5 Lessons That Help Me Thrive — Despite My Learning Disability

I hate the word "disabilities." But, hey, that's what they are.

My whole life — at least the life I have known with my disabilities — I have tried to hide. Here's the back story:

Around third or fourth grade, I began to be plagued by distraction and procrastination in school. I would sit and stare at the wall in class, reading the posters for hours, and not remember a single word from the lesson taught by the teacher. My parents and teachers would get irritated with me when I copped an attitude or stayed silent. I was irritated for reasons I couldn't understand at that point.

Sitting through class in elementary school was painful. I vividly remember staring at the clock, counting every tick the second hand made. I would get lost in my thoughts, then find myself called on to answer questions I hadn't heard because I had been daydreaming.

Tests were another element I wasn't fond of. Tests have never been easy for me. I can be involved when I choose to be. I can pick up on the basics. But when it came to sitting down in front of a piece of paper and recalling bits and pieces from past classes, I was screwed.

In my fourth grade class, I had Mrs. Hayes. She was a wonderful teacher. She took the initiative to help me in any way possible — even if it meant isolating me to force me to focus. During tests, I would be forced to the back of the classroom, where she would stack cardboard bricks around my desk, creating a barrier between me and everything around me that could be a potential distraction.

This caused a scene in class, and my classmates did not see it as something "cool" or "normal." I was picked on about it, but I held nothing against my teacher or my classmates. I knew my teacher was doing this for a reason — I just didn't know yet what the reason was.

I attended a fancy school from fifth through eighth grades and was surrounded by rich, international students who seemed to consider our rigorous academic curriculum a breeze. The few "day students" like myself, from local towns, were the same. I, on the other hand, could not seem to grasp what was being taught in my classes.

I would repeatedly fail math courses and struggle in classes that I could have easily passed (if I hadn't been distracted). My best friend would always reassure me that it was OK I didn't get the best grades. She would say, "They don't mean that much, really. You matter more than your grades. Don't worry about what other people say."

When eighth-grade graduation came around, I headed off to Marianapolis Prep. I was ecstatic to be attending the same school as my best friend Elizabeth and cousin Emily. Halfway through the year, I found myself failing most of my classes. Every day, I had eight blocks: English, Bible, Spanish, study, lunch, world history, physics, and Algebra 1. At my previous school, I'd had four or five.

The upkeep for Marianapolis was unmanageable. I was up until all hours of the night until I physically and mentally could not finish my homework. I would get into fights with my family over school, explaining how I was trying my best in my classes, when in reality, I was breaking down due to the utter exhaustion it was causing me.

I would reach out to my teachers, who would give me minimal feedback and attempt to help me. In retrospect, I think they just gave up after assuming I was too far behind everyone else to catch up.

It wasn't until that first year was almost over that my parents took me to a psychologist. Walking into that building and sitting across from a psychologist in a white coat was one of the most nerve-wracking things I have gone through. Sitting in his office, he made me put words to shapes and read paragraphs. He made me do puzzles, brain exercises, memory cards, and everything in between. It was completely exhausting.

After three visits full of excruciatingly boring, exhausting tests, he diagnosed me. I vividly remember sitting in front of him with my mom and listening to every word.

"She definitely has quite a lot of ADHD," he laughs and smiles at me. Then he turns and looks at my mom, "But I do believe she also has some kind of retention disorder and LDNOS, too." "What's LDNOS?" my mom asks. "It stands for Learning Disability Not Otherwise Specified," the psychologist replies. "We don't really know what’s wrong, so we put it into a broad spectrum."

Looking back on what has happened since my "diagnosis," I can proudly say that I have grown a lot. It took many years — well three — but I believe that in my senior year of high school, I learned how to handle myself. I was surrounded by wonderful people and teachers who taught me more about coping skills, learning strategies, and life lessons than anyone in my entire life. I was forced to teach myself — not be spoon fed — the learning strategies that helped me succeed in both school and life. I owe my past and future successes to The Woodstock Academy.

So, what did I learn from my "learning disability"? What strategies finally allowed me to succeed? There are five primary lessons that contributed to my success, and you can apply them to any challenging situation you might face:

1. The only stupid questions are the ones you don't ask.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with advocating for yourself! The ability to ask for help has been a true life saver. I used to struggle with the need to be self-sufficient, but learning that asking for help is not a sign of weakness has helped me thrive. Asking for help is key to understanding, learning, and growing.

"The man who asks a question is a fool for a minute. The man who does not ask is a fool for life." —Confucius

2. A solid support system makes all the difference.

For me, it was almost a given. I was placed in an applied skills class, where I was surrounded by wonderful people who wanted the best for me. I had three teacher's assistants in my applied skills classes (over two years) who helped me with whatever I needed help with. Then, I had two applied skills teachers who, over the course of two years, pushed me to be the best person I could be, both in and out of school.

Mrs. Coleman, the school psychologist, helped me through my three years at Woodstock Academy, my parents' divorce, my nonacceptance of my learning disabilities, and a not-so-great relationship that seriously threatened my happiness. Without these people, I am sure I would not be the person I am today. Finding the people who want the best for you and are willing to go the extra mile to help you achieve that is the only way anyone can ever really succeed.

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3. What you can do is so much more important than what you can't do.

I have to admit, I am easily drawn to negative thinking. Growing up, I would constantly focus on what I couldn't do. For example, I would beat myself up over the fact that I couldn't do math as well as my peers. Now, when I find myself thinking about what I can't do, I force myself to think about what I can do instead. For example, I am a writer, and I excel in English classes. I am a successful softball player, and I find my history classes interesting and easy — when I put the time into them.

4. When your mind wanders, you can rein it in.

Just ask yourself, "Is this what I'm supposed to be doing right now?" I ask myself this question whenever I find my mind wandering. I re-evaluate my surroundings, refocus on what's going on around me, and attempt to concentrate as well as possible from there on out.

5. You are so much more than your limitations.

Remind yourself of this every day, several times a day, until it sinks in. And then keep doing it.

These five lessons got me through some of the most difficult times of my life. I hope they help you through yours.

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