Dyslexia? Disleksia? bysklecsya?

How to account for my difficulty in reading? “Difficult” is a relative, comparative term, and reading, unlike spoken communication, is a lonely, interior road. How can you tell how other people process written symbols?

Growing up, I assumed everybody’s experience was the same as mine[1]. Reading is always a laborious activity. And everybody sings their way through the alphabet to find their place in a list, right? If I realised I was performing less well than other people, I probably assumed it was a moral failing, a lack of application but I’d catch up at some point. I didn’t think about it, much.

More recently, I’ve realised that isn’t quite true. I read very late. I experience trouble understanding that at least some other people don’t experience. I know lots of people who can read with ease but don’t.

The working assumption is now that I have a mild form of dyslexia. Jo swears by it, because it helps her explain some of my exasperating behaviours and reassures me that I’m not “putting it on”[2]. There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence, and there’s clearly something, going on, or I’d read more swiftly and would experience less resistance to understanding.

I’ve been assessed a few times, but the tests have been inconclusive. My word recognition seems fine, and my spelling is above average. There’s a theory that mildly dyslexic adults have internalised their coping strategies so thoroughly and effectively that they fool the tests (and themselves), though. Or maybe skilful readers are just unusual.

I am quite willing to milk the partial diagnosis for attention or excuses, but I also secretly disdain it. Dyslexic, forsooth! I’m an English literature graduate and ex-English teacher! It’s just pretence, attention-seeking! I work with severely dyslexic children. The enormous obstacles, the enormous toil, they face every day put my little doubts to shame. I had one lad a few days ago, who, three times, spelt “Dangerous” DABOURNESS, and couldn’t identify it as an error.  Imagine how much hard work goes into even the simplest reading or writing tasks, for him, for more than a decade of full-time education. It is a testament to dyslexics’ strength and resilience that they don’t all give up completely and just refuse to get out of bed on school days.

Philip, my therapist, asks why I can’t allow myself to be (possibly) mildly dyslexic. Why does it matter that the children have a more acute form of it? He thinks this all goes back to my sense that I am somehow unreal, that my identity is insubstantial or fake.

  • Footnotes

[1] I universalise all my cognitive experiences. I understand the autonomous self-hood of other people’s consciousness, but I have to fight my assumption that everyone apprehends the world just as I do. This isn’t megalomania or psychopathy or narcissism. It’s just that I know I am very unexceptional and so assume my mental constructions are very ordinary and very common.

[2] She likes to reassure me; I like to be reassured.

Rhapsody upon a theme of stupidity

When I first read something, I’m left with a sense of blank incomprehension. I have no idea what the writer was on about. Yet if you asked me questions about it, I might get the answers right (if they, and the text, were simple and straightforward). When I talk about a book, the meanings can sometimes seem to fall into place. This is why I was able to teach English literature. Teaching enacted understanding[1]. It felt like I was blagging, making it all up, but what I made up often seemed to be true.  On good days, as I asserted my instantaneous judgements about Othello and Macbeth, they would be simultaneously dawning on me for the first time. I’d be thinking, “Oh my God! I think that might actually be true!” But, Jesus, did I feel like a charlatan[2], careering out of control, over the pedagogical landscape, only ever one step ahead of the students, verbiage spewing from my lips!

Some texts are easier than others. Anything with a narrative or characters is easier than raw, unrefined facts and concepts. Philosophical overviews of things, full of abstruse terms, are a foreign language to me, unless substantiated with concrete examples[3].

I also can’t follow recipes, invariably leaving out whole chunks of instructions because I simply don’t see them. Meals are always late and missing one umami-ish element. Even the simplest Instruction manuals are completely beyond me. They literally mean nothing. After reading all the instructions on how to connect up to the superfast fibre-optic broadband service, I still don’t know the first thing about connecting to the superfast fibre-optic broadband service.

Of course, doubt dismantles thought itself. Understanding, especially of difficult, conceptual stuff, relies on a sort of trust. If you question meanings, meanings slip from your grasp.

That’s another advantage of anorexia: When you are starving, you don’t have the energy to doubt fiercely, or resolve those doubts . Although you gently, anxiously, endlessly dither, in the end, you just have to tolerate being in two minds about things. In fact, duality of mind is our default setting, as I’ve said A MILLION TIMES before. (Sorry guys!)

