Thursday, March 29, 2012

Learning to be Learning Disabeled

“When the student is ready, the teacher will come.” This phrase was spoken repeatedly to me by my late mother a thousand times. This Buddhist proverb was written for those who attend the school of hard knocks. My mother said if I didn’t learn my lesson the first time, I’d see it again – and again. What in the world was she talking about?! Throughout my growing years, I was stubborn, hard-headed and adamant about everything, however, I was usually wrong. I’d never done well in school and my grades were printed proof. If I were to give an oral presentation, I’d do fine, however, when it came time for tests, I failed miserably. Truly, it appeared I was nothing more than a goof-off.  
At 18, I met the love of my life in Hawaii through a divinely-orchestrated intervention. Four months later, I left the comfort, security, safety and support of my family and childhood friends to be with him. With the promise of a forever future together, our love knew no bounds and transcended to another dimension. For a year, we were transformed by an Adam and Eve-type closeness in our land of Paradise. What we shared bonded our hearts and souls for eternity. We spent every moment possible wrapped in each other’s arms. Our love was a gift from Heaven.
Sadly, however, our union lasted just a year. He was forced to make career choices therefore, I decided to begin my higher education. We were thrown into the grown-up world and unprepared for these monumental life changes. Devastated by our loss, I made a firm decision to make my way without him. What I didn’t consciously realize was he and my family were my protectors until I headed to college. I was unaware I didn’t have what it took to fly solo. While attending the University of Hawaii-Manoa, I was instructed to enroll in the Learning Assistance Center. After a series of tests, it was discovered I didn’t retain necessary information and therefore, had no memory of what was being taught. When it came time for exams, I looked at the material as if seeing it for the first time.
I called my mother and asked, “Mom, what’s wrong with me? I can’t seem to learn anything.” It took seven years to obtain my Bachelor of Science degree, which normally takes four. I never would have completed my higher education if not for an understanding professor and math tutor, who signed off on my diploma even though I failed their business math course again. I graduated with a 2.0, straight-D average and couldn’t have been more proud. Still, I convinced myself I would show them all I could succeed and make something of my life.
It wasn’t until I was 30, my mother discovered a name for my learning disabilities: Dyslexia. While home visiting, she held up a local newspaper with fuzzy letters and asked if this is what I see when I read. I confirmed this to be correct, however, I told her there’s so much more to my situation, it can’t be just dyslexia. We went to see a man at the local dyslexia organization and I described what I believe happens when my brain receives new information.
I told him it’s as if my brain is like a pinball machine. The information is taken in as if shot like a pin ball, flies around the different compartments of my brain, however, where it lands is anybody’s guess. When it’s time for me to retrieve the information, it’s not where it’s supposed to be. When this pinball-like action has occurred, I’m hearing repeated information for the first time. Then, I’m frustrated trying to figure out what I should know and my mind goes completely blank.
Without the proper processing of the information, there’s a lack of memory, because the needed information is impossible to access. I can be told some pieces of information a hundred times and still not understand. The giver of the information is looking at me as if I’m an idiot. That’s when I know they’ve told me the same thing already. Panic then sets in as I begin frantically searching, grasping and hunting for the information locked in the wrong compartment somewhere in my brain. My eyes go up, move to the right and then to the left, searching for the information, which is always irretrievable. If I’m searching, it’s not available, however, I continue the hope-filled search. If I’m too tired, my impatience kicks into high gear and then I’m looking at them wondering, “What’s their problem?!” Having a learning challenge is exhausting from thinking and trying so hard to keep up with life. I’ve repeated more unfortunate life lessons than I care to discuss, due to a lack of memory.
Following a recipe is close to impossible. I once made a lemon cake with frosting, which had to be cut with a chain saw. I can take someone’s name and scramble it up to read something foreign. If you give me a road map instead of directions, I’ll end up in Texas instead of New Jersey. Doing math or anything with numbers is like learning one of the Chinese dialects. At the computer, I’m terrific with Microsoft Word, however, give the Excel spreadsheet to someone else. If I sit at someone else’s computer, that doesn’t work for me, either. I’m unable to log on at the library because the screen and keys are different.
Spencer, my 14-year-old son, helps tremendously in several areas of my life. He knows the most frustrating and complicated device for me is the computer. While looking at the screen, my eyes feel as though they have a film over them. I blink the entire time I write, trying to make my eyes focus. With new concepts, I become highly agitated when I’m unable to do something others don’t think about, such as signing up for NetFlix on the computer. Too, I mix up appointments and miss social dates because I don’t think to look at my day planner. Having too many of these incidents prompted Spencer to set up a Google Calendar for me, which presents events I need to remember. This way, I have a visual to engage my memory.
Spencer takes all my digital photos and puts them into my stories and onto my Facebook page. I’ve owned three digital cameras and gave them away. People are perplexed I’m unable to use something so simple. They’re instructions are interpreted by me as, “Oh, it’s so easy! All you do this, this, this, this and this. Then, you push that, that, that, that and that. The last step is to hit the blah, blah, blah, blah, blah and you’ve saved your photo!” My close family and friends instantly know when my eyes glaze over. They watch my head nod up and down hoping the “easy” lesson will soon end. I’m thinking to myself, “Oh, for God’s sake, save it, you’re wasting your time” while saying to them, “Oh, right. I get it now. That’s great!”
Life for the learning challenged is a long, long road with many a winding turn, that leads them to who knows where. No matter what path I’ve chosen or what decisions I’ve made, countless have been blunders and some of them devastatingly serious. I’ve been emotionally and mentally tortured in order to instill some of my most vital life lessons. I’ve repeatedly made frustrating and often times harmful decisions. Throughout three decades of destructive turmoil, I’ve continued believing, “I can do this life thing and I don’t need anyone’s help. I’m capable of having a solid career to support Spencer, the animals and me!” It never entered my conscious awareness I’d been 100% wrong.
For 33 years after leaving the safety nest of my parents and former first love, I’ve continued scrambling to gain my footing. It wasn’t until March 29, 2012, I had an epiphany and realized why I’ve made the poor life choices I have. I’d always been guided and protected until I was 19 and headed off to college. I didn’t realize I still need a protective warrior, teacher and guide in my life today. There are often times no obvious physical signs a person learns differently. They don’t have pointed ears, a cone-shaped head or bolts coming from the sides of their necks therefore, understanding someone is learning challenged can be difficult to comprehend. They appear quite “normal.”

