What It Has Been Like to Learn That I Have a Nonverbal Learning Disability

    First, I have experienced my new diagnosis as having a nonverbal learning disability as relief and grief. This reaction consisted of dominantly more relief. My life of mysterious struggle was finally confirmed. My learning disability specialist, at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, unraveled more of my life, every time I saw her for follow-up sessions. This explained the reason for almost all of my overwhelming life difficulties; educationally, vocationally, socially, and most of all in the tasks of everyday living. This new awareness coupled with the highly rewarding friendships, which I have made at the clinic, has initiated a process of forgiving myself for everything in my life for the first time. Forgiving myself for this so called tremendous burden has brought me to a place of finally beginning to like myself.

    I always felt that I had an incapacitating difficulty with learning in all aspects of life but nobody ever believed me. My beliefs were undermined by friends, family, and professionals and never confirmed sufficiently by diagnostic testing until this current time in which I am now 36 years old. Other people's reactions were " You talk good" so it is not possible for you to have any of your abilities be any less impressive than the consistently articulate manner in which you present verbally.

    My awareness of the problem began in 7th grade when school became drastically more demanding. One example of this was, memorizing the parts and functions or the brain and heart in science class. From that point on, I was convinced that my learning difficulties stemmed from serious problems in concentration. That was all I knew. I studied 5 hours a night in Jr.and Sr.High-School and never procrastinated. I avoided procrastination because assignments took extreme amounts of time for me. My memory was so impaired that I needed a bottomless pit of repetition to pass my classes. I began studying for each test, reading each piece of literature, and beginning each paper the day it was assigned. I am not sure if college was harder or easier, but I spent even more hours daily studying, including several Friday and Saturday nights. If college was any easier; it was only because you had a more vast choice of what to study. This made it more interesting and seeming to have slightly more value to bothering with the extremely hard work. In college, since you could select your courses, I found ways to make choices which were resourceful and of a survivalist in nature. These options were not available at the high school level.

    I had a sense, that if I did not try 10 times as hard as everyone else that I would fail. I asked Trudy (my learning disability specialist and diagnostician if I would have failed if I had not tried so terribly and excessively hard: (opened my mailbox to a report card full of F's every semester), she said "yes" and had no doubts about it. I felt my correct hunch about this was truly fascinating! It is really nice to be correct about what you believe strongly in.  As the chronic overachiever, which I have been and with my intense persistence, I got mostly B's and some A's for my outrageously beyond normal efforts. The only year in high school in which I was not able to achieve B's and A's and occasional C was 10th grade. I got all C's and D's my sophomore year because the coursework was predominantly nonverbal during that grade in school. It consisted of Geometry, Biology, and study of the nonwestern world in Social Studies. In Spanish, tenth grade coursework consisted of reading more advanced Spanish novels. Verbal abilities such as reading are affected negatively in a nonverbal learning disability when the material is at an increased complex level. I tried just as hard that year as I ever did. One of my well meaning Ivy League Bound friends responded to my poor grades that year and said "You better watch out or you may end up attending Pace or Westchester Community College." Although, I started college at the four-year institution; University of Rhode Island, Kingston and spent most of my college years at and graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder; I happen to think highly of community colleges. They may not carry a lot of silly prestige, but have you ever looked at the course catalogue of a community college as opposed to a four-year undergraduate school? Have you noticed that community college coursework is more practical, less theoretical and generally more appropriate training for what you would actually do in a job.

    Unfortunately, several employers expect prospective employees to have completed that 4+ year theoretical endurance test in subjects of which "Yes it will make you a more well rounded, highly educated person (if you bothered to listen and do your homework between keg parties). But if you did not major in medicine, computers, engineering or a few other marketable subjects, what do you do with that piece of paper, which is probably a little thicker than your high school diploma? I am getting sarcastic, but fellow friends whom graduated with me have blown up their degrees, framed them and taped job rejection notices to them. This is popular amongst the crowd who earned 4-6 year BA degrees in subjects that fall under Arts and Sciences and Humanities.

    I now want to begin to discuss a variety of subjects that affected my life significantly with this severe diagnosis that took 36 years to have been described, documented, and explained and confirmed for me. This is an opportunity for me to let you know how it feels to finally have my problems understood,  believed and confirmed. Additionally, how this leads to tremendous new hope and a 97 better prognosis for my life. Talking to you about the help and resources available assists all of us even those who are not close with anyone they know who has the disorder.

