Or as I like to refer to it, “lysdexia.”
Today, learning differences such as ADD, ADHD, and to some extent Tourette’s Syndrome, Asperger’s, dyslexia, and others are part of today’s educational and social frame work. But it hasn’t always been like this.
When I was in grammar and junior high school, late 1950s through 1960s, I suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia. My daily struggles with trying to figure out if “41″ might actually be “14,” coupled with the occasional snicker from classmates and the impatient tapping of a teacher’s toe — or worse, a histrionic or impatient “sigh” – sent me sliding down a very deep, dark, frightening and lonely slope.
The problem snowballed with each of my failures. The negative feedback grew each time I couldn’t read words correctly; each time I did the homework that appeared on page 13 instead of page 31; and each time I ran the wrong football play (an “2-3 Option Pass” instead of a “3-2 Option Pass”). My growing fears and insecurities turned even a friend’s throat clearing into a snicker.
There was no specific time when I came to the conclusion that “something was wrong.” One day, the knowledge wasn’t there. The next day, it was.
I was trapped in a cycle of effort and failure, and the more I tried to fight it (listen to well-meaning friend’s whispered answers in class, memorize full pages of a history lesson, count on fingers and toes, etc.), the more firmly I was stuck. There was so much internal pressure at my tony private school in McLean, Virginia that I was using antacids by the time I was in fifth grade.
All was not dire, though. During that year, I had a wonderful teacher, Miss Barlow, who knew something was up with my unorthodox learning style. She took the time to speak talk deliberately and to work individually with me.
But there was no real structure in place, even at that expensive school, for meeting the needs of students who didn’t fit the norm. So, by sixth grade, I was tossed back into the category of “stupid,” “lazy,” and “unmotivated” students who didn’t care. I felt an alien from another planet.
The overly-sensitive reactions of adolescence had me questioning myself every time I opened my mouth. I had no confidence in what was going to come out. Inside, I knew I had the right answer. However, my differently-wired brain wouldn’t route it appropriately. When I tried to speak it aloud, the taunting began every time.
I found that my brain and mouth paired up to become my worst foes. Together, they betrayed me at every educational turn. Regardless of my efforts (which ran out at a very specific moment on a very specific day in seventh grade), my report cards were laced with demoralizing words and such comments as “Shows no care” that I couldn’t defend.
Instead, I reacted with anger and tears. Home was a single-parent family fueled by unpredictable bouts of alcoholic, bedroom abuse, and the inexcusable crossing of personal boarders. Rage at home wasn’t accepted. But the tears streamed down my cheeks, and the internalized rage began to find a very comfortable home inside of me where it festered.
Back to that seventh grade moment: this was the defining moment which would guide me and set my path in cement for the next fifteen years. A teacher who, up until that time, I had all the respect in the world for, was going around the room asking students to read aloud answers to the previous night’s homework assignment. As the answers started making their way down my row and towards me, the usual flop-sweat started streaming down my back. By that time, my lack of confidence in my reading abilities and memory was insurmountable. I didn’t know whether what I was about to say was going to fit the definition of an acceptable assignment answer or not. It might, but most likely, it would not. This was my own internal crapshoot.
The time came. I gave my answer, and there was a controlled wave of laugher. I expected this, because by seventh grade, I’d learned that I was the class jester. This was the same old stuff.
What was different this time, though, was that my teacher – whom I practically hero-worshipped – asked me from his desk, “Did you do you homework?” My sweat increased, and my by-now familiar tunnel-vision started. I could hear the echoes of the far-off laughter. I responded, as I always did, “Yes, sir.”
He stared at me, stood to his full 6′ 4″ inches, rolled up his sleeves, and slowly made his way to me. “You’d best not be lying to me, boy!”
I don’t remember what happened exactly after that but, to this day, I do remember the primal explosion and fury in my head which initiated the screaming of anguish. I then knew that everything “they” had said about me for the past ten years was true. I gave up.
I quietly folded my book and sat staring forward. “If you say I’m dumb and lazy and not trying, well then, so be it. I am.” That was it. The battle was over.
My core, my spirit, could simply take it no longer. I was 12 then and turned 13 that summer. And my childhood was over.
That was the “Summer of Love.” With the help of two older sisters, I discovered pot and booze. From that time until I was 27, I did my level best to self-medicate on a daily basis.
The schools I attended became less and less demanding and, at the end of every school year, I was very happy to learn that once again, I was to attend summer school where they have to give you at least a “D-.” I graduated high school with a 1.2 average.
These were the days of the Vietnam conflict. To avoid the draft, I had to find a college, any college, that I could get into. In Rhode Island, there was just such a junior college that had an “open enrollment” (no SATs required) policy at the time. Naturally, I had skipped the standardized test because I couldn’t handle any more evidence of how stupid I was. My mother had recently remarried and I was, for all intents and purposes, on my own at 17.
