You’d think I’d have been upset. But a few years ago, when a psychiatrist told me I had Attention Deficit Disorder,* it was a relief.
That diagnosis — one I’d always suspected — didn’t exist during my childhood. But it explained a lot about my life. Why I experienced so much failure in school, jobs, relationships. Why I’d made so many less-than-ideal decisions. It also confirmed that, like many with ADD, I have dyslexia — my brain sees things differently than so-called normal brains so I had trouble reading and writing.
So here’s the ugly truth: I struggled in school though I did well enough. My teachers and parents seemed to know I was intelligent but didn’t know how to help me focus. I had to work hard to get good grades.
Particularly in my first few years in college.
You see, I thought I wanted to be a biomedical engineer and the thought still appeals to me. I love the idea of conceptualizing and creating things to help people live better lives. And although I did well in science and math in high school, unlike my college cohorts, I did not take advanced placement courses. Remember bell-curve grading?
So there I was at a midwestern university with more than 100 students in an un-air-conditioned lecture hall. The temperature and humidity were nearly identical at about 100. The chemistry class was taught by an assistant whose command of the English language left something to be desired. Not exactly the best learning environment for even the most conventional of learners.
By the end of the first week of my third semester at this university, I was throwing my shoes at my dorm room door in frustration. I decided something had to give.
Needless to say, I never did get a degree in engineering. Was that a failure? I sure saw it that way at the time.
Skip forward several years. After transferring to Goucher College — a small, liberal arts college that was women-only at the time, I found a new world. More nurturing than the university where a dean told me my SAT scores were the lowest in my class (they were in the top 80 percentile or better nationally). The only reason I got into the school of engineering was because I was a women, he added.
Yes, that really happened. But that was 1979. Although I was aware of gender discrimination, it didn’t occur to me that’s what this was. In reverse. But not really. By accepting a student who didn’t fit the criteria of the school, weren’t they merely setting me up for failure? Probably.
But I don’t blame anyone. It’s just how things were then. And besides, that’s not the point.
After four and a half years of college, several changes in majors and a parental bribe to pay for off-campus dance classes in exchange for not changing my major once again (this time to dance therapy), I graduated with a degree in elementary education. Big whoop. (Apologies to education majors everywhere — a very noble and under-appreciated profession). But before I had finished school, I realized teaching was not for me – not in the traditional sense anyway.
I hate to admit it, but I probably read only half of what I was assigned in college and still managed to graduate with decent grades. I just didn’t have the ability to focus enough to read that much. And I needed more focus than most given the dyslexia.
According to Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D., “About 50 to 60 percent of people with ADHD* also have a learning disability,” he wrote in ADDitude magazine. “The most common of these is dyslexia, a language-based learning disability that affects reading. Eight to 17 percent of the population is affected by dyslexia, and it is vastly misunderstood.”
As a very young child, when I learned to write my name, it would often come out Joby (the legal spelling of my name is Jody, but I changed it because I didn’t like the aesthetics of the J and Y). Turning that ‘d’ around should have been a clue that I had this so-called disability. But again, we’re products of our time.
Although it was 1877 when German neurologist Adolf Kussmaul coined the term word blindness to describe people with reading difficulties, there is still not much known about dyslexia. In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that scientists started investigating the underlying causes of the condition.
All this to say, children growing up in the mid-20th century were not diagnosed with and therefore not taught how to overcome the challenges associated with dyslexia and ADD. We just learned to cope. Or we didn’t. And we failed. Occasionally.
* I use ADD and ADHD interchangeably.