Ironically, though, this leads me away from popular novels. The writers employ great intelligence and skill to make their books enjoyable to read, but they’re no more easy, for me, than any work of abstruse philosophy. I read a sentence and instantly doubt and review it and discover I’ve already forgotten the meaning of it. How is this different from philosophy? Both are so opaque that the provisional understanding I hoped for, that I hoped would sustain me until it all became clear at the end, turns out to be no more than an optimistic recognition that the words were in English and in recognisably grammatical/ syntactical sentences.

That’s why I’ve “read” Ulysses and Kierkegaard, recently (or, at least, my eyes have laborious scanned every sentence.) My sense of urgency, intensified by aging, insists on meaningful and edifying texts: if it’s not edifying, what’s the point? A little amusement? I haven’t got time for that! I even get impatient with Tintin! (I know!)[4]

  • Footnotes

[1] I guess this is unsurprising. The art of analysis is the ability to break your engagement with a work into a series of manageable, answerable questions: “Is this writer using the sort of ordinary everyday language that I’d use in conversation? If not, in what ways is it different? Why might this be?” “what sort of mood does this speaker appear to be in? How can you tell?” From such humble beginnings spring all great penetrating and rigorously argued analyses.

[2] Still do!

[3] Although metaphors and similes are distracting. I start to think the metaphor is the subject, rather than an allegory of it. Reading that someone is going to vote for the American president again, because “You don’t change horses in the middle of the river”, I can’t get it out of my head that the American presidency has something to do with horses. (Maybe there’s a presidential ranch.) If you said this to me, I think I’d get it much more easily.

[4] Looking back, I always did as a child, too. I loved them and tried to dwell on every panel and each speech bubble, but I just couldn’t do it. I had to flick through.

Another day, another self diagnosis…

I realise this blog has degenerated into a tedious mumble as I pursue various self-justifying fictions into my past. Forgive me. Everyone hopes there’s a dangerous alchemy of childhood experiences that explains why they are such a fuck up, right? There’s an alluring simplicity and neatness to that narrative, so, please grant me five more minutes on the philosophy and origins of boredom.

Could it be the result of some mild attention deficit disorder? My immediate response to this question is disbelief, to accuse myself of pretention. My default position is to assume the unreality of my inner states. And I’m certainly not manic. I’m gently, indolently jittery at worst, not a full-blown climber of walls.

But I ought to weigh up the evidence before I dismiss the idea completely.

Take, for example, my rubbish reading and concentration. I am the slowest reader of anyone I know who reads. I don’t seem to be able to screen out competing data, and I’m constantly losing focus, going back and back and back to the top of the page. With each repetition it makes less sense, not more, but I’m hoping to use the re-reading as a run up to the next bit, which, if I just keep going, will make more sense, overall, will build up to a general impression of sense.

Blocks of text, paragraphs, seem to have a surface tension that resists me. Every time I try to penetrate their depths, I get bounced back out again. I’m staring at black marks on paper. I can translate those marks into jabbering sounds but they’re just as meaningless, so I keep reading, scudding across the surface like a small boat in a slight breeze that’s barely troubling deep waters.

Or maybe a better image would be of somebody running across thin, cracking ice that covers a deep, cold lake of incomprehension, knowing that, if they slow down, they’ll fall through.

You can see the anxiety in that image, how closely it mirrors the impetus for my actual compulsive running, the sense that, if I stop moving, if I stop doing, I’ll simply evaporate – become as insubstantial as water vapour in hot sunlight, because my latent, resting selfhood is non-existent.

I want to hold her, want to hold her tight/ get a right royal teenage kicking all through the night

For example,

I spent whole family holidays in a state of excruciating boredom, desperately impatient to reach the end of each activity, keening for some as-yet un-realised future goal that would be more satisfying. At that age, you miss the point of the whole outing, which is, of course, to deliver memorable and edifying experiences, but more than this, to share the experience as a family, to enjoy being together. To relax.

I didn’t read well, so I was never going to be absorbed in guidebooks or in information cards. My parents were good at exposing us to culture and history, but perhaps we could have done with more discussion of it: placing of things in wider contexts, relating them to our own life experiences. For a voluble family, we were remarkably reticent.

Or maybe they tried and I just wasn’t interested, because I seem to remember a lot of wandering around gazing wordlessly at interesting artefacts, wondering how it was meaningful to travel somewhere simply to look at something. How was gazing at something a useful transaction?

