I’ve written a few articles about my expeirneces with bipolar II or what I thought was bipolar II. I am a good example of how confusing and difficult understanding mental health is when there is a confluence of trauma, mental illness, and now…learning disabilities.
The inspiration for this article came in the form of a dream last night: I dreamed last night that I was at a yard sale and I bought a car for $400. In that convoluted way dreams are, I bought it for the couch cushions in the back seat — I had an idea in my head that $400 was cheap for replacement cusions and the car was exactly like ours so if the transmission went I would have a replacement. It all made sense in the moment — in the dream but when I got home I realized it was a ridiculous thing to do. I tried to explain to my husband that it was a good deal for $400. In the dream I kept ruminating over the fact that I didn’t remember the purchase at all or why I would have done it.
This is the story of my life; impulsive, rash decisions and the fall out: embarrassment and shame.
I have spent the last 10 years working on two graduate degrees. I finished my doctoral dissertation last October and now I have a doctorate in education. I graduated with a 4.0. I say all of this not to brag, but to demonstrate how determined I was to prove to myself that I wasn’t stupid. I had accepted I was mentally ill…that was a no brainer becasue I had such a toxic childhood and trauma well into my early adult years. But stupid was almost more frightening than crazy. I’d been told all my life in one way or another that I was stupid — by my parents, by teachers. I can remember clearly in middle school, highschool, and college being the first to raise my hand beaming with confidence — not only that I had the correct answer in math class but that I had invented a new kind of math — I was called on and my answer was absurdly wrong. I was a outgoing and a class clown so I was accustomed to peals of laughter at something I said. Inside though I knew I was damaged. I can remember being on the school bus back in Massachusetts. I used to stare out the window, rain rivulets running down the cold glass. Sometimes I would think. “I will remember this exact moment two days from now.” I tried to will myself a kind of memory I would never have. Not just a normal memory but a super human one. That’s what I wanted. I can also remember a day on the bus thinking if I could learn how geniuses think, then I could teach myself.
Once my dissertation was done, I didn’t feel any smarter but I also finally knew I wasn’t stupid. I was ready to get tested for learning disabilities. I had a suspicion I had ADHD. It’s pretty obvious. I didn’t expect the other results.
My first session with the neuropsychologist was an hour and a half interview. I am very articulate and a very fast thinker. Although I feel like a failure most of the time I present a very accomplished life: I have a doctorate, I teach college classes, I’ve written 10 novels, I’ve written plays that have minor recognition, I am a mother, A wife, a rape survivor, a recovering alchohoic with 17 years sobriety. Still, I know I’m keeping a secret and every day I wake up and — until my coffee has kicked in — I tell myself over and over the ways I’ve failed. That I’m a loser.
I’m not blaming all of this on the learning disabilities. I had a very traumatic childhood and experienced many other traumas. I struggled with depression and when I was 17 I attempted suicide. I was a senior in high school and the principal wanted to hold me back not because I lost 2 weeks of school for psychiactric hospitalization but because, as he put it I’m “a loser who will burn in college.” He said people like me “don’t make it.” My dad who was in the office during the “hearing to hold me back my senior year” half heartedly agreed with him (that I was a loser and should stay back!!!). Really my dad didn’t care what happened to me. He wanted to get out of the meeting and back in his car in time to snort a line of cocaine before he went back to work as a chemist at a golf ball factory a few miles away. He was itching to get out of the principal’s office and had no intention of advocating for me. But I did have every inention of advocating for myself. Fuck this guy I thought He’s the loser. I said, “I’m not staying back a year. That isn’t legal.” I looked at the school counselor and I said “I attempted suicide and you don’t think that is a good enough reasong to be excused?” The counselor too was half hearted “if you had broken your leg yes we’d excuse the absences — “ but I didn’t stop. I didn’t relent. Finally the principle and I made a terrible agreement that I could graduate but I couldn’t get out of school early like the rest of the seniors. I would stay on until June and take full day PE classes and finish up and pass history. It was six hours of badmitton a day for two months.
My parents didn’t really care about my education. When I told my father I was going to submit a poem to a contest back when I was 17 he said “good. It will be good for you to learn what rejection feels like.” My mother’s view of me was no better “You’re lucky you’re pretty. You’re dumb but your pretty.”
