On the intersection of mental illness and learning disabilities, part 1

I was six years old when my speech therapist told my parents I would never be able to learn how to write a paragraph. My mother was devastated. I was in grade three when my family doctor first asked my parents if they’d like to put me on anti-anxiety medication. My learning disability (hereon referred to as an “ld”) and anxiety reach as far back as my memory serves.

I remember driving home from kindergarten and bursting into tears when my parents asked me to describe my day because I didn’t possess the communication skills to articulate myself. I vaguely recollect the primary school psychologist asking me to talk about my fears after being referred to them because I pulled my hair out during tests (at the time the only fear I could identify was of spiders, and I had no interest in dwelling on those). Though it is probably safe to say my longtime ld and anxiety colour my memories, for me they are pretty indistinguishable from my experiences; they are simply facets of my everyday state of being.

Ironically, though my parents were open with me about both labels growing up, I didn’t understand what they entailed until much later. My parents placed me in a private school in grade one (fun fact: this was the only private school willing to accept me – and even then it was on probation – because I managed to fail every school’s entrance exam). Turnbull School was a huge blessing for me in many ways. I received significant support, began to catch up to my peers, and was eventually given enrichment, though I continued to perform poorly on standardized tests. Since I was getting the support they thought I needed, my parents didn’t see the use in getting my ld formally diagnosed. The ld remained apparent to my teachers though, who continued to ask my parents about it every year (even in grade eight) during parent-teacher interviews.

By high school I had developed the coping mechanisms I needed to excel, and no one suspected my neurodiversity. Later the psychologist who did my testing would tell my parents I had “the tenacity of a bull dog”, and that I had spent so many years overcompensating for my ld (cue perfectionism), that it was no longer obvious to others, like my teachers.

The turning point came in grade eleven. I worked up the courage one night to approach my parents, distraught and exhausted. I needed to know if I was spending every waking hour studying because I had an ld, and required this sort of time commitment in order to keep up, or if I was simply compelled by my anxiety and perfectionism. A psychologist’s appointment was booked, and soon after, the results were in. I had both an ld and significant anxiety.

It took me until my final semester of grade twelve to ask my high school for the accommodations to which I was entitled. I might have requested them earlier had it not been for the stigma I experienced upon (and even before) “coming out” with my ld. Though the psychologist requested one of my teachers who knew me best answer a screening questionnaire, I was too embarrassed to approach her. I had achieved 100% in her course, and felt she would be skeptical about the legitimacy of my ld. I doubt my suspicions were far-fetched. One of the teachers I did ask refused to respond on the grounds that he could not believe I had an ld. The first people I told following the test results were my friends. It took little time for them to inform me that I was simply looking for a way to get higher marks, that “everybody has their problems,” and that there was no way I could get the marks I did (and do) and have an ld (more on that misconception another day). Even the teachers who agreed to accommodate me in grade twelve grumbled about how “everyone was getting diagnosed with lds these days.” I internalized the stigma to such a degree that I asked my parents if the psychologist had diagnosed me with an ld because we had paid her to test me. I felt immense guilt about having the privilege to get formally diagnosed, and continue to struggle with this guilt today.

Around the same time, near the end of high school, my mental health plummeted. Looking back, I was probably dealing with my first bouts of depression. I remember skipping my favourite creative writing class after my dance teacher watched a run of my dance piece. I was so convinced it was a horrible failure that I couldn’t stop crying, so I hid inside a prop backstage and weeped until my friends left class to come looking for me. I was completely overwhelmed by the expectations I believed others held for me (which were really just my own). I might be one of the few teenagers whose parents had to confiscate their textbooks every bedtime once they realized I had devised (personally, ingenious) ways to secretly study through the night.

This brings me to university. The other day, one of my professors asked me how I felt about mental illness and disability always being lumped together in syllabi. I had a few things to say in response. Firstly, anyone with both/either a mental illness or disability will feel differently about this. Secondly, my mental illness is definitely a disabling factor in my life, and thus I consider it to be a disability. Thirdly, syllabi are largely the product of time constraints. I’ve also seen gender and sexuality taught together, as well as race and Indigeneity, though I don’t believe the time constraint justifies this phenomenon. His question, though, got me thinking. In my case, my ld and mental illness are intimately connected, and though I sometimes experience them separately, they often intersect.

Check back soon for part two of this post! 



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