The numbers defeated me every time: dyscalculia and me

“How can you be so stupid?”

I was at school. The school I went to was one of those fast-growing schools, even though it had only just opened a year or so before, so there were a bunch of portable classrooms dotted around the outside of the building, and that’s where my class was. I was in grade 5, and we were in the middle of math class. Math was always a source of anxiety for me, because I was bad at it. Not just bad. I was completely inept at math. I was having a lot of trouble with the work, and the teacher asked one of my classmates to help me. 

She explained the problem to me, and waited for me to get it.  

I didn’t get it.

She tried again. Though she used almost the exact same description of the problem as she had before.

And I still didn’t get it.

She tried several more times, and each time I just didn’t understand it. She’d been gripping her pencil tightly in her hands, her knuckles growing whiter and whiter until finally, she snapped it in two. And that’s when she said it. “How can you be so stupid?”

Loud enough for the entire class to hear.

I was humiliated.

Math had been a problem for me for a long time. Essentially since we started doing anything more complicated than addition. Subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, and problems; they were all beyond me. And let’s be honest, addition was hard too. It was just a little easier than the others.

I was sent to remedial classes, where a teacher tried to get me to understand basic math. It didn’t go well, and I think some of them wanted to snap their pencils in half the way my classmate had. Because they didn’t understand how anyone could not do the math. Some of them thought I just wasn’t trying hard enough. Others thought that I just needed it explained to me again. Both were terrible, because no matter what the teacher did, I just couldn’t figure out the numbers and how they worked together.

It didn’t matter that I did well in other classes, how well I did in English, or History, or even Geography. It didn’t matter, because there was always math. And math defeated me every time. 

How could I be so stupid?

For other people, numbers just happened in their heads. It seemed like everyone else could do this magical thing: they could think of numbers, and make them multiply, divide, add and subtract. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do that. With some things, I could do it if I counted on my fingers. But the teachers got mad if I did that. Counting on fingers wasn’t allowed. We had to make the numbers happen in our heads, and write it down on paper. Robbed of the use of my fingers, all I could do was stare at a blank page and hope the teacher never called on me.

Math gave me anxiety. And not a little bit. I have hit a near panic state when forced to do math in front of anyone. Math made me feel stupid. It made me feel so low.

Eventually, I saw a specialist. We did tests. And after a while, the specialist gave their diagnosis: I had a “math perception problem.” This meant that my brain didn’t compute numbers. I couldn’t perceive the way numbers worked together. It was like a number dyslexia. I used to wish there was a word for the “math perception problem” like there was for reading.  

The diagnosis made it at least easier for me to understand why I couldn’t do math. I had a learning disability around math. That phrase still had stigma around it. It wasn’t the end of the issue. Because it still felt like I was the only person who had this. I still felt ashamed of it.

I still bear the scars from those years. Because it isn’t like my ability to do math has improved. The issue still persists. The shame persists. And that anxiety still persists. Math still makes me panic. And it probably always will. Because while only one person really ever called me stupid outright, it was implied by so many teachers, who just kept acting like I wasn’t trying hard enough. That if they just drilled the numbers into me, if they asked the math question over and over and over, maybe finally I would understand. And I never did. And the looks on their faces said everything I feared about myself. Honestly, just thinking about those questions, being asked over and over, makes my palms sweat and my heart race.

It wasn’t that long ago that I finally heard the word dyscalculia – There WAS a word for it! And what’s more there was a new understanding from when I was first diagnosed. This was a difference in the way my brain worked. It was a neurodivergence. Knowing that doesn’t help with the math, but it did make it easier to find out that there were other people who had the same thing. Because without a name for it, it felt like it was a thing that only affected me. But now I know: it isn’t just me.

Its hard to express how much dyscalculia still affects me. I have come up with ways to avoid it, to deal with it. But the shame and anxiety around it still persist. I still have a little panic when a problem involving math comes up. Even when it is one that I have a strategy to deal with. And sometimes, the anxiety really hits. And when it does, its hard to explain what’s happening.

Until now, I haven’t really talked about it openly. Because dyscalculia is less known than dyslexia. And the inability to understand simple math still holds a lot of shame. And the fear of being thought stupid still looms large for me.

But I think its important to talk about. Because shame flourishes in darkness. The only way to diminish it is to bring it into the light.

I’m not alone. I’m not the only one who has this divergence. And knowing that I’m not alone, helps more than I thought it would.

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I Found Religion at The Church of the Immaculate Hamburger

I have always been a hamburger guy. I love a good hamburger. I really love a great hamburger. The problem is that there are so few great hamburger spots in the world. But when you find a really great burger, its a wonderful thing – while you’re eating it. And then when you’re done, you realize that every burger you have for the rest of your life will be measured against that burger. And you’ll be chasing that burger for the rest of your life. That burger, will become The Immaculate Hamburger, and finding its equal will be something you pursue with a religious fervour. 

