First of all, forgive me for what is the longest (and likely most boring) post that I’ve written on here so far. It took me the best part of 2 days to write and is actually longer than the mini-dissertation I had to do earlier this academic year (I just wish that I could have written THAT in so little time). I do ramble on quite a bit but a lot happened (anxiety-wise) while I was there.
I got up at 3:30am after only 2 hours of sleep. I lay awake in bed for ages, unable to sleep because of how anxious I was about the trip. My mum (who honestly deserves several awards for everything she’s done for me and my siblings over the years) was kind enough to drive me to the airport at 5 in the morning. I even (without meaning to) subjected her to my intense anxiety and panic about the trip, all the way there. But I’m sure she’s used to it by now. As usual, she just kept trying to rationalise with me and kept telling me that everything would be fine. When I arrived at the airport, it was clear that hardly anyone on my course had gotten a decent night’s sleep. I just stood awkwardly on the outside of the group (as usual) while we waited for the tutors to show up with the boarding passes. I unfortunately had a middle seat on the plane so couldn’t really relax at any point during the flight. The two people on either side of me slept for most of the flight. I wish I could have done so but I was far too anxious and I’m not usually able to sleep on planes anyway.
The weather wasn’t quite as warm as I thought it would be when we arrived but still warm enough to wear a (long-sleeved) t-shirt. We all had to wait around outside the car hire place for over an hour while the tutors rented 5 minivans for us all. I stood very awkwardly on my own the entire time, while everyone else talked to their friends and had a laugh together. It was really only the mature student who said anything to me but because I’m so awkward and socially inept, I wasn’t really able to get a conversation going. I felt like such a loser and outsider watching everyone interact while I stood on the sidelines. It upset me quite a bit.
On arriving at the apartments, I met my room mates and we went off to our apartment. The fact that the two are best friends and had never spoken to me at all before the trip (and haven’t since) made things very awkward. I felt like an unwanted stray or something and I just kept out of their way. They seemed okay (though not particularly happy) with sharing the sofa bed while I had the only bedroom to myself. I didn’t feel comfortable explaining the reasons for this to them at first and I got the feeling that they really didn’t like me.
A short while after arriving, we all had to go round to the tutors’ apartment to do a sort of induction/ icebreaker thing. This involved us having to say our name and mention an animal (our “spirit animal” or just animal that held some significance for us) in front of the whole group. To someone without social anxiety disorder, it probably seems ridiculous that someone should be so afraid of doing something as relatively minor as that, but I was. Thankfully, the tutors who were on the trip know about my anxiety and I was approached by the module leader, who told me about the icebreaker activity and said that I didn’t have to take part if I didn’t feel able to. But I felt like challenging myself so I did take part after all and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.
I didn’t really do much for the rest of the day other than unpack and go to the supermarket in town with my apartment mates and a few other people. Again, I just tagged along behind the group as we walked, feeling like a lost puppy. I did feel really anxious in the shop but not quite as bad as I thought I would be. Because I still live at home, I’ve never had to do a weekly shop for myself before and it was really difficult trying to remember everything I needed while feeling so anxious and self-concious. Thankfully, the checkout assistants at every shop we went to spoke English, but I still felt pretty bad about only knowing the most basic Portuguese.
I felt incredibly awkward having to share the kitchen with my apartment mates and found myself wishing that I could just eat in my room. It felt more like I was living in their house rather than sharing with them. They covered the dinner table with their belongings and apparently decided that only they could sit there, even though there were four seats, so I just had to stand at the kitchen counter and eat my dinner there every night, which was a bit annoying. Not that I would have wanted to eat in front of them anyway, though… They also (when they stayed in) had the TV blaring until about 1 am, which again annoyed me, because I was so tired and worn out from anxiety most days that I wanted to go to bed at about 9pm. I’m extremely grateful that my grandfather gave me a pair of ear plugs for the trip. I would’ve hardly slept otherwise. (I’m guessing that I probably sound like a grumpy old woman to most people reading this…)
Despite it being warm during the day, the nights in the Algarve were absolutely freezing. We had no central heating and only one heater, which my apartment mates kept for themselves at all times. I (and apparently everyone else on the trip) was shivering all night, even with 3 layers of clothing on and 2 blankets. Some people even went to bed with their jackets on because of how cold it was.
