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.