So, every walk, every National Trust property was, in a quiet way, a horrifyingly unrewarding experience, momentarily alleviated by gaining a hilltop before the rest of the family, stopping for a ham roll, seeing the armoury: vanishingly brief moments of relief.

It was a gentle, manageable despair, but often so profound I would have classified it as an existential crisis, had I known the term.

My ennui could hit truly cosmic proportions. Don’t laugh at me! Half way through an activity, the thought would pop into my head, “what’s the point in this?” That thought would rapidly expand outward to encompass any answer I could give myself, no matter how comprehensive and outwardly convincing: “What’s the point in this hike?” To get some exercise to make yourself fitter and healthier; to experience a beautiful landscape; to spend time with your family. “what’s the point in making myself fitter and healthier…?” on and on it would accelerate, in all directions, like a sonic boom, enveloping everything around me – cows in the next field? “What’s the point in keeping cows?…” “but what’s the point in producing food, having a livelihood…?”  eating up everything in its path: cities, countries, continents, the whole planet itself, all human endeavour, love, culture, society, family, and on out into the universe until, in deep space, despair would reach its limit, hanging there in blackness among numberless, purposeless and hopelessly distant stars.

And then the feeling would vertiginously contract all the way back down to the tiny point of myself, because what was the point in even asking the question? This is where I found myself and there was nothing I could do about it. Except endure.

Strangely, I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this to anyone else. I wasn’t a very reflective child and I didn’t dwell on things. I guess when you’re young you just accept that this is the way the world is and this is the way everyone experiences it. It probably is. All teenagers moan about how bored they are. All teenagers ask what the point is. It’s just hormones. Despair is a chemical, empty of meaning.

Going to the dog(race)s

When I was forced to challenge my restrictive behaviours and EAT MORE, I used to compensate for the increase in calories by running even more, and this seemed to mitigate the threat and made me feel better. If I felt I’d over-indulged, I could run it off. I was constantly looking for opportunities. In any lull, or when I felt at a loss, I could occupy myself with a quick trot around the block. I’d extend my usual run with little detours and digressions. Plotted on a map, my route contained so many extra loops that it would have looked like some baroque, ornamental filigree.

My theory was that burning off the extra calories made the extra food bearable. If I didn’t tell myself that I could run it off, I wouldn’t eat it in the first place. Then, over time, my natural laziness would re-assert itself and the extra running would drop away.

It didn’t work out that way. At least, it hasn’t so far, and it’s years since I started. I’ve surprised myself by having far more determination than I realised, which, confusingly, is something to be proud of. And isn’t.

It’s hard to give up these reassuring demonstrations of strength, these reassuring demonstrations of quiet but extra-ordinary anguish, and subside back into being another ordinary, slightly sub-average schmuck.

 I could continue running because, for a long time, even after diagnosis, I was blind to the link between exercise and anorexia – how strong it was, how faithful the correlation. The discrepancy between my calorie intake and expenditure was mathematical and simple, and, for this reason, Abi had forbidden any of exercise at all. Still, food and diet seemed to be the focus. Running was an obstacle to recovery, rather than a cause of the problem.

So, the words went in, I acknowledged their truth, but they didn’t mean anything to me. Perhaps my own experiences lacked authenticity, and thus so did the deductions I could draw from them. I couldn’t take my own psychology seriously. My interior existence was unreal, insubstantial, unconvincing.

I guess it’s also because running was my daily habit since long before the apparent beginning of my illness, and so seemed unconnected to it. This begs the question, though, how deep do the roots of these conditions go?

Getting Run Down (by dogs? By a car?)

I reached a point when I suddenly started to look thin. Veins had crept, unnoticed, across my fore-arms, like fat blue worms. The fine, youthful bone structure of my face, which had reappeared for a season, and which I was secretly proud of, was replaced by a slack-cheeked, wasted look. The taught line of jaw and throat became…well…scrawny. My collars were too big. My wrinkled head protruded from them.

I looked like a startled tortoise.

But by this point, I didn’t care how I looked. It was all about the numbers, now, my continued progression. Or retrogression.

I atomised my body, examining individual body parts for signs of further wasting (encouraging) or heft (disastrous). It didn’t matter what I looked like overall.

Of course, the thinner you get, the more anxious you get, and the more running you need, to reassure yourself. You become obsessive about it, and you don’t sleep, so, when I woke in the middle of the night feeling alert, I might think, “maybe I could go for my run now, to get it over with.” But, if I did, I’d still feel the need to fill the up the time, and cultivate the hunger, the next day, so I’d do another run anyway.

