Double jeopardy

Sat, Aug 7, 2010, 01:00

FIRST PERSON:The challenges of dyslexia don’t end when school days are over, especially if you suffer from dyscalculia as well. From negotiating airports to tapping in pin numbers, there are daily nightmares, writes KATY HARRINGTON 

WHEN I WAS six years old, my dad bought me a watch and fastened it to my left wrist. “This,” he said, picking up the hand with the brand new watch, “is your left . . . and this,” pointing to the unadorned wrist, “is your right.”

I loved that watch, not because it had glow-in-the-dark hands (although that helped) and not because it told the time (what does a six-year-old care about time?). I loved it because it was my fail-safe way of telling left from right, something I assume most people come, at some stage, to know instinctively, watch or no watch. More than 20 years later, if I take off my watch, I still get confused.

My dad is dyslexic, my older brother is dyslexic, and so am I. A Department of Education task force defined dyslexia as “learning difficulties related to the acquisition of basic skills in reading, spelling and/or writing”. Dyscalculia, dyslexia’s lesser-known sister, is basically dyslexia with numbers. And I have both. What I have is hard to define. I’m not even sure what to call it. A disorder? A disease? A disability? I do know that disorder causes confusion, disease causes pain, disabilities are a disadvantage, and dyslexia is a confusing jumble of all those things.

Symptoms of dyslexia and dyscalculia are relatively easy to pinpoint. Some of my more prominent problems are with word order and taking notes. My spelling is poor, my handwriting atrocious, and I am incapable of taking down a phone number. I am hopeless with directions, disorganised, sometimes chaotically so, and a terrible timekeeper. As for filling in forms, or typing up a CV, I’d prefer to have teeth pulled. I am particularly awful at mathematics. When I say maths, I don’t mean my knowledge of geometry is a bit sketchy, I mean basic arithmetic. I have great difficulty adding and subtracting even single digit sums in my head, which is hard to admit.

I would hate anyone to see this article before it was spellchecked, formatted and edited within an inch of its life. Typed, it would be unintelligible gibberish; handwritten, it would be illegible, probably even to me. You would probably laugh if you saw how many different ways I may have spelled dyslexia throughout. There’s actually a certain comic irony in the fact that dyslexia itself is so dastardly hard to spell.

I hate holding a pen; it feels awkward (there’s another one of those words I can never spell). My handwriting usually starts well, but if I have to write anything lengthier than a few lines it quickly deteriorates into a sloppy mess. Someone once said that my writing looked like a spider had fallen into a pot of ink and then dragged itself across the page. My typing is not pretty either; a crab could type with more elegance.

In a restaurant, bar or hotel, if I go to use the ladies, I often choose the wrong door, or I turn the wrong way, unable to retrace my steps and go back the way I came. My inability to navigate has gotten me spectacularly lost, both travelling abroad and 20 minutes from my own house.

Scatty, careless, flighty, ditsy and stupid are some of the ways I have been described. But whatever anyone else has called me, believe me, I have called myself worse. Every time I make a mistake, I beat myself up. Dyslexia has made me paranoid that people will think I am stupid and it has made me hypersensitive when corrected.

My war with numbers began with times tables. Five and 10 I could manage, but I still don’t know my six, seven, eight, nine or 12 times tables confidently. And while I’m in a confessional mood, I hate digital clocks, too. If I see a time listed as 21.30, I draw a blank. I confided in a friend once about my aversion to digital time. “Not to worry,” he said, “there is an easy way to figure it out. Just subtract 12, and bingo.” For me, 21 minus 12 is a laborious calculation that requires the use of fingers, so no, not bingo.

My spelling was bad from a young age, but when you are little, mistakes are cute, even comic. Many primary-school copybooks tell stories about my two big “bothers”; maybe I left the “r” out on purpose. If my brothers mocked me about my spelling, who cared? According to my eight-year-old diary, boys were all “idoits” anyway.

For the most part I was a good student. I loved art and history, and especially English, and I was lucky to have two exceptional teachers who introduced me to Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath, William Golding and F Scott Fitzgerald.

