Sunday, May 15, 2022

Adios España ... where to next?

    I've decided to move on to another European country. I came to Spain first because it's my best second language, so it was a lower barrier to entry. Now, however, I have discovered a barrier to settling here -- getting a Spanish driver's license -- that is much lower for some other countries in my 3rd and 4th languages (i.e., Portugal, France, Belgium). Spain does not have reciprocity with the US or with any US state for driver's licenses. I would have to start from scratch, like any teenager. And it's a process I'm not willing to go through, now that I know that any of those other countries would just trade my old Maryland license for a new national one with no drama whatsoever. But I have gone through some internal drama on the way to making this decision.... 

    A common thread in neurodiversity is hypersensitivity. You see words and phrases like "sensory overload," "emotional disregulation," "rejection sensitivity dysphoria," "overexcitabilities," "highly sensitive person," "distractibility," "intensity." It seems to be the whole nervous system that is hypersensitive and poorly regulated, though it's expressed differently in different people. There is some evidence that neurodiversities like giftedness, ADHD and autism, are correlated with other "hypersensitive" conditions like allergies and autoimmune disorders. 

    Since I've been getting to know me over the past several years, and getting to know my atypical brain, I've come to recognize a lot of those elements in myself. I never even knew that I was highly sensitive to noise, smells, bright light, and touch -- but boy, am I. I never knew much of anything about ADHD, except that I kept dropping out of college and never could get a paper written without drinking a whole lot of coffee and Red Bull.

    I never realized how unusually sensitive and intense I am, which has had some consequences. One is that I have pushed myself to perform like a neurotypical, and as far as I've managed to do that, it was at the cost of major burnout. The other is that I have found ways of avoiding feeling my feelings, which -- well, I'm still figuring out how that has affected me, as I begin to learn, tentatively, to feel all the feelings. And that doesn't just mean big, scary feelings, like grief or fear or love or rage. It also means the little ones, like boredom, frustration, doubt, annoyance. 

    And as I am beginning to learn to allow all my feelings, to tune in to them and query them and attend to them, there are some other things I'm learning. I am beginning to unlearn two contrary lessons that I seem to have taken on from growing up with "too much" intensity and sensitivity, and from living with undiagnosed depression for so many years before there was Prozac. The first is that my feelings are exaggerated, and way too big to handle, and last forever, and so I should avoid them if I can or they might actually kill me. The other is that I know my feelings are bigger than the sympathy they get from other [neurotypical] people, and since other people are dismissive, I wallow ... which makes them even bigger and stickier.

    It turns out that most feelings, even intense ones, ebb and flow. They do not stay forever, as long as they are treated with caring attention. That depression was a chemical imbalance in my brain, and now it's no longer imbalanced. It wasn't normal, natural emotion. It wasn't a kind of emotion that is normal and natural even for my overexcitable nervous system. My "normal" is a low threshold of sensitivity, high intensity, and poor regulation, which is not the same thing as clinical depression. So I'm tentatively starting to dare to tolerate all this intensity, and learning how to treat myself with compassion and care.

    So what does it mean to me to treat my feelings with caring attention? First, it means to just notice them -- or first, notice that I'm doing something to either buffer or exaggerate some kind of feelings (e.g., procrastinating or ruminating). Then, check in with myself to try to notice what I might be feeling (bored? vulnerable? insecure? sad? excited? overwhelmed?). The trick is to stick with noticing and exploring the feeling before letting my mind come in and try to explain it or solve it. My ADHD teacher/coach, Kristen Carder, talks a lot about noticing how emotions feel in the body.

    Then once I have allowed the feeling to show up, swell and recede, I get to ask me, "what do you need?" Which is not the same thing as "why are you feeling this way?" That's a question I've been asking myself all my life, and in the absence of useful information, I've been answering it in all kinds of wrong ways. And it is often worth asking, but not yet. First, "what do you need?" Are you hungry, angry, lonely, tired? Do you need help with this hard thing, or to take a deep breath and push through, or permission to hand it back to the person whose job it really is? Do you need accommodation for some human weakness of yours? Such as, in my case ... hypersensitivity, energy-sapping intensity, emotional disregulation, distractibility, weak working memory, all those executive functioning issues that come from having a brain with a literally smaller prefrontal cortex than a neotypical brain.

