It was only after six years of living in the UK that I found out I have Dyspraxia. I am a Romanian woman in her early thirties and living and working in another country meant not only learning a different language but also a different mimic, a different stress on certain words, a different approach to lifestyle and the ability to adapt to a new environment. The majority of people go through this very well. I thought I was doing well too. I had an office job where I learnt everything from scratch and within three years I was as good as my colleagues who had been there longer than me. I read books on anthropology and sociology in order to understand the culture I was living in. My vocabulary expanded from “yes” and “no” answers to the most elaborate speeches on Dracula and orphans. I even managed to write articles and poems in English. But there was one thing that I couldn’t master: socializing. As my language skills improved, my social skills didn’t, thus creating a lot of misunderstanding at my workplace.
Looking back, I’ve always been an introvert person. I never really felt the need to talk to people. They used to say I was distant, cold and unapproachable. It took me a lifetime to accept that and to stop trying to conform. When I was a child I used to be self conscious that I wasn’t like anybody else. Apart from not being good at any physical activities, I never enjoyed people’s company, only my books and my hobbies. I never knew what to talk about, I didn’t understand humor, my reactions were always delayed and I never understood teasing and bullying and why people felt the need to do that. I preferred to avoid all the social activities that I didn’t feel comfortable participating in.
I grew up with the “weirdo” stigma in a loud culture where, after the communism collapsed, people were in constant competition: who has the best car, who has the biggest swimming pool, who goes to the best school, who has the most expensive clothes, who has the loudest speakers, etc. I have never been part of this competition as I never wanted other people’s wishes. Mine were just fine and it took me a long time not to be ashamed to say it. When people said that they needed a big apartment, I used to say that I was fine with my studio flat. When people said that they wanted an expensive car, I said that I didn’t mind taking the bus. When people said that they wanted to be wealthy, I used to say that as long as I had what I needed, I considered myself rich even though my idea of richness didn’t conform with society’s or my neighbors’. After a while they said I was jealous. Why would I be jealous of people’s things and statuses that I didn’t even want? I can’t swim and I don’t want to learn it, so having a swimming pool would be pointless. I don’t have a driving license and with my confusion between right and left, I don’t think I will have one any time soon so what would I do with a car? I don’t enjoy socializing so I don’t feel the need to show off my latest clothes and jewellery acquisitions at a cocktail party.
When I discovered that I can do everything I put my mind to, I was comfortable with my own aspirations. I managed to go to university, to complete a Master’s Degree, to get a job in education and to publish two books. These were the important things to me and I always achieved what I wanted and what I knew I could. Equally I never had unrealistic aspirations even though I am a daydreamer. In my reveries I am writing my books and I am painting my canvases so when I take the pen or the brush I already know what I want to write or what colors I need to mix in order to get the painting out of my head and onto the canvas.
The job in education suited me. I was a Romanian language and literature teacher and I was talking about my lifelong passion. As for socializing, I was an adult among other teachers where they were all passionate about their subjects. We seldom used to talk about shoes or about weather, but debating the newest teaching methods or a certain pupil’s achievements and it was the first time I could participate into conversations without being out of topic. During the ten minute breaks between classes there wasn’t any time for socializing and if some small talk was involved, I always was the quiet one.
My life changed radically in 2005 when a colleague of mine came to work one day announcing that she decided to go to the UK as an au-pair for a while. When she asked me if I was interested, I didn’t hesitate and I said yes. I had no idea what an au-pair was, but I felt that I needed a break to decide what I was going to do next. I was in a relationship that I wasn’t happy with. In my struggle to be normal, I wanted a normal boyfriend and a normal life even though it didn’t suit me. We were very different and the differences were more and more obvious. From my point of view I only needed to conform to society’s view of what a young woman’s life should be. The fact that we were living in two different counties was perfect for me; I knew he wasn’t after commitment and nor was I, as I always imagined myself as a single woman raising an adopted child and working as a university lecturer.
As I was planning to apply for a PhD in Cultural Anthropology and I needed a foreign language certificate for that, so I thought that going to the UK was the answer I was looking for at that moment in time. I was thrilled that I was going to visit another country (travelling was still difficult in those days although we were no longer under the communist regime) and I was going to come back as a strong woman with broader horizons and with an English certificate in my pocket.
Once I arrived in the UK I liked it straight away. The job was very easy and working for five hours per day meant that I had time for my thoughts, daydreams and wonderings about by myself discovering the surrounding areas. Everything changed when I met my future husband. He was also a Romanian living in the UK for nearly four years when I met him. It wasn’t long until I realized that he was the one for me. Even though I had this precise idea about my future life, paradoxically I felt that I wanted to grow old with him. I followed my heart and we got married soon after.
Starting a family meant that I needed a real job. If in Romania I knew what I wanted as a career and what I needed to do to achieve that, living in a different culture put me in a strange position of not knowing where to begin. Compounded with my limited vocabulary in English and the poor grammar, I was willing to take any job just to have an income. My career was on hold and I decided to give life in the UK a go, hoping to improve my language skills. In the meantime I simply enjoyed life with a husband who understood me.
