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I Lived 52 Years With an Undiagnosed Learning Disability

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I am currently as of this writing 59 years old, yet I feel as though I am not really a “grown up.” My wife, the third, bought the pickup truck I drive. She bought the house, too. She pays the bills and organizes pretty much everything. I am capable of grilling and drinking a gluten free beer, as I have celiac disease, but that’s not why I don’t feel like a proper adult. I was diagnosed, finally, at the age of 52, with a nonverbal learning disability (NLD).

The neuropsychologist who did the day long battery of tests as well as the diagnosis explained that my brain was different. All the parts are there, but some of them do not work and never will. It’s like the wiring has been cut and can’t be repaired. With NLD as a child I could read pretty well. In the third grade I would finish our reading and comprehension studies way faster than my classmates, which seemed to piss off Mrs. Johnson, my third grade teacher. She would make pretty much make me repeat verbatim what I had just read, and yet she still accused me of somehow cheating. Because of that I learned to just sit at my desk and read the story a second and third time until someone else finished and brought their assignment to Mrs. Johnson.

With math, my comprehension went the other way. The symbols and how they operated made absolutely no sense to me and they still don’t. Hand me a third grade math test and I will probably fail it. NLD causes dyscalculia, the numbers version of dyslexia, and shorts out the logic part of the brain. I know how chess pieces move, but I can’t form a strategy to play to save my life. Mrs. Johnson enjoyed taunting me about my lack of math ability by using my “oh so superior reading ability” as a dagger into my burgeoning insecurity complex. I hated Mrs. Johnson, and still do.

That summer we moved and I started the fourth grade in a different school. If anything, the fourth grade was worse than the third. Like before, I read much faster than my classmates and failed miserably at math. The teachers did not know how to handle the dichotomy so I was labeled as a lazy kid or as a smartass, depending on which class I was in. In math I was lazy and in English I was a show off.

At home my dad would get very frustrated with my lack of math comprehension. I still remember his cigarette and coffee breath in my face yelling, “You have pie! You slice it in four pieces and take one! How many did you take?”

“One?” I would whimper in small voice. “No!” he would all but scream. “One out of four is…”

“Three?” At this he’d sigh, shake his head and walk off saying, “One fourth!”

I would shrink and wish to be dead. For I knew tomorrow at school I would endure similar outbursts from Mrs. Stiffler, my math teacher. One day when we were learning, or at least the rest of the kids were learning long division, I could not keep the numbers straight and sometimes 23 would become 32 and 25 would appear as 52. Mrs. Stiffler, an angry person if there ever was one, picked up her big beige stapler and threw it at me. I ducked; it hit the concrete block wall behind me and broke apart.

And Mrs. White, my English teacher, would accuse me of daydreaming in class because I would inevitably read ahead during the part of the class where we took turns reading out loud and be lost as to where the class was in our textbook. Life, as a fourth grader, was hell.

So I decided to run away and live in the woods like Daniel Boone. One Monday morning I rode the bus to school, and instead of going inside the building I hid in a ditch and when the final bell rang and the big steel doors slammed shut I walked six miles through the woods towards a fairly wooded local National Battlefield Park. As I was crossing two lane Hwy 5 a little car stopped next to me and a voice said, “David?” I turned and saw our principal, Mr. Dowell, who happened to be on his way to the bank. I wondered how he knew my name. He called my parents and that night there was a tearful outpouring of pent up frustration and anger.

I was taken to child psychiatrist and it turned out I read and comprehended on a high school level. That shut Mrs. White up. But the psychologist never approached my math problem despite my voicing my concern. Nevertheless, they decided I was a gifted kid, something like a bored genius. When asked what I liked to read about I blathered on and on about the superiority of the British Lancaster bomber over the American B-17 and B-24 during WWII which impressed Dr. Nibblett, the child psychologist who evaluated me. So conveniently, during math, I would be summoned to help the janitor. I would take trash to the incinerator, clean erasers on a thing that was like a belt sander and other odd jobs around the school. I became the different one, and was appropriately bullied by some classmates.

Middle school and high school didn’t know what to do with me. A’s and B’s in history, English, civics and general science and F’s in anything remotely math like. I was in and out of the gifted classes; in and out of the “not-so-smart” kid classes and pretty much floundered my way to graduation. I went to see the counselors about the whole math thing, but all they said was “try harder,” “apply yourself” and my favorite, “You have the same ability as anyone else, you’re just lazy and seeking attention.” So very helpful. Original thinkers all.

After graduating high school, my friends all went away to college or the military. I wanted to fly, and the military was the quickest and most affordable way to do that. Naturally I was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1977, so I was now exempt from the military. I worked piddly jobs, took up skydiving and scuba diving and drove a $200 car and jumped a $600 parachute that I bought used. I lived at home as long as I could as jumping wasn’t cheap. Then after an argument with Dad I moved into a friend’s basement.

Over the intervening years I was diagnosed with restless legs syndrome which occurred regularly during childhood and still plagues me now, though medication helps. NLD, RLS and celiac are quite a combination when undiagnosed and not so hot when diagnosed. At least I now know what my “demons: are, that I’m not crazy, that the universe isn’t out to get me, and all those authority figures throughout the years were dead wrong. But adulting in the same way my peer adulted just wasn’t possible.

Those whom I’ve kept in contact with have families, mortgages, second houses and savings for retirement. They understand finances and all the rest of the numbery stuff. I live with my blessedly understanding wife, working a somewhat piddly job, and wish I had a more positive ending to this bio. My self-esteem was destroyed between 1969 and 1979. I’ve been fired from jobs because of then undiagnosed health issues. But even with a diagnosis, it would not have mattered. I found that I learn on the job and that a classroom for me is like a cave for a claustrophobic. But learning on the job does not have a diploma attached to it, and society in general still does not know how to deal with people with arguably esoteric health issues. I look “normal,” mostly act normal, but normal I am not. I wish I could have been just a regular kid and an average adult. It’s always been like being on the outside and looking in. Always, including today, tomorrow, and on and on.

Getty image via Ranta Images

Originally published: December 11, 2020
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