Struggling with Dyslexia – Mark’s Story
Hi, my name is Mark and this is my story about struggling with dyslexia.
Trigger warnings: anxiety, ableist language, discrimination, rejection, death of loved ones.
Anxiety in school
Growing up in Tottenham/Woodgreen in the 80’s and 90s wasn’t particularly easy. There were several gangs and sadly, I lost a few friends to this violence. I needed a certain amount of confidence when out and about with my friends, walking to and from school, and this was something I had in abundance when faced with the challenges that were presented frequently in my area.
At school, I knew from early on there was something different about me. I was sporty, good at art, great with numbers and absolutely loved anything that was practical and hands on. But the written word and reading would come to shatter any self-worth and confidence. I would hide when it came to reading out in class. If I was called out to read, uncontrollable fear/anxiety would rush through my body like a pressure pot ready to explode. I would much rather stand in front of a loaded gun than feel the embarrassment of openly struggling to my peers.
Phonetically I was unable to form words. Copying from the blackboard was easy and my handwriting would be well presented, but I had no idea what I’d just written. Teachers started to notice I had two different styles of writing in my book, the one that was well presented after copying and the other that was messy unreadable nonsense. I would do anything in my power to hide from facing the shame of admitting I was unable to do the same as my classmates. Often my written workbook would go missing (accidentally on purpose) to avoid the feedback.
A moment I’ll never forget
Something happened one day in class that still haunts me to this day. I was in Year 4 and my normal teacher was off sick, so we had a supply. We were asked to continue writing the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, and we had to write the story from our memory. Our normal teacher understood my struggle and I could ask him how to spell something and he would write it down on a piece of paper for me to copy (which would become quite a big list). This started to build some confidence, as I was beginning to recognise and read some familiar words. Unfortunately, this confidence was about to be completely destroyed.
The supply teacher noted to the whole class, “If you’re stuck on any words, please ask me and I’ll write them on the blackboard.” Of course, I got stuck on the word ‘man’. Too embarrassed to ask a classmate, I approached the supply teacher and asked if they could write “man’ on this piece of paper. At the top of her voice, she shouted, “Are you a complete moron?! You want me to write man?! Well here you go!”. She stood by the blackboard and began to write the word, slowly shouting “M!!!!!! A!!!!!! N!!!!!! Man! Now sit down, you idiot”.
Well, that’s it, I thought! I’ve been exposed, and everybody knows.
This one incident set me back years. I told myself that no longer am I going to ask for help with anything in any aspect of my life – it wasn’t worth the shame. Sadly, that’s exactly what happened.
I didn’t ask for any support throughout the rest of my school life. I hid my difficulties in secret. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t the last time my secret was exposed, but never quite so dramatically.
Wishing to be the same
On birthdays when blowing out the candles, I’m sure most people wished for fame, fortune, a pony, computer games… but not me. Blowing out the candles I only had one wish every year. It was to be able to read and write just as well as my classmates. I didn’t want to be better, I just wanted to be the same as everyone else.
I would secretly cry and ask myself: why?
I never wanted anyone to see me cry because then they would ask questions. I spent many a sleepless night worrying about the next time I would be exposed and really didn’t see the point anymore. That’s right, what is the point! Well, I thought, if I’m not able to beat this, then I better focus on what I’m good at.
Taking to the track
Outside I was confident, able to tackle any challenge that came my way. Inside school, I lived in constant anxiety, fearful of being called out again. I joined an athletics club when I was about 8 years old and found I had quite a talent for running. By the time I was 15, I was competing at a national level, training with the same coach that John Regis and Daley Thompson were trained by. I was able to run the 1500 metres in under 4 minutes and now I was being noticed for the right reason.
One evening after a gruelling session on the track, the coach asked if I would meet with someone to start media training, I was excited to say the least. I let my imagination run riot thinking of competing and winning gold at the Olympics. I happily said “Yeah, go on then!”. I started learning how to speak to the media and public, but soon realised reading and writing would be involved as well. A short time into this, my secret began to rear its ugly head and once again my imagination ran riot.
By reading this now, you will be one of the only people who know the truth. In the past I’ve always told people I stopped running because I lost interest and discovered girls and partying, but the truth is, my imagination led me to believe my secret was not only going to be exposed in the classroom, but possibly worldwide. There was no way in hell I was going to allow the world to think I’m an idiot. The shame was too much to bear thinking about and I immediately stopped running.
