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12 Twelve months later...

It is just over two years since my autism diagnosis, and one year since launching Behind The Smiles. I have had the most extraordinary year: publishing my website, moving countries to start university and beginning my own, independent life. I have learned so much that I wanted to share a few of the lessons, as I look back over the past year…

Starting with September and October… The months I moved countries and began my new life at university! These were probably some of the most nerve-wracking but exciting weeks. Following my diagnosis, I had started to understand myself better and thus I felt like a refreshed version – a ‘Version 2’! As I had felt cubby-holed in my sixth form, I was looking forward to going to uni as no-one had preconceived ideas about me or past knowledge of events dating back to when I was much younger: I could finally live life as my authentic self.

In my first couple of months at university, I realised the importance of embracing every moment. I am someone who likes routine, however, I learned that whilst structure is good, change and spontaneity don’t have to be bad. I found it helpful to remember that everyone, neurodivergents and neurotypicals alike, were in the same position – being in a new environment, living alone and having to make friends. Some of my best memories in Freshers’ week stem from last-minute plans and stepping out of my comfort zone. To be honest, my entire first year at uni has been one giant leap after another. As uncomfortable as this may have been at times, I think these moments have been major contributing factor to my personal growth.

November and December were, for sure, a learning curve. With the lingering adrenaline rush from Freshers’ week and all things new, I had to understand my needs fairly quickly. I think the biggest lesson I learned, was about focusing on me and not comparing myself and my lifestyle to others.

Having more freedom than ever before I was dazed at how different people lived their lives – some going repeatedly between clubs and lectures, whilst others had their heads down in the library at 3 am! I felt completely overwhelmed and confused, as I had no idea what the ‘right’ thing to do was and who I was meant to be. Pretty quickly, I realised there was no such ‘right’ thing, but rather what worked best was personal. I started to learn about my limits and set my own pace. I tried not to focus on what others were doing but instead create a healthy balance that suited me. Although, being completely honest, this has changed throughout the year and I am sure will continue to do so as I mature and experience new challenges.

 This January was the first anniversary of my grandad’s sudden passing. I have not previously discussed this period and the grief that has followed, as I am still trying to process everything. However, I have realised there is no one-way to grieve. The word and concept of ‘grief’ makes me feel lost and overwhelmed. Normally, due to alexithymia, I struggle with my emotions, and so having to deal with the unexpected death of my grandad, who I was very close to, is something that again has been confusing.

I don’t feel equipped just yet to explore the subject of grief any further presently but I wanted to address that it is important to always remember that everyone has their own story. It takes nothing to be kind. We have no idea what silent battles everyone is fighting. The smallest things, like a smile, can make the biggest difference, just to remind someone they are not alone.

With the increasing workload and most students away on reading weeks in February and March, I felt a drop in excitement and pace of university life. As I study Medicine (one of the only courses not to be given a reading week), I was left as the only student in my communal kitchen. I began to feel quite lonely and out of my depth. As much as I enjoyed living in student halls, it was at times difficult to feel comfortable. The transition from being at home where you are surrounded by people you have spent your entire life with, to moving in with a bunch of strangers is a drastic change. You take the little things for granted, like having someone to eat meals with or watch terrible TV with. I started isolating myself, eating dinner alone and spending less time with others. I was forced to recognise what was happening and re-evaluate.

I decided to go home, back to a place of familiarity and safety. I reflected on my behaviour and realised that I was the only person who was responsible for my actions and emotions; the only person who could change how I felt. I needed to help myself and on my return to university, I tried to re-immerse myself back into university life. I think the moral of the story is that it is normal to have periods of feeling down. Validating those feelings, can help you find strategies to change them.

Reflecting on what helped me maintain motivation and high spirits, having a routine that I stuck to was crucial. Reading weeks aside, as I have mentioned previously, everyone’s life looks different and so having structure assisted me throughout the year in keeping on top of my academics, hobbies and both mental and physical wellbeing. For example, during the weekdays I would commit to an hour of exercise (either netball or going to the gym) after lectures, followed by some down time after dinner, where I would either in person or virtually hang out with friends, watch Netflix or distract myself from a long day of studying in some other way! During the weekends I would complete chores and then reward myself by exploring a new area of London. Personally, having something to look forward to every day provided me with the motivation I needed to carry out the less enjoyable or tedious tasks.

April easter holidays brought about another crucial lesson for me. As everyone ventured home to spend the break with their families, I once again realised how hard socialising became. People weren’t on your doorstep, and it wasn’t a case of walking to the communal kitchen to hang out with friends or being able to meet easily at short notice. Socialising turned digital and I found this incredibly challenging. It took a conscious effort for me to reach out. This was not because I didn’t want to, but rather I found and continue to find the whole idea of online conversations quite difficult – not knowing the tone people are speaking in, what they mean by certain phrases they use and having to make small talk and create topics of conversation.

Additionally, I began to understand the phrase ‘it takes two to tango’. Having the break made me aware of friendship bonds and how tight they were or were not in some cases. I was disheartened by some individuals who I believed I was close to, as they took a step back in communications but simultaneously, I was surprised by others who stayed in contact. On the whole, I learned the importance of regular communication and how long-lasting relationships require investing time and effort.

May was a very rewarding month for me! I had an incredible opportunity to write for the National Autistic Society UK in their 60th-anniversary magazine. This has been a huge ambition of mine and so to have my name, face and writing published was amazing. I started this website as I wanted to do my part for the autistic community by educating those around us and encouraging autism acceptance. This dream came true when I was given the honour to share my thoughts with readers around the UK. Furthermore, through playing sport at university I was awarded ‘Fresher of the Year’. This was entirely unexpected but something I was completely blown away by. This prestigious prize gave me an external check point and internal confidence in knowing that my routine and chosen work-life balance was a success. Although I have faced challenges since September, these commendations were reminders that life is filled with ups and downs. Having the lows makes the highs so much more rewarding.

Summer arrived much faster than I had expected and suddenly my first year of university was over! With a long summer ahead, I spent parts of June and July reflecting on the whirlwind that was my first year. Term time had been so busy. At times I felt like life was running away. I wanted to have some downtime and thus decided to pay a short visit to my aunt’s alpaca farm in Ireland. I spent these few days surrounded by people and things I love - nature and animals - and I dedicated this time to relaxing and resetting. These genuinely were some of the best few days of my entire summer holidays. I believe we all must take time out of the chaos of daily life to reflect and ground ourselves, time to re-energise and just be.

As August began, the rolling hills of the Irish countryside turned into the bustling streets of Camden and farmer’s tractors transformed into London buses. I returned to London and moved into my new flat with new flatmates. Although I was so excited about settling back into a routine for the beginning of year two at university, once more these changes made me quite apprehensive. Surrounding myself with my comfort people (who care about me and make an effort to understand my needs) helped me balance my thoughts and feelings. While it takes time to build a support network, I have learned that if you surround yourself with positive energy, you will be more than okay.

Upon reflection, it has been an unbelievable, rollercoaster of a year and to be completely honest, I wouldn’t change any of it! There have been so many great bits but also undeniably some not so wonderful moments; it is so important to trust the process. Thank you to my family and friends who has been by my side and supported me through the ups and downs. And thank you so much for joining me on my journey over the past twelve months, I hope just like myself, you too can reflect on the last year and feel proud of yourself for your achievements and personal growth.

Looking forward to the next 12,

Nidhi :)



 

References


Cover image: iStock by Getty Images, 2020. Available at https://www.istockphoto.com/vector/mental-health-or-psychological-therapy-concept-with-watering-flowering-human-head-gm1276578944-376044663 [Accessed 16 September, 2022]


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