I am dyslexic. 10% of the world is like me so not very special but for this post, I’m actually not here to talk about Dyslexia among general populous but about my moment of discovering this about myself which then lead to a multi-day rabbit hole of self-discovery because I had to basically understand everything about it. It’s sort of like discovering you’re actually left-handed after 36 years of writing with your right because you were forced (common in older southern households). It’s been nothing short of mind-blowing.
I’ve always been special.
I have fond memories of being 6-12 years old and understanding maps really well. I knew street names, locations, where to to turn left and right. It was sort of a party trick among older folks to put me in a car and ask me how to get certain places and I’d just take them there. I could easily read, understand and navigate maps with great precision. Then there’s my ability to work with complex yet visual problems and work through those with ease like solving puzzles or my acute awareness of time down to the second. I’ve always been a good time-keeper and always knew what time it was even without a watch. These are skills I still hold dearly today. Navigation, visuals and time-keeping.
Yet, these traits are actually not quite important as my now growing list of all of the ways I coped and navigated being a contributing member of society but also being Dyslexic. Dyslexia is is not a condition that turns you into a second-class citizen. It has clearly explained to me why I have succeeded and how.
First, I thought that dyslexia was a disability that caused those affected to read and write things out of order. That was the extent of my understanding. This may be one aspect of dyslexia but it’s not the entire story. Dyslexia is a result of how our brains function and how we associate things to other things. You can also become dyslexic following trauma to the brain. Dyslexia affects people in different ways. It is classified as a learning disability. Of the various sub-categories of the disability, my dyslexia includes Surface, Rapid Naming and Attentional issues. Of the symptoms I’ve exhibited from a young age, I’ve been victim to these:
- Poor reading comprehension
- Problems with pronouncing words
- Letter reversal
- Mirror/“backward” writing
- writing difficulties
- confusing letters with each other
- Slow reading
- Poor spelling
I know many of you long-time readers have been very aware of my issues with spelling on this blog. Anything autocorrect doesn’t fix will stand out to you. I gave up proofreading my blog posts because I don’t see the errors I make easily. For work, as it matters MUCH more, I read my writings many times before hitting the send key usually returning to a Slack post hours later to edit it slightly to make better sense.
When I was young, I would regularly write letters backwards, read an entire page of a book not knowing what I read and even now, I insert words into text that aren’t there and then think “that sentence didn’t mention Christmas” and I was right, it didn’t. I just put it there.
How did I discover my disability? Watching a YouTube video VOX produced about Dyslexia. I watched it and sat for 5 minutes in disbelief forgetting to breathe or swallow as a fun video spoke to me and clarified my 36 years of feeling dumber than everyone else. Smart in some ways but overall, dumb. That’s how I viewed myself…as lesser than everyone else academically. This now-shattered knowledge about myself drove so much of my psyche and identity. Feeling dumb was me and how I navigated the world. The need to prove myself, work harder than others, study harder, promote my ideas, create, it was all driven by this truth.
My high school graduation with a 2.94 GPA where I barely finished school or the 4 years of Liberal Arts Math they put me in instead of giving me Algebra, Trigonometry or Calculus. There was the entire senior year spent volunteering in the media center or graphic arts department because I was good at computers and them letting me coast by to graduation. So many teachers and my parents would say “you’re so smart, you must be so smart that you don’t want to try in school” School was VERY hard for me. Everything about it was a challenge except the time I spent on computers and yet instead of being tested (1990-2004), offered a tutor, being put in a class for folks with a learning disability or provided any resources or tools, I was allowed to just check-out and dive into technology. When I elected to not take my SATs after studying all summer and getting a bottom 15% on the practice exam, everyone said that was fine and never pushed me. In school I excelled at creative writing, information technology, yearbook, web design, video production and photography and unfortunately, none of these were classes. They were all clubs and my grades suffered greatly. None of my hobbies required reading comprehension or writing with a pen/pencil.
