When parents learn their child has a disability, they often react to it as a death. Although the child is alive, certain hopes, dreams, and ambitions are dead. In order to help their child, parents must grieve, rage, and finally move toward acceptance. This process is mirrored in the person with the disability. Like his/her parents, the person with the disability must find a way to accept his/her unique combination of strengths and weaknesses. The person with the disability must come to the fact that his/her life may never be ordinary, but it may be extraordinary.
I officially learned I had learning disabilities when I was ten, almost eleven. I sat on my bed while my parents talked to me about the diagnosis, feeling bewildered and depressed. What was a learning disability? Did it mean I’d never have friends or ride a bike or do well in math? All I knew was something inside me was wrong forever. There was no denial at first. I think most kids with learning disabilities know something about them is different. I knew because I was clumsy, and couldn’t play sports well. I knew because I struggled to learn how to write and do math. I knew because I had no friends, and stood on the fringe of groups, longing to step inside the circle instead of always being out in the cold. Hearing it called a learning disability just gave the difference a name, and a feeling it was lodged inside me, eating at my heart and soul.
After knowledge came grief-a deep empty grief. I longed to expel the learning disability, to rid myself of the difference. I spent many years mourning for myself. I’d see something I’d want to do, and would rage at my own impotence, and grieve at my failure. I envied others, and kept thinking if I tried hard enough or found the magic formula, I could be “normal” too. I tried for many years. I tried to do the dance steps I couldn’t learn. I tried out for the auditions I never passed. I tried to befriend people who found me strange. And at each new failure, I would mourn and withdraw more and more until the anger and grief merged to become depression. Bargaining rose from the despair of depression. I needed to believe in a higher power, someone who could protect and help me. Every night, I’d pray, “Dear God-please make these learning disabilities go away. Please let me be like everyone else.” But nothing happened. I prayed on every birthday candle, every wishbone, every star. Still, the learning disabilities remained.
I raged, cried, and mourned for the loss of a part of myself I had never known. Finally, I turned to denial.
I was sure I had been misdiagnosed, that the doctors were wrong. After all, in high school, I was doing better. I had a few friends, my grades were excellent, and while my coordination and visual/motor skills were still not great, I functioned well in day to day life.
Still, a part of me always knew the learning disabilities were there. I didn’t try out for sports teams or for cheerleading, knowing I would never make the grade. I still felt my hold on academics and friends was tenuous, and I didn’t know how to interpret success any more than I had interpreted failure.
Success and failure were mysteries to me. Since I generally tried hard and had a good attitude, I wasn’t sure why the same methods that brought me negative feedback in middle school were now working in high school. When I went to college, social and academic problems returned, and I was equally mystified and frustrated by this new turn of events. Academic problems disappeared as I adjusted to new expectations, but I still couldn’t fathom how I contributed to my own successes and failures. Life seemed random and often punitive, and this added to my confusion. Over the years, I kept alternating between grief, fear, and denial. I went through some major depressive phases. Pretending you don’t have a learning disability when you’re dealing with it every day can be incredibly stressful. People thought I was lazy, silly, or self-centered. I rarely told anyone I had learning disabilities, since they usually saw it as an excuse. Instead, I took unwarranted criticism, and sank back into depression, since I knew the criticism was unjust, but didn’t know how to change other people’s perspectives of me.
I cycled in and out of the phases of loss for many years. Finally, I decided to face my weaknesses head-on. That was the first step toward acceptance. I worked on social skills. I worked on visual/spatial perception. I worked on movement. I could see my limitations, but I could also see my progress. As I worked on my weak areas, I began feeling less helpless. Instead of feeling ruled by my learning disabilities, I saw myself as a complex person, with unusual strengths and weaknesses. As I accepted both my learning disabilities and my giftedness, I grew more self-confident. I began to feel I could make adjustments or ask for help. When I told people I had learning disabilities, I could say it with the unmistakable ring of truth. By accepting my learning disabilities, I could allow others to accept them too.
Part of me still mourns for a typical life. Part of me still wishes all the pain, suffering, and bewilderment I endured never existed. But I treasure my ability to read and write, skills learned when I was inside by myself instead of outside with friends. I treasure my gentleness and compassion, skills learned from years of rejection. I treasure my patience, learned from years of struggle.
It took thirty years, but the denial, anger, grief, and pain of childhood is behind me. The acceptance of adulthood lies ahead.
About the author:
Deborah Green currently lives in Arizona, where she teaches English to sixth and eighth graders. She enjoys singing, playing the flute and piano, gardening, and reading. She is the author of Growing Up with NLD, an autobiography that also includes information about NLD and a resource section. Ms. Green has lectured on NLD across the country, and will soon appear in a video about NLD that is currently being produced by Rush Neurobehavior Institute. Click here to read a book review about Growing Up with NLD. To order, please follow the information below.
Growing Up With NLD, published by Silicon Heights Computers, Sept 1999. $25.00 including shipping.
Order on-line or call 1-800-654-6623 or write to:
Silicon Heights Computers
3900 Eubank NE, Suite 3C
Albuquerque, NM 87111