October 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.