    First, I will present some of my history (my bio-documentary) and how NVLD and a nonspecified developmental disorder (oh, didn't I mention, I just got diagnosed with that also.) has presented itself in my childhood, adolescent and adult life. Remember learning disabilities don't disappear at 18 on high school graduation day. I have in a sense just been given the additional diagnosis of a chronic overachiever. A vast amount of individuals with nvld drop out of high school due to frustration. If I wasn't such a persistent kid with so much spunk, I might have dropped out of 7th grade when school began to feel "impossible" for me to handle. Most individuals with nvld do not graduate college and limited amounts attend at all. High School already frightened them of continued academia sufficiently. So before being diagnosed with nvld I saw what appeared to be a useless college degree vocationally as an almost equivalent accomplishment to graduating high school. This perspective is rooted in the fact that I live in probably the top most highly educated community nationally, Boulder, Colorado.

    It was written up in a National Newspaper; I think it was the New York Times about the percentage of graduates living in this community of 100,000 people with undergraduate, Masters degrees and PhD's. I do not remember the statistics accurately, but close enough to make a true impression of this high achieving community. I believe it may have been #1 in the country for completing undergraduate degrees and #3 for those who have achieved Masters degrees. I don't think they offered any information of where Boulder placed for PhD's. But I can tell you since I moved here at 19 years old in 1982 there has been a common saying here "Boulder has several PhD's whom work as dishwashers". This does have an element of truth to it, due to an overly competitive job market, of which is in part a reaction to the high percentage of University of Colorado graduates, who stay in Boulder for several years to life. They remain in Boulder "forever" due to it's exceptionally appealing quality of life; certainly not for an easy job market to break into and get paid what you need to live in this extremely overpriced large town/small city. It should be mentioned volunteer opportunities in every area you can dream of abound. There are over 300 nonprofits in the county and a volunteer center, which successfully matches the volunteering populations' skills and interests with diverse and ideal positions. This can often lead to a good job as in my case. 

    But here in Boulder you can also accomplish highly successful, time consuming, volunteer jobs (in exactly the field you want to enter), from 4 months to a year, in duration and be unpleasantly surprised to not even be chosen for and interview. You did not get an interview because you only have a BA in the designated field; not a Masters and you are also lacking 5 years paid experience. This example, I just described is one I can also say I have had personal experience with. I finally said, "Forget the traditional job market! I am going to use my skills and experience to make it in a less traditional way." People from all over the world are dying to live in Boulder and they come loaded with degrees and extensive experience. It is much easier to obtain years of experience in a less competitive job market, and a city which does not limit it's growth, traffic, and air pollution by keeping the # of companies and agencies that can move here curbed at a certain #. I am not complaining, all of this protects the mountain views, open space, trail system and all the other reasons, that myself and everyone else would choose Boulder as their home over just about any other community in the world.

    So what else have I experienced…… for one whenever I try to learn a new job or new information on and old one; there are times in which absolutely nothing registers. When this happens, I watch how the people around me learn. Generally, they are given information auditorily, visually, through reading materials and hands on experience. They look, listen, read and do….. within in moments it's as if the information super-glued itself to their brains; to be retrievable within seconds of when it needs to be used.

    I have finally reached the point to be in my mind 100% definitely accurately diagnosed. I spent years receiving oodles of overwhelming, inaccurate diagnoses, This made me just want to quit life and quit trying. It was too much for one person to overcome when I deep down inside knew for sure, I had this too but I did not know what to call it. Additionally, it had not been confirmed by any acquaintance, specialist, friend or relative……absolutely nobody believed how difficult the basics of life were for me….how could they? Most people take simple meal preparation, grocery shopping, ability to comprehend and concentrate on TV, movies, pleasure reading, the newspaper and current events (on TV, in the newspaper, magazines such as Time or Newsweek for granted. They probably think everyone naturally does these things without thinking twice about it unless they are retarded. Us learning disabled people are definitely not retarded and anyone who is or knows someone who is has a tremendous amount to offer life also.

    Many times, they offer very special and interesting things and the rest of us do not have these unique traits and capacities. They teach us more about how learning happens in the human brain in the same way someone with a genius IQ does. And we all know there are an abundance of geniuses who are desperately unhappy despite their tremendous brain capacity and ability for so called success and accomplishment.  

    Six months before, I was diagnosed with a nonverbal learning disability, I had been inaccurately diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. At that time, I was in the middle of failing at a series of three vocational endeavors, consecutively in a year's time. I was begging my doctor for Ritalin, which had a dramatically positive effect on my learning ability previously. She was adamant about refusing my suggestion; stating that Ritalin was contraindicated in generalized anxiety disorder. I did not see it that way. I felt if I could learn more easily, quickly and effectively; my anxiety would be reduced. The learning specialist whom diagnosed my nonverbal learning disability and developmental disorder explained to me that the bulk of my anxiety was secondary to my nonverbal learning disability; not a symptom of generalized anxiety disorder. If I was to guess what % of my anxiety comes from specific sources; I would say that 75-80% is secondary to my learning disabilities and 20-25% from aspects of my childhood/family life in which were not ideal.

