Depressed — I Had a Difficult Childhood and a Learning Disability

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Reader’s Question

I’m 21 years old. I attend a community college in the area and I am experiencing extreme difficulty. I’m depressed and I don’t know what I can do to help me feel better about myself.

I used to be very fat and I lost over 80 pounds. People congratulate me all the time and say how wonderful I look, but inside I still feel like that fat teenager; I can’t tell myself that I love myself.

Ever since the 6th grade, I was in a “special class” (which didn’t help me) and that was a real emotional burden. I never understood any information the teacher provided, and I realize now that I never applied myself. All this time, I’ve believed that I was just some stupid kid with a learning disability who would amount to nothing in life, because I never understood anything! I know now that not trying was the reason I didn’t do well in school.

In psychology class, my professor was talking about learning, and how it is influenced by your environment. I love my mom, but I do blame her partially for my “learning disability.” When I was 11 my parents got divorced and, until recently, I didn’t think it caused any emotional strain on me. My mom got a boyfriend soon after, and starting going to his house from around 3 pm until 10:30 every day! So, since I was 11, I was home alone after school, until I was a junior in high school. I never did any homework because there was no one to push me and make sure I was applying myself. I never had a good foundation for learning, and now I’m paying not only for my mistake, but for my mom’s mistake as well.

I don’t think anymore that I’m stupid, but it is unbelievably hard sometimes for me to understand things. I get so frustrated that I quit, cry, or get really angry. Is it possible to make up for all those lost years? Is it possible to overcome my learning disability, if I even had one? If so, how? Do you think that, since I had an awkward childhood, being alone and all, I should go to therapy? My friends are all very smart and, honestly, I feel stupid around them.

I feel like I have been holding this a secret for a long time, and I need to get it out! I need to do something to help myself, but I don’t know where to begin. I’d say that I have a very selective memory. I can remember anything that I am interested in the first time I hear it, but I can’t seem to remember anything from classes, and when tests come, I panic. Basically I would really like to start over, although I know that’s unrealistic.

Psychologist’s Reply

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It is possible that you have a learning disability, especially since your school should have had some reason for why they put you in a “special class.” However, the only way to know for certain is to get tested. Perhaps your college can help you with that. They often have education specialists or school psychologists onsite who can administer the necessary tests and offer a formal diagnosis.

If it turns out that you do indeed have a disability, there is no need to despair or feel shame. All it means is that you learn differently than other people; it has no bearing on your intelligence. Many highly intelligent and successful people have learning disabilities, including actor Tom Cruise, artist Pablo Picasso, business magnate Richard Branson and possibly even Albert Einstein. Research on people with learning disabilities has found that disabilities cannot really be “cured” but they certainly can be managed. That is why most schools have programs and resources for students who need additional assistance and/or a different learning environment. It may be harder for you to learn than it is for your friends, but you still can do it. Even if you do not have a learning disability, your school may have resources that will teach you how to listen in class, take notes and study more effectively for tests.

It seems like you are dealing with a lot of other stuff that may be interfering with your schooling. Some symptoms of depression include difficulties with concentration and memory, as well as having negative thoughts. All of these things can be harmful to your attempts to learn. Anxiety, too, clearly can be detrimental to taking tests. It also seems like you are struggling with a low self-esteem and resentment about your childhood. For all of those reasons, therapy could be very helpful for you. A good counselor may be able to help you work through your anger towards your mother and improve your feelings about yourself. Your counselor may also be able to help decrease depressive symptoms and improve your anxiety reduction techniques. Consequently, in assisting you in feeling better about yourself, your counselor can help you do better in school. While you will never be able to start over, you can certainly make the most of your present.

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