I wanted to get it over with because I hated my run. It was so miserably painful and exhausting. And lonely. By this point I was shuffling around the park before dawn, barely conscious from exhaustion, and so bent up that my head was below my shoulders, face to the ground, like a little old man in bedroom slippers with severe osteoporosis. (and I do have osteoporosis) Just because you act compulsively, doesn’t mean you are reconciled to that compulsion. Perhaps the fox in the hen house is horrified by his own violence.

The weaker I got, the better: the more unpleasant the effort required, the more it made up for the indulgences of life. The challenge grew greater and so the achievement was also greater. Exercise became my job. It satisfied the need to work, to make account of myself.

Running was my urgency’s methadone. By the time I got to my actual job, I’d already made such a heroic effort, and it had so weakened and exhausted me, that I was incapable of expending much more energy. The run explained and necessitated sleepy languor. It excused my ineffectualness, especially after I’d been diagnosed (that double-edged sword), when I could claim that my poor performance was caused by an acute medical condition and I was, actually, showing great strength of character by continuing to turn up at all, even if I then just leant against the wall and passed out – a highly effective form of self-sabotage. No wonder more and more boys are joining the profession.

Defrauding the Future

Anorexia has a dramatic image. Rightly so. It is a quiet proclamation of rage and despair, for most of its users. They are living fiercely.

But my illness had its roots in much more prosaic behaviours. It grew from the simple discrepancy between the amount I ate and the amount I exercised. My calorie expenditure started to edge ahead of my intake. That’s all.

When Jo decided we were to live more healthily, and my eating became more restrained, the running was enough to cause my weight to fall slightly[1]. Then it continued to creep downwards, because I’d developed the habit and the formula. I knew how to do it.

Running already provided me with a comforting sense of success, however small, and it turned out I needed that. When I’d completed a run, I felt like I’d got something done. It felt like a solution to something.

 Now losing weight by exercise and healthy eating became my thing, became the way I lived. I couldn’t just abandon it when I hit a target weight. That would feel like failure and would leave me without purpose. The idea felt threatening, for some reason[2].

But the continued success of my endeavours demanded continued and progressive weight-loss. I had a long grace period when, presumably, I was living off my own internal fat reserves. But these aren’t infinite. When I allowed myself to do the calculations, I was amazed at how long I’d continued to function on fewer calories than I was using. On each successive day, I knew I was defrauding my future self of his health by adding to the calorie debt I’d inherited from my past self. And, ultimately, one day, one of my future selves would be called upon to pay back the debt, probably by dropping dead. Like Karen Carpenter.[3]

But who cared about dropping dead in future? Future me wasn’t me. He was some other vaguely conjectured dude. It was present me that was having all the trouble.

  • Footnotes

[1] Notice the confusion, right from the start, of what was healthy and what was dangerous, what was wise and what was just crazy. It’s all a question of degree…

[2] An over-active amygdala, Abi suggests, the part of the brain that regulates stress hormones. After all, I’d already experienced one major endocrine malfunction: Grave’s Disease. See also Carrie Arnold’s Decoding Anorexia 2013 Hove: Routledge, p26


[3] I’ve adapted this idea from Yanis Varoufakis’s explanation of financial debt in Talking to my Daughter about the Economy, 2018, London: Vintage (I think)

…with 60 seconds worth of distance run

Ah, yes: “distance run…”

I’ve been a runner (a slow shambler) for years. I can’t remember when I started. I know I was already running when I taught English in a developing country, 23 years ago[1]. I guess this suggests a deep-seated dissatisfaction with myself that pre-dates the eating disorder by many years: I ran to improve myself, or my situation.

Now my drive to be effective was easily channelled into taking exercise. Running is a purposeful activity. It could fill in the gaps between more meaningful undertakings. It could compensate for idleness and lack of ambition, because it satisfied, and exhausted, a need to be dynamic and effortful.

Its immediate goals provided a substitute sense of achievement. And success could be easily measured in progressively lower weight and the urgent hunger it brought out. Its difficulty pre-occupied and absorbed, so I could avoid confronting the vast yet insubstantial terrors of existence.[2]

I think running has always been, for me, just very impatient walking. Since I first started writing poetry as a teenager, I’ve been afflicted by the sense that I needed to get on with it, that I was procrastinating. I didn’t have time to waste strolling around, taking the air! Exercise needed to get done as quickly as possible, so the urgency has always been there, too.

