Know Yourself, Learn the World

Hello, I’m Heather. I’m 37-years old, married, and have teenage children. I am a writer, my first novel releasing from Swoon/Macmillan in 2021, and I am autistic. As a non-traditional student, I hope I can share from a new perspective.

On my first morning in Madrid, I woke up in a panic, certain coming here was an awful decision. Luckily, I’ve learned that transparency is a great way to deal with illogical thoughts. I texted my husband exactly what I was feeling, and I wrote about it for my personal blog. Being open and honest about anxiety is a huge part of living through it and continuing to do what you want to do.

I learned this my first week: If I’m tired, my brain fights against Spanish. If I’m hungry or thirsty, the same is true. I struggled to follow anything anyone said in those first days. However, I know to rely on past experiences to judge possible outcomes. The first days of a semester always begin with struggling to follow my new Spanish professors’ accents and cadences. I always adjust, so I knew I would adjust here as well.

There are some things I am glad I did to prepare for this trip:

  1. I spent some time on the Duolingo app, refreshing myself on the basics. Since there was a two month gap between my previous Spanish classes and this journey, it was good to remind my brain how to handle the language.
  2. I used Google Earth to explore streets around my dorm. My anxiety is triggered by the unfamiliar, and doing this made the area feel familiar upon arrival.
  3. I invested a bit of money in good shoes. Changing my shoes from day to day has been helpful, and the quality of the shoes has also been wonderful. It hurt a little to spend that kind of money, and the shoes took up space in my luggage, but I’m grateful for them now.
  4. I brought my own shampoo, conditioner, etc. Some friends suggested buying here, saving some weight in my bags. That might be a great suggestion for others, but when you have anxiety issues and are autistic, having your own familiar items can be a big deal.

After the panic of that first morning, I have had a smooth week in Madrid. I found a group to wander the city with. I like my professors and my dorm. I’ve taken a few risks, such as heading to the Pride Parade despite my aversion to crowds. I’ve gone to bed early some nights, stayed out late others, and worked to balance my need for solitude with my desire to experience this city.

If you’re going to travel, my advice is: Know yourself. Spend time observing your own tendencies and what makes you feel comfortable. Do your best to honor yourself when you make plans. I know what my body and brain need to function. If you manage that, the rest will flow naturally.

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