Wednesday 03-12-2014 - 16:11
I released this blog this time last year, and I feel my story, whilst I’ve become more confident in sharing it, hasn’t changed since then, so I’m going to tell it again. When I released this blog last year, it was the first time I’d really publicly addressed my disability, and the reaction was overwhelming. It helped me to really be proud of this part of me that makes me truly me, and I hope that by sharing it again it can help others to begin their own conversations.
This is a guest article by Beth Button – President of NUS Wales.
I’ve decided to start this story with the basics, who I am. My name’s Beth, I’m 23, I’m the President of NUS Wales, my favourite food’s pizza and I have a pet tortoise.
Oh, and I’m mildly dyslexic and have received treatment for depression.
I realised that this blog doesn’t need to, and shouldn’t need to, start with a grandiose declaration about why I’m telling my ‘story’, or about how I live my life, I just need to tell you a bit about me, as that’s what a disability is- it’s not a problem, or something to be fixed, it’s part of who we are and what makes us “us”. And, just like us, disabilities come in many shapes and sizes, and can affect people in different ways. So whilst I was initially apprehensive about writing this blog, as I didn’t feel that my disability was as ‘significant’ as others’, or that it maybe wouldn’t come with an as inspirational story as others, I have come to realise that whilst my disability might not manifest itself in the same way as the next person, they’re all worth celebrating. And that’s what this blog will be, a celebration of just one part of what makes me, me.
It wasn’t until year 10 that I got myself diagnosed for dyslexia. And when I say I got myself diagnosed, I really did get myself diagnosed, as I went to see the learner support staff in my school and asked them to assess me. It wasn’t that there hadn’t been support from my parents or the school, and so I’d had to take matters into my own hands, it was that the symptoms and struggles I’d been presenting didn’t fit what you’d stereotypically expect dyslexia to look like, so it was more that it went undiagnosed. My mum had noticed my difficulties with capital letters, and I had received speech therapy due to an inability to formulate some letters and words, but it was assumed that as I was a competent reader, it couldn’t have been dyslexia.
It was only when I realised that my inability to perform in memory based assessment, or my difficulties with short answer exam questions could be due to more than just personal ability and asked to be tested did everything make sense. Dyslexia is often just thought of as having difficulties with reading and spelling, but I had always been a very competent reader, and although my use of capital letters still remains appalling, my dyslexia tends to affect my thought processes and retention more. This means that I really struggle with thinking through logical things in my head, for example recognising patterns, spelling things out loud, or doing mental maths; as my brain struggles to make coherent sense of the numbers or question I tend to panic. As such, even though my teachers and parents picked up on the difficulties I had throughout school, we didn’t think to get myself tested, as they weren’t what you’d expect from a child with dyslexia.
As well as being mildly dyslexic, I also have mild dyscalculia (it’s a bit mean having such a hard word to spell for something to do with dyslexia!). Dyscalculia is a condition that’s sort of like dyslexia for numbers, it affects people’s abilities to solve mental problems, especially arithmetic. Not much is known about dyscalculia, and I didn’t have it diagnosed at first, as it’s quite hard to test for, but nearly 50% of those diagnosed with dyslexia will also show signs of dyscalculia. Interestingly, it was my music teacher when I was young who first suggested my potential dyscalculia, as I used to struggle with the patterns of the scales and reading music.
Getting myself diagnosed was like having a huge weight lifted off my shoulders; I now had an explanation for why I struggled to read aloud, or with mental maths- it was because my thought processes aren’t as fast as normal, but I realised that it’s okay, and it wasn’t that something was wrong with me, but that the way I was learning wasn’t enabling me to learn in the best way possible for me to succeed. And that’s the most important thing about celebrating disabilities- everyone is different, and we shouldn’t just be enabling people to manage and get by on a day to day basis, we should be enabling people to succeed to the best of their ability, through adapting to their needs, not expecting people to fit into a pre set model.