Because the tragedy of discovering the Immaculate Hamburger is if there’s no way to get that hamburger in your home city.

I found my Immaculate Hamburger in New York City. There was a chain that I’d heard about, and had been told that since I was a “burger guy” I would absolutely have to try a burger there. And so, when I went to New York, I went looking for it.  I went to the first location I could find. The burger was everything I had wanted it to be. Because a burger needs to be balanced. The bun should be soft (maybe a light toasting), the patty has to be cooked right, and just the right amount of (please forgive the use of the word) moistness. A dry hamburger patty is the worst crime a burger joint can commit. You know, aside from food poisoning. So I guess I’ll amend that: its the second worst crime a burger joint can commit. The toppings need to be in balance too, but you don’t need to many of them. Some places will put so many things on a burger that it doesn’t even feel like a hamburger any more. All you really need is some crisp lettuce, a slice of tomato, and one perfectly melted slice of cheese, and a sauce, either something generic like mayo, or something house made. The burger I had that day was exactly what I wanted. No. It was what I needed. That burger took me to church, and I became a convert right then and there. 

And from that time onwards, I wanted to go back to church. But since that chain doesn’t exist in Toronto, I had to try other options. And there were some decent burgers. But none of them were my Immaculate Hamburger. Don’t get me wrong, there were some really good burgers, but none of them were THE BURGER. But what’s worse, is that as a person who loves burgers, there were so many mediocre burgers, and wile they might have been acceptable previously, I’d found religion so a mediocre burger was no longer something I would put up with. So most of the big chain burgers were out. So I tried burger after burger after burger. I’ve found some that are close, but never the equal of my Immaculate Hamburger. 

And so, still I worship at the Church of the Immaculate Hamburger, still seeking, still wanting, still waiting until I can have it once again.

It was just a picture of a lion, and I was just a kid who thought that lions were cool to draw.

This is the story of how I stopped drawing, and came to believe that I “couldn’t” draw.

Before I was six or seven, I loved to draw. So I drew, I painted, and I really enjoyed it. And I was really proud of the pictures I made. 

That’s not to say that the pictures I drew or painted were particularly good. My paintings and pictures were a child’s paintings and pictures, lacking in perspective and depth, or even realism. But painting for the joy of it, without worrying about things like that is a child’s prerogative, something that can grow into something more given time, encouragement, and nurturing. But at that time I was just making pictures because I enjoyed it.

And then I stopped. And I remember when I stopped and why.

I was a sensitive kid. I was easily embarrassed, and hated feeling that way. My face would go very red and I would want to hide. I took the things that were said to me to heart. I lacked a certain amount of confidence in myself. This was tied up with my dyscalculia. After all, if couldn’t do simple math (simple to other people, that is) what other supposedly easy things couldn’t I do? The math thing really made me doubt myself, doubt my ability, made me think I was stupid. But the story of how dyscalculia eroded my childhood self confidence is another post altogether.

But this is when I stopped drawing.

We had a babysitter, and my parents were out. I remember painting. And I was painting a lion. I was very proud of the lion was drawing. I selected light brown paint, for body, including its flower shaped mane, and I gave it a smiling face because why wouldn’t a lion be happy? And I gave it long claws, because that’s what a lion had in my child’s mind. It was a perfectly serviceable child’s lion. And I showed it to the sitter, quite proud of my work. And the critique I got was that my drawing didn’t look like a lion, and a detailed description of everything wrong with it. And after that I no longer enjoyed drawing.

I remember this moment quite vividly. This shattering of my confidence. And this moment, started to take root into my mind, as it grew into the idea that I could not draw, that I some lacked ability. And so I stopped drawing. And when opportunities to draw or do art came up, I simply said that I couldn’t draw.

And of course, because I wasn’t drawing, I didn’t draw, so it became true: I couldn’t draw.

And I know people who draw and make beautiful art. People who make comics. People who design. And I admit that yhave been jealous of their ability, because I imagine things that I want to draw, projects that I want to create, and I can imagine myself drawing. But when I pick up a pencil, I just “can’t”. That lack self confidence that was planted so many years ago rears up, and the self fulfilling statement continues “I can’t draw”. 

I know that it’s all in my head. I’m determined to release this mental block, and to unlearn this idea that I have that I “can’t” draw. It’s an old belief, and that makes it hard to let go of, but not impossible.

Annual Navel Gaze 2019

As I say every year, I don’t do New Years resolutions. Instead, I take a look back at the past year and take stock of the things that happened, the things I accomplished, and then look a head to the new year and see what I want to accomplish. Its a great way to take stock of the year that was, and to both put what i want for the new year into the universe, as well as create accountability by putting these goals out for public viewing.

