I was born in Poland. My mother was
Jewish, my father Polish. We have quite an interesting family history, with my great-
grandfather having been a tzadik and my parents having lived through the Holocaust, with
lots of stories to tell.
Born two months prematurely and at less than four pounds, I was a sickly child. My mom had been in labor for three days (when I found this out, I finally realized why she didn't want any more kids!) This apparently caused some neurological difficulties, including epilepsy, which made me different from other children. Besides all this, I started school in Poland, continued in Israel in Hebrew, and then on to the States where I mastered my third language, English. So besides all the other problems, I had to adjust to three different cultures and master three languages by age ten!
Well... so much for the theory that people with NLD should be sheltered from changes and novel situations. I was in a different school (and often a new city) each year until 9th grade, as we moved from Warsaw to Tel Aviv to Haifa to Chicago to Philadelphia to Syracuse. I don't know if I was simply too traumatized, but I remember very little of those early years. This may be due to the medication I was on for epilepsy from the time I was a child until I was fourteen. Or it may be due to my various languages -- I wonder, for instance, if my memories of Israel
are "locked up" inside the Hebrew which I have forgotten.
Because Warsaw was completely demolished in World War II, housing was scarce. We lived in an old army barracks converted to civilian housing after the war. There, we had two rooms: one served as a living room, the other as a bedroom. The kitchen and bathroom were shared by the
tenants, so there was a lot of commonality. We had a tiny fridge in which many families kept milk and butter. Mostly, my mom went shopping for each day's groceries after work. Another family had a small, black and white TV which we occasionally all got together to watch.
My parents both worked and I went every day to preschool. Always eager to learn, and with a love for books, I tagged after my mother in the evenings until I learned my letters and was able to form them into words. I knew how to read before I went to school, but other things were difficult for me. I went to school not being able to tie my shoes, and I never learned to ride a bike. Cutting and pasting were difficult, too. I fell off the jungle gym in my preschool, broke my hip, and ended up in a body cast for weeks, requiring extensive physical therapy afterwards to re-learn to walk.
My mom remembers one day, when she picked me up from preschool, I was sitting on the floor with my legs stretched out, with two little kids tying each of my shoes. They were happy to show off their new skills, and I was more than happy to let them!
My parents split up when I was four, and when I was six my mom and I moved out of the army barracks into modern, colorful apartments. Because there were only two of us, we lived with Jean, a single lady. We had the big room, she had the small one. Again, the kitchen and
bathroom were shared. Less than a year later, mom and I left Poland for Israel.
We traveled by train to Vienna and then to Naples, then by boat to the Israeli port of Haifa. The ship was big and vast, full of glittering lights and shimmering objects. My mom was sick most of the trip, so I played on the deck by myself; there were no other kids. The dining room
had large tables and chandeliers.
I remember little of Israel. Everything was strange. I didn't know the language and couldn't understand at first. I had a new alphabet to master. I lived with my grandmother at first, who was to me a total stranger (she and my uncle had left Poland when I was two). She brought
me to school, where I was given a strange new name, Ylana. I still think of myself as Ivona. This new name isn't me; it is a tag, pointing to an object that happens to be me. The kids torment me in school. They call me "mishuge", crazy, chase me and throw things at me. Later,
my mom and I moved to a little house, then got an apartment near the sea. I remember the vast sea and playing in the water and the sand.
Although Hebrew was a strange language with a strange alphabet, I learned quickly. By the time we moved to America less than two years later, I was reading books like Heidi. Because in Poland children don't start first grade till 7, and also because I did well scholastically, I was skipped from first to third grade.
My mom married a Jewish doctor, and less than two
years after our arrival in Israel, my mom, stepdad and I moved to America. This accounts
for my accent, which is a mixture of Polish, Israeli, and American. I never saw my father
after that; he remarried in Poland and
had another daughter, Agnes, with his second wife. Once more, I was transported to a land where everything was new and strange. At school, I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I stood
alone in the schoolyard, watching the other girls play hopskotch and jumprope. Every day I learned new words and expressions from conversations around me and, later, from the books I borrowed from Philadelphia's vast library. I would bring home stacks of books, to be devoured and exchanged the following week for a new stack.
Determined to be like the others, I got my mom to buy me a jumprope. I practiced for weeks and months until I could do it. But it didn't help me to play with the other kids, and I never mastered the more complicated steps like Double Dutch.
