Overcoming My Learning Disabilities

Shortbus Lick Windows Wear HelmetOctober is Learning Disability Awareness Month. This is part of my story.

It was 1983. I will never forget my five years as one among many other sequestered kids stamped with the label of learning disabled.

When I was in 3rd grade my family was hanging on by a thread my mom did everything she could in her power to hold together.Problems in the family placed undue stress on us all.  We each had our own issues and found support for better or worse from different places. Developmentally, I did not have much of a choice for what kind of support I needed. The home was it.

Third grade was my education bottom. So depressed from the immense stress in my environment, I was admitted to the Psychiatric Institute of Washington, DC. That was the beginning of 5 year of placement in a restrictive education environment. There I spent three months in residential care to regain footing in my delayed cognitive and social development.

If the reactions to stress are flight and fight, I flew. But I never flew away from anything. I flew inward. Shutting the world out with the walls of my imagination worked for a while. It was a cocoon. The strange thing about cocoons is that the caterpillar literally digests itself into a soup before it develops into a butterfly. Gross. But it’s a really good metaphor for my mental state at the time.

What I learned most was how to game the system. There were specific outcomes that had the reward of a less restrictive treatment. Once you hit the highest level which was “Unaccompanied walks” off the premises, you were just a step away from discharge. I could actually walk outside of the “yard” where we got to spend time in the sunlight and play games like at recess! Once I figured out how to game the system, I knew I could get out.

When I was discharged from that program, I spent the next year at a school called the Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents (R.I.C.A.). The program lumped together all of us dysfunctional kids in one place separated only by age, or at least that’s the way it felt. Even at “P.I.” everyone was tossed together. For several years, I felt like a leper quarantined from the rest of society.

R.I.C.A. “mainstreamed” me to a “regular” elementary school for a few months before I was able to join that school full-time. However, even there I was in my own little classroom that looked the same as the other places. All of us special ed kids were again lumped together. On the scale of autism and dyslexia to depression and broken homes, we were all part of the same crew. We were visibly separated from the rest of the school in that little cloistered group. Outcasts, that was where I began to hear the terms “sped,” “retard,” and “stupid” among other things. My one goal was to get out.

Eventually, I was mainstreamed into the “regular” classes. That happened through middle school. I went to a middle school in Potomac, MD where the kids were far wealthier than us, so even there I felt different from everyone else. It wasn’t until 8th grade and out of that environment that I began to feel truly “normal,” or as normal as I could be.

I had a new home, new school, new friends, and a new start. From that point on I got better and better at just “doing school.”

Despite the fact that many of the procedures made me feel like an outcast during and for long after my treatment, something must have worked. I learned how to manipulate the system and as I later found out, I learned how to manipulate people. Was I better psychologically? I doubt it. I could hide more effectively and play the role of someone healthy even though I knew deep-down I was still a hot mess. Later in life, I was able to overcome and most of the scars have healed.

I recently completed a doctoral degree in a program for which I earned a 4.0 GPA. I earned two master’s degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary, one of which I received a Fellowship for thesis work and the other I received a full academic scholarship. I graduated college with a 3.0 and made the Dean’s list twice.

These were all statistically rare achievements for someone with mental and learning disabilities such as mine.

I say that not because I am special, but that it can be done.

My Education: The 1 Thing I Must Do

What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. – Søren Kierkegaard

Most of what I think I need in life is rather inconsequential. Most of what I have – data plan, TV, clothing, furniture, computer, food in the cabinet, job, etc. – I don’t actually need. These are musts in life that I have convinced myself I must have to be happy.

Perhaps what we believe to make us the happiest is the greatest delusion in our society.

I need food, water, and shelter to supply my basic needs for living. But I also need love and a sense of belonging to a wider human community. These are hard-wired into my DNA as a human being. But even a dog requires these things to be happy.

So what makes me a human?