Debbie, 2011

In becoming “independent”, I never created a career even though I’ve had more jobs than I can count. Since my first love, I’ve made relationship choices better suited for others, not knowing what is right for me. I’ve left a trail of disaster because of my fictitious independence and blind faith. This naturally led me down a path of personal and financial devastation. I’ve been a difficult student in most areas of my life, however, Dear God smiled on me. Although I’ve been divorced over nine years, the perfect father and I created Spencer, our phenomenal son.

Last week, after paying a couple utility bills and filling the gas tank, I thought I had enough money for groceries. I was at the grocery store when it occurred to me I may not have enough money to pay for the grocery basket full of food. I took out a piece of paper and a pen to subtract the bills and gas. I didn’t have enough as feared! I raced around the grocery store putting half the groceries back. I hoped I wouldn’t see any of the employees I’d become friends with the past 23 years.

With the remaining money, I breathed a sigh of relief knowing I could also buy a $20.00 bag of grain for my rescued farm animals. I went to the Self Check stand to avoid seeing any of the friendly employees in the event my debit card was declined again. I dreaded another humiliation. Slowly and quietly, I pushed my cart to the scanner and began. I carefully watched my items adding up. I still had too many items and secretly set them aside.
When my card was still declined, Rose, an employee, came up and offered to pay for my groceries. Doug, another employee, said he’d watch my cart if I needed to walk to the bank. Thurman, another familiar employee, patted my shoulder, while Hugh, from the almond milk section, offered to comfort me. The employees I’d known the past two decades came out of the woodwork to assist me. Thanking them and declining their generous offers, I felt my eyes well up. I grabbed my earth bags and went to my truck. Once in the privacy of myself, I cried and asked the rhetorical question, “What’s wrong with me?! Why is my life so difficult? Why can’t I find a job I am capable of doing?! Please show me I have something of value to offer.”
In the grand scheme in life, I feel as though I'm in a row boat with no oars, paddling in circles with my hands, lost at sea. There's no shelter from the storms and there's no compass guiding me to a safe harbor. I think many people with learning disabilities feel this way when they don't have an anchor, a buoy, radio communication, see a light tower or have a human guide with a life map. I've felt this way since I left for college in 1979 and on April 2, I’ll be 52 years old. 
Leaving my parent’s nest and then parting from the love of my life, I’ve never felt stable, safe or secure, which I didn’t consciously become aware of until March 29, 2012. It’s been a terrifying journey even though I’m the one who made the break away from home and my love. I didn’t realize at the time what my actions would cause and the ramifications of my choices. I felt compelled to try sailing, however, I didn’t understand my personal limits.
Life's been complicated and trying the past 33 years. I haven't learned how to navigate properly. I now realize I never will without a loving guide and teacher. I'm unemployed and raising my son to the best of my ability. I enjoy writing and hoped to create an income by teaching through my true life stories. When I ask for money, it sometimes comes, however, the unknowing has been beyond description. The other day, I let Spencer know I’m well aware his father can provide him with everything I’ve been unable to do. They went to see “The Hunger Games”, something I’d been looking forward to, only to discover I didn’t have the money. Although I’m grateful his father provides for him, it tears me apart knowing my inadequacies.
If I’m able to help another who has learning or any other life challenges, this will benefit me, too. I never believed I’d tell the world about who I truly am. I easily absorb and retain all information when it involves one’s beating heart. This applies to humans and all God’s creatures great and small. If it’s information on an inanimate object or other non-personal data, the pinball effect takes place. One’s Intelligent Quotient makes my eyes glaze over, whereas one’s Emotional Quotient catches my attention.
 Recently, the former love of my life and I made contact via email. I wrote him about my learning disabilities and he told me his daughter is in the same boat. He said she will need guidance to bring out the best in her. I pray I’m given another opportunity at a strong, protective and guiding love, bringing out the best in me, too.