I haven’t read a book since 10th grade and I use audio books exclusively but only on non-fiction subjects, never fiction. My love for film and movies far exceeds books at a factor of 1000x. When it came time to get professional certifications, I felt like I had to work harder than everyone else. I don’t understand the concept of cramming for a test, nor do I know how. I have to live and breathe the content for months, even a year to pass. When I finally got a few technical certifications from Apple and Microsoft, my peers would say “took you long enough” as if I had slacked off. Those were really difficult to get and it was a subject I loved.
When I wrote my name in the sand at a family beach trip as AbAM instead of AdAM, everyone laughed. I didn’t understand why were laughing until they pointed it out.
What was an emotionally difficult situation from age 5 to around 25 isn’t anymore. After turning 25, I chose to channel energy into things I loved and avoid things that gave me the most challenges. This is a form of coping. Everything I’ve done in life has been coping with my disability without ever knowing.
How did I cope as a person with dyslexia all of this time? How did I get by and become someone who is successful? I’ve been the subject and featured in 4 published books, one of which around becoming something from nothing and another for a business case against going to college. I’ve lived in six states, completely skipped college and wear my sub-3.0 primary school grade average on my sleeve like a badge of honor when in reality, I have never stopped feeling like a failure. I’m always competing with myself to be better every single day because I always feel like everyone is smarter and more intelligent than me.
Coping comes in many forms but here a few I’ll highlight. It may help someone out there suffering from dyslexia:
First, I cut grass all summer in 7th grade and bought a new iBook in 8th grade with an AirPort card so I could connect to my school’s Wi-Fi network and I network printed everything. From 8th grade on, the only thing I had to do with a pencil was write my name and take tests. Moving to an entirely digital workflow at a young age allowed me to look smarter, folks could read my typing way easier than my leftie/backward handwriting and I was always first to get assignments done so I could focus on scripting and blogging and other pastimes. I probably would not have finished high school if I didn’t have access to technology.
Also at a young age, around 2001 I got a Palm Treo and religiously kept my calendars on it. I later replaced this with an iPod (2002) and Blackberry (2004) then iPhone in 2007. What was happening is I’d miss every single event even if I really cared about it. I had earned a reputation of going to school on teacher work days or missing important dates or times. My dad would drive me to school, drop me off and there was no one there and I’d hang out in the library all day waiting for him to pick me up because it was a teacher work day. I spent the first and last days of Spring break on campus one year thinking we had school when we didn’t. I missed dances, homework deadlines and couldn’t plan out incremental daily time each day to make progress on an assignment due in a month or two. So, calendaring / note taking became my way of keeping up with the fast-paced life of a high schooler who also had two toddler sisters at home, parents that worked 60 hour days and 6 days a week at the gym helping my dad teach classes. I’ve been using Microsoft / Apple calendars since I was 12 years old. My parents weren’t techie and didn’t need a calendar but I did. I was the only person in school with a laptop and a Blackberry. I was the nerd.
Another by-product of being different was that I never really made time for friends. I asked a girl to prom and her response while walking away was “I thought you were a queer”. That casual response still breaks my heart 20 years later not because of the shame of being a homosexual but because that’s not what I was. I was just…different. I was quiet and always in my head or laptop pouring over things to keep up and yet always falling behind. Scrambling to finish a homework assignment on my laptop right before a class because my calendar didn’t remind me. I had no friends. We also moved a lot where I was in 8 different schools from 1st grade to 12th so what was the use of making friends and besides, I was always doing poorly on grades so I didn’t really have time to hang out with folks or go to sporting games.
For reading essential digital text, I’ve been using Bionic Reading for maybe 15 years in some form. There were early versions of this and I’m so glad to have it integrated across much of my platforms. I don’t need it for writing but it’s essential for reading. Any reading application that adopts it becomes an indispensable part of my workflow. I’d love to see it added to captions on videos and inbound emails on iOS and Mac. I want a system-wide Bionic reading extension for MacOS.
Coping also included a heavy reliance on using calculators. I honestly to this day cannot tell you my times-tables and I was never taught Algebra or any advanced math. Everything about math I’ve forgotten except the math I need to do my job which I get to exercise daily. Math is memorization and patterns and it’s something that a person with dyslexia may have an issue with. Calculators, even when not allowed in school I still snuck in to get things done. I hid this well from my teachers and yet I still was put into a math remediation program to get me to graduate on-time.