It helped that running is not a pleasurable experience. It’s bloody hard work. It is an ordeal. I force myself out the door every morning and the first ten minutes are awful. I spend it cursing myself for being such a fool. This makes it ideal to act as a penance and a useful chore. Of course, working hard runs absolutely against the grain of my natural inclinations, so overcoming that, day after day, proved my grit and determination.

 After a while, though, you get into a meditative rhythm. Running has a concrete simplicity to it. Your goal is clear and specific: you need to complete the run – a time or a distance. The benefits of this activity are also clearly defined and easy to understand: aerobic, bodily health; mental health, and, of course, weight loss. You can lose yourself, burrow into a comforting, limited and achievable activity, just as you could with your eating project.

I suppose it’s really a self-calming technique. You feel anxious: you go for a run. The sheer effort makes you focus on a simple, rhythmical, achievable task, which demands controlled breathing and releases endorphins, and you feel much calmer. This makes it feel like running is the answer to the problem. In fact, it’s a simple, bio-chemical correlation.[3]

  • Footnotes

[1] More than half the population still relied, at least partially, on some sort of subsistence farming to make ends meet. For them, thinness was a sign of defeat – it meant you couldn’t find enough food, day to day. Corpulence was a sign of success and importance. These people would never run for health or pleasure. They got quite enough exercise just surviving.  When I met someone, in the early morning, they would look wildly behind me, to see what I was running away from – packs of wild dogs, wolves or the police, all three of which roamed the country, were utterly savage, and would hunt you down.

[2] I think runners are often considered to be displaying will-power. In fact, we’re probably all cowardly deserters from the mind’s battlefields. Running is just the haystack we’re hiding in. (How about that for a confused image?)

[3] Jamie, the therapist at Ascot House first pointed out this alternative. Thank you Jamie! It seems obvious, now, but it had never occurred to me to view it this way.

Fill the unforgiving minute…

My essence was distilled ‘Useless Git’ – “a tube for turning good food into shite” – so I had to enacted my self-worth by doing useful things: the spontaneous creation of value from nothing; the alchemist’s goal:  gold from lead (blood from a stone). I had to be working or writing or cleaning or cooking all the time, because any lapse in activity was a return to worthlessness.

Hence the disparity between the oafish, private interior, and the active, public exterior. The life I’d found myself in was so unfamiliar that it was best to be on guard, proceed with caution, not rely on others, and I was a charlatan because I was maintaining a façade of industriousness, always on the point of being unmasked, having my grubby interior revealed[1].

Even now, urgency builds up in me throughout any day. It’s the waste product of difficult human transactions; it’s a pressure that needs release through activity, to resist the opposite pressure of my own exhaustion.

I always seem to be on the edge of a precipice. I want to collapse, but awful consequences await such a surrender. It’s as if my own petty anxieties have somehow got mixed up with much vaster, more deadly catastrophes. Perhaps I’m experiencing interference from the collective unconscious, a fear of climate disaster, or something. (I tend to catastrophize!)

So why did I, why do I, find myself standing about doing nothing, not even day-dreaming, a restless spirit trapped in an idle vessel?  I needed to apply myself; muster my strength; drive myself forward; stay vigilant for signs of weakening resolve.

But I couldn’t think of ways to make myself effective, and I was in my 40s. My brain was becoming degraded, like all aging brains. I just couldn’t imagine being equal to any arduous or imaginative or remotely ambitious project. I was running out of synapses.

And time.

I needed to, how does Kipling, unhelpfully put it? “fill the unforgiving minute with 60 second worth of distance run”: an unrelenting standard.

  • Footnotes

[1] like a teenager’s bedroom when their mum throws open the curtains: “AAAARGH!!! How long has this plate been here?!!!”

Anybody fancy a Covid 19 poem?

                                                     Entering the age of the unfamiliar

A dog stood on its hind legs and talked to him.

The flowers had the faces of old men. The paths

he took returned him to the places he’d just been to

the places he’d just been, and when he wrote

he found he’d written backwards or the pen

had eaten up the words already there and left him

silent. The great words that he felt had dwelt within him

came out as other words – mean spirited and small.

The friend he turned to turned into a bolster;

the others turned against him. His home

was not his own; his keys were in the fridge

and suddenly the kitchen had no door.

He knew they weren’t in Kansas anymore.