Author’s note: The Alien & Alan (or, on being different)

As I start writing this, I don’t know exactly why I’m writing it, whether I’ll ever hit “Publish” or whether like most non-fiction things I start writing which are to do with me, I’ll just delete it partway through. Maybe I’m writing it as a form of therapy; to vent thoughts which have been going around my head for a while now. Or maybe it is written partly out of hope that somebody reading it who may otherwise laugh at or alienate somebody who is either neurologically or physically different thinks twice about it and chooses not to do so. I might be a little too jaded about people in general to fully believe that the latter’s possible, but who knows? It would be nice to be wrong.

To those of you who don’t know me, I’m now a professional writer. I write fiction from home ranging from novels to video games. And, while not currently able to dive into a swimming pool full of money Scrooge McDuck style, I’m actually making a decent go of writing for a living. Most of my novel writing jobs were ghost writing though, so it’s possible you’ve read something by me already without ever realising it. At present, I’m enjoying the happiest years of my life. I have a wonderful, beautiful and intelligent wife named Phoebe (you may have already heard about her if you’ve read “Sleeping Beauty & M.E” or one of the many other poems she inspired, or if you’ve read some of my comments about her on the Moments: Choose Your Story app). And for 50% of the time, I also have my lovely daughter Kira with me (for the other 50% of the time she’s with my ex-wife, but I’d sooner not talk about her right now).

I often find myself thinking that Phoebe’s the only person in the world who fully knows the real me. And that she not only likes but loves the real me seems like a minor miracle to me, because for decades I’d effectively been trained to think that nobody would like the real me if they got to know me; first by my dad (he didn’t mean to – but he did anyway), then by bullies in school and college and finally as a natural progression I suppose, by ending up trapped in an abusive relationship for over ten years (but I can’t really discuss the latter fully right now…and maybe I never will). This isn’t really about the one person who does get me and who is on the same wavelength as me though, but about the many more who don’t – some of whom are my friends.

Like me, Phoebe is different. She has severe M.E and scoliosis, and I have dyspraxia and I’m effectively half-blind (only able to see out of one eye at a time). We have both experienced a deep sense of loneliness. Phoebe’s through physically and literally being isolated from people when her condition was at its worst. For me, it was more a sense of being lonely in a crowd – of being constantly reminded by others that I’m not normal, that I don’t fit in and that in all likelihood I never will.

Somebody on the Moments comments section recently posted asking whether I have or would consider writing an autobiography. I haven’t and I couldn’t and this post may be the closest that I ever get to writing one, partly because my memory doesn’t work normally. Dyspraxia is an often misunderstood condition; dyslexia’s less famous cousin who doesn’t get invited to as many parties, I guess. Even people who do know about dyspraxia often only know about the coordination aspect to the condition (clumsiness) but it’s the other aspects of the condition which have caused me more pain in the past than walking into a tree branch or a lamppost ever could.

Dyspraxia is such a diverse condition that I couldn’t possibly speak for every dyspraxic. And though I am going to use the term “we” to describe dyspraxics, I do get that not all of them will have experienced quite what I went through with it. Generally speaking though, we don’t think in the same way that you do. For me personally, my memory doesn’t really work properly when I’m stressed. Very little is permanently stored when I’m anxious and what little is stored up there somewhere is harder to retrieve if I’m stressed too. And as an added bonus, people with dyspraxia are more prone to being stressed and emotional – to feeling things on a deeper level.

I mentioned earlier that even most of my friends don’t fully know me. This isn’t entirely their fault. Over the years, I’ve got very good at effectively wearing masks to try and appear “normal” rather than the alien I’ve often felt like – of only presenting certain aspects of myself to certain people. Some of my friends have been allowed to see more aspects than others, but only Phoebe has seen it all. Perhaps a good example of this is one of my best friends, Mat. It’s possible he may even read this article, as he’s one of my only friends who does sometimes read my writing. Before I continue, some of what I write might be interpreted as a criticism of Mat. It isn’t meant that way; he’s one of the best – to the extent that he was one of three best men that I had at my most recent wedding. He’s getting married soon, I’m happy for him and will be going to his wedding.

