Today is the fifth anniversary of the emergence of The Renaissance Mathematicus in cyberspace. Those five years have seen the appearance of more than five hundred post and many thousands of words, all of which signals a partial conquest of a lifelong genetic writers block.
I have contemplated writing this post many, many times in the last couple of years but have always drawn back from the abyss. There are several reasons for my reluctance to write this post. First and foremost is the fear of, at least partially, baring my soul in front of a substantial number of readers most of whom I don’t know and have never met. Then there is the fear that this post will be misunderstood, as a very public piece of self-pity and that by writing it I’m just fishing for sympathy, which is far from the truth. Another fear is that I will be accused of grandstanding, look at all that I have had to suffer aren’t I amazing for coping with all this disadvantage. Once again nothing could be further from the truth. I am writing this in the vain hope that at least one person who reads it and suffers from similar mental problems will find some consolation in realising that they are not alone and maybe develop the right strategies to avoid some of the hell that I have lived through.
How to begin? “Begin at the beginning,” […] “and go on till you come to the end: then stop”, as the King told Alice.
I’m a walking cliché! There’s a rather bad joke about children:
First mother: “My child is a genius.”
Second mother: “How can you tell?”
First mother: “He can’t spell.”
For those that don’t understand it, it plays on the claim that many highly gifted children suffer from so-called learning difficulties. I’m that child. I was recognised as being at least above average intelligence, if not actually highly gifted, whilst still at primary school (that’s grade school for American readers) and jumped not one but two classes – grades – at the age of eight and was still the top of the class in my new one. There was only one small problem with this situation, I was functionally illiterate. The proverbial drunken spider was a calligraphy master in comparison to me, still is to some extent. My grasp of the rules of grammar of the English language was non-existent and I couldn’t spell. At the age of eleven I still had major problems spelling my own family name. The fact that my father was a professional ‘archaeologist’ was a nightmare for me. How the fuck do you spell that? All of this despite the fact that I had been teaching myself most subjects for several years by then, as I was so far ahead of my classmates. Nowadays I would almost certainly be recognised as suffering from a learning difficulty and receive the appropriate therapy. However in the dim and distant days of the nineteen fifties learning difficulties didn’t exist and I was just labelled as being lazy, “with your intelligence you should be able to spell/write/whatever with no problems” or words to that effect. The result of all this was that I gave up on school in general and writing in particular when I entered grammar school.
The result of this withdrawal was a steady decline in my scholastic achievements. My grades and my exam results degenerated over the years but my above average intelligence kept me afloat despite the lack of effort. I still managed a reasonably good set of O-levels and a very ropy set of A-levels. In my teens I became a nicotine addict and began a long career of drug abuse. Although I didn’t know it at the time this is fairly standard self-medication for people suffering from the problems that I had. My A-level year saw me stoned out of my mind almost every day and tripping up to three times a week. That my A-levels were ropy and not non-existent is a minor miracle. Despite almost non-existent A-levels I still managed to go to university to study archaeology (I still couldn’t spell it!) and spent a strained academic year taking drugs, working in theatre, and trying to avoid writing essays, which activity was more than a nightmare for me. All the way through school and this one-year at university I always had the feeling that everybody else was on a different set of rails to the ones I was travelling on. I learnt but in a totally different way, at a totally different pace, and in a totally different order to everybody else, or so it seemed to me. Exams were a nightmare I usually knew far more than my fellow students but not necessarily the facts or knowledge required for the particular exam in question. After one year of this I quit. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do; I just knew it wasn’t what I was doing.
I spent the next years doing an assortment of things, working as a field archaeologist, theatre technician, carpenter, electrician etc. etc. Anything as long as it didn’t involve having to write. In 1976/77 I spent six months living in Sweden and discovered first the philosophy of mathematics, I’d been teaching myself the history of mathematics since I was sixteen, then the philosophy of science. This awakened my desire to re-join the world of academia and in 1977 I tried to go back to university to study philosophy, my interview was a disaster (they always are!) and I got rejected. The next year I had my first major mental breakdown. With hindsight I think the two events were not unrelated. I went through about eighteen months of severe mental instability stumbling from one crisis to the next. I never considered getting treatment because I belonged to the generation who regarded both psychology and psychiatry with not just scepticism but open scorn; again with hindsight possibly the biggest mistake of my entire life.