I was a morning person. I didn’t know this was a dyslexic trait but I have always been excited to start my day. I don’t use an alarm clock and I wake up ready to hit the ground running and after 4-5 hours of productivity, I’m reaching burn out and need time to reset. At hour 8-10, I’m fully done and mostly veg-out turning off nearly all sensory load at night. Dark rooms, turned down screens, closed curtains. I need to unplug. I’m not anxious, just overloaded. I’ve never needed any therapy or prescriptions for depression or anxiety but I do get sensory overloaded.
I was also easily distracted by anything which is related to the above. I remember how upset my parents were that I was so distracted by a school’s pencil sharpener than reading and comprehending a book assignment. Sound isolating headphones were a godsend. I got them at 15 years old and wore them all of the time. This tuned me out to the world but allowed me to function from the 7:15AM bus until the 3:30PM drop off back at the house. I isolated the world out so I could focus and get through the day.
…and today I’m now successfully employed as a person with dyslexia. it turns out that being really good with computers at a young age but never gaining the skills like math, tutoring or going to college meant I would never be a computer programmer / engineer as I had dreamed to be and was at a younger age doing web design and basic scripting. Instead, I ended up being an excellent project / program manager. It wasn’t a career I chose but was instead hired for by someone who saw that potential in me 15 years ago. I have tried to learn programming every few years but as soon as I get into the math side of things, I hit a total wall having never learned fundamentals so ‘engineer’ is never a title I’ll get to have. I make a good SysAdmin / Network administrator and can navigate AWS but the simplest LeetCode example looks like Spanish (one of the many foreign languages I wanted to learn but was unable to get beyond the fundamentals).
Having excellent skills with computers means developing an environment on every computer where I was best equipped to thrive and to also be an avid note-taker, action-taker, calendar-organizer and person who loves and organizes data as well as sees the patterns and makes it visual helped me to become a program manager. It wasn’t some overnight success and took experience and hard work but from writer to IT professional to sales, retail, management, founder, marketer, storyteller, speaker, social media personality, videographer, podcaster, real estate agent and photographer, I proudly embrace Program Manager as my career and something that gives me a LOT of satisfaction and joy. My dreams are still bigger but it’s a skill, even with the rise of AI and Bots that I’ll be able to fall back on for many years. Making a career as a non-college-educated, barely high school graduate in high-technology as a program manager and being really freaking good at it is all thanks to both having Dyslexia and developing coping mechanisms 25 years ago in support of this career.
I can still do any of those jobs listed above as they each require some of what I do every day in program management but I really have found my footing as someone who is a program manager first and as a dyslexic individual second.
If you are dyslexic or raising / teaching a young person with dyslexia, there are hundreds of scientifically backed resources out there that do help. Left to their own devices, most dyslexics will be just like me. They’ll fall behind, try to cope and you can only hope they’ll discover something that plays to their strengths. If not, well, it’s going to be a tough life because dyslexia is not rewarded in most settings. When I was a commercial truck driver for a Summer and also building decks, I was honestly a danger to myself an others. That was one job that didn’t play to my strengths, nor did working at a restaurant as a cook or waiter. I need process and to be able to map out what’s coming next. Without that, I’m going to fall way behind.
I was active in full combat martial arts from age 2 to 21 and while I was technically proficient, a natural leader and well-respected by folks twice my age, I needed time and strategy to have an advantage on my opponents. I lacked the reaction time mentally to see a threat and combat it. However, dozens of times I fought for upwards of 90 minutes against rangers, seals and private security folks and always came out on top. Dyslexia gives me that ability to see patterns and recognize them but it takes me a little bit longer than others and the one thing that dyslexia has taught me is perseverance. I don’t give up.
It was my intention to make this post two blog entries but here we are, 2300 words later and I’m proudly dyslexic. It’s me and there’s nothing I can do to cure it but I wouldn’t want to. It has made me who I am.
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