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Being diagnosed with dyslexia has made me happier
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Being diagnosed with dyslexia has made me happier

Discovering that I have dyslexia, and most probably dyscalculia, later in my life has raised many questions for me, not least whether a childhood diagnosis would have changed the trajectory of my life, both personally and professionally.

Over the years I’d suspected that I might be dyslexic. I also thought that I was making excuses for myself when met with certain challenges. It wasn’t until last year that I decided to seek an assessment to confirm either way. I was relieved to read, in the first paragraph of my diagnostic report, that my literacy difficulties are consistent with the specific learning difficulty dyslexia.

Growing up in the late 1970s, like most of us I knew nothing of educational classifications. I had never heard of dyslexia, dyscalculia or neurodiversity. I struggled throughout my school years. I was a daydreamer and a slow learner, although I masked these with my vivacious and bubbly personality. I was the class clown and spent considerable amounts of time on the outside the classroom door, banished for distracting my friends and talking too much. At the time, I put my poor spelling, difficulties in remembering words and stumbling in my reading down to the fact that really I was a “thicko”.

How different would my life have been if I’d known about dyslexia? Would this knowledge have liberated me, reduced the pressure I put myself under to prove that I could succeed? Alternatively, would I have used the information to limit myself – would I have given up, stopped striving? In other words, where is the line between a label that constrains and an understanding that sets us free?

Fortunately, I love questions. As a story trainer, I urge participants to sit with the questions they have about a story, however insignificant, because as soon as we have an answer, we stop our inquiries and move on. I believe the treasure lies, not in the answers, but in our questions, our curiosity to find deeper understanding.

I’m curious to explore whether or not a diagnosis of neurodiversity is liberating or whether these labels can restrict and prohibit us. Certainly I know that the stories we tell ourselves, and those that are imposed upon us by others, have a powerful effect on how we define ourselves and how we live our lives.

Recently I met a woman who confided in me that, after 35 years of marriage and with four grown-up children, she had been diagnosed with ADHD/ASD and dyslexia. After a lifetime of being angry with herself, she said, “I can’t explain it, it all just fell away in an instant. All the disgust I felt about myself has gone.”

With the benefit of hindsight, I’m also beginning to understand how my lifelong questions – such as why I seem incapable of learning certain things, of processing and remembering dates, names, directions, instructions – have morphed into statements. Have I turned these inquiries into a story that I’ve imposed on myself and that others have reflected back at me?

As a child I took piano lessons, which I hated. I could never remember the notes, even when I developed a convoluted system for myself, repeating, “Every Good Boy Deserves Favours” as I counted on my fingers. My teachers were exasperated. I felt like a failure, struggling to read music when others seemed to find it easy.

Many years later, determined to learn an instrument, I found a kind and patient recorder teacher. Slowly, slowly, practising every day, I began to play a range of tunes, delighted, relishing this tiny win. One day I casually mentioned my method of remembering the notes on the page linked to the fingering on the recorder.

“That’s not how you should do it”, my teacher said, explaining how I could “correct” this. I was confused, unable to take in what was so obvious to her. I put the recorder down and made excuses, to myself as well as her, about why I had to cancel my upcoming lessons. I confirmed my own story that day, that I can’t learn to read music.

While I might struggle with music, I’ve always loved words. I love to communicate. I’m a self-confessed chatterbox and feel at home sharing oral stories, making up spontaneous ones. In my 20s, by several twists of fate, I found myself working in theatre administration. When I became general manager for various theatres, I struggled to keep up with all the reading matter: reports, research and policy documents, general and industry news. I felt swamped, and whenever more paperwork came in, I panicked, anxiety rising in me, scattering my thoughts and clouding my judgment.

I never told anybody, but I woke early and stayed late to catch up. I was in an almost hyper-alert state, having to listen with every fibre of my being to find ways to understand. If I was any good at my job, it was because I could spin a great story, I could watch and I could listen.

When I first set up a theatre production company in partnership with John Miller, who later became my husband, I would ask him to edit my writing, my letters and stories. I emailed him copies of my writing and in the subject line I would always write, “Please weave your magic on this.” In response he reordered paragraphs and removed my excessive flourishes. Long sentences were punctuated and shortened, my spellings corrected.

One day, perhaps a year before he died, I emailed John and, as always, asked him to weave his magic. His reply was swift and contained only four words: “No more magic required.” Slowly, ever so slowly, I had learned. He didn’t preach, he didn’t go through anything with me, he just showed me, by example, how to be a better writer.

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Sadly, John died before I began to write my first book, Seven Secrets of Spontaneous Storytelling. When my publishers asked me to write a bibliography, to credit the books that had inspired and informed my work, it was clear immediately that what I had learned hadn’t come from the written word. It was all down to experiential learning, from courses, from listening, absorbing what was going on around me in all its forms, from speaking to and being with people.

I’m naturally a quick-witted person. I can make decisions and react swiftly to situations – it’s probably why spontaneous storytelling is one of my favourite genres. I follow my impulses and instinct, which have served me well.

As I discovered more about the way my brain works, I’ve given myself permission to pause, so that my thoughts can catch up with my instincts. Now I’m less harsh and demanding on myself and I’m reaping the myriad benefits that come with this more relaxed state of mind. So much is opening up for me, including the wonderful discovery of graphic novels and voice memos. Gaining a better understanding of how I learn and operate, I can embrace the gifts that come alongside the diagnosis: for example, quirky, creative thinking and a playful, often childlike imagination. I recently read that I’m in good company. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world, including Walt Disney, Steve Jobs and Richard Branson, have been diagnosed with dyslexia.

I have been masking what I consider to be serious flaws in my character for as long as I can remember, believing that I should know more, be better. Now, as I move towards cronehood, I’m not so afraid to ask for help where I need it. I understand my desire to have a dialogue on the phone rather than a series of monologues via email. I accept more easily that I don’t need to be more than I am. As I drop the mask I can feel anxiety falling away and joy in my life increasing.

At the end of my diagnostic testing last year, my assessor noted that she had seen me employ a range of strategies to navigate her questioning. She even suggested that I could help others if I shared my processes. I did feel comforted to know that these coping mechanisms have helped me to navigate my life.

Dyslexia is part of who I am but if I’ve learned anything, it’s that this diagnosis informs me rather than defines me. I have more tolerance for myself and thereby have discovered new compassion for others. Do I wish that I’d known sooner? My instinct tells me that I would have followed my dreams much earlier, but, like Sliding Doors, I’ve got here anyway, and that’s the important thing.

Seven Secrets of Spontaneous Storytelling by Danyah Miller is published by Hawthorn Press at £14.99. Join Danyah for a Lunchtime Storytelling event at the RSA on 16 May; to book visit danyahmillerstoryteller.co.uk

Source: theguardian.com