Dyslexia is an umbrella term for a multitude of learning disabilities. As I’m aware, I don’t process all information properly. I don’t feel there’s a correct label for my mental capacity and difficulties. Some things I understand quickly by intuition or feeling and that’s when a beating heart is involved. Can a label be put on this? Should there be a label? I don’t want to be labeled. Although I’m unique, I want to fit in and feel a part of life’s journey. The past 33 years, I’ve stumbled 90% of the time. However, having a capable, loving guide in my life again, I know I’ll reach 100% of my destinations.  
There are a few positive qualities I can say about myself. I’m compassionate, loyal, accepting, extremely sensitive, aware, friendly and very loving. I believe through all my mistakes and lessons, there’s someone special for my special needs and also a “career” made especially for me.
I’m leery of new people and so-called opportunities. I never know when someone will take advantage of me again. My intuition doesn’t work with jobs, men, anyone renting my barn apartment or in doing business transactions. I have no idea why my gauge turns off and the person about to take advantage of me instantly knows this. Perhaps I project a na├»ve innocence, sometimes referred to as “stupid” or “gullible”? This is where I need guidance from my family and friends, however, sometimes my inside voice says, “I’m a mature adult and capable of making my own decisions.”
In despair the other day, I poured out my heart to Katy, a childhood friend, in an email letter. She’s watched me flail the past 33 years, knowing I’m exhausted, frustrated and terrified. She responded, “You are so very courageous and good. My heart hurts for yours. I look forward to knowing that happiness has consumed you and that hope and stability have been restored in your life. This is my prayer for you. I will ask for you to be given these things. I will continue to ask every day until they are bestowed upon you. I am here for you. Now I will wait to hear what happens next, OK?”
I waited 10 years too long to leave my ranch of rescued farm animals, believing I’d “make it” with a solid writing career to support Spencer, the animals and myself. I blindly waited for what I’d been taught, “Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow.” Spencer’s now living with his father, the ranch has been on the market four months, foreclosure is less than two months away and I’ve sold everything in my barn for food/gas money. I’m trying to “hear” what my late mother would tell me to do. I know now I’ve lived in a fairy tale world of trust, have faith and all good things will happen. With my disillusioned bubble burst, I feel my boat capsized by a tsunami, I’ve been drilled to the bottom of the ocean and I’m frantically thrashing about to find my way to the top for air. Will I live through another of life’s gruesome lessons? I will. I have Spencer waiting for me safely at the shore. I’m no longer hiding behind my smile and fake words, “I’m fine, thank you.” I no longer pretend in an effort to hide my shortcomings. I need guidance from my Family of Friends and I need it now. My white flag is flying high for all to see. By my experiences, I hope to finally learn life’s lessons and begin anew – again. I’ve made so many mistakes by not knowing my correct direction since leaving my first love at age 19. Perhaps my life map will be held by another loved one who will safely guide me again. With the exorbitant debt I gathered in waiting to “make it” these past 10 years, I’ve lost every dime I’d made for Spencer’s and my present and future. I didn’t know the difference between reality and fantasy. I had them mixed up and lost everything because I can’t tell the difference. I’m sharing my story in the hopes no one else experiences life without a loving guide.
When Spencer moved three months ago, I collapsed into a downward spiral. I realized, “Oh, my God. I’ve lost the most precious being in my life because I couldn’t navigate my way to success and financial freedom.” I thought I was making all the correct decisions for our well-being. In the end, I found myself completely alone wondering what in the world happened to us. My goal is locating a home in town so Spencer and I are reunited. I’m doing my best to keep my head forward and slowly finding my way to a life raft. I’ll be fine when I finally have my feet on solid ground – for life.
I’m hopeful soon I’ll have daily guidance again so Spencer may move on the next phase of his life free from concerns for my well-being. I’m most comfortable around children, animals, music, the elderly and those I’ve known. They would never deliberately hurt or take advantage of me. Feeling secure with my powerful prayer from Katy, this student named Debbie is finally ready for her loving teacher.