    I had 3 sets of diagnostic testing for learning disabilities and related neurological conditions since my first one in 1985. The previous testing up until the testing I had done in February of 1999 was neither specific enough, nor done in as much depth and was done by practitioners uneducated and aware of  what a nonverbal learning disability is. So I started to struggle at birth with my developmental disorder,  including a sleep disorder,( which first presented itself at 9 months old). I was medicated for it for 6-24 months beginning at 2 years old). I had motor coordination problems ( that I think were diagnosed at 7 or 8 years old in 1st grade and required years of retraining), and a speech disorder that I participated in speech therapy for in grade school. I began to struggle with school to a serious degree at about 12 years old in 1975. I continued to feel like I was drowning academically and vocationally in 1985, after my first 3 years of college and a year off school in which I was fired from every food waitress and cashiering job I tried. I put my extreme effort into these jobs ( while it was 10 times more effort than anyone around me).   I got fired from my first job as a supermarket cashier when I was 17….

    That shattered my self-confidence and led to significant depression throughout my last two years in high school. In 1984-1985 (during the year in which I took off college), I kept pounding the pavement for exceptionally low paying food waitress and cashiering jobs. These jobs did not even close to pay any bills), I just did it to prove to myself I was capable of doing what any average person in the world, even with limited intelligence was capable of doing. I wanted to feel like I could live anywhere in the world (possibly Telluride…..I was 21 years old at the time) and make a living. I wanted to be free and independent and most of all deep down inside capable! The cashier jobs paid the current minimum wage $3.35 hr. and the waitress jobs $2 an hour plus tips. Since, I did not have much experience food waitressing I got the jobs at restaurants about to close with poor business or the worst sections because I made unlimited significant mistakes. So many of these shifts, I made $3 or $4 in tips. This didn't even equal the minimum wage even in a shift as short as three hours to cover mealtime hours at the restaurant.

    Interestingly I could successfully cocktail waitress in a pool hall, roadhouse or saloon, in an environment even with live music and national acts. As a cocktail waitress, your tips were based more on your personality; and if you brought the wrong beer, they drank it anyway, no questions asked. But a burnt, late or incorrect dinner was another story. There is a lot more memory and detail, and multi-tasking involved in Food Waitressing than in cocktail waitressing.

    The first time in which I was tested for learning disabilities, the diagnostician rated most of 4-6 learning disabilities as mild, except for a moderate impairment in the learning and memorizing of new nonverbal information. It never seemed mild to me in that it affected all aspects of everyday living not just vocational and educational pursuits. I always felt like everyday tasks were tremendously more overwhelming more difficult for me than anyone else who crossed the path of my life. Tasks ranging from grocery shopping-planning-cooking a meal, packing a suitcase or backpack, taking a bus or cab (getting off at the right stop, paying and tipping the correct amount and making sure I got the right change in return), reading anything, fixing something, and taking in and comprehending information from auditory sources such at TV, film and conversation. " Mild?. . . . . Mild by whose standards?"

    Up until now, I lived a life of not knowing what I could and could not do. Nobody else took my pain and confusion seriously because they were fooled by my highly articulate verbal ability. I was even fooled by my own solid verbal ability. It seemed that half my capabilities were average or above and others were nonexistent. It is typical of an individual with a nonverbal learning disability to shine verbally.

    I have been living my whole life with unexplained failures. Everything I do takes longer than other people. At times, I have lacked the necessary social skills for high quality give and take relationships. My knowledge of current events, famous people including actors, actresses, movie directors and the names of movies themselves is extremely deficient in comparison to almost anyone I speak to. This can be horribly embarrassing socially; and has led me to be very skilled at changing the subject when necessary. During my recent diagnostic testing; they tested for gaps of information in my knowledge base. My score results showed I have the broad knowledge base of a 14 year old with bits and pieces of advanced knowledge. This showed I could comprehend and retain complex material but was not able to absorb large quantities of simpler data along the way. My diagnostician called my lacking broad knowledge base a "Swiss Cheese Memory"(one with a lot of holes in it along the way).

    Now for the hope for the future! I now feel educated on how to create appropriate learning environments for myself. I am more aware of how to use my strengths to make up for my weaknesses in learning how to do all of life's tasks with less failure and struggle. I am beginning the journey of working with a remedial tutor. And my new life mission is in Advocacy for nonverbal learning disabilities and related learning and developmental disorders.   -Lisa Marti