Learning to cope with dysgraphia.

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 owe 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”.

36 Comments

Filed under Autobiographical

36 responses to “Learning to cope with dysgraphia.

  1. Dear Thony,

    This is one of the most courageous pieces I have ever read. Thanks for sharing your life in such intimate detail. I enjoy your blog tremendously; knowing where this all came from makes me appreciate each and every of your writings even more. God bless, Kees-Jan

  2. Hi Tony,
    What a generous thing, to share your experiences with others in the hopes they might benefit from your struggles. I’ve always admired your histsci and histmath scholarship, and now I also admire your character.

    Have you heard the term “twice-exceptional”? It describes folks who are gifted + have learning challenges. One of the key things about this experience is asynchrony in learning. There’s a great database of articles (including dysgraphia) at http://www.davidsongifted.org/db/browse_by_topic_articles.aspx if you’re interested.

    All best,
    jen

  3. Thony…this is a magnificent and courageous post. I think, aside from the mad genius cliches, there is a connection between giftedness, creativity, and being wired a bit differently…not sure if it is lower latency filters or…. I do know that we are all enriched by your blog, which has introduced a rigour in history of science discussions online. Thank you.

  4. THANK YOU! I won’t add anything more, since the previous comments just cover all I would have had to address to you !

  5. Jose Ramon Marcaida

    Great text!! Thank you VERY MUCH for this illuminating post!!

  6. This post of yours certainly explains a lot of things and let me tell you that I struggle with somethings that are very similar to your struggles. What I’m trying to say is that it is about time I face my “weaknesses”.
    Thanks for this post.

  7. Thanks for your honesty and candour.

  8. Great post, Thony, and it’s interesting that the issue that’s caused you difficulties is also the reason for the success of your blog: it’s the fact that you write as you speak that makes your style perfect for blogging!

  9. M Tucker

    “You have to give it away to keep it.”

    Thony, I think that is what you did in this post. Your hard work over a lifetime brought you here, to this blog, for your readers to enjoy. You developed a program to address your issues, as you say this blog is part of that program. To keep the program alive one of the things you must do is share your experience with others. The difference between sharing at an AA meeting and what you did here is to share your experience with everyone, even normal people. That takes a lot of damn guts!

    Thank you for this post. Thank you for this blog. Thank you for your dedication.

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  11. Jeb

    “The fact that my father was a professional ‘archaeologist’ was a nightmare for me. How the fuck do you spell that?”

    I am still coming to terms with the fact I have an interest in ethnoicthyology ( anthropological take on the idea of fish) . Its the most clunky term I think I have come across and I suspect the coiner may not be like myself dyslexic.

  12. johnpieret

    Thony, sorry I’m late to this (life intervenes) …

    If you are not fishing for sympathy, how about admiration? It’s easy enough to walk the straight path most other people do, but to climb mountains they cannot even conceive of and still reach your destination, that takes extraordinary determination. I know Mark and John will be proud that they could and have helped.

  13. An amazing piece, Thony. Even more amazing than usual, I mean. And to think, every time I read one of your posts, I wonder to myself, ‘How does he manage to write so much?’ I’ve been meaning to ask. Now I know.

    When I first began reading your blog (having followed a link from Wilkins), I enjoyed it so much that I went back and read every one of your old posts. I then posted a comment somewhere along the lines of ‘I look forward to your book’. You replied something like, ‘I’m not interested in writing a book’. Now I understand why.

    As usual, I haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, but I still think a Renaissance Mathematicus book is the next logical step. More so than ever. (Let’s face it, most of it is already written.)

    Either way, keep on writing! We need more signal and less noise in the blogosphere—and you’re one of the few still fighting the good fight.

    Holy crap, what an inspirational post!

  14. Benedict Cumberbatch

    Reblogged this on Benedict Cumberbatch.

  15. Dysgraphics Untie! Thank you, brain comrade!

  16. Jeb

    ” 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.”