Once diagnosed, I received an incredible amount of support from my school and parents, both in resources and adaptions to my learning. However there would still be elements of school that proved difficult, such as the large focus on memory based assessment that occurs in secondary school, where I’d struggle with short assessments where you needed to just regurgitate instant facts and figures. But that’s just a little bug bearer I have with the way we assess at school and the fact it doesn’t adapt for the variations in learning styles.
Whilst I have learnt how to adapt the way in which I learn in order to succeed, there are still ways in which my disability affects my daily life. I suck at map reading, I struggle dealing with money, if someone asks me anything to do with maths, I freeze up. Even this morning, I had to spell my address out on the phone and just couldn’t think of the order in which the letters came- whilst I can learn strategies to cope, my brain will always struggle with these sort of mental processes. Whilst I’m a very competent reader and enjoy reading, if anyone asks me to read something from a page, I trip up. It’s why I much prefer to just talk around a subject when I give presentations or do speeches, rather than try and read off a sheet of paper or repeat exact facts. In fact I’ve recently realised that the reason I struggle with doing TV interviews or media stuff is because I focus too much on trying to repeat the exact ‘line’ , or phrases that we’ve come up with, and when my brain’s too slow for my mouth and I can’t formulate the right words, I panic. But all of this just means that I recognise where something isn’t working for me, and I change it. Because having a disability isn’t about trying to adapt yourself to meet a certain standard or style, it’s about changing the things around you in order to enable you to succeed.
As well as adapting to my dyslexia, in the later years of school I was also dealing with depression. Talking about your mental health has become such a taboo subject, that when asked to write this blog I was hesitant, as it’s opening up a very personal part of my life, but just like my dyslexia, it’s what makes me who I am.
We all have physical health, and we all have mental health. We can all get physically ill, and because this is often external, it’s easier to explain to people. Explaining to someone that actually, you’re just not feeling great is a lot harder, as you feel the need to justify or explain why you’re feeling sad, when often you yourself cannot explain what’s making you feel that way.
Often, depression isn’t triggered by anything, or sometimes it’s the result of personal experience. For me, I’ll always remember my depression linked very closely with my identity and self esteem, but it’s hard to know whether it was a change or loss of identity that triggered the depression, or if the depression resulted in a change in self-perception. Either way, my depression is very much linked to the way I see myself and how I fit in with those around me. At some point, I lost sight of who I was, I no longer felt like ‘me’, and struggled socially to keep a façade of being okay- I went through the motions but would come home exhausted by trying to keep the mask from slipping all day, and would crumble. I would shut myself away, tired and unexplainably sad, struggling to work out how I had gone from being confident and social to feeling like I didn’t belong and that I wasn’t the person I used to be, constantly angry at myself for feeling that way, but not knowing how to shake those feelings.
Depression made me alter the way I saw myself and the world, and what I saw, I didn’t like. I became very disillusioned with my perception of myself, i wasn’t happy with who I was or my identity, and my self esteem suffered. I had bad days and I had very bad days, I hurt myself and through that, hurt those around me. But, I received help through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which enabled me to examine why I saw myself and things the way I did, recognise what it was that triggered my feelings of worthlessness, to stop and examine why, and start to think differently about my world. It forced me to re-examine why I got nervous around social situations, and to stop, breath, and look at the situations in a fresh light, enabling me to realise that a lot of my fears were unjustified, and I had nothing to worry about. This in turn saw my confidence and self esteem increase, as I became more self assure in my identity, stopped trying to be someone I wasn’t and was able to embrace and love myself once more.
Just like your physical health, your mental health is part of who you are - It’s part of who I am, and my mental health will always be changing. Some days will be better than others, but I genuinely believe I wouldn’t be where I am now without this part of me. It allowed me to go through a real change in who I was, which enabled me to have confidence in myself and not try and be something I’m not. By accepting this, I was able to throw myself into my life at uni, and all the geeky extra curricular things that have led to my current role; and like my dyslexia, my depression will always be a part of who I am, I will never see it as a problem or negative phase in my life, but a part of me that’s made me who I am today.