Dumb. Besides those who were supposed to protect me, many adults thought I was being a smart ass. I was too full of myself and had to be knocked down a few rungs. And I was a smart ass. I hated injustice and I could prove it. When my English teacher (who hated me) failed me on my papers, I wrote papers for other students and they got As and Bs. I told Mrs. Rutkowitz and she said I’d never make it. I still think of her as a loser. I guess I didn’t have much respect for adults and it came through. Except there were a few adults who did care and they inspire me in my work in education. My high school history teacher Mr. Dow was furious over the way the school was treating me. What I didn’t know was that they didn’t even put my name on the graduation list or order a diploma. I had to pass the history final to meet the conditions I agreed to in the hearing. When I finished the exam (I was in the class with the juniors because seniors had long since left), Mr. Dow made me stand right next to him while he graded it. He smiled when he looked up at me. “You passed,” He said. Had he been hoping for me behind the scenes? Then he picked up the paper and told the class “I’ll be right back.” He walked me to the office and handed the secretary the test. “Put her name on the graduation list” he commanded. “I’ll get to it,” she said. “No. I want to see you do it now.” And she did. And I graduated.
All of the ugliness and trauma in my younger years was mitigated by a gift I had. I spent every moment of my life day dreaming. These were rich elaborate stories that ran parellel to my real life. They got me through the hours of chores my mother forced my sister and I to do. I can remember the little story: I was an orphan who was forced to clean the orphanage. I can picture the ratty old Dickensonian clothes I wore in my imagination. A simliar version of that story still runs through my head when I clean my house. My childhood was one of severe abuse and neglect. To endure the years from my early adolescece until I left at 17, I made up elaborate narratives about boys I had crushes on. These were not simply the day dream of going on dates. These were long involved stories with me as the protagonist overcoming impossible odds. One I vividly remember: I fell in love with a football player. I became pregnant and decided to take my own life. I overdosed on pills and woke in the hsopital. I had been in a coma for months and woke to find him there and our little baby. We were going to get married. It’s sad becasue of all it might represent psychoanalytically (and I had my share of those exxpeirnece). While it was sad, I find out it had a neurological orign as well as a psychological one.
The psychologicst calculated the test results and we met again after all the testing was completed. It seems my verbal abilities are in the 98th percentile. That’s very high but I have dyslexia, executive function problem (working memory and visual spacial processing). I also have ADHD. At first I didn’t hear the verbal abilities. I didn’t care so much about the ADHD but the learning disabilites that was compeltely new — not the reading part so much. I always hated reading and it’s very hard for me to read. I have to read and re-read because I constantly read things incorrectly and my fast ADHD mind and my verbal skills kick in and call attention to the ambiguity of what I just read. But that’s part of the problem: the way I compensate for these problems is physically exhausting.
So how did I complete a doctorate and write all these books? According to this doctor it’s a combination of being highly compensated and also my rebellious / ADHD attitude. She’s not sure if I would be as highly compensated if i didn’t have the trauma during childhood. That combination strengthened my language / verbal skills. In fact, she said she noticed the way I compelted the tasks was always through narrative language processing. I understand math when it’s presented in a story form. I make up stories to complete tasks that were boring, and when trauma strikes I drown in narrative (or write novels). During the testing there were some things I couldn’t hide or compensate for. The working memory, the reading disability, the visual processing problems.However, I’ve found ways to overcome some of the reading problems. I think being a writer and also forcing myself through graduate school, reading all those academic journal articles and books. I had to force myself to find strategies to pass. And I did with a 4.0. But I don’t read like everyone else. I scan around and read parts and then put them back together like a puzzle. It work for reserach studies and other dense writing.
I just feel tired from it all. I’m glad I completed the doctorate but I still don’t feel particularly smart. So instead, I’ve been connecting with just “who I am.” And that seems independent of the language gifteness or the learning disabilities. The giftedness was part innate and part the consequence of my terrible childhood. In brain science they talk a lot about learning as burning neuropathways. I think I burned my own and they were circcuitous haphazard stories around all the broken parts of my brain. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I got my doctorate in special education. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that I write novels about women who overcome tremendous trauma.
This article was originally published at Invisible: Illness https://medium.com/invisible-illness/its-not-biopolar-it-s-something-else-45aba9a83016