As ever, when my clumsiness got embarrassing, I was trying to smooth things over with a joke. I’d joined a kickboxing club with my friend Jade and, while I matched Jade’s progress on strength and technique, my uselessness with rights/lefts and remembering pad-work sequences had become a running joke in our sessions. As adults, we tend to dodge challenging situations and potential embarrassments with all the skill and verve of a matador, so it had been a long time since my physical awkwardness had been so unflatteringly spotlit. After a particularly haphazard delivery of jabs, crosses, hooks and kicks, I joked, “If I were a junior, would you be speaking to my parents about my coordination?” And there the joke ended. My instructor nodded, perfectly seriously. “Without question.”
The word “dyspraxia” was a relatively new one to me, lingering in my ears after a friend’s diagnosis, even though I’d laughed off his suggestions that I should “perhaps read up on it too, babe”. But when I scrolled through the list of symptoms on the Dyspraxia UK website that evening, after googling “clumsy” and “coordination problems”, I started to cry. So many things – seemingly unrelated failings, sensitivities, neuroses, which have shaped my life – suddenly made sense. They were now “symptoms”, not just me being shit at stuff, or highly strung, or overly sensitive.
Dyspraxia UK defines dyspraxia (aka Developmental Coordination Disorder aka DCD) as a "chronic and usually permanent condition characterised by impairment of both functional performance and quality of movement that is not explicable in terms of intellect, or by any other diagnosable neurological or psychiatric features”. Between 5% and 10% of the population have some symptoms of dyspraxia, but this lifelong neurological disorder is both tricky to explain and complex to diagnose. “Dyspraxia/DCD is a cluster of difficulties and can present with different difficulties,” Michele Lee, vice-chair of the Dyspraxia Foundation told Bustle. “But the common symptom is difficulties with gross- and fine-motor skills.”
Reframing my failings as ‘symptoms’ changed everything. I had spent a lot of my life wondering why I was so shit at everything
In the UK, there is currently no NHS provision for dyspraxia diagnoses in those 16+, however, Dyspraxia UK offers diagnoses and occupational-therapy services. My diagnosis, with Dyspraxia UK director Rosaline Van de Weyer, was a three-hour session including motor-skills testing like typing, shape-matching exercises and “sensory profiling”, assessing my sensitivities. Most dyspraxics, like me, emerge with a “spiky profile", ie there are things we’re very poor at and things we’re very strong at. So, my diagnosis wasn’t an entirely bleak picture.
Reframing my failings as “symptoms” changed everything. I spent a lot of my life wondering why I was so shit at everything. I didn’t have another word for it. I didn’t understand how I could really, really try, but still spill coffee everywhere, be unable to sign a birthday card neatly, be unable to unlock my front door first time. Or why I am always covered in bruises; why I find loud noises so distressing that I have to abandon my shopping basket and flee Boots when a grating song comes on; why gusty wind feels like a personal attack; why dancing with anyone sends me into a panic; why I can't walk through a doorway without knocking a gangly limb; why I have to back into a corner in bars or restaurants to tuck myself out of the way, because otherwise I'll bump into people or spill things or spend my entire evening worried I'm about to. At my lowest moments, this is what it felt like to be me: imagine if every single thing you did went to shit. Imagine if the entire world was too bright, too loud, too fast and too close.
Now, I had a name to apply to myself at such times, an official-sounding medical word, rather than an expletive. A diagnosis helped me understand myself; I’m no longer confused and frustrated when it takes me 10 minutes to unlock my front door. I mean, it’s still annoying. But now I get it, and I don’t silently curse myself under my breath any more. A diagnosis also means I can explain myself to others and ask for help. I can tell strangers at weddings, whose feet I am dancing on, that I’m not just drunk. I can ask a friend to carry my round of drinks from the bar, because, let’s face it, we really do want those drinks. I can be open about my fervent hatred of barbecues, because you need to eat standing up or balancing a plate, talking while you go. The whole food-truck/street-food trend is, to me, a multitasking assault course. There are easier ways to get your dinner.
After my diagnosis, I called my mum, a doctor, and asked her if she’d noticed anything untoward about her clumsy little firstborn daughter. “You weren’t a noticeably uncoordinated child and you met all your milestones with ease,” she said. But, yes, my younger sister, Naomi, was soon overtaking me in skills like drawing and climbing and handwriting. I remember Naomi and I sitting together and carefully trying to draw our own version of Garfield, copied from a book. Hers was pretty much publishable (to be fair, she is now an artist). I was a year and a half older yet my Garfield looked like a haunted sponge. I remember Naomi’s tears as I erupted in rage and frustration, ripping mine up and disappearing to sulk up a tree.