The day began with with a short drive to the coastal area where we would be carrying out the morning’s field work. This involved having to get into our own groups, which was quite embarrassing for me because I was only person without a group and had to be assigned to a group by the tutors. Fortunately though, the other three people in my group seemed really nice, laid back and introverted, so I was quite lucky. It was lovely to be able to work outside in the warm sunshine. My group finished early so we were able to just relax in the sun, take in the scenery, and see some carpenter bees.
The rest of the day was spent back at the apartments, identifying, classifying and counting all of the insects we’d collected that morning, as well as having to do a statistical analysis on our data. The stats analysis proved extremely frustrating. We were round at one of my team member’s apartment until about 9pm, by which time the four of us had just about lost the will to live. My team member was nice enough to make us some dinner, so I (very awkwardly) offered to do all the dishes instead of socialising like everyone else. I managed fairly well when talking to my group about the work we were doing, but as soon as it came to trying to make conversation, I was hopelessly awkward.
My apartment mates were a little bit more friendly towards me after I got the three of us extra blankets from reception. I slept a lot better with the extra layers.
The day revolved around a going to a bird sanctuary/ conservation centre, which was just over an hour’s drive from the apartments. We all listened to a talk by the people there about the aims of the organisation and we were even treated to some coffee and cakes. Then we watched a male blackcap get a tag put on its leg and we were shown how they handle the birds without injuring them. One of my apartment mates (whose birthday was the next day) was allowed to hold the bird in her hands as it was being released. I think we were all jealous. The bird just sat in her hands, looking a bit dazed for around 30 seconds, before flying off.
We then all went off on a birdwatching walk to the beach, where we had lunch. As usual, I was sat on my own while everyone else was socialising with their friends. I walked on my own almost the entire time as well, feeling like a complete outcast. Two of the dogs that belonged to the conservation centre actually followed us all the way to the beach, where they tried to steal our lunches. They barked aggressively at every person or dog we came across, and even tried to run after a couple of motorcyclists, which was a bit embarrassing. One of the dogs (“Aslan”) was aptly named. Aside from their aggression issues with anyone outside of their “pack”, they did seem like nice dogs though. Both seemed a bit sad and bewildered when we all got back in the minivans and left.
We also visited a eucalyptus plantation and cork forest to see how many bird species we could find in each. Three of the women who were in the same minivan as me for the day asked me to take a photo of them while we were in the cork forest and tried to make conversation with me. They said that I should go out drinking with them that night. I had the same panic to myself that I did when we were on the island field trip and some other people invited me to the pub. I didn’t really say anything in response to their suggestion. I worry that if I ever did go out drinking with people from uni or elsewhere, I’d end up making a complete idiot of myself. I’d be afraid to get drunk or even tipsy around other people because I worry that I’d just make an embarrassment of myself. And if I went out with them and didn’t drink, they’d probably see me as strange. I don’t even know how people act in pubs or clubs or what they talk about. I am so clueless and socially stunted. So, of course, I ended up not going.
My apartment mates also invited me to go out to the onsite bar with them that evening but again, I felt unable to go, not least because all the anxiety I’d experienced over the past three days was really beginning to take its toll on me. I didn’t want to tell them about my anxiety so I told them that I wasn’t feeling well and should probably get an early night. They said they wouldn’t be long but they didn’t get back until nearly 2 am (after leaving at 8pm). They were both very drunk and one of the guys from our course had to escort them back to our apartment and knock loudly on the door to wake me up so that I could let them in. They then switched on the TV and had it blaring again, and talked really loudly until goodness knows when in the morning. To say I was not impressed is an understatement, especially as I’d stayed up, waiting to let them back in, until 1am (when I eventually gave up) despite being exhausted and really suffering with my anxiety. There were also a number of times when they’d go to the supermarket or something without telling me and I’d be locked outside the apartment (we only had one key between the three of us) for ages until they got back. Again, I know I sound really grumpy and like I need to lighten up a bit (I probably do) but when you feel completely overwhelmed and like you’re going to have a breakdown with your anxiety, and you’re being deprived of very much needed sleep, things like this can really irritate you.
