I was diagnosed at 12 years old with dysgraphia. For anyone who hasn’t heard of dysgraphia, a case study by the University of Edinburgh described it as, “a neurological condition that causes a disruption of information between the brain and the fine motor skills of the hand. Fine motor skills are essential for writing.” I forget what words look like, even words as simple as my own name and when I do remember I struggle communicating that information to my hand. Yet I have a degree in writing and publishing.
I remember I was sitting in one of those lifeless medical offices when I found out. I tried to rationalise what I was hearing but it was like trying to draw a line between two points on a map, and every time I started following the streets I would end up in a maze of backroads that could never quite get me where I was told to go. I loved words. I read a lot and had aspirations of being an actor. I struggled to keep lines straight in my head, but I assumed this would pass. Yet now I knew it wouldn’t. I told myself that I was an idiot and I embraced that stereotype in the worst ways.
My reading habits of a book a month dropped to one a year. Any attempts at writing my own stories dried up completely. I held myself back in a thousand ways for one reason. I had dysgraphia. Dysgraphia meant that I could barely read and in my young and misguided brain, I thought that meant that I was an idiot. The sad truth is this isn’t uncommon either. A website called Understood has a series of articles about how dysgraphia can lead to self-esteem issues.
After high school I wasn’t sure where I was going. I went to an acting college for a year but somehow that felt hollow and empty. I wasn’t an idiot anymore; I was a depressed idiot.
Yet I had no clear reason. I had plenty of friends and a supportive family. I didn’t have much money, but I always had accommodation and food to eat. It was only after an assignment which had a creative writing component I figured it out. For the first time in about five years, I wrote and I realised what was wrong. I wasn’t an actor. I was a story teller. Writing clicked with me in a way the theatre didn’t.
So, I dropped out.
I enrolled in a certificate IV of writing and editing and started the slow journey of getting on track. I walked into a class of thirty people and I got on really well with them but it was still uncomfortable. By the age most people are looking to graduate, I had just started taking my studies seriously. I was also painfully aware of how many mistakes I was making, but I could never see them. I remember I had a habit of dropping the conjunctions off words. For example I would try to write, “He can’t do that.” But it came out as “He can do that.” Teachers and fellow students would tell me how much they loved the narratives and the characters, but when I wrote sentences that said the complete opposite of what I intended, like with the example above, it became a slog to appreciate any of it.
I remember feeling embarrassed over the first year. There was one particular grammar test I had to re-sit three times before I got a passing grade. That idiot sensation always hovering over my head. But I kept at it. After the certificate I move into a diploma. The embarrassment turned to anger. My grades were improving, but I still kept getting comments about readability. I knew it was my dysgraphia, and I was certain I could beat it.
By the time I entered the degree it had been a long and exhausting trip. I felt isolated and alone. Through TAFE cut backs and branching roads in life all my friends from the certificate had moved on or dropped out. My classes were filled with faces I barely knew. But my grades kept improving.
I brought a chapter in for a workshop. As people started to read I became cripplingly aware of how long everyone was taking to get through it. At the end my lecturer looked up and said:
“Torben, this is one of the best examples of craft I have seen. It’s a pity it’s trapped behind such terrible writing.”
Such a blunt statement in final year made me consider dropping out just before the finish line. But then he spoke again: “I suggest you take a long look at tenses in the text book.”
I was surprised, but curious. I did as he said. It was painful since dysgraphia makes reading dense textbooks a nightmare. But as I started to read I saw the unconscious mistakes I had been making for years. It wasn’t like a light switch. I didn’t just ‘get it’. It took hours of practice, reading and editing until it really made sense. But soon I was consistent enough that the phrase ‘nearly unreadable’ was disappearing from my mark sheets.
I thought I’d won.
But dysgraphia was never letting go. When I got my marks back for my final major assignment I saw the result and I was ecstatic. I had beaten it, beaten it right down where it would never bother me again. I had fixed my dysgraphia.
But then I looked at the comments section from my lecturer and my confidence crashed down. “This was an assignment about graphic design. Visually it looks great so I gave it a high distinction. However, you spelt your own name wrong on the front.”
The truth is dysgraphia isn’t a disease.
I suggest if anyone is concerned that they, or their child, are dealing with dysgraphia you should check out the website Understood. It has a lot of great articles about what the symptoms are and how you can help the anxiety and self-esteem issues I had to deal with. As an example the site has an article called “4 Ways Dysgraphia can Affect Your Child’s Social Life“. A lot of kids like me struggle with school and as a result, they assume they are an idiot. Instead of falling into this way of thinking it is recommended to “encourage your child to choose after school activities that will build on their strengths. Doing well in one area can help boost your child’s self-esteem and confidence.”
It’s exhausting to finally reach the finish line and get the degree only to realise that was the warm-up sprint before the marathon. But this is something I am going to do. I will write and I will keep writing. It’s already paying off with publications on websites and a science-fantasy story featured in an anthology called Planet Bastard. I can’t say I’ve made it yet, and dysgraphia will always be hounding me. But I am going to beat it. I am going to win.