Some of the thoughts I’ve been having recently though do stem from a question or two that he asked me at the small pre-wedding get together that I had prior to my wedding to Phoebe. I won’t use the term “stag do” for my get together, as a traditional stag do with lots of people, lads being lads, the teasing, excessive alcohol consumption and humiliation which goes with that is my idea of Hell. I have social anxiety which is linked to my dyspraxia, so didn’t want to have any kind of a get together which would make me feel psychologically and physically uncomfortable prior to my wedding (in terms of the physical, my stomach and occasionally my heart react badly when I’m too stressed). So, I intentionally kept it very small. There was just me, my older brother Daniel, Matt and Andrew in a pub together. And even that might have been a little too much for me (generally I prefer one on one conversations or socialising in very small groups).

On that night, Mat was struck by how small the get together was and made some disbelieving comment to a stranger in the pub regarding how little I’d done for it. “This is his stag do!” he’d said. Except as previously mentioned, it wasn’t meant to be one – I’d never want a traditional stag do. But despite being one of my closest friends and one of my best men, Mat hadn’t known that about me (or had been told but had forgotten it). He was also a little bemused by the other friend I’d invited – Andrew – and poked fun now and then at Andrew’s awkwardness. Like me, Andrew has dyspraxia and in some ways, he has it to a greater degree than I do. So, I feel a great deal of empathy towards him. I’d made it clear to my best men that I didn’t want any kind of a speech at my wedding. On the night of my “not a stag do” though, two of my three best men had a go at improvising speeches.

Mat’s speech talked about what had been the unhappiest period of my life prior to being trapped in an abusive relationship; about my school and college days. It mentioned in humorous fashion how gross I used to be when I had really bad acne and how awkward I was. It was a stressful period of my life and as a result of how dyspraxia memory issues work, the only bits of that period which I remember are those which were so horrifying or humiliating for me that they are lodged in my brain (and even those bits, I wish I could just forget). It later went on to mention about how physically later I blossomed and girls weren’t repulsed by me any longer etc, which was nice, but still – the reminder of the very unhappy period of my life was there. In case you’re wondering, Andrew didn’t make it all the way through his improvised speech. It was delivered with all the awkwardness you can expect from somebody with dyspraxia and upon getting the feeling that he was being laughed at rather than people laughing with him, Andrew gave up.

The question Mat asked me was, “Why don’t you like Alan? He teased me too in college, but I thought it was funny!”. I tried to answer Mat then, but I’m unsure if my answer was really understood. So, I’ll try again now.

During my secondary school years (especially my early secondary school years), I was frequently bullied and teased at school. My dyspraxia was much more obvious than it is now. I’d a general lack of social awareness, would come out with strange things on the rare occasions when I did pipe up in social situations and would sometimes walk stooped forwards on occasions when I was so cognitively fatigued that I forgot to walk upright (certain actions such as walking straight or running normally don’t come as automatically to people with dyspraxia as they do to those without the condition) and due partly to struggling with memory issues and cognitive fatigue on days when I was feeling especially stressed, would be dismissed as “dopey” or in some instances, “stupid.” On top of the dyspraxia, I was effectively half-blind, so one eye would often be doing its own thing when I was looking at somebody out of whichever eye I was actually seeing out of at the time. As previously mentioned, I also had really bad acne.

The combination of these three conditions meant that I was an easy target for bullying; somebody so different that perhaps it seemed rude not to mock me for being different. And when I wasn’t in school, there was my dad who didn’t and still doesn’t really understand me, who can’t connect with my emotional nature and who would humiliate me over mistakes I’d made, whether it be yelling at me to come downstairs because of me throwing away a receipt (it’s a security risk, don’t’cha know?) or laughing along with my granddad about how I’d be dangerous if I had half a brain. I was made to feel like an alien; like the most I could do was pretend to be normal, but that I’d never get it right. And there would always be somebody there to tell me that I wasn’t getting it right.

With bullies (and very few friends) in school, my dad at home and a face marred with spots whenever I looked in the mirror, my self-esteem was really low – and I was sick of being mocked for having bad skin. I took a really strong dose of antibiotics to deal with my skin issues; Roaccutane. It meant that for the year I was taking it for, I was physically aching and emotionally it put me under more strain too – but it was still worth it (and is the only treatment I would personally recommend for acne) because it worked; I was spot free. During the same period, I also gained slightly more social awareness than I’d previously had and started trying to mask my dyspraxia. I’d hoped that now that my acne was gone, I might have a better time mingling with other fellow humans; that I might make more friends and who knows? Maybe even a girlfriend. With those hopes, I moved from Adams Secondary School Wem to Adams Sixth Form College Wem. And with hindsight, I wish my parents had sent me somewhere else; somewhere that wasn’t attached to that school.