In 1980 I moved to Germany, it wasn’t planned it just happened. Wanting to learn German I applied for a German as a foreign language course at the local university and got told I would first have to apply for a regular university course in order to be eligible for the language course, so having decide that it might be time to resume my interrupted education I applied to study maths and philosophy and got accepted.
I spent the next ten years at university first studying maths and philosophy and then later philosophy, English philology and history doing my best to choose courses where I only had to do a minimum of written work. By now I was a mature student and alongside a full course of studies I was working twenty hours a week in a research project, my apprenticeship in the history of science, and a twenty to thirty hour week outside of the university in a cultural centre. Along with this workload, I was living on nicotine, drugs and alcohol and before long I had a serious alcohol addiction problem. Just to make everything a little crazier I still couldn’t write, couldn’t spell and was still trundling along on the wrong set of rails. For many years I lived in a state of deep clinical depression, without recognising the symptoms, I just knew that I felt totally shitty most of the time, and suffered from severe bouts of anxiety. I was not in a good space. The bizarre thing was that I was actually very good in both my work and my studies. Of course this could not go on and at the end of the eighties I came off the rails completely.
I spent four months in a mental hospital getting rid of my alcohol habit and taking the first faulty steps to coming to terms with my mental illness. When I came out I gave up my formal studies, I couldn’t give up my work, I had to eat and pay the rent, and something had to go. Strangely, although I was no longer drinking and had vastly reduced the stress load in my life and I was also in outpatient therapy and an eager member of the AA, my mental health did not improve it got worse.
Two years later I went back into mental hospital for a month and started looking for the first time for the root problems behind my depressions and other symptoms. I spent a lot of time in outpatient therapy making slow progress but not really coming to the root of the problem; suffering several severe depressive episodes over the next years. I was heading towards fifty and seemed consigned to a life of mental illness. Around the year 2000 I chanced to read an article about Asperger’s syndrome and lots of the descriptions of the behaviour of Asperger’s children seemed uncomfortably familiar to me. I started researching. I soon realised that although quite a lot of the symptoms of Asperger’s seemed to apply, several key factors didn’t. However in the course of my researches I came across various things that display similar symptoms and can get confused with Asperger’s and here I struck gold. I won’t go into details about what was a fairly long and stressful process but in the end it turned out that I’m a sufferer from a high-level adult ADD (non-hyperactive, I’m a daydreamer) and dysgraphia. Both have been properly diagnosed by medical experts and are not just the product of Google university, although I will admit that Google university proved very useful along the way. The ADD explains why I always had the feeling that I was travelling along different tracks in educational institutions; the simple explanation is I was! Adults with ADD learn differently to ‘normal ‘ people and the education system is conceived for the normals. The one that really blew me away was the dysgraphia.