Once more, I was unable to communicate with other kids in school, further alienating me from my peers. There was no ESL back then; I was simply put in school and expected to "sink or swim." I learned English from the "University of the Street" -- the same way I had learned
Hebrew. The same was true about my perceptual and motor problems. There was no special ed; I was mainstreamed with the other kids, and was not fully aware of my disabilities. Again, it was sink or swim. My parents were busy working and keeping house, and I was left alone to
fend for myself and find my way in this new land. It does not help that everything American was ridiculed by my parents: the makeup, the high heels, the food.
When I encounter new food in the cafeteria, it seems strange to me. I'm not used to the mushy bread or the sweet, sickly soda. At home, my parents still buy rye bread, comparing American white to the consistency of cotton. But it does not help when I tell these things to other
kids. They're not amused; they're insulted. When I bring sandwiches on dark, firm bread, they look at me strangely, but I'm too oblivious to notice.
This rejection of everything American didn't help me to fit in. I was not only physically clumsy, but culturally and socially clumsy as well. I received no special help, either ESL to learn English or special ed to help me cope with my perceptual and motor dysfunctions. I was simply
placed in school and told to sink or swim. I'm not sure how aware I was of my differences, although these things set me apart from other children, who continually picked on me and teased me. Although we moved frequently -- 4th grade in Chicago, 5th through 7th in Philadelphia, 8th in Syracuse NY -- in spite of where we lived I was always the school
scapegoat. I had no friends; I was constantly in trouble; and I was suspended from school on numerous occasions.
I remember one of those occasions, when in 6th grade I lashed out at a girl on the playground and ripped her raincoat. Kids had been teasing, taunting, and hitting me, but I was unable to tell who had done what (since I had trouble differentiating faces). Belinda had been an
innocent standby. Later we became friends, but shortly afterwards her family moved to Michigan.
The most difficult years were from fifth to eighth grade. (In fourth grade, I couldn't understand enough English to know what was going on). The school didn't know where to place me; first, they placed me with the real smart kids, then when my grades plummeted, with the worst ones.
Because my name (in Polish) is spelled Iwona, I got called all sorts of things. Also, divorce wasn't common then and teachers would question notes I brought from home, with Fast instead of Sowa.
Although my last name was changed from Sowa to Fast
when I was fifteen, this was only a legal step to make life easier and avoid unnecessary
questions. In reality, George was never a father to me. At the time, I was unaware that he
was mentally ill and paranoid. I was aware of his little quirks -- for example, he thought
our phone was bugged -- but I laughed them off.
My stepfather always acted as if he was the only one that mattered. Accordingly, dinner conversations were sermonic monologues either about his work problems or about some issue of international or political importance. As I grew older and interested in current events, my
opinions were mocked and derided. He felt he was the only one who knew anything, the only one capable of making decisions. He always assumed he was right and everyone else was wrong. It was a relationship of domination where he was the master, I the slave.
My fear and hatred of George grew, fed by the feelings of powerlessness against this tyrant who had entered my life. My feelings of powerlessness grew with the intensity of George's assaults. These were both mental put downs -- ie, I was stupid, didn't know anything, good for nothing -- and physical -- he was the disciplinarian, and I, acting out my bitterness and hostility, was always in trouble.
Not only was I the scapegoat at school; at home I was the whipping boy and a constant target of his continual criticisms and put-downs. In his eyes, I could never do anything right, and he could never be wrong. If anything was broken or damaged, it was my fault, "regardless." My misbehavior only accentuated this role. Everything was my fault -- even my stepfather's failures at work were my fault. I didn't want my mom to lose another husband. I felt like I was responsible to keep their marriage together.
I remember one incident when my friend Margaret came and brought a record over. We tried to play it but couldn't get the stereo to work. Later I realized it had been broken, but at the time I was blamed for breaking it.
I became frustrated, hostile, and angry. I lashed out at everyone -- not so much at home, where I was repressed by the controlling influence of George, but more so at school. Feeling hopeless, bitter, and rejected, these feelings only "boiled over" into my school relationships, which were marked by rejection, teasing, and torment.
One incident stands out from when I was thirteen. My mother was picking me up on a busy street at rush hour. I was trying to cross to get to her car, but there was too much traffic -- since I can't tell how far away things are, I'm always extra cautious. There was too much traffic noise to hear her, and she started signaling to me to tell me something. Unable to understand what she was saying, I trusted my interpretation of her hand signals over my instincts. Thinking she was telling me to cross, I did -- and stepped right in front of an oncoming car. Fortunately I escaped with only a broken ankle from the accident.
One bright spot in my growing up years were frequent weekend family camping trips. Even here, however, I struggled. Because of the problems with space and depth perception, I had trouble with more rugged hiking trails. My parents tried to get me to be more independent and frequently refused to help me. Of course, I ended up with lots of wet feet at stream crossings, etc.
