Donna’s Story

I was born in 1942 when learning disorders were in their infancy. I was 55 years old when I finally exposed the heart of my hidden torment.

My second grade teacher told my mother, “It’s as if she hasn’t been to school a day in her life”. I believe that my parents and the educators knew that I wasn’t just dumb, but in 1948 they didn’t know what to do with me. I was an enigma. My parents tried to help me in the only way they new how. My father attempted to assist me with math, but he was a mathematical genius that could run his finger down a column of six digits numbers and come up with the correct answer before you could with a calculator. He was a real estate attorney. He was so far beyond this empty little grammar school head that the vacuous glaze that rolled over my eyes when he attempted to make sense of it all for me made his venture short lived. My mother patiently, endlessly, drilled me on the weekly spelling words and times tables. One day I would retain the worlds, the next day they could all fall out. To this day I do not know my times tables. I could never retain it.

I hated to have my picture taken, so sure that my stupidity and ugliness would show. In high school my parents hired an ancient retired school teacher to tutor me during my lunch period. She appeared for three sessions, then never showed up again. I was relieved. The concentrated attention being beamed in on me was very stressful, but I surmised that she thought I was hopeless. At home – the youngest of three girls – I was lovingly referred to as scatter brained, bubblehead, daydreamer, or ‘cute’. I felt like a gerbil or a cocker spaniel. My identity, the family pet.

I was taken to a psychiatrist when I was about seven or eight for bed-wetting, common with ADD and will correct its self with time. Amazingly, my pathetic school performance was never addressed! Eventually I did outgrow the wetting problem and continued to bumble my way through school, getting the life beaten out of my self-esteem on a daily basis.

After twelve torturous years that other people call school, I dropped out at the end of my junior year. Actually, I was smeared out all over the place – tenth grade math, eleventh grade English, etc. I had repeated the second grade and had it not been for social promotions I’d probably would not have gotten as far as I did. I was hospitalized for surgery just when my class was preparing for our eleventh grade final exams. It was such a low point for me, knowing I could never catch up, even if I had been there. Our family physician encouraged my parents not to send me back to school. It was a huge relief. I could not think beyond that.

At seventeen I was young, attractive, well spoken and ‘talked smart’, so I was able to bluff my way into clerical jobs with my scant secretarial skills – always living in terror that my defects and lack of a high school diploma would be revealed. Further narrowing my playing field, I stedfastly avoided companies that required an entrance or aptitude test. I had had a very humiliating experience with this and vowed it would never happen again.

Back on the psychiatrist couch when I was thirty-five for severe clinical depression and being married to a physically and emotionally abusive man. My low self-esteem set me up for this one, you make poor choices and tolerate the intolerable coming from that.

I told Dr. G. from very beginning that I was certain that I had learning problems, but my thoughts were barely acknowledged and waved aside in favor of plucking at the family dynamics and a bad marrage. Squashed, I lacked the confidence to pursue the subject. I recall with such clarity at my eighth or ninth appointment, the doctor asked me was I a psychology major in college as I seemed so in tune to the human psyche.

I laughed and said that I didn’t even finish high school. He was literally at a loss for words. Sitting bolt upright in his chair with a look of disbelief, his first utterances were, “but, but, …WHY!? The response from this otherwise reserved man caught me off guard. A torrent of tears welled up from that dark cavernous pit that always lurks just below that thin veneer of bravado. Turning my face aside in shame, I blurted out, “I can’t learn”. I can talk about this subject as it pertains to me on an intellectual level, but the moment the emotions are tapped into, the tears spill and I AM that child again.

With Dr. G.’s help and support and a tutor, I was able to pass the GED and take two semesters at our local community college. I was so excited when I enrolled, deluding myself that somehow it would be different. But it wasn’t. The same haunting barriers were still there with their full gnawing, torturous intensity. I felt wilted and defeated. With two preschool sons and a husband who felt threatened by my educational venture, and my own alive-and-well LD’s, I did not have the gargantuan energy it would have required for me to pursue it. It takes me twice as long as the average person to nail the necessary data into my treacherous slippery memory to pass an exam (the word gives me anxiety attacks!),so studying with what stamina I had left at the end of the day was pure torture. I loved the subjects I had chosen, but I still had this defective brain that continued to sabotage my efforts. The English professor wrote on my papers, “The content is so good, but you must use ! a dictionary”. I did! My otherwise good psychology grades would suffer when I couldn’t cope with the statistical calculations it required. Wanting and trying to succeed was just not enough. I thought that I knew what was ‘wrong’ with me, I just couldn’t get the right people to hear this middle aged women.

