Dyslexia is not a mental illness according to most definitions although 30 years ago dyslexic people were often cared for by psychiatrists. Today we call dyslexia a learning disability. I see dyslexia not as a learning disability but a condition I deal with daily and I think it is related to mental illness. The – I would spell the word “hte” if it wasn’t for the genius of Microsoft Word which corrects my spelling- dyslexic individual can be driven crazy by the problems they confront daily. I often reverse letters. I can’t tell right from left. I can’t remember sequences of number. I write down telephone numbers incorrectly unless I get to hear them repeated numerous times. I can’t spell very well. Psychiatric, Physiology, Psychology, minimal, maximal, obvious, oblivious, and disabilities are word I can only write down with the help of a dictionary. I can’t decipher certain sounds. The short and long taps of Morse code I can’t make out. Most singing I can’t make sense of. I get a chorus if it is repeated enough times, and it is usually all I can remember of any lyrics. Of my favorite song “Somewhere over the rainbow” sung by Judy Garland or many other wonderful voices all I can recall is “Oh why, Oh why can’t I.” The chorus speaks to my condition.
My wife and I have a joke with one another. She told me she was going to the county to get some information. She left to go and what I struggled with was why she was going to Downey to get some information. Downey is a town almost an hours drive from where we live. It didn’t make sense, but a lot of what I hear doesn’t make sense. Today she says she is going to Downey when ever she goes out on errands. I laugh and say “not again.” I am told this is a malfunction in my brain. The sound is heard correctly, but it is not translated properly by my brain. I liken it to target shooting, when the gun site is improperly adjusted the fired bullet will not hit the aimed at mark. The sounds I hear are like the bullets. They enter the ear and are loaded into my brain, but the adjustment is off kilter and the firing to the correct target is off the mark. “Weren’t we talking about cheese, not sleaze?” I ask a bewildered companion. The words I hear are often not what they were intended to be. The condition produces extreme anxiety, and a determined effort to understand. I have to work a lot harder than most to make sense of my world.
Typing before the days of computers was a horror for me. In college typing was no end to frustration. I have a favorite story about trying to type a paper in my freshman year at Yale University. Late one night as I tried to type an English paper, I sat at my desk trying to type the word “The” which appears a lot in the English language. Each time I typed “the” it came out “hte.” I would get out the white-out and cover over my mistake and start again. No matter how slow or how hard I tried “the” ended up as “hte.” The white-out got thicker and thicker. The key got stuck in the goo. I would have to pick it out. I must have done this ten times, and the anxiety, the frustration, and the feeling of being stupid kept growing until I could stand it no more. I picked up the typewriter and tossed it out the 5th story widow of the dormitory. The typewriter- a present to me from my father to take away to college – sailed a long way out and crashed into the dirt of the central commons. I now felt even stupider. My temper always a bit on edge was high. I cussed at myself and descended the staircase to retrieve my possession. The typewriter was jammed into the earth and racked. I pulled it out, dusted off the damp earth, and tried to realign the typewriter body. I got it back into more or less a rectangular shape, and carried it back up to my room. I tried to type again, but the “W” won’t strike, and never would work again. I put the typewriter away and hand printed my English literature essay. I didn’t get a very good grade. The professor dinged me for the hand written words. From there after I knew I was doomed. I could not type due to the dyslexia and my carefully hand printed papers – they usually took me most of a night to transcribe- were always given lower marks. My dreams of being a writer were squashed. It was not until I was dismissed from college after a suicide attempt, and discovered art and drawing that I had any success. I returned to Yale College and majored in art and architecture where typing did not matter as much. I did very well and went on to graduate school in architecture. Yet I felt something missing. I still felt stupid, and handicapped in a hidden but pervasive way. Not until the use of computers and the miracle of spell check, could I realize my long sought desire to write. This tool that makes mistakes easy to correct has changed my life, but that didn’t happen until I was well into my forties.