One incident comes to mind when I was washing dishes in the stream, and started crying that a cup was running away from me. My mom came to see what was going on, and started laughing: a chipmunk had gotten underneath the metal cup and was hopping away with it. Looking back, I can laugh too!
As I became a teenager in this strange new land, my mother took pride in being different, in being an individual. Because I was not accepted by my peers, I listened to her. She didn't wear makeup or stylish clothes like other women. Instead, she took pride in her Sears sewing machine and the clothes she made for me and for herself. My mom's resistance to and ridicule of things like makeup and high heels set me apart further. We didn't shave our legs or underarms; this, too, was scoffed at. As I grew older, I was discouraged from wearing a bra, and told that I had too little to bother. There was a strange family pride in being different, in being Polish, but it didn't help me to fit in at school.
The rejection by my peers, which in elementary school caused me to react and get in trouble, had, by the time I reached high school, caused me to withdraw. I became a loner; I didn't mix well with other kids. I ate lunch alone in the large cafeteria. I learned to escape into the world of books: my only friends were in those books. I would come home from school, do my homework and chores, and delve into a book. The characters in those pages couldn't ridicule me. I withdrew into their world more and more. The challenges of my life seemed mild compared to those of Oliver Twist or Heidi. Mild compared to the stories of Nazi Holocaust in Poland that my parents had lived through, of which I was constantly reminded at home.
Concluding that I wasn't loved, appreciated, or needed, I felt hopeless and withdrew into my own private world. Books were my way of coping with the isolation and loneliness. These were my "friends". They did not reject or taunt me. I became a loner. I coped by withdrawing. I could generally be found down in my basement room. Even when I was with others, I rarely entered into conversation but stayed off by myself. I learned to become inconspicuous and blend into the woodwork.
Ironically, this isolation helped my grades in school. I had lots of time to do schoolwork, and with my mother's encouragement and help, I put all my time and energy into this area. Mom helped me with math assignments that were difficult. Also at this time, I was weaned off the epilepsy medication, which improved my concentration in school. By high school, the kids were less cruel, and were content to leave me to myself. The only class that was still a torment was gym. I couldn't (and still can't) interact with any moving object or respond to the motion of another person. Needless to say, I was always the last to be called by team captains. Although I learned to swim and x-c ski, these sports were not part of my school program. Home Ec was another class which gave me trouble. In spite of my mother's great talents in sewing, knitting, and other home crafts, I did not inherit this ability. Even today, I still avoid ironing, mending, sewing, and similar tasks. Of course, I never went to any high school dances, proms, or other events.
Naturally, when I was sixteen I wanted to learn to drive, but my stepfather insisted that I would only be a road hazard and would probably get killed. He said that, even if I took driver's ed, I would not be allowed to use the family car. He convinced me that my vision was too poor and that I would not be able to pass the eye exam Even at this young age, I realized that I would need ten time as much practice as the others... not less. Not wishing to make a fool of myself in front of the others, I didn't even attempt to take driver ed. When I was in college, I got my permit, but none of my friends would take the risk of helping me, although I took lessons at the college. It wasn't until I was in my thirties that I learned to drive by first buying my own car and then hiring people to teach me.
Looking back, I realize that even my few moments of accomplishment were glossed over. I won a prize for an essay I wrote in sixth grade. No one came to the reading of it; we no longer know what happened to it. In eighth grade, having spoken English for only four years, I was my school's representative to the county-wide spelling bee. My father did not go to my high school or college graduations. I didn't even go to my high school graduation. It goes without saying that I didn't go to the proms or high school dances.
Eventually, I finished high school and escaped to college, a lonely and desperate girl. But college couldn't solve my problems; it only multiplied them. I had never developed social skills and had many roommate struggles; it was difficult to get along with people. Desperate, lonely, fearful, and guilty, I saw little purpose in life. Often in those days, I thought about ending it all. Fortunately, I was timid and lacked the courage to fulfill my plans.
One night at a dorm party, I met Vin. Later, he introduced me to his friends. They were friendly and reached out to me. They didn't ridicule me, or put me down, or reject me; they seemed to accepted me. They were born again Christians. I latched on, eating meals with them
and participating in some of their activities.
I was Jewish; Jews weren't supposed to believe in Jesus. What would my folks say? Yet I really had no Jewish identity; we had never gone to the synagogue or even celebrated the holidays. I knew nothing about being Jewish, except that Jesus wasn't a part of it. Vin said that this
Jesus and his followers were all Jews. It was confusing.
Finally I gathered my courage and made plans to end it all. It would sure make things simpler; the world would just go on without me. That day, however, Vin came by and invited me to go to a movie with the group. I thought, well, why not. My plans could wait.