Would an earlier diagnosis have helped me? Perhaps I’d have sworn at myself less. But the psychological impact of a diagnosis is multi-faceted. Perhaps I’d never have tried certain things in life if I’d had a label. Would my school friends have treated me differently? It might have become more of a “big deal”, rather than something I could mask with a goofy sense of humour and deft avoidance skills. Would I have used it as an excuse to not try challenging things? Even now, I found myself fleetingly reconsidering my commitment to kickboxing. What’s the point, when the odds are stacked against me?
Then I snapped out of it. My diagnosis isn’t about sinking into defeatism. My diagnosis is about helping me love the bits of myself that I’ve always found confusing. My symptoms don’t define me, but my coping mechanisms do. I adopted a self-deprecating sense of humour to smooth over my physical ineptitude, joking about how I should just buy a T-shirt that says “SORRY” on it, because I felt like my day was one long apology to strangers, for bumping into them, dropping things, causing chaos. I’d laugh along merrily at people’s observations that I ran like a “flapping flamingo” or a toddler.
Being a dyspraxic feminist sucked, because I appeared 'ditsy' despite my desperate efforts not to. I could never master pool in pubs and I discard debit cards like pistachio shells
Dyspraxia is particularly under-diagnosed in women, as we find ways to cover it up by joking about being “ditsy”. Being a dyspraxic feminist sucked, because I appeared “ditsy” despite my desperate efforts not to. I could never master pool in pubs, I discard debit cards like pistachio shells and, in my social group, I was the “ditsy” one. I hated the word, but I can understand now why many women gratefully embrace it. It’s a way for their shame and awkwardness to be rendered sexy. This is quite the upgrade.
My diagnosis cast a softer light on my memories of my waitressing days, when the chefs in the cafe dubbed me the “MAID OF CHAOS”, because I’d clatter down the stairs, sending cutlery flying. I was a very bad waitress. I survived, again, by being as smiley and charming as I could muster, and I got tips from customers who felt sorry for the clumsy waitress covered in tabbouleh.
I had to get very used to failure, because practice didn't make perfect for me. I could try, try, try again and never succeed. Those trite little sayings about effort and success and failure didn't work for me – I could do my absolute best to carry a cup of tea on a saucer or catch a ball and still screw it up. I fail at 50 small everyday tasks every day. Me and failure go WAY back.
But, beyond my weapons-grade clumsiness, the more interesting aspects of my diagnosis related to sensory profiling. Possessing a highly sensitive sensory system, most dyspraxics experience the world as “too bright, too loud, too fast, too tight”, as Dyspraxia UK puts it. I can’t join gyms because the loud music makes me hyperventilate. I can’t sit in chairs or on sofas for long; I need to sit on the floor, moving around sporadically. I wriggle in bed and drive companions crazy. Bright sunshine can genuinely screw up a meeting for me, the sound of drilling in the street makes me hyperventilate as I walk past and I rarely feel comfortable in my own skin or, indeed, in clothes. I can’t bear velvet, which might as well be velcro to me, and can’t even touch the likes of snakeskin, which feels like psoriasis to me. At times, being ridiculously sensitive to sound has made me look like a total dick. Like the date I went on that I had to prematurely eject myself from because, “Sorry, the music in here is driving me nuts.” The cafe I had to abruptly drag my ex-boyfriend out of, abandoning our coffees, because they started playing R.E.M., one of my most hated bands. I can’t work with music playing in the office – yet another thing that makes me come across like a diva. “Diva”, like “shit”, is another world I am gratefully replacing with “dyspraxic”.
An unexpected side to my diagnosis: my sex life made sense to me. Being as sensitive as a shelled prawn, it naturally takes me ages to trust someone enough to let them touch me. As I once told a friend, the reason why I don’t have casual sex is this: there is nothing, for me, between “This feels amazing lets do it again and forever” and “Ugh, get off”. There is no middle ground. Either physical contact feels amazingly natural or it feels truly terrible, like I should be being paid. And it doesn’t feel natural very often. Now, I know I wasn’t just being prudish or weird or scared – I was being me.
And, although I often wish I could “turn down the volume on my feelings”, there are obvious upsides to being this sensitive. I get more pleasure from music than anyone else I know – when it’s right, music transports me, reverberates into my soul, changes my mood and thoughts in an instant. The same goes with the beauty of light and the deliciousness of human touch. Sensory pleasure more than makes up for the bruises. I wouldn’t change being dyspraxic for the world. But I’m really glad I know what to call it.