7 Things I Learned From Struggling With Dyscalculia
On learning that I wasn't just "bad with numbers".
1. I am definitely not stupid.
For most of my life I didn’t know there was a reason why I struggled so terribly with maths, I just thought I was kind of dumb. At school I spent countless hours poring over maths problems and on occasion I’d even reach that definitive moment where something “clicks”. For a few minutes I’d feel victorious and solve whichever riddle had been plaguing me.
I would ride high on the breakthrough, relieved that I might not be a dunce after all – but swiftly, and without warning, the knowledge I'd worked so hard to unlock would evaporate. Like a robot I could slowly and painfully work through something, but I couldn’t make the connections or understand the “why” behind what I was calculating.
I’d be left with that irritating feeling where you’re about to say something but it flies out of your mind, and no matter how long you dwell over it you can’t will it back into existence. Each and every time I’d have to make the connection from scratch all over again, as if it had never been on the tip of my tongue to begin with. It was exhausting. Often anything that wasn’t finished in class was to be done as homework, where the agony would continue but with considerably less pressure.
2. I have the maths version of dyslexia.
I was diagnosed with dyscalculia at the age of 23. It’s not the best description but “I have the maths version of dyslexia” is how I explain it to people when they inquire. Both disorders are similar in the sense that the subject at hand is always that little bit out of reach – that you often have to work a bit harder and wee bit longer to get the same results as someone without either condition. They are both super frustrating but they aren’t anything that can’t be handled with some time and patience.
At the pub after work one day I spoke to my colleague about his feelings in regards to his dyslexia, a condition that’s more widely known than dyscalculia but in quite a similar vein. This was one of the first open discussions I’d had on the matter and his insights were comforting. He reminded me that intelligence comes in many forms and it wasn’t necessarily that there was anything wrong with us but more that the world just wasn’t skewed to the way we work and that was OK.
3. Finding out made me angry but it helped.
I found out in a roundabout way that I had dyscalculia. I had never heard of it before. The guy I was dating at the time was a psychology professor and in a dimly lit pub on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow we were discussing the connection between savants and autism, which digressed into a wider conversation about people being “wired differently”. He used dyslexia and dyscalculia as an example, then casually gestured in my direction and said “like you”. I made him elaborate and he encouraged me to seek further advice. The next week I confirmed his suspicions with someone well versed in learning disabilities at a learning centre in Glasgow. I remember being in there for a long time but what was said eludes me because I was focusing so hard on not crying a river of angry tears.
I wasn’t angry at anyone in particular but a quiet rage nestled in my heart as I thought about all the times I’d felt like a deer caught in headlights while trying to stay composed in the classroom. It sounds dramatic, but while I was relieved I wasn’t exactly pleased. Had I known all along that my brain was just wired differently I would have been a lot kinder to myself and spent less time trying to make sure people knew I wasn’t an idiot.
4. Being “bad at maths” affected me a lot more than I realised.
Once most of the resentment had passed I felt lighter. My boyfriend, who originally thought I’d known all along and was just super sensitive about it, was empathetic. I felt comforted that he didn’t think any less of me – which had been a secret concern I carried. There being an explanation didn’t suddenly make me better at maths but it did relieve some of the pressure I had been putting on myself.
I can help build a bookshelf from Ikea but please don’t quote me measurements then ask me to estimate whether it will fit in the living room. I won’t know, but I’ll guess and you’ll be screwed. I can vividly and vicariously live through books I’m reading but I can’t seem to conjure up an image from measurements alone.
For a rather adventurous person I get lost a lot. I can give you a rundown of the best places to visit in Paris or Miami but I can’t read a map to tell you how to get there. The map just doesn’t make sense to me and I can guarantee that every time I make an educated guess I will inevitably go the wrong way. The blue dot on my screen guiding me as I navigate my way through streets unknown is my only beacon of light.
5. The anxiety I feel when faced with maths is real AF.
I can help my baby brother with his maths homework and know that 12 + 7 = 19, but he will get to the answer before me. I will be stuck in my head, slightly paralysed with anxiety over getting a simple answer wrong.
If you ask me a simple arithmetic question it will take me a questionable amount of time to answer – but not always because I don’t know. I need to run the calculation in my head at least three times, regardless of the fact that I already have the correct answer. I just can't trust myself to be sure that I am not wrong.
I get faint butterflies when speaking to a room full of people or flirting with a cute boy, but I get full-blown nerves when someone asks me to calculate the bill at dinner.
6. I learned how to get by.
I’m the first child of South Asian parents who built a business from scratch. At one point they were convinced that being an accountant or doctor (I know, I know) were the only valid choices in life. They craved stability for their children. I felt guilty: They had worked so hard to make a better life for me and I couldn’t even get my multiplications down.
When I was 15 my parents requested the services of a tutor. My siblings also had time with him but we all knew he was really for me. Maths had become an everyday battle at school, eroding my self-esteem, and then it invaded my home. I couldn’t take the mental beatings every Tutor Tuesday, so I started to pretend I was bad at English too. I actually excelled in English, history, and classics but I decided that my tutor didn’t need to know that. I would act as if I didn’t know what certain words meant; I’d spell things incorrectly and purposely confuse my metaphors and similes. Then I would ask him for help. I would obediently listen as he explained my mistakes to me and then rectify them as advised. It was less frustrating for both of us. This way he could feel like I was improving and I could avoid being scolded for “not paying attention” (because if I were paying attention I wouldn’t keep getting things wrong). Eventually my mother realised I’d been wasting her money and I got out of it altogether.
Since maths made me feel inadequate I overcompensated with other subjects. I read furiously, wrote diligently, and made sure that I had my “amo, amas, amat” down. I was articulate and well read but every time someone called me clever I still felt like a fraud. Luckily, self-deprecation is built into Scottish society.
7. I'm likely to be harder on myself than anyone else would be.
As I approached my twenties and maths was a distant nemesis I still relied on humour as a defence mechanism, as well as charm and deflection. I learned how to steer conversations away from my flaws and on to other people’s strengths. Being bad at maths made me good at making friends.
In July I found myself staring at a spreadsheet. People passed me making chit-chat and I forced a smile in return while the phrase “all good things must come to an end” rang in my ears. I'd had a fairly long run and the jig was up, in my mind; my past had come to bite me on the ass. The basic maths I was used to encountering at work was fine – I had a calculator and the internet on my side. I spent a stupid number of hours trying to decipher the meaning of this spreadsheet only to discover that it wasn’t accurate itself. I eventually asked a colleague for help, who confirmed that it was the document that was wrong, not me. I nervously spoke about my grudge against maths while making my disdain for spreadsheets clear.
I very casually dropped into conversation that I had “the maths version of dyslexia”, so I hadn’t been able to confidently confirm the numbers. In response my colleague got endearingly excited about going over the evil spreadsheet with me as she had a genuine love for them. I laughed, thinking she was joking. She wasn’t. My being mathematically challenged was never mentioned again and I gained a new ally in this internal war I’d been fighting. I expected to be embarrassed or feel ashamed about admitting it out loud, but I actually felt relief.
While spreadsheets have definitely not become a firm favourite of mine, I have learned to tolerate them and more importantly I no longer feel the overwhelming dread I once did. The anxiety that numbers bring is still present but much less paralysing. Just like it is with maths, it took me longer than it should have to work out but I eventually stumbled upon the formula for acceptance.
I won’t be offering to help solve my brother's algebra homework or find myself suddenly falling in love with spreadsheets (which is still weird, Megan) anytime soon.