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Why I Draw as Someone With Nonverbal Learning Disability and Depression

As an individual with a nonverbal learning disability, as well as major depressive disorder (MDD), I struggle many times in social settings, even after being diagnosed and receiving treatment. Although this learning disability is not quite the same as autism, it has many similar characteristics to that better-known diagnosis. For example: sarcasm used to go over my head, I never got little quips and minute looks, and Lord help me, I could not understand how ostracism worked. So, growing up, I often missed important social cues, and was often ignored or bullied by my peers.

But I still liked people. Beautiful, frustrating people. And I’d draw them.

Sitting down with a subject — whether fictional or a recreation of a photograph — allowed me to better understand the person. Who they were, how old, their ethnic and geographic background — sometimes, in the case of historical photographs, their part in our greater collective history. Drawing was intimate, quiet, and reflective — my own neurodiverse form of communication and interaction. Something that I otherwise could not obtain, as my brain would exhaust itself trying to keep up with the social engagement of other humans. It’s a significant reason why I studied anthropology as an undergraduate, and continue to participate in the field after finishing my Ph.D. in another subject.

Attending a very competitive, small, college prep high school was a nonstop social minefield for someone with a nonverbal learning disability, such as myself. A bad glance at the wrong person meant that I would be sat down and screamed at by either their friend or a teacher by the end of the day. Because my high school was so small, I couldn’t disappear from them like at a normal, gigantic high school that my neighborhood friends went to. Instead, I’d be followed by haunting social decisions that I poorly chose, selected because of my issues with nonverbal ability (or lack thereof). An argument with a classmate meant that I’d still be stuck with that horrid person for the next class, and the next, and the next.

So my poor neurodivergent brain had to stay sharp, even though it was exhausted from navigating not only challenging academic materials, but also the harshness of competitive peers who did not want to deal with me and my exhausting alphabet of disabilities.

Most days, I’d come home after practice/rehearsal, which naturally followed an exhausting school day. After finishing dinner and homework, I would put on my headphones, take out my pencils and books, and just…go. Right into the gentle scritch-scritch of a pencil meeting paper. I’d disappear into the worlds that my colored pencils and fine-tipped markers would create.

All of the drama from the day would vanish. No one could bother me in my zone. The screams and lectures and cruel jabs of the day would be gone. I was alone, and at peace, in the drawings I created. And those drawings I made were mostly of people. I love drawing faces, hair, poses, and clothing — everything that makes an individual truly human through their culture and choice. I could sit with a subject, and they wouldn’t tell me that I thought the wrong things, that I was weird, that my clothes were terrible and all the choices I made that day were wrong. They simply allowed me to draw, to be, and be intimate with them in my own way.

My art teacher noticed my passion for this form, and she was able to get me into Saturday morning classes at the School of the Art Institute. There, along with other students from similar selective enrollment high schools, I would sketch live models, and practice with new mediums, such as charcoal, acrylic, and India ink. I was surrounded by others who enjoyed the gentle chit-chat between looking at the model, looking at their art, and giving guidance and compliments to their fellow artists. It was wonderful to be surrounded by those who were secure and happy in their work.

Although there was no way I would major in art, I found the subject to still be welcoming as a form of not only expression, but non-verbal communication. Not to mention, all of the hypercompetitiveness of my high school seemed to melt away in those beautifully well-lit classrooms in SAIC. It was liberating to sit amongst so many talented people who wanted to be around others, but in silence and reflection. It may seem monastic, counterintuitive to the typical loud high schooler, but it was incredibly peaceful…and an absolute godsend to an NVLD individual with depression.

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I tried keeping up with my drawing in college and my 20s, but thing after thing distracted me. I was busy with classes, with lab hours, with parties, too many majors and minors, PAC 12 football, too much boy drama, you name it. Worst of all, I was exposed to other mediums while at the University of Oregon, and while studying abroad in Denmark. I became a fiber addict, knitting, spinning, and felting multiple objects and pieces of clothes. I became notorious as the chick who knit hats for her closest friends, and my boyfriend was incredibly proud of the fact that he had multiple hats that I had made with yarn I had spun from raw wool.

But why I loved drawing never left, even though I thought it did. It simply…evolved. I had to fight for the time to do it, especially as I constantly received feedback from friends and family on how my artwork could be better. While some, I’m sure, came from a good, kind place, many seemed almost mean-spirited in how my art needed to be. So, I kept my drawings minute, and didn’t show them to many people. I hid my sketchbooks for most of my adult life.

However, the year before I began my doctorate at the University of Illinois, I spent a year at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology with an AmeriCorps position, where I was surrounded by not only unyielding natural beauty, but creative, engaged people, just like at SAIC. These individuals loved what they did, and what they studied. Even though a science lab seems a vast departure from an art school, I’ve got to tell you, nothing sets the creative mind ablaze like passion. It wasn’t just looking at oceanic life, but recreating it in different materials and forms. From painting, to playing different musical instruments, to wild costumes for Halloween, even desserts for a party, the recreation of the life studied at this wonderful campus was explored through the act of creative expression, on top of the scientific research that was conducted.

