort to connect with fellow students, it could be a problem later in the year. I promise there will be a student community to suit your interests, and who knows, you might even meet your best friends there. 🙂


Don’t be afraid to seek support when you need it

There’s so much happening in the first week, but it’s definitely worth working out where the disability support services are located on campus – (see if you can walk there on Google maps street view if you’re worried about finding it, or you can even email/phone them). You should make an appointment with a disability advisor in your first term, so that you can get to know what support is available to you. They should already have received your records from school, and be able to advise on DSA (Disability Support Allowance) as well as accessing help in exams (this could be use of a computer for typing exams, or extra time.)

If you have any problems during the week, it’s good to know you have someone you can go to – this could be a mentor or a student welfare representative. Please don’t be afraid to talk to someone, as it isn’t a sign of weakness. Freshers’ week can feel a very lonely time, but if you are struggling, know that it will soon be over.

Try not to feel disheartened if you don’t seem to fit in straight away. In my Freshers’ week I was very self-conscious of not drinking excessively, and I admit that I spent a lot of the week by myself. Weeks later, though, I found my group of friends. Your peers may all seem ultra-confident and to be having a great time, but remember that this might not be the case. Not everyone will be finding it easy to adjust to university life.

Good luck, and most importantly, have fun!

misspraxic