This year’s accomplishments:

  • I was finally able to perform The Commandment at home, at the Toronto Fringe. It was a real joy to be able to share this play with the home audience. We won North (519) Best of Fringe, and performed the play three more times in Orangeville.
  • My theatre podcast Stageworthy crossed the 200 episode mark, and turns four years old in the new year!
  • The podcast for introvert’s (The Introvert’s Guide To…) that I co-host with Jess McAuley continues to grow, and crossed the 15,000 listens mark this month.
  • I got a bunch of writing done.
  • I got a tattoo!
  • I did a little travelling. The highlight was a trip to Quebec City, though I would have enjoyed that more without the fractured rib I got two days before!
  • I started a monthly pub night for creative people. This came from my noticing that I am more creative when I surround myself with creative people. So I launched a very informal monthly night of getting together and talking about whatever comes up. And while the numbers of people have fluctuated, the conversation has always been good!

Last year, I set myself some challenges like “be nicer to myself” and to lean into my introverted “stay home all the time” nature. I had limited success with those. I don’t think I was as good to myself as I could be, I think in the later months of the year, I made some strides. I did not do very well at getting out and not isolating. For example: after the Toronto Fringe, I spent almost two weeks at home not talking to anyone.

So, for the year ahead:

  • My 50th birthday is coming up in April. I want to do something to mark and celebrate it. So my plan is to go to London, England (I’ve never been and always wanted to go).
  • I want to continue to find performance opportunities for The Commandment.
  • Last year, I said that I was going to finish my Christmas play and perform it this year, which you may have noticed I did not do. I’m still working on the play, and it continues to evolve. But I am getting there. And while I’m impatient to be done, I have to remind myself that The Commandment took me a long time to write too.
  • Keep growing Stageworthy and The Introvert’s Guide To…
  • Keep writing, and do it more. While I have written relatively consistently, I haven’t done as much of it as I want. I’m a pretty good procrastinator, so I often find things to do that aren’t writing. I want to get better at not doing that.
  • I have had an idea for a new play for Keystone Theatre, and its high time I pitch that idea to the gang (and also, it would be great to get the band back together).
  • I have also had an idea for a musical for a while, so it’s time I started sketching that out. I don’t write music, but I want to have the idea straight when I find a composer/collaborator.
  • Be more social. Get out to some events now and then, even though I am more comfortable staying home. And not to talk myself out of going (like I often do).
  • I said this last year, but I’ll say it again: do more things with friends. Yes, being a homebody is nice, but you have to go out sometimes. It’s better to connect with people in person than digital.
  • Take more photographs.
  • Post on this blog more. I realized as I was writing this that the 2018 Navel Gaze is the last time I posted.

How was this year for you? What are you most proud of? What are you looking forward to next year?

The Annual Navel Gaze 2016

As I say every year, I don’t do New Years resolutions. Instead, I take a look back at the past year and take stock of the things I accomplished, and then look a head to the new year and see what I want to accomplish.

There’s quite a few things to list for the highlights of the past year.

  1. I launched my weekly theatre podcast, Stageworthy. The show has been picking up momentum, and listenership has grown over the year.
  2. I premiered my solo play The Commandment at the Hamilton Fringe, and was named a Critic’s Pick by the Hamilton weekly.
  3. I had a pretty prolific writing year. The priority was getting The Commandment into performance shape – that and the rehearsal and production of that play took up the first half of the year, but after that I wrote a new play at the Red Sandcastle’s annual “100 Monkeys 24 Hour Playwriting Festival”, worked on revising an old draft, wrote a scary Christmas poem, and have begun work on something I’d like to perform next year at Christmas.
  4. Travel: Sarah and I went to New Orleans last year in January, explored the French Quarter, saw our first ever Mardi Gras parades and had a great time. We also spent a lovely long weekend in Prince Edward County at a lovely little boutique hotel, and took a weekend away to Port Hope to write and relax. With work, I spent some time in San Diego, Boston, and Dallas.
  5. I hosted my second Spring playwrights retreat on Toronto Island at Artscape Gibraltar Point. Again it was great to spend some time writing with another group of writers, and get away from the usual routine to focus for a few days.

For next year:

  • I want to find more opportunities to perform The Commandment, as well as try to perform some other new works. I know at least one piece I want to do in November or December, but there’s another piece I’m working on as well that I’d love to perform sooner than that. Of course, that means I’ll have to do some fundraising, but if I can swing it, both of these pieces are things I’d love to present.
  • I’ll be hosting a third Spring playwrights retreat on Toronto Island. Details on that will be coming in the new year.
  • I’ll be spending a few days in New York with Sarah in March, where we’ll get to see Hamilton on Broadway, and do a bit of exploring in NYC.
  • Heading to New Brunswick to see some dear friends get married, and then spending a week in a cabin with Sarah writing and relaxing.
  • Continuing the Stageworthy podcast into its second year.
  • More writing, more creating.