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Dyslexia and Mental Health

Writing a self-reflecting blog can be difficult for most to do but when your dyslexic, this brings added challenges. I felt it was time to discuss mental health and dyslexia and hope to give you an insight into my world.

I recall quite early on, around the age of six that I was a lot quieter than my other five siblings.  I was introverted, extremely shy and hated going to school which at the time was in the USA. It was a scary time as our school would regularly be ‘locked down’ whilst gangs caused havoc outside.

I discovered craft early on which allowed me to disappear into my world and gave me the ability to shut out the noise of my other family members and I found sanctuary in that peace. A year later we were back in the UK and I had the prospect of a new school. I recall my first writing class and my teacher was so impatient with me as I didn’t hold my pen correctly and I had to turn my paper around sidewards to write in a straight line. He would repeatedly turn the paperback and force me to conform to ‘his way’. The layers began to build in my belief system that ‘I was not as clever as the others.

The playground was a nightmare. I had a slight American accent and the other kids were curious about me so I got a lot of unwanted attention. Thankfully I found a friend who I thought was odd like me and the attention gradually faded. What I became deliriously happy at was having repeated tonsillitis which meant I couldn’t go to school on many occasions. Happy days.  I would watch endless black and white Bette Davies films.

I do recall at the age of 10, putting together a mini-play which was performed by the other students on parent’s day. This came to me so easy as I could see the whole production in my head.  I felt so proud of myself. The parents made the costumes. I watched from the sidelines and when it was over and the audience were clapping, I just wanted to get away…swiftly. All through this, my confidence was low and I felt isolated whilst my other siblings were enjoying daily life at school. School was simply too much pressure.

Reading and dyslexia

Around the same time, I discovered the local library. I could read, but I would speed read down the centre of a page and relied on pictures to make it visually interesting for me. Always getting half a story and never a joyous experience. Reading was not a pleasure at all until I discovered Tolkien and my world was turned upside down. Suddenly, I was transported into a kingdom that was magical and adventurous where the impossible became possible. I travelled through every journey, I followed the maps and this became my sanctuary. I would get to the end of one book then read it all over again. I was The Hobbit.

Leapfrogging to the age of 12, it was a crazy time. I started high school, had my tonsils removed and began the worst four years of my life.  I hated every single day. There were only a few highlights. The first was the art class. I couldn’t draw or paint but my teacher instinctively knew this. He smoked in the class and wore a green velvet jacket. I was mesmerised by him. I think because he fitted my model of someone who was ‘different.’ As everyone dived into their projects, I would be summonsed to his desk and instructed to go into the cupboard at the back of the room and pour him a Jack Daniels. Regardless of what anyone else was expected to do, I would return to my desk and trace an album cover, undisturbed.

Then there was Mrs Lacey who got our whole year to O Level Religious Education exams when we were 15. She wore lace up black boots and got extremely excited when she spoke about gladiators. Every lesson was a mini movie which delighted me. She taught in a visual way and brought all the characters to life and I got it. She made learning easy.

And definitely not a highlight but my maths teacher. I vividly recall him writing fractions and other weird stuff on the blackboard which would literally bounce around or melt into each other. I felt anxiety every time he was on my timetable. He would relentlessly pick on me and reduce me to tears in the front of the class as I couldn’t answer the maths questions. The sad thing was that I could often ‘see’ the answer in my head, but I had no way to verbalise it. It was surely stuck like glue!!

He had a golf club next to his desk and he would swing it down and stop short as it made contact with my ankle. Then there was the newspaper which he would place outside the door. When the bell rang, I had to sit there and be humiliated as all the hordes of kids passed down the corridor.

Can you imagine the shame I experienced? I became more withdrawn at school and would mark down the days until the holidays. I would often sneak off at lunchtime and not go back in. School became a daytime version of the Hammer Horror films. Some would say that was just the 70’s.

