I have known that I have needed to write about at least a slither of my experience in 2016 even while I was living through it. I could write a book on just that year alone, but as I struggle to even think about some of those memories, let alone speak or write about them, I know that I need to start at the first step, which for me is just writing something – to try to capture a moment, no matter how fleeting.
So many people have asked me the question, “How was it?” whenever I mentioned the fact that I spent three seasons in another country. I know that these people mean well, but I also know that they are looking for the “correct” response, which is the one I always give. “It was such a great experience! I really have learnt so much from it.” This statement is true, it was a good experience, at least partly and I certainly learnt and have grown from every moment I spent on Japan’s soil. I still fully stand by my belief that if you have the opportunity to go on exchange, please do it! It is honestly an experience that is quite unique and is something that could not be replaced by any other. I saw so many beautiful places, met so many wonderful and nurturing people and I have so many exciting memories. My exchange involved a lot of beauty, fun, excitement and happiness, so why is that every time that the topic of my exchange in Japan is brought up that I get a huge lump in my throat and I begin to tear up?
Recently I was cleaning out my desk and I came across an old notebook, hardly touched, that had several pages that 14 or 15 year old me wrote in. If the words were summarised it would be,
Living in Japan will be so challenging, so difficult and incredibly hard. But I will get through it, I have to, because I need to prove to myself that I can.
When I was 4, I believe, I was diagnosed with high-functioning autism, or Aspergers, depending on the year and what the doctor was most comfortable with, and ADHD. There are so many stories I could tell about my beginning years, how I was a horrible, tantrum-throwing brat and about my struggle with words, speaking, reading, writing and mostly understanding humans and what was socially appropriate. That will be another blog post, because I have a lot to say on the matter. However, when I was a bit older, I became so grossly ashamed of how hard I made it for my parents who raised me and also I became grossly ashamed of who I was as a person.
I believe when I was around 8 or 9, I made a promise with myself that I would be well-mannered, polite and most importantly, that I would try my best to be what I considered, “normal,” aka: neurotypical. I did not want anything more in the world than to be able to do what I thought everybody else could. I did not want my condition to define me, but by striving so hard to be “normal,” I completely rejected who I truly was and I simply did not accept any weaknesses from myself. I worked so hard on understanding what all the different facial expressions and body language meant, what was considered socially appropriate, to always think hard before I opened my mouth and essentially, how to act “appropriately.” I transformed from Satan’s loud and angry spawn to a quiet, polite, but constantly self-judging child. I worked hard on my studies, thinking I would dazzle everyone and become a doctor or lawyer, as I used to be a child who almost did not make mainstreaming education. I wanted to be perfect and I allowed no mistakes. But the most reoccurring thought in my mind was, “There must be nothing that I can’t do. And if there is, I will do it anyway. I will never let my condition stop me or tell me that I can’t.”
I have a lot to thank myself for, due to having that mindset. If I didn’t work as hard as I did basically “studying human behaviour,” and improving my reading, writing and speaking, then just maybe I would not have the capabilities that I do today. But this adamant goal I had to “pass,” was actually incredibly toxic and harmful for my self-esteem and acceptance of who I truly am. If I wasn’t perfect, I punished myself and made myself do it anyway. This mindset followed me way into my adolescent years and it was a reason, if not the main one, why I needed to go on exchange in Japan, that I had no choice but to. I needed to prove to myself that I could do something that involved going against almost every single one of my limitations and what I considered, “flaws.”
So when I got the response back from my application for an exchange in Japan, I was crushed and offended by the word, “No.” Their reasoning was that because I had autism, that an exchange would be impossible for someone like me – I would not be able to cope. This reinforced the insecurities I had about my capabilities and made my blood boil.
“They are judging me based on some meaningless words on paper! If they met me, they would know that I am more than capable and hardworking enough to be able to do this!” I would angrily tell anybody who would listen.
I still believe that an organisation should not judge someone’s applicability based on their condition, but even so, I have often asked myself, “Was this one decision the catalyst? Would my depression have gotten as bad as it did if I never went to Japan?” I admit that a lot of things that contributed to my mental health was because of my experience as an exchange student and I made certain decisions that had terrible consequences because of it, but I also am aware that my mental health became a problem years before I even considered going on an exchange. The jury is still out on this.
After they declined my application, my parents and I worked hard on changing their mind. And it worked! The organisation had several meetings and one day I got the response I was looking for – that I were to pack my bags because I was to arrive in Japan very soon. I was leaving one month after than originally planned, therefore cutting my 10 month exchange to 9, but I was so incredibly excited – the thing I worked so bloody hard to be able to do, was now a reality!
It is so interesting to reflect on this experience and through writing these words, I now understand that I must continue. Those 9 months in Japan was a rollercoaster like no other. The lessons that I learnt from it that I hold the dearest to my heart, are that I could no longer hide from who I am, that my condition is not something I should be ashamed of and most importantly, that it is okay to have limitations. Through it I learnt to shed myself from having to be “perfect,” or “normal.” I learnt so many things about myself and how that even though I am very capable, acknowledging my weaknesses does not make me weak. The only reason that I lasted the entire exchange was because I was running from the reality of these limitations that I had. Yes, I am now able to be proud of myself to have achieved something that was honestly really difficult for someone like me, but there was a lot that could have been avoided if I just allowed myself to be human.
Not only is it okay to make mistakes and to be gentle with your limitations, but it is also crucial for building character and to achieve true wonders…
The wonders of being human and therefore flawed.
This is part one of, ‘Testing Limits,’ as I want to explore with further blog entries my experience of the lows and highs of living in Japan and how I came to this lesson of teaching myself self-acceptance. Thank you for reading, (you are wonderful!) and allowing myself to explore a topic that I have struggled with talking about truthfully until now. Love and light and please always choose compassion.
Proud to be neurodivergent!