This psychiatrist would give me the back issues of a monthly psychiatric paper that he subscribed to for the express purpose of keeping on top of his profession. He was well respected within the medical community, known as the doctors’ doctor. That is, physicians sent their family members to him. Well over a year into the twice-a-week sessions, he gave me his latest issue that profiled LEARNING DISABILITIES as its feature article. At our next appointment I flung this issue on his desk, and through clenched teeth asked, “did you READ this!”. I was livid. At him and his pompous arrogance for dismissing my feelings, and at me for doubting myself and not being more assertive. I had highlighted the numerous areas that applied to me, about 98%. After he carefully read it – he looked at me with genuine remorse. Slowly shaking his head he quitely said, “I’m so sorry”.

He located a psychologist that has a Ph.D. in learning disabilities. Additionally, this psychologist owns an runs a school for boys with severe behavior problems that are predominantly LD adolscents. Testing revealed that I do have learning problems, math being my primary waterloo, but ADD was never mentioned. This little known math difficulty known as Dyscalculia can be loosely compaired to Dyslexia and their problems with word processing. I was happy to discover an element that would explain my miserable school performance other than ‘stupid’, but I knew that pieces were still missing. There is still this frustrating difficulty with word retrieval (talking in a circumlocutory fashion such as calling a knob a ‘drawer-pull-thing’), or forgetting a best friends name, reversing letters and numbers, confused directionality, right/left confusion, and other little goodies. There were too many unanswered questions. It haunted me. I would encounter articles about ADD and think,! wow, here I am. But I would eventually discount my feelings and again try to ignore the elephant sitting in my lap. I had read enough about childhood LD’s to know that this is NEVER outgrown but worked around and managed. And I’d say to my self, – OK, where are all of these grown up kids???

It is now two more psychiatrists (for depression drug monitoring), and twenty years later. I had attempted to have the antidepressants prescribed through a ‘primary physician’, but he didn’t approve of them and wanted me to attend a group therapy thing. This responce was without ONE question as to why I was on them! Fantastic. I declined. Going through my HMO I was assigned to a psychiatrist that just happened to be a specialist in learning disabilities and substance abuse. In the initial interview I spoke of my miserable school years – not voicing my opinion. I was most specific, thinking that this was my big chance, so sure that HE would pick up on the obvious. Wrong. His major concern was that I enjoyed three alcoholic beverages an evening on the WEEKENDS with my finance. Over the next three appointments he persistently addressed ONLY this issue until I finally told him to cut it out, that it was his problem – not mine. He now just hand me my prescriptions after a! perfunctory inquiry about the state of my being and says, ‘see you in three months’. Discussed, I headed for the bookstore and picked up DRIVEN TO DISTRACTION, and ADD IN WOMEN. This is the first time that I have read anyghing on this subject where females were exclusively addressed. Furthermore, I learned that girls were quite often NOT hyperactive. On the contrary, the are frequently passive, wishing to merge with the desk and as a result are often overlooked. God forbid that I was called on in class. My ears would ring and turn red, my mouth go dry and seemingly be reduced to the size of a guppy’s as I tryed to utter some intelligible words. Anxiety shot through my little body because I generally didn’t have a clue, having been off on my usual fugue.

Additionally, ADD women are more likely to be diagnosed as depressed and the probable entomoloy of their depression is never exposed. With this new knowledge I felt armed. At my next appointment, undaunted, I told him that I have ABSOLUTELY NO DOUBT about the fact that I have ADD and that I want to try Adderall – now. I am now on 20mg of Adderall a day that works well for me. I have more energy, more consistent mental clarity and concentration and I have been able to cut my antidepressants in half. I know that medication will not ‘cure’ me but my day to day living now has more continuity. Life is less stressful when I can count on my performance. These two books were invaluable for filling in the blanks. I have felt such relief about many of the answers I unearthed; but mostly, FEELING VALIDATED.