Nowhere to escape the noise

My family house became louder and there was nowhere to escape. My four sisters soon twigged I was really good at sewing so I was constantly making things for them and the noise of the machine drowned them out. They thought I was doing them a favour! I did become very entrepreneurial though and began selling dozens of velvet chokers.

At the time I was a Bay City Roller fan and got tickets from my paper round money to see them in Liverpool in 1976. I thought they were great until the very next day, I remember hearing music coming from downstairs which stopped me in my tracks.  It wasn’t a tapped recording of the Top 20 or one of my Dads crooner albums but haunting and beautiful. I became as dissociated from everything in that moment as I did when I discovered The Lord of the Rings. I owe that feeling to Led Zeppelin. In that moment, my life changed forever. Music became my life.

Over a 10 year period, I seen over 200 gigs in the UK and Europe. I became very self-aware of the internal processes I would experience when music or movies were in my world and later went on to manage a Multiplex cinema. I was in sensory heaven. I found I had a natural niche for rolling out marketing campaigns, some went National and I didn’t have a marketing qualification to my name.  What I did have was abundant vision & a defiant attitude to succeed.

Mental health and dyslexia

It wouldn’t have been normal back then to talk about mental health or dyslexia because they didn’t exist.  You were just ‘different’ or thick. In some ways, I was happy to just be me.  I was never conventional but quiet enough not be noticed. I developed my Educating Rita syndrome.  I began to equate books with intelligence, problem was, I hated reading which kick started a 30 year relationship trying to understand how I could be seen as intelligent.

I decided at this point to become self-employed so I never had to justify my differences to employers so I broke free and became self-employed which I have been for a very long time.  No one to answer to or explain the unexplainable, in my way.

The one thing I was very aware of was that I wasn’t interested in problems. Problems were heavy, negative and troublesome.  What I did have was a very unique and innate ability to find solutions.  It was like a gift and still is. Those solutions appeared visually in their own visualisation and I would attach all the exciting emotions you would experience. I became the fixer to many, those who were stuck in their internal worlds and couldn’t ‘see’ how to break free.

This led me on to qualifying as a Clinical Hypnotherapist back in 2005 as I was fascinated with the mind. Constantly exploring why I functioned differently to others. Knowing I could achieve so much yet never going down traditional routes.

All these years on, I haven’t changed that much.  Nothing lands with me till I can ‘see it’. I can’t manage my diary, I forget every birthday and even got mine wrong last year and have realised I have been gifted a year. Bonus!

When I joined forces with Nathan Gould my co-Director a few years ago and we developed the UK Counselling Network, it was challenging as I initially was back to explaining my thought processes again.  With maturity and an internal reassurance that there was absolutely nothing I couldn’t overcome, we now a enjoy a great working relationship, albeit some of our methods are polar opposites. 

Great vision wins everytime

One of my strengths is vision and we use that to its maximum and have enough common ground to agree on the scope of the future.  We now manage over 120 individuals in our ever expanding team and are responsible for the mental health provision of many individuals throughout the UK. During this time I also took my counselling qualification and have recently completed a two year diploma and qualified as a Group Work Practitioner with the IGA. Who would ever guess I could complete a series of academic assignments?

Neurodiversity which is now the common name used for a wide variety of individual diversity is more widely discussed. I could have allowed my ‘flaws’ to dominate my life but I have classed them as a gift to succeed in ways that only some people dream of and I’m not stopping here.

Richard Branson, Jim Carrey, Keira Knightley, Steven Spielberg all have dyslexia yet they are incredibly successful and creative. I’m still working on the big question, ‘What is intelligence to me?’ Maybe I need to explore a new perspective and finally update that outdated belief system.

So if you have identified with my story or maybe a friend or your child has similar traits, then except that they are perfectly normal, in any way that fits for them. Tap into their uniqueness, embrace it though all the challenges it brings and celebrate the nuances it brings.

I hope you have enjoyed my blog and I would welcome any comments on your experience of dyslexia and mental health. Sally Benson – Director UK Counselling Network CIC

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