The flashbacks — they come to me at just the right moment to be debilitating. They come exactly when they know I am in need of destruction. The particular one that has been rolling around my brain the entire day sits me in a first-grade classroom, a packet of math problems in front of me. I am stuck on the first one. It has something to do with ketchup bottles. I look around. The girl next to me is on a problem about soda cans, the girl next to her is on one about sheep. They are solving. My eyes are still fixated, trapped on the letters. They are mush in my head. I cannot read the paper in front of me, so instead, I try to hide it with my arm. Looking at a picture of the Heinz bottles, scratching my pencil back and forth on the paper. The teacher approaches: “Why are you still on the one about ketchup bottles? Everyone else has moved on.”
I do not know.
I blink my eyes, and I notice the hands of my 10th-grade body. My 10th-grade hands are gripping a 10th-grade pencil and my 10th-grade eyes are focusing on a new 10th-grade math packet. I sit, staring at the graph. “What is the Y intercept?” I ask myself. I begin to twitch, blinking my eyes — blink, blink, blink — willing the answer to come. It doesn’t. My teacher places her hand on my back. “Hey,” she says. “You’ll get this; let me help you.” But all I can hear as she explains the problem back to me is the sound of all those first-graders' pencils scribbling back and forth on their paper, turning the packet, completing it, and all I can see as my teacher scribbles down new notes is the picture of the Heinz ketchup bottle, not being able to read anything but the word “dumb.” And suddenly I am crying hysterically. Because my stupidity has trapped me once again, crying because the "C" I know I am going to get in this class has trapped me once again, and my loving teacher tries to calm down once again.
“Anna,” she says, “my class is not worth crying over.” And I want to tell her that it is not her class I am crying over. It is not Algebra II that has done this to me. My pain is not her fault. My pain is the fault of my brain. And I want to tell her that I am so disappointed in my own brain. I am disappointed in my brain for trapping itself in its own blockade of stupidity once again. I’m disappointed in myself for still being disappointed in my brain. But I am too busy crying to say any of this. And now the rest of my math class is staring at me. The humiliation only makes me cry harder, only makes me hate my own brain and leaky eyes more, only makes me hate myself more.
It is around here where my therapist would probably make a comment about this “vicious cycle” — she would talk to me about how my anxiety only makes the situation worse, tell me that maybe, if I were a little calmer, I could have heard what the teacher said. “Triggers,” she calls them. They bring the old memories back. The only control I have is in whether I bring back the trauma, give weight to the memories that are stained. The control is in not letting one hard math packet remind me of every other hard math packet.
I tell her I am stupid. I tell her I hate my brain. I tell her I don’t understand why I can’t just understand it. I tell her there is something wrong with me. She says, “What would you say to a friend who is going through this?” And I tell her the correct answer: “Everyone has things they struggle with; this will all make you stronger in the long run.” But I want to say, “Yes, this is what I would tell a friend, but right now my brain feels nothing like my friend.” My brain is my worst enemy. My brain is the one at fault. My brain is the one that makes me drop the minus sign. I want to ask her how a brain makes peace with its own inability. How does it heal from understanding that it — in its very nature — is at fault for its own limitations? My dyslexia has nobody to blame but itself. My dyslexia is the reason for this pain, and this pain is not going anywhere, and all of it is trapped in my mind.
I have written about my dyslexia before. I have told the world about switching schools. I have told the world about the kids who mocked me for not being able to read. I have told the world about how hard it can all be for me, but then I tied the essay in a neat bow of resilience: “But I work really hard, so it’s all better now,” a tie of “Look, it’s worth it in the end, the pain pays off.” But today, I sat in a math class, ruining the ink on the sheet of paper in front of me, and the pain felt nothing like it was paying off. Not even in the slightest.
There is a feeling, when you stare a letter in its face, when you beg it to materialize itself into a sound, when you try to shake it into a word, or a sentence, or something small enough to understand, and the letter stares right back at you — laughing. It is a desire to understand so badly, a desire to hear the stories so badly, yet the stories, the letters, the words want nothing to do with you.
I wanted to read so much that I would pick random books up and come up with stories myself. I thought that pretending to understand would get me by, would trick the teachers into not realizing that the letters materialized into confusion in front of me. I thought this would work. What I didn’t realize was that I was holding the book upside down. Floating letters, you can call it. Fuzzy letters, backward letters — dyslexia is a trap of wanting to understand the world with everything you have, and thinking that you can just fool yourself into hearing another story everyone else will buy into, only to realize you have the greatest tell of all.
In fourth grade, I learned how to read. This triumph became addicting. It was all I did. I read, and I read, and I read faster, and read more books until I reached my highest title: sixth grade, five books in five days. I read both books in the If I Stay series in one night, my dyslexia as close to cured as I thought possible. In seventh grade, I read Lean In during my lunch period every day for a week. By the end of the week, I had my future all lined up in front of me. CEO: Fortune 500 company. I was going to go to Harvard Business School. I was going to be a woman in STEM. If I could read then, I would be able to do all the other hard stuff, right?
Which might be why it stings so much to get a 57 percent back on a math test I spent six hours every night for a week studying for. Maybe it stings because I cannot shake my disability. Maybe it stings because all I can hear myself think is: You will never be Sheryl Sandberg. You will never be a woman in STEM. You will never be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. You can’t even pass a 10th-grade math test.
I get angry at myself: “Anna, why can’t you see the K and H? Why can’t you make sense of the roots? Why can’t you understand that when it is a negative, the fraction flips around? Anna, why are you so stupid? Why can’t you get this? Why can’t you see how important this is to process? Why can’t you process it? How do you think you will ever get into college when you fail an Algebra II math test? How will you get a job when you can’t count on a negative timeline? Anna, how are you so stupid?”
This is when my therapist would probably tell me I have gotten onto a “train”; that I have walked myself onto a downward spiral of self-pity and anger and anguish. And so that is when I start to feel guilty, then disappointed for feeling guilty, disappointed in myself for feeling any of this, disappointed in myself for failing the math test that brought on this panic attack in the first place.
I am still stuck on the same math packet as I was nine years ago. I am still stuck with the same disability. I will always be stuck with this disability.
So, I guess this is where my therapist would ask me how I suggest I learn to live with it. “You are bound together. You might as well befriend her, make peace with her,” she will say. And I’ll try to come up with some sort of fancy answer, one where I try to convince myself it will all work out when really, all I can think is, I do not know.
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