Finding my purpose
The years went by, and I started work. I’ve done a variety of different jobs over the years, never really finding my true passion. I’ve been a chef, locksmith, painter and decorator, croupier, bar work and even tried my hand at DJing. All very practical hands-on jobs that didn’t require too much reading or writing. Whilst working as assistant manager in a pub I met my wife to be.
We had so much in common I knew she was the one. But what about my secret, what if she finds out? This could be a disaster, I thought to myself. One evening after we finished a shift together, I managed to pluck up the courage to tell her my secret. I was expecting the worst but got the opposite reaction. She told me she didn’t care; she loved me for who I am and not something out of my control.
Removing the power from shame
For the first time, I was open with no negative come backs or someone trying to fix me. She liked me for me. The shame didn’t seem to have as much power. Just under a year later we saved enough money to go travelling. We explored Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Bali. Spent time working in Sydney and then travelling up the East Coast of Australia living out of the back of a ford falcon we bought (big enough to fit a rolled-out foam mattress in the back). Just before returning to the UK, we enjoyed a week in Tokyo.
We moved out of London to Cardiff in 2007. Initially, I fell back into my career as a croupier, a practical skill I had and could do with confidence, but it was also something that didn’t give me any job satisfaction. Whilst travelling, my wife encouraged me not to hide away anymore from jobs and take control of my future. When we came back to the UK, my plan was always to start a new career in social care, supporting people in the mental health and learning disabilities sector. Little, did I know my secret was about to put to the test.
Notes?! No thank you!
I remember thinking ‘notes!! What?! Wait?!’ No one told me I was going to have to write notes and suddenly the anxiety came like a tidal wave. There is nowhere to hide, and my Impostor Syndrome started to kick in. I felt that it was only a matter of time before my secret was discovered once again.
At that moment, I reminded myself: I’ve been open before and nothing bad happened. In fact, the shame lost its power. I can continue hiding or I can face this thing head on. I began to find ways of managing; I found key words and memorised the letter combination, a bit like remembering a telephone number. As social care legislation progressed, I needed to add new key words to my expanding arsenal, so a bit like in The Matrix, “he’s beginning to believe”.
Shame will not stop me
After a couple of years working as a support worker, my manager asked if I was interested in progression. Although my word count was building, could I manage writing care plans and supervising staff? Surely there is somebody more qualified than me? No, Mark! Stop thinking like this! Your manager obviously sees potential in you, now is the time to fight. I was enrolled in NVQ level 3 Health and Social Care. I went from writing notes about somebody’s day to having to complete assignments and essays – it was a huge step! With my shame getting smaller, finding more strategies that were working, and my self-belief growing; 12 months later the level 3 was under my belt and I became senior support worker.
No time to wait around, I was feeling unstoppable. In fact, I’d never felt so confident! Time to move and gain more experience. For the next 6 years we moved from place to place and then finally to Somerset. I gained experience in adult and children’s services which included residential, residential schools, day services, respite, supportive living, social clubs, dementia nursing, Learning disabilities, autism, epilepsy, challenging behaviour, de-escalation, work related stress and root cause analysis. I also became a mental capacity assessor and wrote deprivation of liberty applications, I was the safeguarding lead and delivered safeguarding training, I trained staff in understanding autism, conducted investigations, general people management, bereavement, crisis management, commissioning new services. I gained a level 5 qualification in management of adults and children services; 2015 I started as a Support Manager tasked with the purpose of culture change across a 200+ staffed service. 2018 I did it! I was now Registered Manager. Bath Mind appeared on my search in 2020, and I’ve never looked back.
Facing my fears
Ultimately the moral of the story here is face your fears head on. Don’t ever let people put you down and say you’re not capable. Do something that scares you every day. I still can’t phonetically put words together. I still can’t write if somebody’s looking over my shoulder. I still get stuck reading complex words that I’m not familiar with. But no longer will I let my secret hold me back.
It’s no longer a secret: Hi my name is Mark and I’m dyslexic.
A huge thank you to Mark for sharing this emotive and open contribution to our ‘Your Stories’ blog for Dyslexia Awareness Month. For advice and support about dyslexia, visit British Dyslexia Association’s website.
Posted on: 9th October 2023