“If I only had a brain.”
That song means more to me than you know.
When I was six years old and living in Massachusetts, I got the chicken pox. No big deal, right? As with any normal case of the virus, the chicken pox spread over the outside of my body. My parents and I had no way of knowing at the time, but unfortunately for me, the chicken pox had also spread inside my body and up my brain stem. The illness was so severe that I have no memory of the experience. I am told that I slipped in and out of consciousness and that I was so out of it that at times I couldn’t even recognize my own parents.
After being sick for a couple days, the fact that I was lying on the ground having a seizure and foaming at the mouth was a sure sign that things had taken a turn for the worse. I was sent to Boston Children’s Hospital. There, the doctors discovered that I had meningitis, encephalitis and Reye’s Syndrome.
What a nightmare for my parents. I wasn’t expected to make it. Long story short, I survived and I had a really beautiful experience that perhaps I will share with you another time. I feel that I was given a choice to stay on earth or leave this life. I chose to stay, not knowing the difficulty that was ahead of me.
In time, my body recovered, but my brain did not. I was left with a learning disability that would forever be the thorn in my side. I needed help with everything. I still do today. With everything I do.
Cognitive and social skills–like making friends, trying to fit in, the ability to understand what I read and what I hear, communicating effectively and saying the right things, and handling the embarrassment and frustration that comes along with my disability, even as an adult—these are stumbling blocks that I struggle with every day of my life. Every. Single. Day.
School subjects like reading, writing, spelling, math, history, and science were incredible challenges. I was called: slow, “not too bright, but talented”, ugly, not an intellectual. You get the picture. On the up side, my boys love that they know more than me in their school studies.
Going to school sucked! From the time my learning disability was diagnosed in elementary school, I was the only girl in a room full of boys in the special education classroom. We all had different disabilities. Most of the boys had ADHD. The majority of the time, their behavior was up the wall crazy, and as a child I felt embarrassed to be seen with them. I just wanted to feel normal and go to normal classes with normal kids.
Not until my sophomore year in high school was I able to do some mainstream classes. But, whenever there was a test or a report, I had to go to the special education room to review what I had learned and also have a para-professional read my tests to me. Sometimes she would read a single question 4 or 5 times just so I could comprehend the question, while looking at the test with her.
Even when I went into mainstream class like everyone else, I was taking the easiest classes one could take in all subjects except art (and I was still only getting Cs and Ds–on a good day I might score a B, but only once in a blue moon would I hit an A). Art was the only Advanced Placement (AP) class I could take without it being too hard.
Throughout school, I was blessed to have small groups of friends in my life that liked me for me. But it was also a bittersweet experience. They were all extremely intelligent, and they have now become doctors, therapists, well known artists and actors. And then there’s me.
Due to my test scores, I didn’t even qualify to take the ACT or SAT. You can’t imagine how stupid I felt. What was I going to do with my life? What chance would I have in the future? What school would admit me? When I was looking at schools, I knew I would only be able to apply to private art schools that saw my art portfolio.
My folks weren’t in a position to pay for college for me, so my only option was student loans, which meant a heap of debt after college. I was not eligible to get any kind of grant money because my folks made just enough money for me not to qualify. I also didn’t know very much about grants either. Nobody educated me on them. So, I took out crazy huge loans to go to art school.
I still struggled there. During my college years (at art school) when I was required to read, my mother purchased copies of my books to keep at her house. She would then take the time to read to me over the phone for several hours every week. She would explain the story and pronounce and define words for me. My mom was a huge part of me getting through my education. Because of my mom’s help I made the dean’s list with a 3.4 GPA when I graduated.
Also, for a long time I had to support my family. Me, the stupid one. My husband struggled with trying to figure out what his next move was, and that meant that I needed to provide. He was a 4.0 genius that had no difficulties with school, but figuring out what his career was going to be was really hard for him. It should be stated, though, that he writes everything for me (including this). I wouldn’t be where I am without his support.
Technically, due to my disability, I could choose not to work and receive monthly financial assistance from the government. Although that is a fantastic program for many people who truly need it, I choose not to take advantage of that because I strongly believe in fulfilling my potential. I continually push myself to be better than I was yesterday.
Now, I’ve sold over 200 works of fine art and I’m a Creative Art Director for Talisman Designs. I come up with the products lines, illustrate, design packaging, invented a gadget that was nominated for an international award, photograph everything, design catalogs, mentor, manage and run the creative department. Check out my work! https://www.talismandesigns.com/ I love my newest inventions: the Pastry Wheel Decorator and Pastry Wheel Cutter.
Even today, it’s an incredibly difficult mental strain to put on a show and try to appear normal. To function normally is so hard for me. Mentally, I’m sprinting at full speed, while everyone else is walking casually. But for me, even just trying to make a simple comment makes me feel like I’m trying to cram for a test. Even when talking about this blog with others, it’s really hard for me to communicate verbally what it’s about. I feel mentally paralyzed inside. It’s exhausting all the time. But my motivation to keep going comes from wanting to prove to the world that I’m not stupid, because I know that I am smart.
I don’t want to sound preachy, but the only thing that has truly helped me through this life long struggle is my relationship with God and daily prayer. As an adult, I continue to pray throughout every day for help with these things.
I learned how to work really, really hard at a very young age. I learned how to fail and then keep trying (I fail every day, so I’ve had lots of practice mastering that skill). I learned how to overcome the ridicule of my peers and leaders. I learned how to overcome rejection. I learned how to endure.
As a six year old girl given the choice to stay or leave is a huge choice. I’m grateful I made that choice to stay. I was able to make it through all of these experiences because I never gave up. I wanted people to know I could succeed. No matter how long it takes, I will still try and try again. The lessons that have I learned about myself and what I am capable of achieving continue to bless my life each and every day.