It’s at this point in the story that the Alan of the title (and the Alan of Mat’s question earlier) is featured. While externally my appearance had improved, internally my self-esteem was still in a dangerously low place from years of being bullied. I was suffering from social anxiety and felt stressed in large group situations such as sitting with the other students in the communal lounge. Despite this, I tried to fight against my social anxiety and occasionally join the others there – as I desperately wanted to be liked and understood and maybe to feel like I fit in with them too. And whenever I tried to, there was Alan. Alan; with his cheeky grin and quick banter. He’d repeatedly poke fun at me; whether it was my hair style (“He thinks he’s Noel Gallagher!”), my coat (“Ha! Hello Leon!”), the fact that I didn’t spend much time in the communal area (“Let’s place bets about how long he’ll last here this time!”), the tinted glasses which I sometimes wore because of becoming sick at people mentioning that my eyes don’t look in the same direction as each other (“Ha! Look at him. He thinks he’s David Beckham now!”) or…well…basically anything else I did. He was a constant reminder that despite no longer having acne and despite doing my best to try and fit in with others, I never would; I would always be different and I would always sooner or later get it wrong whenever I tried.

Alan wasn’t (and I suspect still isn’t) the worst person in the world. He was just a typically insensitive teenager who didn’t get or didn’t care about how much his words hurt me, who didn’t get that it wasn’t just what he was saying at that specific time that was the issue – but that he was just the latest in a string of mocking voices which I’d eventually internalized. That I’d convinced myself that yes, I was a freak and no, it wasn’t a surprise that people would mock me for being different. Alan was and still is a reminder of the sad times of my life and of me getting things wrong (so no, I don’t want to be friends on Facebook or have a drink and pretend we were ever mates, thanks). I don’t know whether Alan wasn’t aware that I had dyspraxia – which is both a mental as well as a physical disability – or whether he knew and just didn’t really care. Either way, it doesn’t really matter; he did what he did just as many others had done before him. It was just all a bit of fun, right? Except for the person who was the butt of all the jokes I suppose, but the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or something, something (insert excuse here).

After two years of college and a gap year spent with another group of people who I didn’t really fit in with, I went to university. With my confidence in an extremely low place, I started dating the first person who expressed a vague interest in me. And they took over where the bullies had left off; reinforcing every bad thought that I had about myself. Even when they physically lashed out at me, I was made to feel that it was my fault – that I’d somehow said or done something I shouldn’t have. It was easy to be convinced of this; the groundwork had been laid for many years before I’d ever met her. I can’t really discuss this period in too much detail though – whether I’d like to or not.

I’m out of that now. I’m genuinely happy. I’m not in an abusive relationship anymore, but in a loving relationship with somebody who really understands me and does her best to let me know that she thinks I’m wonderful. She’s even managed to make me have more confidence in myself, to the extent that instead of hiding all the time, I’m putting myself out there as a writer. But the scars from the earlier period in my life will always remain (both physical and emotional ones). I still have anxiety issues (I’ve only had one panic attack to date thankfully; after which my dad irritably asked me “What did you go and do that for?”, like it was a choice I’d made) but my anxiety is a lot less than it previously was, to the extent that I’m now remembering things from recent years which make me happy instead of just things which traumatized me.  And I’m able to have thoughts such as “Maybe the problem isn’t always with me. Maybe it’s more of a societal problem” or even just “Children and teenagers can be really cruel”.

I’m unsure how to close this off. I’ve effectively said everything I wanted to say now. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even hit “Publish”. I guess I should say something in conclusion though. How about, “Don’t mock and maybe even try to understand people who are physically or mentally different from you”? Or, “Please do your best to ensure that your kids don’t bully or tease others in school”. Or maybe it should be, “Don’t tell children or teenagers the old lie that these are the best years of their lives – because they may not be and it could be dangerous if they believed it to be true”. Yes, I suppose either of those can do as a closing point. Pick whichever one speaks to you best, I guess. Perhaps like many of the visual novels which I now write, it makes sense for the conclusion to be a mini “choose your own adventure”.

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