Purpose. What is it that gives me the greatest amount of contentment around the idea that I am doing what it is I ought to do with myself aside from meeting my basic needs?

I find this identity in the honor of being a father to my two sons. I find that in helping others to feel that in spite of the challenges of the world, I can find a way to be content. I find it in the ability to communicate what I know only to be helpful. That is to say, if I am not doing something each day to help someone in the ways that I am most fit, I am not content with my own life.

I cannot fix a car, offer much in the way of financial gifts, offer home repair services, and the like. So what is it that I can do?

I communicate, listen, and offer what I know. 

This is what I do best. This is why I write. This is why I work. This is my idea. This, I believe, is why I am within the frame of human history.

In research and project management the first step is actually the last step: determine what you want the outcome to be. The rest is finding out how to get there.

Perhaps the great test in living a meaningful and content life is to imagine your funeral. What will people say about you? Who will be there? Who will weep at the thought of your absence? With your sound, touch, smell, ideas, and presence vanished, what will people say about you?

I recall the final story in the film Big Fish. The son carried on his father’s legacy by telling the greatest story of all – about his father the way his father would tell it. Not only the fact that his son told the story, but that the story was about how deeply his father is loved, revealed just how deeply his father affected others and changed lives for the better.

When our stories live on in our absence, perhaps how they are told and who continues to tell them is the greatest evidence that we have indeed found that truth that is for each of us the idea for which we are willing to live and die.

Our obligation, what we truly must do, is to do it well and commit our lives to improving it each day.

My Education: My First Manic Episode

My first manic episode happened during finals week in the middle of my M.Div. program. I may have slept 10-12 total hours that week. I didn’t know I was manic, I just knew I felt great and was getting a lot of shit done.

One of my buddies down the hall had an espresso machine. A couple of times that week we shared a demitasse or two in the wee hours of the morning. I tried to go to sleep but couldn’t.

Bipolar I types can go so off the rocker that they may be found running through the streets naked, have both auditory and visual hallucinations, and exhibit many signs of paranoid schizophrenia. Then they have a hard and deep crash which is where suicides can occur. If you make it out alive hammered up the scale like the ball of a high striker strong man carnival game only to come down again.

My type, called Type II, is a little less obvious and a little more insidious. My highs could get just high enough that I forgot about sleep, I got hyperfocused, and behaved more like someone with an acute ADHD episode. I’ve had debates about abstract postmodern philosophy while chain-smoking and drinking gin with a touch of tonic. I am not sure what meth is like, but it looked like a scene in Breaking Bad where Badger and Skinny Pete debate critical differences between zombies.

The lows just suck. They last longer and go a tad deeper. On either side of the fence, sleep can help solve a lot of the roller-coaster ride along with an effective medication cocktail.

During my entire experience at Princeton Theological Seminary I had several highs where I studied like a mad man and wrote papers that were much more detailed and researched than they needed to be. I remember writing a paper on St. Augustine’s influence on St. Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of evil. I followed St. Thomas’ doctrine of evil through the entire Summa Theologiae  in a matter of a month. For a 15 page paper, I wrote 30. I took the class pass/fail just so I could go all out. Who does that?

I also wrote a 180 page thesis in a week. I would sit and write up to 30 pages in a day, forget about sleep, skip meals, get jacked on coffee and just work. I would go to my little job sitting at the Continuing Education building and work there too. If that wasn’t enough, I had a few finals to prepare for at the same time. I got it all done, and scored all A’s. The fact that I did all of that makes me anxious and kind of freaks me out a little.

What is most profound is that neither I nor anyone else saw it as strange. My then wife would call me up to remind me to eat. Even in college I would be hyperfocused on something so much, a party that literally happening around me could not distract me. I wore hypomania as a badge of honor, but it would catch up with me one day. I’ll leave that for another story.

If you want to learn more about this illness, this is a nice little article that quotes a very good source from Johns Hopkins University.