The things I heard in the group made me think. Again, I was confronted with this Jesus who changed lives. Could he change mine? Was there hope for me? I thought about my life, my past, my future. Through the confusion, a glimmer of hope broke into my hopeless existence. I talked with Vin, we prayed, and I asked Jesus to take control of my messed up life.
After that, I made friends with others in the group. I no longer wanted to die; I had hope that my life could change, that things could get better. I had purpose. I had friends. I had new life in Christ. I was happy.
But my problems didn't stop. I wanted to work with children, and had chosen an early childhood program at a junior college. I breezed through the academic subjects with a minimum of effort, but barely pulled C's in courses like "Observation of Children". During my last semester, I got an "F" in my student teaching experience.
Uncertain of the direction of my life, I quit school. But trying to find a job was no picnic. Unable to live home because of problems with dad, I lived with other gals from church. I had few job skills and no street smarts at all. I remember one job I got, packing potato chips on
an assembly line. I only lasted a couple hours, and they sent me home. Other work experiences were not much better. I tried many office and clerical jobs, but during those three years, I was unemployed more than I was employed.
One office job which was a particular disaster was where I had several bosses. They all gave me assignments, and I never knew which were to be done first. I had no guidance in prioritizing and was always behind. At another temp job, I worked as a customer service rep on the phone.
The management wanted us to do phone soliciting when the phones were quiet, but most of us resisted because it was not in the job description. We were seated at desks in a big open room. There was a lot of banter and playing; they would toss paper airplanes and other things around the room. While this was going on and we were waiting for phones to ring, I would most often have my nose in a book. Whenever the supervisor walked in, the others would stop their games -- but I would be caught reading. I didn't last too long at that job, although I was probably a more conscientious employee than the rest.
One hot summer day, walking through the city searching for work, I was hitchhiking on Teal Ave. I was depressed. I didn't care what happened to me. I figured life couldn't get much worse. Was it worth going on? In this mental state, I dared to hitch hike because I didn't care if
someone raped or mugged me. I felt I would be better off dead.
A guy in a suit and tie picked me up. We got to talking; he ended up taking me to a restaurant, and then home. As our friendship progressed, the lease ran out on my studio apartment and I moved in with Bob. But the world didn't have much help to offer in the areas of self-esteem
where many of my problems were rooted. My life was going nowhere except downhill. The thoughts of suicide returned. Bob and I had little in common and eventually the excitement and "love" wore off. Since I still had no job, I was totally dependent on Bob. The house was run down and in a bad section of town. One day, as I looked on these surroundings, the ugliness and filth around me began to reach my hardened heart. I realized that my own heart had become just as dirty. I cried out to God and asked for His forgiveness.
I didn't say anything to Bob about this. The next day, I went out as usual to look for work. I found a job as a live-in baby-sitter and moved out. I broke off our relationship and the following Sunday, returned to church.
About a year later, I met Sam at the church I was then a part of. Our relationship developed and we grew closer together; we were even discussing marriage. Things were going great; I was happy and really "in love." Then, just before Christmas, he broke off our relationship.
Once again unemployed and shattered by this latest rejection, I decided to return to college. I had become very closed inside myself; I rarely spoke to anyone. A friend told me later that I rarely made eye contact with anyone during conversation. I had many deep hurts, and was not
about to open myself up for fresh wounds. Although I had now been a Christian for about six years, I still had no answers on how to deal with life.
The brethren in Oswego were a very loving group, and slowly their love began to pierce my hard shell. One family with whom I spend a great deal of time told me later that, when they were beginning to know me, to get me to say anything was like pulling teeth. I grew to trust them and soon was spending a lot of time at their home. It was here that I first learned to ride a bike -- practicing with their daughters, who were then learning. However, I still feel shaky and uncomfortable on a bike and haven't tried to ride one since.
Each fall, my church had an annual retreat at Beaver Camp. This year, the speaker was Sylvia, and her topic was "Accepted in the Beloved," taken from Ephesians 1:6 & Ezekiel 16:2-16. Her words seemed to bypass my mind and pierce through to my troubled heart, as if she was speaking only to me.
On Sunday afternoon, Sylvia had set aside time to meet with a small group of us. The meeting was open for anyone who was interested. Only about ten people came, most of whom I knew well. Sylvia asked each of us to share a little from our own lives. When my turn came, fear
gripped me and I wanted to run out of the room. However, brokenly, haltingly, I shared about the rejections of my life.
