I think the most salient aspect of having both mental illness and a learning disability for me is that I have less of a buffer zone, or less slack. Once I fall into a familiar rut, usually because of my mental illness, it is much harder to climb out and get back on track.
Let’s take a look at how I approach something like midterms. I may or may not have already procrastinated due to intense anxiety, but that is not what I want to focus on today. I try to work on my assignments in order of their due dates, but often end up starting with whichever I care about most first, or with the one that causes me the least preemptive anxiety.
I start by working through the reading required for the assignment. Reading anything for school, especially when I am already anxious, is a constant struggle against my perfectionism. I feel like I must read every word if the reading is to “count.” If I skip a section here or there, not only have I “cheated” on the reading, but I am also sure my professors will find out, and that I may have missed crucial information. I also find it exceptionally difficult to move past a sentence if I do not understand it (note: I process information in very tiny bites, and then try to weave them together into a coherent picture. So I do move from one sentence to the next when I read). Being extremely insecure about my intelligence, my anxiety and imposter syndrome seek out every opportunity to remind me that I am a fake. For me, not understanding one sentence represents far more than not understanding one sentence, in one article, from one syllabus, from one course, in one instance in one year. It represents an inability to comprehend an entire theory, which will probably lead to my failing the course – or at best scraping by – which will then prevent me from going to grad school, or, if I do make it there, will prevent me from understanding anything in grad school and on and on it goes. Moreover, if I do not understand a sentence, I worry that I may be missing The Most Important Sentence Of The Whole Article and thus The Whole Point. Couple this with the fact that my reading speed is already at the tenth percentile because of my learning disability, and bam! You’ve got yourself one very, very slow reader. I can spend hours reading a textbook and think that I’m making good progress and time, only to look down and realize I’ve made it through 7-8 pages.
If I’m being totally honest, this process has probably actually started long before I get around to reading. I’ve probably agonized over finding The Perfect essay topic, and then lost hours and possibly days to collecting every possibly relevant article from across the world wide web, firstly to ensure that there is enough material available for my essay, but secondly because I want to make sure I have read The Very Best And Most Important articles.
While growing up, my parents always told me that my grades didn’t matter so long as I had done my best. My perfectionist mind warped this motto into a standard that was/is totally and completely unattainable (seriously it’s been 22 years and I still haven’t reached it). The idea of “best” is a bottomless, inexhaustible concept to me. I can always do better. If I spend a day writing an assignment, I haven’t done my best unless I’ve also taken advantage of the night. If, when searching for articles, I simply opt for the first ten that pop up, I have not done my best. This is usually combined with feeling beholden to my professors’ expertise and assignments. I feel like I have to do every assignment justice, respecting it as an end in itself – an end carefully thought out by my professor in order to maximize my learning. Unfortunately, this perfectionism is not contained to my schoolwork, but rather bleeds into all aspects of my life. It isn’t enough to send someone a card when I think about them – that card also has to be handmade, and come in a personalized decorated envelope or package. It isn’t enough to organize an event unless I have baked 100 cookies for it or had it catered. (I am not making this up. I baked over 100 cookies for a panel discussion I was organizing last year when I got it into my head that this event would FAIL unless everyone had a sugar cookie dipped in icing. More on aspects of perfectionism, like all or nothing thinking, on another day).
I’ve probably realized I am definitely behind schedule by the time I finish reading. Or it’s now the night before my assignment is due, I’m still reading – and nowhere near done – and it finally strikes me that my professor is expecting a hard copy of my assignment in 12 hours. I used to be able to pull all-nighters, but am unable to do so now because of my meds. I can make it until 2 or 3 am, and then I pass out. There’s no way around it, but it probably works to my own benefit anyway. I might be able to crank out the assignment and get it in on time (my learning disability doesn’t actually affect my writing speed. I am a quick writer, and can pump out assignments once I’ve put the time into reading and processing in preparation for them), but far more likely is the scenario in which I have introduced so many stressful elements that I get completely overwhelmed and spend the night panicking (and also probably drowning in a sea of self-loathing, guilt, and shame). I have officially missed the first deadline. By the time I get the assignment done and am willing to hand it in (a massive struggle in itself), I’ve put all of my eggs in one basket, leaving myself little time to complete the next three assignments coming at me in rapid succession. I don’t operate at anything less than 120%. I worry that I’ve trapped myself in expectations I myself have constructed; if I don’t put in 120%, my professors will still assume that I have, since I usually do, and thus my work will still be judged in comparison to my usual standard.
Rinse, lather, and repeat. If I didn’t have a learning disability, and wasn’t desperately perfectionistic, I might be able to remedy the situation. I could throw together some mediocre work, hand it in, move on, and complete my assignments on time. Unfortunately, that’s rarely how the story actually goes. I am so convinced of my lack of intelligence that I will not let myself hand in anything unless it is at least 40% overdone. I feel like if I put in the extra 40%, at least I can continue to spin the myth of my intelligence, and continue to fool my professors. I am terrified of letting them see how hopelessly inadequate my work is before it has been put through the wringer. Moreover, no matter what the time crunch, my reading speed remains infuriatingly slow. It is immensely frustrating. My learning disability also means that I find it very difficult to skim. I need to focus on trees, as it were, before I can make an attempt at the forest. Add a good dose of stubbornness and deep-rooted insecurities about intelligence, adequacy, and worth, and you can begin to see how I trap myself in the same vicious cycle, time and again.
How do you combat your perfectionism, imposter syndrome, or procrastination? Comment below!
Check back soon for part 3 of this series on the intersection of mental illness and learning disabilities! I’ll be exploring how these play out in the classroom (focusing more on the auditory processing side of things), and later, how I navigate the stigma attached to each.