    I wonder how you survived in the education system in Germany for so long.
    When I got test for dyslexia (finally) which was before entering university the psychologist explained where I was educationally sub normal but also what I was good at (he had disconcertingly laughed at my answers to some of the questions he asked in the I.Q test but seemed to enjoy my responses).

    The last thing he said was “I know what you are academics wont recognize that.” The teaching style at university (if you can even call it that) was “you will be treated the same way as everyone else.”

    The only educational experience I enjoyed was at the Old Vic theatre school. Dyslexic students were almost in the majority and to be dyslexic was a non-issue, I suspect it may be an advanatage.

    University was a nightmare and I know my experience is far from unique.

  17. laura

    I had the test for dyspraxia after sort-of bombing my exams for my MA (I did ok but not relative to what I knew; I had studied really hard). I was borderline on the “not” and never pressed the case; but it was a great experience in part because it taught me how these disorders work psychologically and in part because it convinced me to worry less about written tests in the future. I was much calmer bombing tests during my PhD. Consistently under-performing is extremely frustrating — e.g. teary phone calls to my parents in the middle of the night; breaking down at least once in front of my friends — so I can imagine how frustrating when your processing relative to IQ is even more out of whack.

    • Jeb

      “Consistently under-performing is extremely frustrating”

      Issues are different for everyone. I dipped in exams but with written work I found to my horror (as it contradicted my own self belief) that staff felt I had considerable literary abilities (writing was a slow and torturous nightmare) so I often got the highest marks handed out in arts.

      Issues I felt were not related to the hoop jumping aspects but to how I thought and planned. As I progressed and folks started taking an interest not just in final finished work became really difficult.

      If I followed the advice given I would have failed (not just in terms of mark which does not concern me but quality and originality) as I would have no longer been able to write or plan effectively.

      At p.g level my department inserted a study skills component and class which was a compulsory marked part of the course and staff had no awareness or training that having a learning disability may require using different methods. Raise the issue the answer was “you will be treated the same way as everyone else.”

      I left feeling their was something wrong with how I thought and constructed ideas. Never written properly since.

  18. SpeechPathCesca

    Thank you for this brave piece. As a speech pathologist and mother of a very bright and articulate boy who has dysgraphia (gifted in quite a similar way to you), this was a compelling read. I will be sharing this with teachers and fellow speech pathologists who may be in a position to help children with this specific learning difficulty. You’ve given me renewed courage to advocate on his behalf (and encourage him to do so for himself), and reassure him that the dysgraphia need not be a roadblock to exploring and expressing his unique intellect.

  19. I just ran across some verses Ben Jonson wrote in praise of John Selden, the great English legal scholar and historian. They seemed apropos:

    What fables have you vexed! What truth redeemed!
    Antiquities searched! Opinions disesteemed!
    Impostures branded and authorities urged!
    What blots and errors have you watched and purged
    Records and authors of! How rectified
    Times, manners, customs! Innovations spied!
    Sought out the fountains, sources, creeks, paths, ways,
    And noted the beginnings and decays!

  20. Pingback: Learning to cope with dysgraphia. | Brain Trick...

  21. Ian H Spedding

    If there were ever any doubt about your ability to write then this blog in general and this post in particular are more than sufficient to dispose of it. It is that literary flair that, for a layman like myself, has animated the musty history of early science and mathematics and made it live with an immediacy and clarity that is pedagogy at its best.. The painful candor and eloquence with which you have described your personal experiences is a further testament to that skill as well as to your courage and honesty.

  22. Your post is very enlightening. I have a daughter that was diagnosed as ADD and she has similar problems to what you described, she constructs here ideas very well in her mind, but it is extremely painful for her to write them down. She is terrible at note taking. She just finished grade school and this year one of her teachers gave the kids tons of busy-busy homework, just meant for rote learning. It was dreadful for her. I’m so pleased that school is over and I’m hoping for better teachers next year.

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience and insights with others. I’m going to discuss dysgraphia with her doctor on our next visit.

