Hurdles in Culture Shock: Cripple/Neuroatypical Edition





Culture shock is inevitable when traveling to a new country. What they don’t tell you, though, is that it can be especially challenging for folks like myself who live with physical disabilities, and/or mental illness. Now that I’ve finished my third week in Copenhagen – also the ending of my first class – I’m beginning to settle in; but not without unexpected challenges I’ve had to overcome.

The “honeymoon phase” swiftly abandoned me as quickly as it came, which has been the most taxing on my well-being. For the past week I have noticed a huge drop in my energy levels physically, mentally, and emotionally. With it has brought a surge in frustration, physical pain, and emotions which I’m not as used to having back at home. Dealing with these difficulties has been new and scary for me, but I believe it has most importantly begun to teach me about myself in ways that I need for my future career plans.

Wheelchairs Break, Things Go Wrong

During a day-off, friends from my class and I decided to go on a spontaneous trip to Malmö, Sweden. Only a 30-minute train ride from Copenhagen Central Station, Malmö is known amongst DIS students to be a perfect day-trip for a cheap price. Although, I didn’t think twice about not bringing my wheelchair, I knew we were bound to do a lot of walking; so, I wanted to be prepared for anything and everything. Little did I know that my only issue was because of my wheelchair.

Entrance to Malmöhus Castle.

We started our day with heading to a museum that held Malmöhus Castle, the oldest surviving castle during the Renaissance. This castle was definitely my favorite part of coming to the city, even if navigating it without my wheelchair was a challenge.

Above-ground was rooms associated with various Kings that lived there, including King Christian III. Underground were prison cells for criminals of the 14th century, as well as rooms that were dedicated to the Black Death (or the bubonic plague) and it’s prevalence in both Swedish and Danish history.

After touring the castle, I got my wheelchair back and headed out into the city. By this point my feet and back had become painfully stiff from walking around the castle, so I was relieved to be able to get some rest. Unfortunately there are still plenty of cobblestones in Sweden streets, and we had some difficulty maneuvering my wheelchair – though, it was nowhere near as bumpy as Copenhagen streets!

A staircase leading to the basement of the castle, where the prison cells and “plague rooms” were located.

Before I knew it, there was a rather audible CRACK! from beneath me. My stomach immediately sank, and everyone around me froze. I’m pretty sure we were all thinking: Ooohhh crap, this can’t be good.

I was (surprisingly) optimistic in my immediate reaction; my wheelchair had already been used for nearly 10+ years with zero incidents or repairs needed. How on earth could just coming up on a curb do damage?

It turned out that the plastic part of front left wheel (the smaller one near the foot pedals) had begun to snap, leaving the wheel wobbly and unable to stay securely in place.

This wasn’t too big of an issue for around a block – until we faced another curb. By now, the wheelchair could barely move forward or backwards without the broken wheel getting in the way. Needless to say, my wheelchair was now useless in the middle of an unfamiliar, spread-out, Swedish city.

We had no real choice but call it a day and make our way to the train station to Copenhagen. I didn’t get any photos of the damage – mostly because I hadn’t thought of it, and also because it wasn’t particularly spectacular, either. I was able to get the wheel fixed around a day later, which made the experience overall stress-free except for the journey back home. If I had the option to do it all over again, I would do it, hands-down!

I could have easily lost control of my emotions and gotten angry, frustrated, or broken down crying – but I honestly think what kept me going in that moment was knowing that I had people with me that believed in me.  I am most grateful for my friends and classmates. Everyone tried to help figure out a solution to fix the broken wheel – without success – and were more than willing to help me in any way possible. Some took turns pushing the chair on it’s hind wheels, while a few others stayed back to walk with me at my own pace. For the first time in a long time, I felt genuinely cared about in a situation that was all-too unfortunate.

Emotionally, this experience took a toll on me more than I thought. I was so emotionally and physically exhausted that, later in the week I had a near-panic attack in Netto (a discount grocery store). All products are in Danish, and they had nothing in stock that I readily knew I had wanted that evening. I ended up pacing around the store, trying to think of something quick and easy to buy – but had to stop in my tracks. My anxiety and panic had become so bad that I started to shake and felt overwhelming frustration wash over me. I wanted nothing more than to scream and throw something, simply because I felt cornered and helpless.

I have had experiences with panic attacks – but not for a fairly long time. Not having to use coping skills and techniques that I have learned from therapy for a while made calming myself down tricky. But, what I did tell myself in that moment that panicking and breaking down in the middle of a store wasn’t going to help my situation. I made myself stop in a quiet corner and do some breathing exercises to clear my mind – and it actually worked!

I eventually made my way home with some groceries for the night, and felt (and still feel) really proud of myself for how I’ve been able to handle distress. My mental and physical health are the two things that made my decision to study abroad extremely challenging, but I knew all along that I couldn’t let it stop me. No matter where I am – at home in Minneapolis, or all the way in Denmark – I am bound to face obstacles that will test me, whether I like it or not. Even if these accounts have made me feel helpless and scared temporarily, the strength and self-compassion that I’ve been able to gain out of them have been worth it.

I know that I have myself to support me, and that I have others that to support me when I need it. Most importantly, as I continue through culture-shock, I can rest-assured that I am not the only one going through these emotional rollercoasters. And that, I believe is one of the most comforting feelings I’ve ever known.