My Education: When I Joined the Wrestling Team

I was never the most athletic type in school. Athletics are a very social activity that require a certain degree of self-confidence or at least comfort around other people. My lack of self-confidence and little comfort around other people put me at least two steps behind. The idea of catching up to everyone by competing was just not in my bones.

I tried wrestling for a few months. For practices we ran – a lot. We ran up and down three stories of stairs and down a long hallway in this hellish loop 10 times. After the assistant coach shepherded us in a single-file line back to the practice room, we would then do some awful drill like carrying a teammate on our shoulders across the mat a few times. Then we would dive straight into these round-robins where we would do a 2-minute period of wrestling until everyone got to wrestle each other. Many of us puked at the end of this it was so rough. Faces red from our hands and knuckles dragging across our chins, and our knees messed up, we would stumble out of the room for water only to come back in to do suicide sprints across the mat.

My first match was not that good. I tried scrapping with a kid smaller than me, but his technique was far superior and he kicked my ass. That was a little humiliating. I remember hitting the wall with my fist I was so mad at myself. The assistant coach gave me a come to Jesus speech about controlling myself. On the inside I was telling myself how much I sucked and hurt the team just by being there. It was then I decided to quit the team.

I give credit to the coaches. I didn’t see it at the time, but they were supporting and challenging me. It was as if they knew the challenge was exactly what my fragile soul needed. My self-talk was way louder and I quit the next day. That year, the team went 10-0 and were regional champions. One of my former teammates said to me later that year, “Man, you should have stayed with us.” The only way I hurt the team was by not being there. Even then people had a stronger opinion of myself than I did.

A year later I was in a weight-lifting class with a bunch of the other athletes. I still had this idea that I needed to make friends with the athletes to “fit in.” The truth is that at that point not only was I not an athlete – I was also a quitter. I thought I was their friends, but I really wasn’t. One day I walked into class and the teacher, also the varsity football coach, looked at my acne-covered face and said, “Boy are you feeling ok? You look sick or something.” This was the guy who also, on the first day of class, said, “This ain’t gonna be no grab-ass class.” I still have no clue what that means. Anyway, this was another coach who cared for his students, even if in a hard-ass kind of way.

Even when I thought I was hurting others, had no self-confidence, no will to compete, and told myself how worthless I was – the confidence of others in me came from the most unlikely of sources. They saw me as I never did.

My Education: The First Memory

I am starting a new series on how I remember my education. By some miracle I went from a special ed classroom to four post-secondary degrees and a steady career in higher education. I know there is a story there. I just need to find it.

This little series I will revisit on this blog will share how I remember my journey as a student, a teacher, and a person who supports teaching and teachers. I will tag all of these with My Education for future reference (for me and the reader).

Some of these posts will be fragments and some will be longer vignettes and anecdotes. Hope you enjoy my self-exploration.

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We stood up to say the pledge of allegiance and I screamed it in a high-pitched, funny voice. Ms. McQueen took me out of the classroom and I was not allowed to say the pledge with the rest of the students for the rest of that week. This is the earliest and most enduring memory of my education.

That morning another kid in the class was also acting out. Why not mimic something that was getting a laugh from the other kids in the class, I thought. There is no better feeling than being the center of attention for a kid. I had a deep urge for some kind of positive attention.

When the teacher scolded me for my little display of disrespect to the flag and the class I felt dread. I could hear my heartbeat as the numb sensation of blood rushed to my head. Her voice sounded muffled and my vision blurred. My eyes we stuck on my feet. For one moment I felt like a horrible person. I had done something wrong and had to pay for that offense through isolation. Feeling left out was the worst punishment I could have had. My teacher succeeded.

Maybe she succeeded a little to well. From that 10 minutes of shame onward I never felt part of the “in” crowd but always a little on the outside looking in. My voice was stolen from me that day. I took a rear position in the society of schooling. My strategy became drafting off of the charisma of others hoping to get validated just for keeping up.

This was kindergarten.