Unlike many other dyslexics, reading was not my problem. Maths was. Yet when we were given our first maths textbooks I couldn’t believe my luck – the answers were in the back. For a few weeks, while my classmates glided through the first chapters, I neatly copied the answers from the back of the book, until one day I was asked to show my workings, and the party was over.

My mother is a walking encyclopedia, a human dictionary, a lightning typist, and I have her to thank for my BA in English and sociology. I dictated my essays to her and she handed me back pages and pages of neatly typed essays, which allowed me to enjoy studying the language that I loved without worrying about the parts of academia that I dreaded. I didn’t always get away with it, though, and one American literature professor’s comment about my “sore and tangled expression” has always stuck with me.

After college, I set off to South Korea to travel, work and see the world. I taught English as a foreign language in a school in Seoul and generally had the time of my life. My students were adorable and eager to learn. Mostly we played games and when I had to, I gave them the occasional test.

One particularly bright class of seven-year-old students had to take a spelling test, so I wrote the numbers one to 10 on a sheet of paper for them to take home and study. The next morning, one of my students came to my desk with the sheet of spellings. He had being practising for the test with his father, who had circled one of the spellings I had written, the number eight, which I had put down as “eigth”.

After a year abroad, I returned to begin an MA in Anglo-Irish literature at Trinity College, but within a month began to feel more out of my depth than ever before. With no mum there to help type my assignments, I was in over my head. My first essay came back with a “See me” circled in red. Overcome with worry as I waited outside the lecturer’s office, I thought, this is it, they are going to kick me out of the course and everyone will know. The lecturer explained that the content of my essay was not the problem, in fact most of it was original and showed potential, she said, but she refused to even begin to mark it because of the woeful presentation, rudimentary grammar mistakes and poor spelling.

Distraught, I took her advice to visit a dyslexia specialist. Maybe I was too optimistic about the help I would receive, thinking that the experts would have a magic wand, but I found the experience incredibly disheartening. After a 20-minute test I was told what I already knew, that I was dyslexic, although not severely, and that I also most likely had something called dyscalculia.

I was introduced to a woman who could help with my draft essays before they were submitted. In a room that looked like a kindergarten classroom, with small chairs and finger paintings on the walls, a lady blotted my essay with red circles and arrows. Normally a confident, outgoing 24-year-old, I felt completely dejected. She invited me to return anytime I needed help, but I never did. For the rest of the term, I grew increasingly frustrated. I was angry that I wasn’t doing as well as I could. The comments on my final thesis bore this out – good ideas, poorly executed.

You think once you are finished with education that you are off the hook, no more tests or teachers, but it doesn’t work that way. In my case, my dyslexia got worse with age. Dyslexia makes life hard for children, but it makes it hell for adults. It decimates your confidence and throws up an assault course of daily inconveniences and frustrations.

Airports are a particular logistical nightmare. Once my boyfriend and I took a trip to Rome. After a fantastic weekend, we went to check in for our flight home only to be told that we were not on the system. I had booked the return flights for a different month. Cue the waterworks. I cried because I was angry with myself and felt embarrassed. We got on the flight, but at enormous expense, and all because of my mistake.

Sometimes I wish I could have a break from dyslexia and dyscalculia, but there is no let-up. It is a constant struggle; it is always raining on my parade and some days I think it is ruining my life. Menial tasks become problematic – like entering a pin number. What was wrong with the old system when you just signed your name? Now I have to remember four-digit numbers for every single card? I cannot count the amount of times I have stood in front of the cashier entering the wrong pin until the first, second and third cards are all locked.

For a long time, I have been afraid to ask questions, and even more frightened of the answers. I have done research and taken numerous online tests, all of which confirmed my problem but offered no solutions. Determined not to let dyslexia beat me, I have tried a million exercises, some more successful than others. I got a Nintendo DS with a brain-training game so I could practise my sums in the hope of improving my maths. That never happened, so I invested in a new game, Mario Kart, which thankfully doesn’t make me feel stupid. Other tactics have worked better, like trying not to get worked up if I make a mistake, using the calculator on my phone, calling numbers back as I write them down, and taking a Xanax if I have to go within a mile of an airport.

Above all else, the single most helpful thing has been simply accepting what I have and understanding that dyslexia, difficult as it is to define, does not define me.