Willing, able and forgotten

STUDENT VOICE: How one college student found success by “leaning in” to dyslexia

The coping strategies that work

Here’s the biggest misconception about learning disabilities and mental illness:

That you grow out of them and they go away.

The truth is you can’t outgrow these things. What you can do is learn methods to cope.

As a 20-year old college student who copes daily with anxiety, depression, ADHD and dyslexia, I know this first hand.

Cal students at UC Berkeley on Friday, April 10, 2015.

Related: Low academic expectations and poor support for special education students is ‘hurting their future’

For most of my childhood, I always felt just a little bit too slow, or just a little bit too dumb. I knew I was smart, but it seemed like I could never quite get there.

I felt inadequate through elementary and middle school. I knew was fully capable of much more than what teachers were asking of me. But my intelligence and verbal skills were high enough to mask my learning disabilities.

In my freshman year of high school, my economics teacher looked at me and said “You need LEAD and LEAD needs you.”

My transformation began the moment I walked into the LEAD room.

The LEAD Foundation is an organization that supports students with learning disabilities and their families. A lot of students with learning disabilities spend most of their academic career being told all of the reasons they aren’t good enough to do well in school. LEAD tells you why you will be successful.

Because of LEAD, I know how to speak in front of crowds of up to 1,000 people, and I can accurately articulate to someone what ADHD, dyslexia, depression and anxiety look like in the adolescent brain, and I have the confidence to do any academic task asked of me.

Here’s how dyslexia looks to me: In my mind, I can grasp an overall concept quickly, but reading in the details takes my mind a longer time than it does for a person without dyslexia.

In LEAD, I learned that people with dyslexia have longer neurons in their brains and make vaster connections. LEAD taught me how to slow down and read carefully. They also taught me about the effectiveness of multichannel encoding, in which I listen to an audiobook while reading the book to improve my pace and comprehension.

Dyslexia also becomes a problem on multiple-choice standardized tests. I look at the answers and I see an argument for each one to be correct. LEAD taught me that the way around this is to learn all of the information more thoroughly and read the answers more carefully.

When I worried about my handwriting, LEAD gave me confidence by assuring me that when I got to college I would be able to type all of my papers and notes.

Related: The vast majority of students with disabilities don’t get a college degree

LEAD also taught me how to manage my ADHD. ADHD is the under-stimulation of the prefrontal cortex. Simply put, if I am in a stimulating conversation, I am highly focused. But if I’m not, my brain begins to search for stimulation. LEAD taught me self-regulation for my ADHD. I work in chunks, studying a subject for 20 minutes and then giving myself a 10-minute break in which I can do whatever I like.  I also doodle a lot, which helps with brain stimulation.

I find leaning in to my academic disabilities to be fairly straightforward. It is interesting to learn and learn differently. Leaning in to the emotional ones can be more challenging, but it is a very effective strategy.

Because of anxiety and depression, sometimes I wake up in the morning with palpitations and shortness of breath. Driving my car in laps around town helps me. So does having a routine. I started identifying more anxiety, especially before making major oral presentations, but I am working through it.

Related: Almost all students with disabilities are capable of graduating on time. Here’s why they’re not

Depression is the most difficult. My brain can be in such a deep dark hole. Think about a deep pit in the ground and you’re in it and you can’t climb out because there’s no way out of it. There’s no ladder. My depression is a constant feeling of being in the pit. At this moment, things are good, and I am at the top of the pit. But it’s still there if I look down over my shoulder. It’s an ever-present fear.

If there is one thing that people should take from this essay, it is that if they feel depressed they must seek help. Feelings of helplessness and days when you aren’t getting out of bed are signs of this. They can lead to suicidal ideations, which are less of a desire for action than actually planning to kill oneself, but which are signs that you need professional help.

Thanks to LEAD, I have learned I must be mindful at all times of depression, anxiety, dyslexia and ADHD.

Fast forward to today: I’m in my third year at Kansas State University, studying marketing and pre-law. The next step for me is law school. I’m confident in my ability to do this or whatever else I try.

I learned how my mind works with these factors and how to face them head on and cope with them well enough to put me on the path toward my dream of becoming an attorney.

Without it, I probably would still have graduated from high school and gone to college, but who knows the career path I would have chosen if LEAD hadn’t given me the tools and confidence to do anything I wanted.

For me, the final word is always “cope.” I hope that by sharing this story, I can help others to do the same.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

Marren Blakely is a third-year student at Kansas State University, where she studies marketing and pre-law.

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Marren Blakely

Marren Blakely is a third-year student at Kansas State University, where she studies marketing and pre-law. See Archive

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