Did I have scars that needed professional help to heal? You bet’cha. Thirty-five years of being an intelligent failure created a massive inferiority complex, zero identity, and a life long depression that I never knew existed until the antidepressants lifted the fog enabling me to deal with it all. I would have my ‘up’ times, but is was so fragile that at any moment I could crash into this mindless abyss. As a result I was reluctant to make far ranging plans for fear it would be one of my brain dead times. It is difficult for the unaffected to even comprehend living with ADD and other learning disabilities, let alone understand it. Additionally, some people are apt to write it off as so much psychobabble, an excuse for laziness or bad teachers or a poor upbringing. To the people at work, I come across as very organized and efficent because work is focused and structured. They should only see my house.

Trying to convince your family that you cope with LD’s can be most hurtful and distressing, too. You come to them with this wonderful revelation that explains you shifty memory, lack of concentration, the disorder in your life and always feeling like a screw-up, and your elation is squashed by, ‘oh, we’re all forgetful at times’, or ‘I get distracted too’. No one asks any questions or expresses any interest. If they don’t accept your academic failures as a product of LD’s, do they think you’re just dumb?

Allow me to relay a fascinating experience that the psychologist who did my testing shared with me. He was engaged as a guest speaker for a large gathering of educators to talk about his specialty, learning disabilities. Inviting some teachers up to the stage, he wanted to demonstrate the horrific frustration, humiliation and anger that not being able to learn conventionally could engender. He hypnotized the group of volunteers from the audience and give each one a different posthypnotic suggestion that they would not remember once awakened. To one person he said: “the letter E would be heard and written as an I”, making correct spelling impossible. To another: “the number 3 would be heard and written as 5, and 8 as a 2″, making accurate calculations unobtainable. Or,”when I say turn right, you’ll turn left”. And, to someone else, three consecutive commands will be given and this individual would only rememver the first one clearly.

Awakening them with their posthypnotic suggestions in place, he instructed them to step to the blackboard for some very simple word, number, and action games. At first it was all fun and laughter when these teachers couldn’t accomplish the simplest word or number problem, or respond correctly to an action command. Each perosn had a different challenge to contend with so he or she would be made to feel alone, feel naked. As the demonstration progressed, the laughter among the participants dwindled. Eventually they were all reduced to somber frustration and anger, some to tears. It was a powerful demonstration. NOW, imagine dealing with that every day.

If I could say anything to the people dealing with LD kids, tap into their strengths with the same intensity – or more -than you do when assisting and encouraging them in dealing with their weaknesses. I was an impossible scholastic student, given the hand I was dealt; but the bigger artistic creative component of me was overlooked. I recall so vividly asking for art lessions when I was nine or so. I had assisted a younger neighborhood friend in her artwork and watched her dramatic progression as she attended after- school lessions. I was told, ‘perhaps when your grades improve’. Today she is a successful portrait atrist.

My artwork has now become a larger part of who I am, a place where I can feel competent and alive. I have gotten awards and very good prices for my work. My frustration is that my days are spent doing clerical things to support my home and to have medical insurance and I have to squeeze in my real passion, the creative world. I am presently learning computerized photo restoration in the hopes that I can work at doing something that I truly enjoy that is also financially rewarding and feel a greater control over my own destiny. Wouldn’t that have been nice thirty years ago.

I have an other enduring love and friend who has been in my life for fifteen years. We both had our baggage but we were mutualy nurturing and have grown and healed together. Prior to getting to the bottom of this, I said to him, “I must drive you nuts, I drive myself crazy!” I was probably looking for one of my four sets of car keys. As disorganized, distractible, forgetful and sloppy as I am, he is at the other end of the spectrum. I kept waiting for him to explode one day or leave me if I lost one more item, gave him one more transposed phone number or forgot something important. His responce to my remark I will never forget. So tenderly he said, “I watch you, you can’t help it”.

He is intelligent and educated, two things that were threatening to me in prior relationships. I always felt like an impostor. Tormented by feelings of inadequacy, fearing that I would be exposed at any moment. I could never have true intimacy or trust.

Now, at fifty-seven, I feel strong and capable. I have forgiven the bumbleing child. I fought long and hard to get here and I am proud of my accomplishments. I dealt with a divorce and proved to myself that I can stand alone. I have created a comfortable home where I have raised two thoughtful, decent sons during tough social turmoil in our country. I successfully went to bat for myself with the medical community to find my own way out of the maze. I am happy.