This is a continuation of my last post. It will make more sense if you check out Reading, Wallace, ADHD, and Testing first.
I have suspected that Gil has dyslexia for some time now. He’s never confirmed it, and though I’ve had numerous conversations on the subject with his mom and other family members, I’ve never gotten much back. When I’ve expressed concern about Wallace, I typically get, “He’s just like his dad — SOOOOO smart.”
I have to point out that one can have special needs that interfere with learning and processing as well as mental illness, regardless of how intelligent they are. Some of the brightest and most creative people I know suffer with mental illness, and the ones I know who function most optimally are the ones who have a comprehensive treatment plan in place. They work hard to monitor their symptoms and continually educate themselves on their conditions.
Research shows –specifically with learning issues– that early intervention is important. For children to fully function, meet educational goals, and simply exist as emotionally balanced people, it’s important to figure out exactly what’s going on.
My experience with many well-meaning people is that they approach these things in a black/white fashion. It’s either Oh, he’s smart; nothing is wrong. Or, Oh you’re testing your child for fill in the blank — he must not be as smart as we thought and don’t let anyone know this. We don’t want people to think something is wrong with him — let’s just stick with the smart script.
Obviously they don’t come right out and say that, but it’s as if people can’t wrap their brains around the fact that the two are not mutually exclusive.
I honestly believe that my children’s intelligence has overshadowed a lot of their learning struggles. They are high functioners, but I’m seeing signs of burnout, anxiety, and feelings that they don’t measure up. Gil and I, of all people, know this drill well — it was our lived experience.
Wallace is highly aware that something is different with his reading.
After we got the note home about Wallace being recommended for an Early Intervention Program and the ensuing come-apart from Gil, once he calmed down, he suggested I talk to his mom and ask very specific questions.
A few days later, Gil informed me that he spoke with Marie and asked her to be straight with me. My curiosity was piqued.
“Viv, you know how my mom is. She will take info to the grave if she thinks it will impact how people view her children. She was never comfortable with any results she got from all the testing they did on us. I had to pretty much drag it out of her and then convince her that you are different. You see information as a means to something better. You’re not judging anybody.”
Gil didn’t want to discuss it further, but I couldn’t help but feel this was a step in the right direction. I was cautiously optimistic.
Marie arrived around lunchtime on Wednesday shortly after Wallace was done with his testing. She and I talked for an hour, and I learned more in that hour than I’ve been able to decipher in nearly twenty years. I’m honestly still processing it all.
The story — prior to our conversation on Wednesday — was always that Gil had been so advanced that they moved him up from first grade to second. This apparently worked for him academically, but socially he was much less mature than his classmates and he shut down completely. Gil went on to fail 6th grade and 8th grade.
I met Gil when we were in the tenth grade, a year or so after his family moved to my hometown. He was smart but an average student and seemed like a kid who had never had any trouble socially or academically. College was an entirely different ballgame, and Gil bounced around, flunked out and finally completely his undergrad degree at age 28, after he and I were married.
The story Marie shared on Wednesday painted a vastly different picture:
Gil could never read…but he was intelligent. Still, reading is kind of a necessary skill if you are attending a traditional school. No one could figure him out. This was in the early 80s. He and his sister, who also had trouble reading, were put in a special education class. I have friends with special needs kids and I have friends who teach special ed. As much as improvement is still needed, things have come a LONG way since the 80s. Gil was in classes with children who had no verbal skills. He was taught along side children who most likely would never be able to live on their own. The special ed classes at that time were not at all tiered like they are today. There was no mainstreaming at the school they attended.
Marie said it was bad and she and Kevin didn’t know what to do. They couldn’t keep up in the regular classroom but they were too advanced for the special ed class.
Both were diagnosed with dyslexia. I made a mental note of how perplexed I was when Julianne was writing her thesis for nursing school. It seemed as though she didn’t have a grasp on language BECAUSE SHE HAD DYSLEXIA.
Why am I just finding this out now?
I’ll tell you why. Stigma.
Marie had tears in her eyes and I could tell talking about all of this was terribly difficult for her and that she still harbors deep shame.
They ended up putting Gil and Julianne in a private school that was a better fit, but that was the only other option since things were getting really bad in the one understaffed, all-inclusive, special education class. The private school was better but the staff wasn’t trained to work with students with specific learning disorders, so Gil and Julianne still had trouble. There was also the cost issue. It was a huge stretch financially, and they ultimately could not afford two private school tuitions.
So, they moved them to another district and didn’t report their diagnoses. I thought to myself — That was when Gil was in sixth grade — the first grade he failed.
And it gets better. He stayed in that school — miserably unhappy and under-performing– all because no one fully grasped that his reading abilities were sub-par. He was labeled a smart kid with motivation issues and shuffled through the system. Eighth grade, Gil has told me in the past, was the worst year ever both socially and academically. He ran away from home. His dad’s business collapsed. He was retained again. The next year, rather than send Gil back to that horrible school, they picked up the entire family and moved to the Atlanta suburbs, where Gil and I eventually met.