Sylvia asked if I wanted prayer. As I never refused
prayer, I nodded my head and ten hands were laid on me as the brothers and sisters in the
room began to pray. Sylvia began to cast out the "spirit of rejection." Thoughts
went flying through my head. What was a "spirit of rejection"? Could a Christian
have such a spirit? What all was going on here? My confusion escalated to a moment of
total panic; then the peace and love of God completely engulfed me. I was free! I felt
like a heavy weight, or a strong chain, had been removed.
Proof of the emotional healing came about a week later, at a going away party for Mike and Terri, who had worked with the Oswego church for the past four years. Part way through the evening, I realized that I was actually mingling, talking to people, and enjoying it! In the past, I
would have sat in a corner, afraid to talk to people, feeling miserable, like an outsider looking in. I would watch the others, but would have been unable to enter into the fun and festivities. Now, it was different: I was no longer on the outside; I was able to participate. Jesus had really set me free!
Still, I had to continue to walk in this freedom. It would be easy to fall back into my old behavior patterns. Somehow, however, it was now easier to interact with others... to speak up in classes... to do many things that I couldn't do before. I was more confident, less withdrawn,
more outgoing. Even my family noticed the positive changes in me.
I now had a circle of friends (most of whom I'm still in touch with fifteen years after graduation). However, the employment scene has been a continual struggle for me, as has the mysterious world of men.
One of my more positive temp jobs during my three years as a college dropout was working in a library. The quiet environment had relatively few distractions, making it easy to concentrate. Most of my tasks were focused, where I could concentrate on one thing at a time. Since I had
a great love for books and had spent a great deal of time in libraries, I felt comfortable in this environment. And perhaps best of all, accuracy was more important than speed, and there was no time pressure.
When I returned to school at Oswego, I sought out work as a library page for my work study, and this, too, was a fairly positive experience. When, at the end of that year, I again found myself struggling with entry level employment, I decided to go on to grad school and get my
master's in library science.
Librarian jobs are primarily filled through Civil Service, and this, too, proved to be an advantage. My first professional position was at Adirondack Correctional Facility, a medium security prison for 600 men. I did have some problems here; I had to call on Affirmative Action and the Union several times in order to keep my job. At this point my NLD was not diagnosed and I was not considered as having any kind of disability.
After five years I got tired of the struggle, and decided it was time to move on. There was an opportunity to go to Yugoslavia to work for a church-sponsored seminary there. I jumped at the opportunity.
I thought in Europe I would fit in a bit better, but it was not to be. I had good relationships with the seminary students, but didn't feel that most of the other Americans accepted me. One particular gal, who came as a summer intern from Gordon College, wrote in her journal about
me that "there is something wrong with her... she talks slow, she moves slow, she does everything slow... I wonder if she's retarded." Of course I was not supposed to read this (or perhaps I was; it was left open on the desk for me to glance at). At this point, thought I knew
that I was "weird and different" and was aware of my early struggles, epilepsy, and school history, I had still never heard of NLD. Some of the other Americans simply shunned me.
I stayed in Europe for four years, coming home during the summers. I worked in Poland for a while and then in Slovakia. The job in Slovakia was terrible. John, a former colleague from Yugoslavia who had started up his own network of schools, was a definite Type A choleric, had huge expectations, and felt I was lazy and uncooperative. Deciding that I would be a career missionary, the next step was to go to a Bible school affiliated with the mission board I was then under. But, going back to dorm life with much younger girls proved to be a disaster. Again, I felt weird and rejected, and, although now in my mid thirties, I found myself reacting in much the same way I had when I was ten!
At this point I gave up church and missionary life and attempted to get back into the library world. But I'd been gone over five years, and much had changed. Again, I had to start at the bottom and it was not easy to get a job. Again, I worked at several temp (office) jobs, with
a lot of unemployment in between. My first try at a library job failed; it was a library director position, where they wanted a clone of the former director -- which I was not. I realize now that, due to my inability to read non-verbals, I was unaware of how bad the situation
had gotten. I lasted less than three months, and ended up pretty depressed as a result.
After this experience I began considering alternate careers, and went for career counseling. When I explained that I "might" have a "slight" disability, they suggested I contact VESID (a NY state agency; Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities). Upon hearing my tale of woe, the caseworker at VESID ordered a psychological evaluation and, eventually, after a year of prodding on my part, a neuropshych. The tests showed a 34 point discrepancy between VIQ and PIQ. At this time I was 42.
In the meantime, I obtained a librarian position at a small, private business college, although at a salary far below normal in the field. This was a good job for me since I was able to work fairly
independently, with little pressure, little supervision and no one standing over my head. (This had been the case also at the prison and at most of the European libraries I'd worked at; it stands for most one person libraries). Unfortunately, since the school had financial problems, my hours were cut to half time and eventually I was laid off.