Although I attended the University of Oregon as an undergraduate, I had never taken a marine biology course — one of the few regrets I have from my undergraduate experience. Here, in rural Coos County, I was lucky enough to learn alongside graduate students as I served as an AmeriCorps volunteer and led programming for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. I grew to appreciate the microscopic, the floral, the mega, all of it. And I drew it, all of it. Years later, I would participate in #SundayFishSketch, and often become influenced by my experiences in this beautiful part of the Pacific Northwest.

I got back into drawing again, right as I got that letter from the department of the Learning Sciences at UIC, telling me it was time to take on a bigger project than a drawing of a biosphere.

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My sketchbooks, unfortunately, were tossed back into a crate as I moved back to Chicago to begin graduate school. I occasionally drew a piece or two when my brain needed a break from analyzing verbal data from our recordings in the learning lab and museum exhibits that we studied — something that years of masking as an individual with NVLD had taught me well on how to analyze.

However, the elaborate pieces that many of the artists I was once friends with were impossible to do with my lack of free time. Not to mention, my brain seemed to be rewired at this point — everything I had to do, both in and out of the academy, needed to have worth attached to it. If it wasn’t going to enhance me professionally or academically, it needed to be eradicated, gone, erased. No rest for this wicked doctoral candidate and nonprofit professional. A night of drinking had to involve networking, a jog had to include scoping out potential community partners for work, and if a hobby didn’t help me professionally or socially, it had to be tossed aside and promptly forgotten.

At my worst, in 2014, I was working full-time as a museum manager, conducting research at another museum, and finishing up classes for my doctorate at the College of Education. My MDD fed on this the way bacteria feeds on living tissue, and many days, my hands would tremble incessantly, my brain would be filled with fog, and I’d struggle with worrying bouts of dizziness, fainting on occasion in the museum’s exhibits.

The sketchbooks stayed in their crates.

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Finally, something magical happened in 2019. I finished my doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction, while working full-time as a director at a major nonprofit organization and raising a young family. I had married my boyfriend of many years by this point, and we welcomed a daughter in 2017. My time was freed up. I was done with school.

Getting hooded had such a wide variety of reactions, ranging from exhaustion, to frustration, to a feeling of satisfaction. But for me, it felt like the world’s biggest weight had been taken off of me. I had no intention of leaving my well paid job in the industry, so I felt no obligation to hustle for a new position.

Then something horrendous happened, a few months later, in the spring of 2020. I bet it needs no introduction, but here it is regardless:

COVID-19.

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Being unable to move, or do much, was so incredibly frustrating during the first few months of the pandemic. It wasn’t just my long-planned trip to Columbia with my mother, or my daughter’s first National Park vacation that my husband and I had painstakingly planned for spring break. It was also being inside our house, with anxiety over work, parenting, and isolation looming over us and our friends and colleagues. My MDD was creeping up on me, yet again.

One day, I couldn’t take much more of it. My hands needed something to do, I needed to escape in some way, shape or form. And I had to stay at my desk: I was in the middle of a work day, after all. I looked over at my open closet, where my toddler had been playing earlier that day. I saw the crate, the books with the drawings inside.

I found myself cracking open the books, deep in their packing crates in my closet, after one too many Zoom sessions with colleagues. I turned off my camera, and just started going for broke on the little sketchbook, drawing a little owl, then a snail. The simple making — the scritch scritch of the pencil, the feel of the paper — immediately set me at ease. Even if the little sketch meant nothing, and it wasn’t beautiful or byzantine, it made me feel better. I had created something.

I smiled, and I was calm, happy, and mildly proud of my little peace within the world.

And that is saying something during the height of a worldwide pandemic.

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In between a busy job, journal and board reviews, working on articles, raising a family (we added a second child to the mix!), and trying to shove my bloated 30-something-year-old self out the door for a run from time to time, it is safe to say that I still don’t have a lot of downtime.

But when I do, I let myself draw.

I lose myself in a subject that calms and centers me. I owe it to my brain, that faulty organ of mine that doesn’t produce serotonin and doesn’t allow me to maintain eye contact, or any of the neurotypical things that most people take for granted. And here’s the kicker — when I am calm, and centered, I can be a better, more productive member of society. Of the world at large. I don’t care that my art might be mocked, or belittled. It made me feel connected and grounded, and that is needed in the brutal and tragic current zeitgeist that we find ourselves in.

One thing I learned while writing about cephalopods for Science Unsealed was their actual physical structure. Each octopus, squid, and cuttlefish is a mirror image of each side, and their bodies are designed for both speed and consumption of salt water. Being able to draw one part means you must draw another, exact mirror image. Start small, start on one side, and work your way around. The subject is both simple, and yet, complex.

Just like art. Just like having a learning disability. Just like life.

Getty image by hsyncoban

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