    Oh damn, there I have gone to the "why are you feeling this way" question, after all. Yes, well, it's important, too. Especially while my feelings are still so unfamiliar to me, while I'm learning to distinguish "this is hard because I've never done it before and my brain is resisting change, but actually it's worth doing and I believe I can do it, even if it feels terrible the whole time" from "this is hard because I'm trying to do something someone else wants me to do, not something I want" or "this is hard because I'm trying to live by neurotypical standards, instead of respecting my own limits." Everybody has strengths and weaknesses. For 50+ years, I did not understand my invisible disability, and I failed to treat myself with care and compassion. I'm learning now. 


    So, I come to the driver's license. As it turns out, getting a driver's license in Spain is crazy difficult! I signed up for the mandatory driving school and took the one-week intensive course. But I've been getting stressed out -- I mean, I've been having total toddler tantrums (see "emotional disregulation") every time I dip into the practice quizzes for the rules-of-the-road test. OK, I'm dropping out, but I can still use the manual they gave me to focus on learning the rules that actually apply to driving a car (which aren't likely to vary much around the EU). I mean, I can skip over all the questions applying to buses, heavy road construction equipment, farm vehicles, mopeds, motorcycles (haha, see "noise sensitivity"), tractor-trailers, campers, scooters, motorized wheelchairs, and cattle. Yes, I mean cows. And flocks of sheep, and horse-drawn carriages, they're all there. I'm sure I'm forgetting some more categories. Big cars towing light trailers, little cars towing heavy trailers, bicycles, everything in between. It's ALL on the test. See "weak working memory." Oh, and the inner workings of the engine, because honestly? No, I prefer to let someone really competent check it over every time I pay them to change the oil, and not waste my own brain space learning my mechanic's job.

    **Deep breath** you see? I'm edging toward another tantrum, and I've already decided I'm going to give it a pass. And that's just the written test, the practical has a whole other series of triggering things to stress my nervous system (see "distractibility," ay ay ay). And it's just not worth it, because sure, I could get through the test and get the license, just like every Spanish 18-year-old has to do, but at what cost? I'm not here to burn myself out again trying to live up to neurotypical norms. No. I've done that, all my life, and I'm ready to start cutting myself some slack.

    I'm not going to lie ... it was a hard decision to make, even if now that it's decided I feel great about it. But all my life, I've been masking my difficulties by pushing myself to do the things that other people could seemingly do so much more easily. I never had an adequate explanation for why I struggled with things, so I always just thought I was "crazy" or "broken." But you know what, my friends? ADHD is a disability. It's a real, genuine, neurodevelopmental disorder. "Giftedness" (or rather, its correlary "overexcitability") might not be covered under the ADA, but it is a real, scientifically observable thing, and it is not always a really great gift to have. Sensory processing disorder is real. All these things are invisible disabilities, and you know what? I'm done faking it. Ideal Me does not wear a mask. Ideal Me doesn't judge Real Me. Ideal Me is as compassionate and accommodating toward my own weaknesses as she would be toward anyone else's. 

    And then, if I let that jumble of emotions flow and ebb back again, and look at the situation more dispassionately, you know what? All this defensiveness, all this beating myself up, all this wishing I weren't so weak and imperfect and blah blah blah aside? It's a totally reasonable decision! Even if I were neurotypical. All these foreign expats on the Costa del Sol? Come to think of it, I've hardly heard an American accent since I've been here. It's full of Europeans, Brits, North Africans and Latin Americans, all of whose countries do have reciprocity with Spain for driving permits. None of them have had to go through this ridiculous process. The Americans are mostly going elsewhere, because yes, it really is that bad. Even for the neurotypicals. But I'm not sorry to have gone through the drama, it's just another part of getting to know me, it's all for healing and growth.

    So, I'm going to start planning some trips to explore Portugal, France, and Belgium, and figuring out what the options and procedures are for moving within the EU on my current Spanish visa, and then applying for a visa to one of those other countries. It will be a process, I'll get stressed out, I may throw a toddler tantrum or two, but it's the right decision. Anyway -- how much more fun to get immersion into another language? You know, some people love to tinker under the hood of a car, there might even be some [... no, I won't say "weirdo,"] who would have fun geeking out on that crazy road-rules test. Me? I can't wait to go get fluent in another language! Adios España! There's a whole fascinating continent out there.

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