Throughout my life I had been aware that I displayed similar symptoms to dyslexics, however dyslexia is always primarily described as a reading difficulty and I have never in my life had difficulty reading, in fact just the opposite, I have lived most of my life with my nose stuck in a book. I even used to read whilst riding my bike as a kid. There was no way that I was dyslexic. I had never heard of dysgraphia then one day during my medical research around the subject of Asperger’s I came across dysgraphia, which was described as a malfunction of that part of the brain that processes writing, and read the following fateful phrase, “trying to write when you suffer from dysgraphia is like trying to empty out an ocean with a garden hose!” If you haven’t experienced it you probably can’t understand what that sentence meant to me. I can compose whole books in my head, I can lecture on a given topic for two hours without notes and the number of given topics I can do that on is vast but up to ten years ago given a pen and a piece of paper getting one halfway coherent sentence out was a horror and a torture, which I was happy to forego. The same article that delivered the eye-opening sentence also contained two pieces of practical advice. Firstly writing with a keyboard is motorically different to writing with a pen and most dyslexics and dsygraphics find it easier. I can’t speak for anybody else but I certainly do. However it was the second piece of advice that led to the breakthrough and in the end to the fact that you are reading this. Dysgraphia is a disturbance of the part of the brain that processes writing but not the part that processes speech. I can talk! I can talk the hind leg off that proverbial donkey; in fact people who know me know the problem is to stop me talking. Remember those note-free lectures? I can go on without drawing breath for an eternity. The solution to my problem is so simple that the real question is why I didn’t think of it earlier. I can’t write but I can talk, so I don’t write I dictate! I am quite literally a narrative historian. I formulate everything that I write in my brain as a lecture and then dictate it to myself. It means I have a somewhat unorthodox style of writing but it works.
This didn’t happen overnight. I had spent forty years of my life developing a pathological fear of writing, ashamed to admit that I was a highly intelligent adult with the writing abilities of a mentally handicapped teenager. You don’t shrug that off overnight. What helped me was the Internet. I started off on music forums. I can remember the first two-sentence comment I sent on its way with a tremulous click of my mouse. Over time I progressed to one hundred then two or even three hundred word comments, each of which was hard work and very time consuming but I was writing. I then started to discover science blogs. Mark Chu-Carroll’s Good Math/Bad Math was the first, followed some time later by John Wilkins’ Evolving Thoughts. I started to comment here and there and with time the comments grew longer and more fluid. John, to whom I owe an un-payable debt, invited me to write a guest post. I was scared shitless, I sweated blood but I wrote one and it met with a positive resonance. I wrote a couple more and also a couple for Will Thomas at Ether Wave Propaganda. Then came the big step my own blog. I was terrified and convinced that it wouldn’t last longer than six weeks.
Writing was still far from easy and fear was never very far away when I sat down at the keyboard to write, however I persevered and with time things improved. At the beginning to write five hundred words exhausted me and left me feeling like I had just run a marathon, also if I failed to bring something I was writing to a conclusion I was incapable of going back later to finish it. It was always all or nothing. If I started something I had to finish it with the momentum that I had started with or it was doomed. I still have a fairly large collection of unfinished posts. With time and experience the posts got longer, I found anger to be a good motivator, which partially explains the HIST-SCI-HULK style posts for which I have become somewhat notorious. A major breakthrough was being able to stop writing something and to come back the next day to finish it. When that happened I knew that I had crossed a major threshold. On a good day I can now write between two and three thousand words at a siting and writing longer pieces in instalments is no longer a problem. I won’t say that writing is easy for me now, it’s still very hard work and I really need a good proof reader to catch all the mistakes but compared to ten years ago there is no comparison. Learning to write, being able to express myself in print, if only in cyber space, has worked wonders with my mental health problems. For most of my life I lived an internal conflict I was a natural born academic who couldn’t write, a situation that made me very ill for a substantial part of my life. I own the Internet, computer correction programmes, the people who encouraged me and all the people who have read my feeble outpourings over the last five years a debt that I can never repay and that’s the main reason for this post.
If you suffer from similar learning difficulties or mental problems get help! Don’t be ashamed to ask, do it! If you know a child or an adult with similar learning or mental problems help them! Don’t let them suffer! The last five years of this blog have been a small but very precious recompense for all the years of mental anguish that I suffered and my only regret is that I didn’t discover the solution to my problems earlier. The AA has a saying, “being ill is not a reason to feel ashamed, doing nothing about it is.”
I’m on record as having said that my favourite philosopher is Kurt Vonnegut, people think that I’m joking and although it is said somewhat tongue in cheek it is meant seriously. One of my favourite Vonnegut pearls of wisdom is, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood”. My version would be “It’s never too late to learn to cope with your learning difficulties”.