We were up early to drive to a beach very close to the one we’d visited the day before, to do fieldwork on insects and snails. My apartment mates were hungover and one of them did end up apologising to me when we got in the same minivan. I didn’t say anything back, nor did I say anything to anyone for the entire drive. I just listened to my iPod and took in the scenery. It wasn’t so much that I was mad at my apartment mates (though I was still a bit annoyed at being sleep deprived), it was just that I was feeling so overwhelmed with stress and anxiety, and feeling so different from other people on the trip. Sometimes I just need to shut out the world and listen to music for a while, and not talk to anyone, to bring my energy levels (which were completely drained while in the Algarve, due to dealing with a constant onslaught of anxiety) back up.
I felt a little bit better by the time we arrived, though I again walked all on my own, feeling lonely, while everyone else talked in their groups. The first team work task of the day did not go well. My group was full of mostly very extroverted people and I didn’t manage to contribute anything towards the group discussion. The second group work task, however, went much better. I had two of my group members from Monday in my group, as well as another laid-back person, and we worked well together.
All 5 minivans stopped outside a supermarket on the way back from the beach so we could buy anything we needed. I was again very anxious, though not quite as bad as on the Sunday supermarket shop. I bought myself a large chocolate bar (and ended up eating about a third of it in the minivan) to make myself feel a bit better. When we all got back to the supermarket car park, the road out of the supermarket had been closed off because there was a bike race going on. So we ended up waiting in the minivans for about 30 minutes before we could actually leave. I was the first person back to the minivan, followed my the mature student. He asked if I was going to my apartment mate’s 21st birthday celebrations that night. I just bluntly told him I didn’t know because it would be really difficult with my anxiety. I don’t know why I felt that I could tell him about my anxiety (both in the Algarve and on the island field trip) but he did seem accepting of it. I wouldn’t have dreamt of telling the vast majority of my other classmates about this.
When I first saw all of the bikes coming up the hill towards the road in front of the supermarket (everyone was back in the minivan by this point), I said “Wow…look at all those bikes!” (there were hundreds, if not thousands). Everyone ignored me. About ten seconds later, someone else said “Woah! Look at all those bikes!”, and everyone got out of the minivan to watch. Just…why? Why did they react to what their friend said but completely ignore me? Am I really that insignificant to them? Even something as minor as that just ended up making me feel even worse about myself, and like even more of an outcast.
I was upset throughout the drive back to the apartments, partly because of feeling like an outcast, and also because I was stressing out about the presentations and mock interviews that we’d be doing on the Saturday. The mature student seemed to be able to tell how miserable I was and asked me what was wrong, but I just avoided the issue by changing the subject. I ended up going to the tutor’s apartment and talking to the only female member of staff there about how I was feeling and how badly I was struggling with my anxiety. She was actually very understanding and said that I did not have to speak during the presentation, as long as my team members were okay with this (I didn’t think they would be). She also said that I should just let them know if there was anything they could do to make things a bit easier for me. I was afraid to say anything after this point, though, because everyone else on the course had gathered in the living room of the tutors’ apartment, so I was worried that other people would overhear us. I didn’t want any of them knowing about my anxiety. The tutor rubbed my shoulder to try and reassure me (this freaked me out because I don’t like people that I don’t know very well touching me) before we quietly went into the archway just outside of the living room. I stayed hidden behind the wall, so that no one could see me because I didn’t want them wondering why I had been talking to one of the tutors in private. I could hear the module leader talking to everyone, but not see him. He was demonstrating how to do a particular kind of graph at one point, so one of the other tutors (who was standing in the archway with us) said that I should move forward so I could see. But I was too afraid to move out beyond the archway because I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself. The female tutor seemed to understand this, and explained this to him. She even offered to walk out in front of me so that I could quickly sit down on the floor, but I thought that this would just draw even more attention. I did very gradually edge forward so that I could see the flip chart, and only a few of my class mates could see me. I found even doing that quite scary.