That college turned into a four year drunken party and drug fest, but I did discover my talent and ability for acting there. Since I did well in theater courses, I declared a Fine Arts Major, and the last two semesters, I even made Dean’s List.
But the damage had been done. Due to the undiagnosed dyslexia, and the complete of understanding from those torturous school days in Virginia — coupled with nights at home with a dysfunctional family –the die was cast. I had one goal, and that was to get as far away from reality as I could.
The rest of the story is your typical, further slide into moral and person decline. Attitude and ego prevailed and I was way ahead of any attempt to reach out to me. In my formative years, my trust had been sabotaged. So how could I expect the adult years to get any better?
From time to time, though, I did have to laugh as I screwed up the bar tab. Dyslexia was always along for the ride as I paid the tip or made change.
Enter Divine Intervention. Two things happened when I turned 27.
First and foremost, I discovered a twelve-steps group that helped save my life. Here’s how it happened. I grew tired of waking up in an apartment with only a single, vomit-stained mattress. I was also tired of spending most of my mornings trying to find my car and making sure it had no new dents or, worse, blood on the fender.
My sister had recently died, and my reaction to her death fit in with the rut that my undiagnosed dyslexia had starred to dig so many years earlier. I was devastated, but made no attempt to try and deal with it. I accepted it and all its darkness.
As I said, though, I’d grown tired of waking up in that condition. And here’s where it gets surreal. For reasons that I’ll never understand, 34 years ago, July 3rd, 1978, I picked up the phone and called A.A. There had been no mention of A.A. in my life — not literature, no lectures — “simply” an answer when I put out a desperate plea. I learned where a local meeting was, dragged myself into it and never looked back.
The A.A. experience is everything you hear about it and more. I’m not going to get into the why’s or wherefores of the program right now. Simply put: if you want it to work, truly want it deep down in your heart, it does.
Amazing Thing Number 2 was starting to happen. Small moments of joy began to come into my life. For the most part, they had to do with boats: boat construction, boats design, sailing of boats, racing of boats, and — the very oddest of all — reading about boats.
I devoured all manner of boating literature — fiction, design discussions, maritime history, and real-life adventure. As I tore through them, I began to remember that I was directly related to William F. Weld, my great x 6 grandfather who owned one of the largest pre-Civil War shipping fleets of schooners in the country.
Once on the water, I had an innate ability to make a boat go from here to there. For the first time in my life, I was home, and I “understood” where I was and who I was.
But even more amazing than all of that were the stacks of read and dog-eared books that had by this time piled up in my apartment. These were books that I’d read over and over and over again.
I loved reading these books and good do so with no signs of stress, and with no scolding echoes of Potomac School and my undiagnosed dyslexia – instead, I could read them with sheer, unaltered joy!
There was no one to scold me for saying that the date was 1875, not 1857, and for the first time in my life, it didn’t matter one damn bit!
I was who I was. I was able to read and retain — or not. If I was wrong, it didn’t matter a lick because I was me. And if I didn’t, or if I don’t, fit your mold, that’s your loss.
I was not an autonotom who could recite the periodic tables backwards and in Greek. Granted, when I was taking a boat off-shore or up the coast, there were quite a few times when my dyslexia gave me a completely incorrect course.
But by that time, due to the love and compassion I’d found for myself and my forgiveness of my learning challenge, I laughed about it! And then came GPS!!
I could go on for pages and pages about what dyslexia did to, and for, me: where it took me, and what the breakthrough point was for me. But I hope, by now, you get the idea. I absolutely love being “lydsexic” and wouldn’t want it any other way.
Which makes me wonder: how many of you out there suffer with a leaning challenge? How many of you share this sort of experience, this breakthrough, this total acceptance of self?
OK, truth be told, I have two questions. The second is: how many of you still suffer with the shame and guilt of being called “stupid” and “dumb” and — my all time favorite — “You’ll never amount to anything.” (Well, Miss Price, I’ve written two books, am one of the very few people to have fully circumnavigated North America, piloted the first production powerboat in history to go through the Northwest Passage, have had a top-rated magazine format TV show, have won an Emmy Award as well as multiple broadcasting and international awards for writing … and I have read a whole bunch of books! And I have enjoyed every single one of them!)
I would love to hear your experiences and share in your thoughts, breakthroughs, or feelings of despair. I don’t have any answers expect for what happened to me, but I do know that it’s through the strength of reaching out, comparing notes, comforting one another and laughing… that all these learning challenges and extreme difficulties can be put into proper perspective. When that happens, we can find out who we were truly meant to be. We can find our passion and bliss and, above all else, find our collective happiness — for there are a whole bunch of us out here, and there’s strength in numbers!!