In my thirties a psychologist, who recognized my distress had me enroll in a learning development center in Glendale, California where I tried to retrain myself to overcome some of my dyslexia. I recall that they showed me how my left eye tracked in front of my right eye such that I saw words in an inverted order. They had me doing exercised which attempted to pull my eyes together and be able to focus on one spot. They had me do a whole gamut of exercised one of which I remember vividly where I had to bounce on a small trampoline and say what was shown on my left, in front of me, and my right. There were pictures of a bear, a cow, and a chicken. I had to see the images and after I had memorized them I had to do the opposite. The instructor would rearrange the pictures. When jumping up and down seeing the bear, I had to say chicken, and seeing the chicken, I had to say bear. “Do the same, say the opposite,” was an exercise I found very difficult to do, especially when preoccupied by bouncing up and down trying to keep my balance. I would grow increasingly frustrated and would often yell out in anger.
These exercises reminded me of my youth when I was always being challenged by things I could only do with the greatest of concentration. I could only hold that concentration for a short period. I would become overwrought and go into temper tantrums. Teachers and my parents struggled with a screaming little boy flailing on the floor threatening to jab himself with a pencil. I have read of other young children to whom school presented similar challenges and who also tried to stab themselves with the hated pencil, which revealed all that one could not do like stay within the rule lines for writing, and keeping a relatively clean page. Mine were always a mess of blurs and smudges. I never followed the instructions – did I hear what other students heard? -, and to this day I have difficulty following instructions.
At the same time I was struggling to retrain myself, I was mentally falling apart. My bipolar disorder was raging. My mood swings were cataclysmic. I had days when I was totally manic, super charged with energy, and retraining was relatively easy. I could say the same and do the opposite, if not with perfection, but with enough accuracy to get by. A dyslexic person learns strategies to get by, like pretending you didn’t hear and didn’t see. In an up mood my dyslexia was something I could joke about. I would tell people who I was driving about town to point in the direction they wanted me to go because saying right or left made no sense to me. They would laugh and do as I requested. In a down mood, I would be sullen, say nothing, and go left when I was requested to go right. I would become angry with the person who instructed. At the learning development center my disability would be much greater when I was depressed. The frustration and anxiety would be so much that I would “fly off the handle.” I would accuse my instructor of trying to torture me.
Thus it is that I believe there is a relationship between Dyslexia and mental illness. Both are “disturbances of the brain” as one researcher called them. Dyslexia may not be mental illness, but the results of its reality can trigger mental illness. Some of the characteristics of dyslexia are a lot like mental illness: self-esteem issues, temper impulses, phobias, strange reactions to external stimuli, obsessions, and mood dysfunctions. Scientists have already made relationships between the brain chemistry of children with ADHD (Attention Deficits and Hyperactivity Disorder) and those of mental illness. ADHD is often co-morbid with dyslexia. I was definitely ADHD. Teachers would have to restrain me from literally climbing all over the walls. In one school – a summer school I was sent to improve my reading skills. I was behind my fellow classmates- I climbed all over the tables and chairs running about laughing as I tried to escape the pursuing teacher. They had me down as an emotionally disturbed child, who needed a strong mother to control my excess energy. No one talked about brain chemistry when I was a kid.
What we maybe talking about is a variation in brain chemistry which relates to the brain chemistry of those with mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. While one set of reactions cause dyslexia, a similar reaction may cause mental illness. When the neurotransmitters fire haphazardly, perhaps one misfire leads to dyslexia and another depression. A person can have mental illness without dyslexia, but I would be surprised to see if there were persons with dyslexia who didn’t show some aspect of mental illness. Although I hate that word illness because I don’t see mental conditions through a medical model, it is the term used until we find a better way of describing depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Dyslexia may breed mental illness when the frustration of the disability becomes so great that another biochemical reaction takes place creating mental illness. My dyslexia must have some relationship to my bipolar disorder because dyslexia drives me crazy. After a particularly frustrating session of typing on my computer where the cursor flies all over the place because I hit a key I didn’t want and I do it again and again, my brain melts down. I have to exert every capacity for self control not the hurl the damned machine out my window. Even though I don’t do it, I think about killing myself. I think I am a stupid and inadequate person. Who would want to live with this terrible but hidden disability?