The rest of the day was spent doing more statistical analysis. It was quite frustrating, but we did get to work outside in the sunshine, beside one of the site pools. After a conversation with my mum through Facetime, I decided that I should try explaining my anxiety to my apartment mates. They asked me to join them for the 21st birthday celebrations that night, so I saw that as my chance. They did seem to be more accepting that I thought they would be, though I’m not sure if they really understood. I ended up not going to the birthday celebrations, which honestly felt like a massive weight had been lifted off me. In hindsight, I would have liked to try and attend the birthday meal (especially as it was at a Chinese restaurant!), but I just think it would have been too much for me to try and eat in front of that many people and not spill anything all over myself, while trying not to shake, and to make conversation with people that I don’t really even know. My apartment mates said that they would take the key with them this time (while leaving the thing attached to the key that switched on the electricity and hot water in the apartment) so that they wouldn’t wake me/ keep me up. I know that it’s bad that I didn’t really face my anxiety on that occasion, but I felt SO much relief, and so much better after this.
The mature student messaged me through facebook later on that evening, asking if I wanted to join a bunch of other people at a karaoke bar. (See if you can guess what a socially anxious person’s internal reaction to that question is…) I told him that I didn’t feel comfortable going, even if it was just to listen to other people, but that I appreciated him asking.
The project work began. I ended up being in the group studying the dive times of great cormorants. The day didn’t get off to a great start because I needed back into my apartment to make myself some lunch and get my jacket and binoculars, but my apartment mates had the key and it took me forever to find them. This meant that I kept everyone else in my group waiting in the minvan. I was getting so stressed out about annoying everyone that I started sweating profusely and ended up rushing about the apartment like a bull in a china shop. The tutor who was helping my group kept trying to reassure me and kept telling me “Just calm down and take your time – there’s no need to rush”. In hindsight, I was getting myself all stressed out over nothing.
The site that we’d be using for the next two days was the same place we visited on the Monday. It was actually really nice to just sit and watch the birds in the sunshine. I’m not usually able to speak up in a group, but on this occasion, I was able to speak up and make suggestions about different aspects of data collection, which my team mates took on board. I actually found it surprisingly easy to talk to them and (perhaps for the first time ever at uni) felt like I was actually a valued team member. I have good eyesight, so I was generally the one tasked with tracking an individual cormorant during a dive session and shouting to another team member whenever it emerged from the water or began a new dive.
My group were supposed to be meeting at the site bar that night to work on the data that we’d collected, but very little work actually took place. I did manage to talk to a bunch of people though, which I was proud of.
We had a very early start so that we could collect all the data we needed. Everyone in the group was still half asleep in the minivan. We arrived at the coast just as the sun was rising. I really enjoyed both of the project days.
By the time we’d finished collecting data and sorted out our statistical analysis, we had barely any time to plan for the presentation the next day. I was just about making myself ill with anxiety, and I was up until 3am, finishing the ‘reflective diary’ that everyone on the course was required to do.
