Making HerStory

Making HerStory: Melessa Paynter

“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.

Me in 7th grade.

Me in 7th grade.

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 high school graduation.

My high school graduation.


Me and Mom at my high school graduation.

Me and Mom at my high school graduation.

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.

Self portrait taken in college.

Self portrait taken in college.


Another self portrait taken in college.

Another self portrait taken in college.

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.

Wedding day with my family.

Wedding day with my family.

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! I love my newest inventions: the Pastry Wheel Decorator and Pastry Wheel Cutter.

One of my latest inventions.

One of my latest inventions.

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.

Me with my boys.

Me with my boys.

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.

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  • Amy
    September 29, 2016 at 12:43 pm

    You are so inspiring, Melessa. I don’t know anyone who works as hard as you. Thank you for sharing your struggles! ❤️

  • Kelltie
    September 29, 2016 at 1:57 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story! You are very inspiring to me that despite my struggles I can still succeed!

  • Martha
    September 29, 2016 at 2:32 pm

    Love it, Thank you so much, beautiful storie of endure to the end, love you

  • Karla
    September 29, 2016 at 2:47 pm

    Thank you for your inspirational story! I would have never guessed that you have had and continue to have these hurdles. I truly am grateful for you sharing this. It’s amazing how much of an impact someone can have on another by just sharing their story or experienced❤️

  • Teresa Hirst
    September 29, 2016 at 3:14 pm

    Melessa is such an inspiration to me. I can tell when I’m with her that her depth comes from having won some hard battles within herself. This line says it all, “Motivation to keep going comes from wanting to prove to the world that I’m not stupid, because I know I am smart.”

  • Katrina Mendolera
    September 29, 2016 at 3:54 pm

    I never knew you experienced such struggles when we were in school together, but I always recall you as being an intelligent, sensitive, insightful, and fun person who was always kind. Thank you for sharing your very inspiring story! Looking forward to reading more! 🙂

  • Sonya Payne
    September 29, 2016 at 5:29 pm

    Melissa I never knew that about you, however I never would have guessed. It just goes to show that we have no idea what challenges others face. Thank you for having the courage to share your story and give us all hope. You are a beautiful woman inside and out.

  • Jenny Simper
    September 29, 2016 at 6:33 pm

    Melessa it’s no secret you are AMAZING!!! You don’t need anyone’s approval. I wish you could save the energy you use trying to prove yourself to others. I’m sorry life has had so many struggles for you but I am so glad for the lessons you’ve learned and character you’ve built because of them. I have never once for an instant thought that you are stupid. Being open is a vulnerable place to be but I think the only place where deep emotional connections can be made. Thank you for your courage.

  • Jen
    September 29, 2016 at 6:47 pm

    Melessa, what an inspiration you are, for your family and for others! I am so happy we were good friends through Highschool; you always exuded happiness, fun, creativity, and a true caring sense. And, I love that we own one of your personal designs; our little wooden spoon for our coffee sugar bowl! Will be in the lookout for more 🙂

  • Delores Paynter
    September 30, 2016 at 12:56 am

    What an interesting story to read. I do not ever think of you as being lesser than anyone. We all have our struggles, you have had more than your share but look at the great person that has come out of that struggle! You are much loved by your family and by your in-laws too, I just heard on the TV that it is in-love instead of in-laws, that is good. Love you Melessa!


  • Laura
    September 30, 2016 at 11:55 am

    Thank you so much for your support and kind words! Laura’s family motto is “Fake it ’til you make it!” I think we all do this at times;)

  • Sarah Hogan
    September 30, 2016 at 12:58 pm

    Such an inspiration, Melessa! Wow! I’m blown away by your strength. It’s so great to hear your story and know that hard things can be overcome. You’re amazing.

  • Allison Davey
    September 30, 2016 at 6:30 pm

    Thank you for your courage and sharing. This makes me love your mom even more. I’m so glad you’ve had some special people in your life to stand by your side like her and Nate.

  • Amy K
    October 1, 2016 at 1:57 pm

    I work with Nate and he sent me a link to the blog. Just read this one entry, which brought tears to my eyes. You see, my daughter has learning disabilities and struggles. As you noted, it’s not just learning but also social skills, fitting in, being accepted. Thank you for sharing your story and blessing my heart.

  • Naoma
    October 8, 2016 at 12:12 pm

    I like you struggled and continue to struggle with many of the same things you have and do. I grew up feeling dumb and incapable, but now realizing that I had undiagnosed ADHD makes things clearer. Thank you for sharing your story. It helps me see that I, like you can succeed and overcome my own personal deficits. You are amazing

    • Laura
      October 8, 2016 at 5:28 pm

      Naoma, I’m sorry you felt that way growing up. But please know that you are an incredible woman. You’re so full of goodness and love. Thank you for sharing your light with the rest of us!

  • Denise
    October 8, 2016 at 10:43 pm

    Wow–and double wow! You are incredible, Melessa. You are sooooo talented and beautiful. Who would have ever guessed all the difficulties, struggles and sadness you’ve been through? I sure hadn’t. Thank you for being brave enough to share these things with us. What an inspiration you are to me.

  • Elane Teasdale
    October 14, 2016 at 3:56 am

    So yes….I cried again. You are on the top ten of most amazing ladies I have had the chance to rub shoulders with. I feel blessed to have had the miracle of you in my life. You have done more for me and my family than you will ever understand and I think you are heads and tails above me and many of the other people in the world with your intellect. Knowing how hard you had to work to obtain it makes you even more of an inspiration. Thank you Melessa for all you do. You are one of Gods greatest creations of art.

  • janahogan
    December 23, 2016 at 12:38 am

    I have tears in my eyes after reading this post. I have had the true blessing of being your visiting teacher for 4 years and I am certain that I have been the one to gain from that relationship. I have listened to you speak eloquently in conversation and still have a hard time believing you struggle in any of the ways you talk about. It’s hard to believe because of the amazing stories you tell, the way you share your feelings, and not to mention that artistic genius you are. In the past you’ve told me you would not have changed the life-altering struggles you’ve endured. I was floored when you said that because it made me rethink my perspective on my own trials–the hardest ones I’ve had to endure. I had no idea you made the choice to stay when you were 6. I get it now–you stayed to teach all of us.

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