“We picked the area for its lush beauty. It looked like a place where everything would be better. And it was better. Everything changed for Gil there. He was able to realize his potential and he came back to himself.”
I did my best to not roll my eyes at Marie’s romanticized narrative.
I was shocked but also a bit stunned at my own detective skills. I had pieced together most of this on my own. She was only now admitting that there were diagnoses. When we talked about it previously she would say nothing was absolute and that the tests showed nothing other than immaturity and high IQ. She was very tight-lipped anytime the subject was raised.
I asked her why she wanted to tell me about all this now and she said because Gil recently called her very upset begging her to tell it to him straight. “What is wrong with me? Stop hiding it.”
She said it was never her intention to hide it but that she and Kevin decided that having some label slapped on them after the hell of elementary school they’d already been through, didn’t seem helpful at the time.
“Gil told me to talk to you. He told me that you had suspected this for a long time. How did you know?”
How the hell could I not know? I’ve lived with the man for nearly a decade. I’ve watched a brilliant, successful person hide so much insecurity beneath a strong facade. He has so much shame, and now he feels like our children have been tarnished because of him. I want to scream!!!
I’ve seen Gil comb over emails that are eloquent and beautifully written in an obsessive way, terrified of making a mistake. He always sends me copies of important letters he’s written so I can catch any glaring errors. It’s rare that I ever find any. He’s learned to work around language struggles.
I asked Marie if there was more. I thought back to the day not long before Kevin’s death. Gil was depressed. He was barely getting out of bed and was overloaded with work and babies. He was snapping at me and punching holes in the wall. It was a rough time. I had convinced him to be evaluated for ADHD since every therapist I’ve seen has suggested that Gil has a lot of traits — that AND bipolar. He was diagnosed with ADHD but refused to seek treatment. I now wonder if that diagnosis was incorrect and if it was dyslexia the whole time. ADHD and dyslexia symptoms have some overlap. Kevin dismissed my concerns and told me that when Gil gets like this I just have to leave him along. He would come around. I was annoyed and did not find that remotely helpful.
I think I’m more annoyed now because it seems that would have been a time where the dyslexia diagnosis might have been shared.
I have often wondered if Gil is slightly autistic. He has a very hard time with verbal communication, along with some other traits. I feel like I’m trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together and I’m missing half the pieces. I’m now learning that many of the pieces have been there all along, only they’ve been locked away to spare his parents any more shame.
Marie summed everything up in a tidy package — as she always does. “See Viv. Look at Gil. I’m so proud of him. Wallace will be fine.”
And she smiled her beautiful optimistic smile. I do adore her. She’s the happy, encouraging cheerleader everyone needs.
But I simply was at a loss for words.
Gil is successful in the traditional sense I suppose. But could it have been an easier path? His personal life is in shambles. Marie still doesn’t know we’re separated and haven’t slept in the same room in over a year. We’re in marital limbo until we can sell our other house. I still love Gil, and I have more understanding with this new knowledge. Still, I worry about him. I see such a beautiful soul who is smart and accomplished and insecure and complicated, suffering from regular bouts of depression and anxiety. Gil has a lot of inner turmoil that’s easy for Marie to gloss over.
I want so much more for my children.
I want them to have inner peace.
I want them to have functional, healthy relationships.
I want them to understand that we are all wired differently and that’s okay. Let’s figure out how we tick and work with what we have.
“What would you do differently knowing what you know now?” I asked Marie. It felt like strangely bold question.
“I think I did the best I could with the information I had at the time, but today there is more understanding. I’d be more open about it. I carried entirely too much back then. We wanted our kids to know they were smart and capable, but it’s hard to internalize that message when you go to school everyday watching your peers picking up information when you’re not getting it. Kids are very perceptive about that sort of thing.”
She said everything my gut is telling me.
Let’s figure out what’s going on and help them understand how they learn. It’s okay.
Wednesday night as Gil and I were driving to the Elton John concert there was mostly silence. Finally he said, “Mom told me that y’all talked. Now you know. I’m as fucked up as you’ve always thought.”
“Seriously, Gil. Why do you say stuff like that. I’ve never thought that about you. All I’ve ever wanted is to truly understand you. I got another puzzle piece today. When did she tell you?”
“Monday night…on the phone. I’m fucking dyslexic. Add it to the list. I’m sure Wallace has it, too. When is Piers getting tested? November? Get ready for more of the same. And we’re lucky I have such strong genes. Joy to world.”
This was longer than I planned. It’s been nearly two weeks now, and I’m still processing a lot of what I learned. Gil has agreed to join me to meet with the doctor when they go over Wallace’s test results. If you made it through all this, thank you for reading. I’d love to hear any experience you have in this realm.