The presentations were due to begin at 11 so we only had 2 hours to prepare, by the time we’d handed in our reflective diaries. I somehow managed to take a beta blocker right in front of everyone in my group without any of them noticing. I was really freaking out about doing the presentation but then one of my group members revealed to me that she’d noticed I was really shy and they’d be fine with me not speaking during the presentation. I asked everyone else in the group if they were sure that this was okay and they all said that it was fine. Although this was obviously a big relief for me, I was a quite disappointed that I didn’t get to speak because I’d mentally prepared myself to do so, and I wanted to face my fear. But given the fact that we’d had almost no time to prepare, and my other group members were just improvising anything that they said, it was probably for the best. I find it difficult enough to speak coherently in front of an audience when I’ve had days or even weeks to prepare for it, let alone thinking of what to say on the spot. I still stood up with my group in front of everyone when it was time for our presentation, and even doing that was nerve-racking enough. I felt that the way I was standing looked so awkward, and I really struggled to look at people in the audience. I also felt super awkward about the fact that I was the only person on the course who didn’t have a speaking part in the group presentations. I worry that it probably just drew even more attention to me and people wondered why I didn’t speak or what was wrong with me. Or I worried that they’d be angry at me because I’d gotten away with not speaking and they hadn’t. Someone who I’d spoken to in the bar on Thursday night (and who seems quite shy herself) confided in me before the presentation that she was extremely anxious about doing the presentations and that she wished she didn’t have a speaking part in it. She actually said to me: “You have no idea how anxious I feel right now”. I was tempted to respond that I actually do, but I didn’t want to reveal anything about my social anxiety disorder. It also really annoys me when I’m extremely anxious about something and other people claim to understand how I feel when they clearly do not, so I try to avoid doing the same to others.
We had all been told to make the presentations as creative as possible, so we actually had two men from another group dive into one of the onsite pools, pretending to be cormorants. All I did during the presentations was demonstrate how we recorded the dive times (without speaking). I felt pretty bad about this because I hadn’t contributed nearly as much to the presentation as my other team members did (though I did contribute a lot towards the further statistical analyses and testing when we were back at university). My apartment mates actually said that I’d done really well even just standing in front of the audience, which was really nice of them. I still find it difficult to believe that they were actually being genuine though.
After the presentations, the mock interviews began. This involved meeting with one of the five tutors and being asked some typical job interview questions, as well as questions about the fieldwork we’d done, and about our reflective diaries. I was very nervous but it wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be. I took comfort in the fact that were not an assessed part of the module, but simply practice for the final interview. I was able to answer all of the tutor’s questions without stumbling over my words too much. He said that my reflective diary was very good and that I express myself very well in writing. He even seemed understanding of my anxiety/ stress about the presentations and interviews. When I mentioned to him that I was a bit annoyed about not speaking during the presentation because I’d wanted to challenge myself, he said that I still did very well in facing my fears. I was pleasantly surprised by how understanding and accepting he was.
I got on a lot better with my apartment mates over the last couple of days in the Algarve and I felt more comfortable being around them/ making conversation with them. We had a couple of hours to ourself after the interviews so we just got everything packed and chatted a little bit. After dinner and a final debriefing from our tutors, it was time for the bonfire party/ gathering that the tutors from that module apparently do every year, on a beach close to the apartments. I was really anxious about going but decided that I may as well give it a go. I left the apartment alone (my apartment mates had already left to go drinking with other people elsewhere), not really sure of how to get to the beach, and trying to find someone who did know. I ended up bumping into someone from my project group and her apartment mates, who invited me back to their apartment for a little while. I was surprised that they were so friendly to me and didn’t treat me like I was a weird loner or mock me about not having anyone to go to the bonfire party with.
