I refused to go to school: ‘I just walked out and said, I am never going back’
Fay Dunn’s first prolonged period of refusal began in primary school and continued into secondary
Sleep deprived, Fay Dunn would stand outside school in the morning, crying and refusing to go in through the gates. Photograph: iStock
Fay Dunn had been staying out of fifth year in secondary school for three months when one day her mobile phone rang and it was a teacher calling.
“It was my form teacher and my resource teacher and they – having talked to my mum already but I was unaware – said: ‘If you are not in school tomorrow, we are both going to turn up at your house’. I obviously thought there was nothing worse than two teachers turning up at your house so the next day I went in.”
But “it was awful, I really didn’t want to be there”. However, looking back she is very grateful that her teachers intervened.
“It was a wake-up call for everyone that my needs were not being met and they needed to come up with a better plan.” It was agreed she could phase herself in, doing half days. “That is what I needed to get back in there, it was all too much.”
Now aged 26, Dunn recalls how her first prolonged period of school refusal began in primary school, around the age of 11. She had been diagnosed with dyslexia, but a further diagnosis of dyspraxia was yet to come.
“I had a teacher who I didn’t get on great with and who didn’t understand that there were issues going on with my learning and that I was trying very hard, giving 100 per cent, but it wasn’t coming out like that.”
She was very unhappy. “I would hold it together in class but when I got home it was an explosion of emotions. I was so stressed and anxious, I was having night terrors.”
Sleep deprived, she would stand outside school in the morning, crying and refusing to go in through the gates. “Or refusing to get into the car, or to get out of the car, while my parents were also trying to go to work. It was awful.”
She attended Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) for four years but, she says, “nothing happened, it was going around in a circle”. She’s an only child so her parents had no other experience to go on and were being guided by the professionals.
Dyspraxia never seemed to be considered. They thought it might be epilepsy, depression or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), she says.
“All I needed was to see an occupational therapist who would have done an assessment and said ‘here are the issues, this is what she needs in place, let’s do it’ - and my life would have been 10 times easier.”
As Dunn sees it now, “the anxiety from the dyspraxia just took control of my life. I didn’t care about school, I didn’t care about friends, I didn’t care about anything.” Although she was attending school some days and not others, “I was extremely anxious and depressed, just lifeless.”
After primary school, things improved, with her dyspraxia having been diagnosed and supports put in place. She hadn’t wanted to do Transition Year but opting out would have been “a big deal”.
“I remember saying, ‘I’ll do it if I don’t have to do any drama’ – I don’t know what was in my head.” Then on the first day, it was announced “we are not doing classes today, we’re doing drama”.
“I just walked out and said ‘I am never going back; they’ll have to find me something else for the year’.” While she stayed out for two weeks, she was persuaded to return and all was okay until fifth year.
On top of having to cope with dyspraxia and the sense of “being different”, she developed ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis or chronic fatigue syndrome) and was very unwell. That was when she didn’t go to school for three months.
“I could have done it – I wasn’t so unwell I couldn’t have gone into school. I would say I was probably suffering from depression, I was so down.” She felt the lack of social interaction more acutely this time.
Dunn slowly started to get back on track after that memorable phone call from her teachers but was in and out and needed to repeat sixth year.
“I was still very sick when I was leaving school and all my peers were going on to college and I wasn’t.” Yet, “the day I finished school, a weight lifted off my shoulders and everything was easier. I had no pressure; I didn’t have to keep up with everyone else.”
After school she started to volunteer with Dyspraxia Ireland (dyspraxia.ie) one day a week. Now she works there and loves it, helping children and parents, some of who are going through similar situations.
“My poor parents,” she adds, “I don’t know how they stuck with me being a pain. But I know it wasn’t my fault.”