I’m painstakingly stitching the entire manuscript together this weekend and I came across a little excerpt I felt many readers could probably relate to. I suspect the mix of a learning disability and childhood anxiety has facilitated the development of many fine creative minds. I like to think I’m one of them.
There were strokes to learn: the J-stroke, the draw, the pry. I dragged the paddle through the water and it wobbled as if someone was trying to pull it away from me. I pulled back.
“Use the boat for leverage.” Calder instructed patiently, letting out little murmurs of approval when a J-stroke did what it was supposed to do. He laughed when I turned the boat the wrong way, endlessly over-correcting. Not a cruel laugh. He wanted me to laugh too, but I couldn’t. I was too frustrated with myself.
“You’re getting the hang of it,” he said, as we swung the wrong way around two buoys I was trying to do a figure eight between.
“This is not what I’d call getting the hang of it,” I grumbled. I’d told myself I would keep my spirits up for Calder’s sake, but my arms were tired, my knees hurt, and the salt water stung my eyes. We’d been at it fifteen minutes.
I’ve always had a problem with not being perfect at something the first time I try. It’s an anxiety thing. I had my first nervous breakdown in third grade. My parents pulled me out of school for a few weeks, and when I went back, I had to see the school psychologist for a full assessment. I saw Dr. Coe for a half hour, a few times a week. Hearing tests, puzzles, word problems. Kick this ball across the room. Tell me what this splotch looks like. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the weird things I had to do, but I was thankful to get out of class. He found two major things. One, I had a fairly common coordination issue called cross-dominance. Also known as mixed-handedness, or increased hand efficiency, it’s a motor skill issue where a person favours one hand for some tasks and the other hand for others. For example, a cross-dominant person might write with the left hand but throw primarily with the right. Ambidexterity is a well-known but rare version of cross-dominance, but cross-dominant people may also be left or right-handed rather than ambidextrous. Sounds neat, right? But it made me an awkward kid who tripped and fell a lot and had terrible handwriting. At the meeting my parents and I had with Dr. Coe when the tests were done, Mom recalled that I had been left-handed when I started school, but had switched over pretty quickly when I realized most other kids were right-handed. I still kicked with my left foot. According to Dr. Coe, my right eye was dominant.
I don’t think anyone ever told me I had a “learning disability,” but cross-dominance sure caused me some problems. I couldn’t write as quickly as most kids, and when I tried, it was illegible. Not long before my breakdown, my parents, who were teachers themselves, went to a parent teacher night only to be told the teacher had no good examples of my work to show them, because I hadn’t finished anything in time. A clearly intelligent kid, so what was the problem then, lazy? Teachers hate that, seriously, it’s the worst thing you can be. The talk my parents gave me afterwards basically amounted to OMG, we were so embarrassed.
The other thing Dr. Coe diagnosed was generalized anxiety disorder. Anxiety doesn’t come from nowhere. Mine came from being unable to live up to my parents expectations. Two traitorous hands that couldn’t decode the mysteries of cursive writing, or throw a ball with any accuracy. That didn’t reach out to catch me when I tripped. My hands were my enemies, even after Dr Coe’s explanation and my parents subsequent apology. No child ever really forgives herself for letting her parents down.
But that’s kid Carleigh. Adult Carleigh is strong and capable, runs like a mofo, laughs and mugs on camera with a gin and tonic in her grasp. I have a couple of crows tattooed on my forearm. Crows are so dextrous and intelligent, they can make tools from sticks. Biologists have run tests where the crows pull apart paperclips to extract treats out of glass beakers. YouTube videos of them opening up shellfish or pulling bugs out of trees. With nothing more than a claws and a beak, and a tiny brain. Today, with the gift of opposable thumbs, all I have to do is learn how to steer a canoe.