Stories We Tell Ourselves

Stories We Tell Ourselves

Everyone has a story

Recently, I shared aspects of my personal experience of dyslexia with Susan Lambert during an episode of the Science of Reading podcast. Rarely do I agree to share this part of my narrative, but I shared it because of the encouragement of so many friends. They reminded me that we are strongest when we honor the fallibilities inherent to our humanity. The outpouring of support generated by this episode caught me by surprise. And wow, the aspect of the episode that touched on dyslexia as a superpower evoked considerable curiosity and awareness of my imperfections. So many people asked me to clarify and elaborate.

So, what was I trying to convey?

I tried my best to say that I do not find the narrative that has morphed into a stereotype that individuals with dyslexia are inherently endowed with superpowers compelling. And in my personal and clinical life, I have observed the narrative as dangerous for members of our community. That is just my perspective. At the same time, people have shared with me before and after the podcast that they view their dyslexia as a superpower and something that comes with gifts. I do not feel entitled to limit the realities of others. How members of our community understand themselves is up to each of us. And I acknowledge that this narrative has provided solace to many of us.

For me, one bridge too far has been a mythical form of dyslexia characterized by a list of specific superpowers. A checklist of endowments printed on the back of our membership cards, marking us as being “real dyslexics.” For many of us, our learning differences caused great suffering. If anything, it felt as if those were branded on our foreheads for everyone to see – and fittingly, the names of the deficits we carry branded on our foreheads are misspelled. Wasn’t that the mark of a “true dyslexic” – shame. This is the reality we can all seem to agree on. We know the depths of shame that one can only feel as a child made to feel broken and undeserving of help. And I find sensationalizing trauma as a narrative of how dyslexia comes with a silver lining of a finite list of superpowers that “research” shows us to have unpalatable. It may have been well intended, but it also has led children and adults I encounter to feel even more shame and inadequacy.  These thoughts are grounded in my lived experiences and understanding of the research basis that has explored and characterized dyslexia. Something in my small way, I have added to.

At the same time, it is one bridge too far for me to uniformly decide what is true for everyone from the dyslexia community. Maybe you view your dyslexia as a gift that gives you superpowers. That is your lived narrative. My take on the current research is that we lack data from well-designed studies documenting specific gifts consistently across our community as often included on lists printed in books and on websites. But each of us is different. Some of you might have a gift and attribute it to your dyslexia. Or have developed a way that serves you to view your dyslexia as a gift. I honor your reality.

What do I believe?

At my core, I believe in empowering our community to find and leverage our gifts to pursue what drives and fulfills us. Gifts that we have yet to unlock and are not limited to eight or so traits printed in a book or on a website. As a community, we are unified by several things. One great unifier is that we all know the anguish of struggling to read and spell words due to no fault of our own other than the original sin of being born. But we are also unified by the great potential in each of us to learn for ourselves that those limitations do not define us in our totality. That we, too, have the potential to develop strengths and do things that add value to the world. We are all beautifully woven into the fabric of humanity.

What did I learn?

Something hit me as I reflected on what I took away from having done the podcast. I saw in all the reactions afterward how big our community is and how much empathy we have for each other. In all the feedback I received, nobody once devalued me or questioned my lived experience and perspective.

For me, empathy has been my greatest superpower. And yes, my capacity for empathy has been forged by my struggles to read and spell words. I had to develop a capacity to find empathy for the adults who were supposed to be there to help me but instead told me that I was broken. It took strength and work to realize that I wasn’t broken. And with time and psychological distance, I found empathy for those adults and realized that they were just as trapped as I was in systems. And I now see clearly that the systems are broken – not me.

As humans, we inherently want to make sense of the world and our experiences in it. Doing this often shapes the stories we tell ourselves. The gifts of dyslexia are woven into the fabric of the stories many of us in the dyslexia community tell. The idea of these gifts as being confined to a list of traits we are supposed to possess is a point of great happiness and hope in the stories that some of us tell. But in others, it is another heartbreaking point of shame – they can not check any of those traits off on their dyslexic membership card.

I would ask us to consider taking down the lists and replacing them with the boundless potential to create through our efforts the powers and gifts needed to obtain our life’s work—many of which we haven’t even discovered. My issue with the lists is they are finite. They are not big enough to capture us. As a community, we are boundless in our capacity to grow, with each of us holding the potential for so much. We contain multitudes who can be united as a community by our support for each other.

Thank you for taking the time to hear my story. I offer you my love and respect to the end.