When it finally came time to go to the bonfire, we had to walk down some stairs on a cliff, and then walk over some smaller (but quite treacherous) rocky cliffs. I was the only person who had a torch on my phone so I led the way. I honestly don’t know how the drunk people made it back to their apartments in one piece, having to walk back over terrain like that. After we’d reached the bonfire, I found myself just standing there alone, wondering why I’d come along in the first place. There were about 30 people there, including the tutors. A couple of people did briefly talk to me but the conversation wouldn’t really go anywhere, or they’d stop abruptly and go back to talking to their friends. I was glad that no one asked why I wasn’t drinking or pressured me to drink. The mature student showed up and talked to me for a while, saying that I should be proud of myself for even standing up in front of people during the presentation, and that I looked quite confident (I find that one really, really difficult to believe). I’m always very, very surprised when people are actually nice to me/ say nice things. I know that this sounds paranoid but I find it difficult to believe that people aren’t out to get me or hurt me in some way. He also congratulated me for having the courage to go along to the bonfire gathering, saying that he’d have never been able to do something like that the first time he went to university. The mature student seemed quite depressed while we were in the Algarve. He says that he rarely drinks, and was drinking at the bonfire party purely to get drunk. He also asked other people for cigarettes on a number of occasions, despite the fact that he doesn’t usually smoke. I was a bit worried about him.
When the mature student went to talk to other people, a woman who’d been in my group a few times that week started talking me. I’d actually suspected that she may have had social anxiety disorder or asperger’s for a long time before the trip. After talking to her, I’m now sure that she has asperger’s. Her special interest seems to be snakes. No matter where the conversation went, she would always bring it back to how to tell the difference between different species of snakes, the dead ladder snake that she’d found on wastelands near the apartments, her pet corn snake, how to care for snakes, etcetera. She barely made eye contact with me but it didn’t seem to be due to anxiety, spoke in a monotone voice, and mentioned things that were somewhat inappropriate to share with someone you hardly know. Talking to her made me feel more confident that I don’t have asperger’s, though I’m still not entirely sure (I just want to mention that I’m by no means implying that everyone with asperger’s is the same, or even that any two people with asperger’s are the same. I just saying that I seem to lack most of the most common traits of asperger’s -such as having a very specific interest that I’m obsessive about and not understanding various social cues – and I certainly lack the “triad of impairments”). Although I’m really not that interested in snake biology, and became a bit bored by her monologue on them, I did enjoy talking to her. It seems that she’s been through similar things to me, such as bullying and feeling like a social outcast. Most of her friends apparently suffer from mental health problems. She even mentioned that she once had to pin a friend down to prevent them from committing suicide, which must have been very traumatic. She mentioned that she has a small group of friends, who are all very shy and quiet themselves, and they usually have a film night once a week. She said that I was welcome to join them if I wanted to. I really did want to but we haven’t spoken since and I can’t contact her online. I curse my own awkwardness and social ineptitude. Every single time I get the chance to not be miserable and lonely, I blow it. Why did I have to ruin a good opportunity like that?
I ended up talking to this woman for the rest of the time that I was there. It was nice to talk to someone who doesn’t seem to be negatively judging every single thing you say. We just sat by the bonfire and talked until a small group of us left the gathering early. At one point, the female tutor (who was quite drunk) approached us and went on about how I should reconsider going part-time (despite the fact that I was already part-time at uni) because it’ll mean that I’ll have to deal with a whole new group of people next year. She’s right but I don’t especially feel that I’ve really got to know anyone in my current class, other than the mature student and the woman I spent most of the night talking to. And even then, the two are merely acquaintances. It’s taken me three years to even get that far, and as I say, I haven’t even spoken to that woman since we were in the Algarve. She probably doesn’t even like me. I was a quite upset by what the tutor said. It’s going to get a lot more difficult to make friends after university is over, and if I can’t even make friends now, what chance do I have later?
It was finally time to go home! A lot of people were really badly hungover. I can’t understand why anyone would drink that much if they know they’re going to be in a stuffy minivan for an hour and a half, and then on a plane. It was really windy while we were coming in to land in Edinburgh and the plane was rocking from side to side, so I don’t imagine that helped either. I did manage to talk to the people I was sat next to a little bit, and I was a lot less anxious than I was on the flight to the Algarve, mostly because I had the window seat this time. I saw my house on the approach to the airport, which was pretty cool. My mum and sister came to pick me up from the airport. I was very much relieved to be home. The trip did really test my anxiety and I found really difficult to cope at times, but I did enjoy parts of it as well.