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What It Was Like Growing Up With Undiagnosed Dyscalculia

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The year was 2014. I was 19 years old. I was sitting in my 8-10 p.m. freshman math class, unable to think straight as I anxiously shifted my focus from math to pulling at the hairs that make up my naturally thick eyebrows. To say that I was anxious at this time would be an understatement.

I was anxious about a lot of things. Math class, for one. I was also experiencing severe intrusive thoughts and compulsions, something that I would soon learn was OCD. I was sad, lost in an untreated depression, feeling too much and yet numb to certain things. I was very hungry, the effects of anorexia nervosa taking a toll on my body and mind.

While I think it is important to know that I had several different, untreated issues going on simultaneously, I do want to say that this article is not really about my mental health. I mean, it is but it isn’t.

It is about my experience growing up with a learning disability known as dyscalculia. As for my mental health issues, well, they are often intrinsic to the experience of someone who lives with a learning disability and/or ADHD (both of which I am now diagnosed with, but was not back in 2014).

Back to 2014, with the visual of 19-year-old me in math class. I was struggling in this class in particular, and anxiety wasn’t the only cause. Before attending my university, a year prior, I had taken an online math placement test. This did not go well.

I ultimately failed the freshman math placement test. This was due to two factors in my mind: First, I was pretty bad at math, always had been. Second, I was anxious, always was. Little did I know that maybe, just maybe, it was more than being “pretty bad at math.” Perhaps I had an actual neurological difference. That did not occur to me at the time, though.

I ended up suffering through a challenging online math class the summer going into my freshman year, and this was simply the pre-requisite. I sought help from pretty much everyone I knew, to the point of it being pretty comical. My parents, my sisters, my friends, my SAT tutor, my aunt and uncle, my cousin’s friend, etc. all helped me in some way or another that summer.

There were nights in that freshman college math class where I found myself tapping my feet in a restless manner and I had to hold back tears from running down my cheeks like a river. I was unable to process or comprehend the contents of the whiteboard before me. There are a lot of reasons for this, but at the time I simply felt like a failure. I may have always struggled with math and chemistry, however, I had taken the lowest level math classes I could in high school, and it hadn’t prepared me for what was supposed to be “the easiest freshman math class.”

Did I have depression? Anxiety? A learning disability? ADHD?

The answer would later turn out to be a combination of all of the above, including my eating disorder. Unfortunately, at this time in my life, I was not diagnosed with anything, and so I didn’t have access to accommodations, something that would help me later on in college and graduate school.

So what happened in 2014? I ultimately failed the class, and unfortunately, my teacher wasn’t the most accommodating and understanding when I did reach out for help. I sought “freshman forgiveness” (some universities and colleges have this) and was able to re-take the class one year later after spending my fall 2014 semester away from college and in mental health treatment.

So what happened when I re-took the class in 2015? I passed with a B- ! Now, I generally try to be an A student, but in a situation like this, I was more than thrilled with my B-. I was able to pass because 1) I was in a better place mentally (and on mood and anxiety medication) and 2) I worked with my school’s disability services and was able to get a tutor, notetaker, and extra time on tests because I had at least one official diagnosis, which I believe was OCD at the time.

Today, I have accumulated many diagnoses. Some may deem it unhealthy to have so many labels attached to one’s being, and yet I see it differently. My recent neuropsychological testing was a validating experience (as written in another article of mine). I was finally diagnosed with specific learning disability, impairment in mathematics — dyscalculia.

Now, for anyone reading this, I think it’s important to note that it is most certainly possible to get a learning disability diagnosis as an adult. But a learning disability doesn’t just “show up” at age 26 (unless there is head trauma involved). It is something I’ve always had, alongside other issues with mental health and attention and learning.

I can easily picture my first grade, second grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, ninth grade (and the list goes on) self struggling with math and understanding numbers. Learning to tell time was a struggle, as was understanding how to count money. I still struggle with these things at times. You’ll never catch me doing a puzzle for fun and pretty much anything to do with the periodic table makes me cringe (except for the fact that I am prescribed to take lithium carbonate daily for bipolar disorder).

You can ask my mother — I shed many tears as a child and teenager over math. I remember being in third grade and sitting in the dining room, staring at a one-page worksheet for hours.

And another interesting thing about learning disabilities like dyscalculia is that a sign of having one is typically having “uneven abilities.” This can also be related to being “twice exceptional.” I have high verbal scores as well as above average scores in writing and average in reading achievement. These areas highlight strengths for me, while other areas can indicate a strong weakness and area of difficulty for me. Examples of that for me include my performance IQ, mathematics, working memory and processing speed.  The awesome thing about my life today is that I made it to graduate school. In graduate school, you can study solely your passion, with no requirements to take classes that are unrelated and that may be challenging for you. In my case, I am in school for my master of fine arts in creative writing — not a single math or statistics or science class involved.

The other good news with graduate school? I have accommodations because of my mental health and learning challenges. I’m writing novels and analyzing literature and I am loving it. I have come a long way since 2014, when I sat frozen in a freshman math class, paralyzed by not only anxiety, but also by my neurological differences.

I can’t wait to write a book about this one day, where I share with the world that it’s important to get kids tested when they struggle, even if they are bright. Perhaps I could’ve had help a whole lot sooner. And I want to start conversations about the complicated intersection of learning disabilities and mental illness, as I believe they absolutely influence each other.

Getty image by Andrea Obzerova.

Originally published: May 16, 2021
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