Soon I got a job in a factory as a production operative and after four months I got promoted to working in the office. The money I earned helped me pay for the English books and for the language exams I took. I was awarded the First Certificate in English followed by the Certificate in Advanced English and Diploma in Copywriting. In the meantime I enquired with the relevant authorities whether my education was recognized in the UK. I also asked for a career path and I was advised to try education. But I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of teaching in another language. With all the certificates I got, I still wasn’t confident enough with my English to go back into teaching. I was quiet and when I did talk I was revising my answers in my head to make sure they will come out without any grammar mistakes. By doing this, the spontaneity of the conversation was lost, therefore I avoided interactions altogether. People found this awkward.
Gradually, things started to worsen. My lack of social skills leaded to lots of negative comments about my personality, my background, my marriage and my choices in life. Even the fact that I overheard them was my fault because I listened. I felt like everything went back to the time when I was a child and everybody judged me because I was physically slow and I didn’t want to take part in social activities. All of a sudden I felt I was in exactly the same situation and I didn’t understand how my personality/temperament/life affected my colleagues’ wellbeing.
As I tried to explain to people that this was the way I was, I also emphasized on the cultural differences that I still found hard to assimilate, or so I thought. But soon I realized that it was more than that; I simply didn’t know how to talk to people and they found it offensive. I avoided social gatherings on lunch breaks when some colleagues had things to celebrate, I never used to go into the other offices for a chat unless it was a work related issue, and I didn’t like it when people interrupted me to tell me how they spent the previous evening. I had no idea who was friend with whom, I didn’t know more than a handful of the employees, and I still wasn’t familiar with some faces that I didn’t see very often. In fact I just couldn’t cope with so much information and I wanted to concentrate exclusively on my job as this took all my energy. At times I felt like my head was going to explode. I wasn’t multitasking and also when I spoke to people about general things I used to lose concentration in the middle of the conversation even though I was watching their lips thinking that this would help me stay focused.
As for my behavior, people thought that staying at my desk and working all day meant that I was “desperately trying to impress” my employers and found me rude for not interacting with them. My colleagues’ judgmental attitude didn’t stop until I resigned. I didn’t know what I wanted anymore, what I was doing there, who I was and what else I could do as a job. I have never felt like this in my entire life and I had no idea who to ask for help. Normally I would have managed to push through on my own as I always did, but this time it was too overwhelming and difficult. I lost my confidence and I couldn’t see any other way out but to give up on everything I had started to build: new knowledge and skills, new challenges, a regular income and a good career prospective.
This identity crisis sent me in front of a counselor. I explained that just because I didn’t feel the need to socialize, it didn’t mean I was a bad person; I was completely harmless as I would never trample over others in order to achieve what I wanted. The fact that I wanted to be good at my job even though it wasn’t my ideal career, didn’t make me a hypocrite as they called me all the time. And if I didn’t want people’s qualities since I was quite happy with mine, that didn’t make me arrogant; I simply liked being me. I am a great believer that if we were all happy with whom we are, there wouldn’t be any envy and negative feelings in the world.
Conversation wise, half of the time I had no idea what people were talking about – TV programs, reality shows, gossip, etc - and I was really struggling to concentrate to take part. I was mimicking their facial expressions based on my previous observations on how they reacted in certain situations. It was very tiring so I preferred to be on my own and work. But this wasn’t good enough to convince my colleagues that I was harmless.
When the counselor mentioned Dyspraxia and told me briefly what it was, I finally understood. I went home and looked it up on the Internet, everything made sense for the first time in my life. I understood why I couldn’t learn to ride a bike, to swim or to catch a ball, why there is a delay in my reactions or I don’t react at all, why I don’t feel comfortable when there are too many people talking and I have to follow them all, why there is such a big discrepancy between the simple things that I can’t do and the difficult things that I can, why I have such a short term memory yet I am able to recall old memories if I can associate them with certain smells, images and feelings, why as a student I was able to retain new knowledge only if I pretended I was giving a lecture on the subject (maybe that’s why I became a teacher in Romania), and why I’m avoiding social interactions.
I didn’t get an “official” diagnosis and at this moment in time I don’t particularly want one. I lived all these years without knowing it; I think I can manage from now on. It is up to me to accept myself with all the weirdness and awkwardness that accompany my ideas and my actions. I can’t change people’s attitudes but I can behave and talk according to my personality without trying to be someone I’m not and without feeling guilty if I don’t conform to a stereotype or to people’s expectations. As long as nobody asks me to catch a ball I can make an effort and participate more in the future without undermining who I am.
As for my career, I am not a lecturer and I didn’t apply for a PhD (yet) but I work from home as a Freelance Writer and Artist, trying to make a living from my hobbies. I have difficulties with planning and organizing my time, I’m still making endless lists that I never follow with what I need to do in the next days. And ultimately I still have difficulties with approaching potential clients because I never know if I will say the right thing, but I’m getting there.
My next challenge is to write a book about my personal experience of living with dyspraxia and not knowing it. It is already written in my head, I just need to find the energy to put it into my computer. But more importantly, I regained my identity and I am ready to start over, yet again, now with new ambitions and a different perspective on myself, the world, the people and the interdependency between them all. Although the past experience caused me a lot of distress, I am happy it happened as it led to a revelation that, in a way, I had been expecting all my life...