  23. If I may leave my two cents: I’ve been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome since I was in junior high, and if I may be frank the “assistance” rendered by the school systems in the US is atrocious.

    I personally have mostly had the blessing of attending small private schools which simply didn’t have the resources to provide much “assistance” (a semi-private study hall room, a small measure of understanding, and maybe someone to help me organize myself at the end of the day), but I’ve also seen the terrible toll of the public education system’s mistreatment of Asperger’s syndrome exacted on my brother: to be isolated from classmates, spending half of your day in a dedicated special education classroom; to be deprived of any and all elective class options; to be belittled on a frequent basis by the special education teachers themselves; and to be coddled to the point where all academic achievement feels tainted (including having requirements dropped because half your time is spent in special education). The net effect was to suffocate any academic ambition he might have had. (And it wasn’t like he missed the irony of being constantly assigned historical fiction about racism, sexism, etc. in English class (to the exclusion of Shakespeare, Beowulf, the Illiad, etc.) while being segregated and isolated from his peers, either.)

    I could literally go on for hours, but my point is — sometimes the best solution for a challenge like Asperger’s syndrome isn’t actually assistance at all, and “assistance” itself can often be an obstacle to real improvement. Sometimes, a simple awareness and an understanding of your weaknesses (from yourself and from others), the personal drive to compensate for or improve, and the room in which to improve can be a far more effective remedy.

  24. Jane Rogers

    Thony – just read this blog. Helps to understand a lot which you never mentioned. Love, Jane

  25. Brave Thony–

    Wonderful writing. Thank you for sharing this. I don’t have dysgraphia but I can relate to the pressure of being an intelligent child and feeling like you’ve failed if you didn’t meet the potential required of you (in my case, I’m dylexsic with numbers & math was my worst subject).

    Lots of love,
    Jai

  26. Very helpful post. THank you for being so courageous.

  27. I think it is wonderfully ironic that you have managed to articulate so clearly something that most teachers in higher education just do not understand. It is really helpful for me to be able to show this to colleagues to try to help explain to them what it means to have a specific learning difficulty.

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  29. Thanks for writing this. I particularly liked your explanation of your self-paced progression with writing/typing online.

  30. Kris

    Thanks for sharing, today is my 26th birthday and today, I realised after 26 years that I have dysgraphia. I had the opportunity to recall every bits of my memory which indicated I had this disability from childhood, because of computers this disability was overshadowed…….(I am having pain internally writing these sentences !). Each of your struggle exactly relates to me. Please guide me in becoming better writer.

    Thank you so much again and giving me hope to lead better life.

    I pray your all wishes come true.

    • I’m glad I could be of some help to you, that is why I wrote this post. I can’t guide you in becoming a better writer, you can only guide yourself. All I can tell you is a very trivial truth. The more you practice the better you become, so write, write, write! It gets easier with time so just hang in there.

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  33. johnjmckay

    I suffer from dysgraphia too. For people our age, we were doomed in our early school years. Not only was no help available, none was possible. Normal dyslexia was a controversial idea and not generally accepted till the mid-70s. I went through the same horror of constantly being told I was lazy (John’s bright boy, but…). One of the things I hated most about grade school (besides being regularly beat up) were subjects that required unnecessary writing: social studies classes where we had to write down the question before we could write down the answer and math classes where we had to “show out work.” That last was especially annoying because that was never the way I figured problems out.

    I was able to deal with part of the problem by giving up cursive and becoming very precise in my writing. I could come out of an hour lecture with ten lines of notes. Because I was a good student, people were always asking to borrow my notes and I’d show them a little blob of text that could fit on a 3×5 card. To this day, when I’m writing, running into a ‘p’, ‘d’, or ‘b’ brings me to a complete halt while I figure out where the line and where the loop go. Of course, my spelling was awful. The rules of spelling in English are no help. Over the years, I’ve bludgeoned one word at a time into my head and, now that I’m old, I’m a fairly good speller. And on and on.

    Thanks for talking about this. Most people don’t know about this member of the dys- family.

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