Living with dyscalculia

by Published: Feb 13, 2013

It’s Sunday night. I’m in front of the computer, staring at the same screen I’ve been in front of for six hours today, trying to remember how to divide fractions and what eight times three equals.

I work on the problem presented to me for 20 minutes, type the answer into ALEKS (the computer program used for some classes) and sit back and watch it process it as wrong. I begin again, frustrated, defeated and demoralized; I really have no idea what I’m doing wrong. I scream at the computer because it’s the only defense mechanism I have.

I let this continue for another hour before my brain goes into overload, realizing that all the sections are due tonight at midnight and I am never going to finish. My stomach wretches, my head throbs, my pulse hastens and my innards move slowly into my esophagus. My body starts to convulse, and I begin to cry. Big, sobbing, heavy, wet tears. I puke. I dry heave. I am having a panic attack.

My husband comes over, makes me get out from in front of the computer, sits me on the couch, wipes away my vomit, gets me a glass of water and holds me until the convulsions turn into faint shudders, my innards go back from whence they came and my heart stops palpitating to the beat of a Latin dance tune.

It’s been happening every Sunday for the past month since the new semester started and I started Math 115—the class that has become both the bane of my existence and the biggest challenge I currently face in a requirement for graduation.

I have dyscalculia. It’s a good friend of dyslexia and is a recognized learning disability that means I drop the negative symbols, forget what eight times three is and for the most part can’t retain anything I learn in mathematics.

According to an article by the Pittsburg Gazette posted on Dyscalculia​.org, “Severe learning disabilities in math, affecting up to seven percent of all students, have been described as the mathematics version of dyslexia, the reading disorder in which people have trouble understanding or interpreting letters, words and symbols.”

The article goes on to say that although getting the diagnosis has gotten better in the past 20 years, many times the students affected fall through the cracks. I was one of those students.

I’ve had trouble with math for as long as I can remember. Some of my very earliest memories of first grade were not completing homework because I couldn’t do the math. In fourth grade, a teacher looked right at me and said, “You can’t do anything right, and that’s the problem.”

It took me until I was 20 years old to learn how to count change back to people, and still to this day I have no idea how or why negative signs attach or detach to an equation.

For all the spots I am lacking in mathematically, dyscalculia makes up for me in other areas. One of the first signposts of dyscalculia is over-excellence in everything else but mathematics, and excellence in geometry and scientific studies, such as chemistry and physics, up until the point at which the mathematics become too complicated to comprehend.

That was and is me today, and I’m not alone. Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison and Hans Christian Anderson all had dyscalculia. Bill Gates, Cher and Harry Winkler are all examples of modern-day people living with and overcoming dyscalculia.

It’s hard to compensate for, but nothing worth having is ever easy. I quit one of my jobs because the homework from a basic Math 115 class is taking me on average 13–15 hours a week to complete, but I do it. I sully forth and traverse into the unknown wilderness of finding X and compensating for the lack of the ability to know Y.

I have weekly panic attacks thinking that my homework will never get done and that I’ll fail college, but I know deep down with determination and the support of my friends, family and teachers I’ll make it through.

I may have achieved only a C+ at the end of the semester, but to me that C+ is the best looking grade I’ve ever seen. It may bring my grade point average down, but the point is I can say I did it, and at least once in my life I did something right.