Julia Nessman, third from the left, with other members of NCLD’s Young Adult Leadership Council.
When I was younger, I struggled significantly in school. I experienced a lot of difficulty paying attention in class and floundered in math. This made me feel like I was simply stupid—an attitude that was only validated by my teachers, who were frustrated with me for not performing at an adequate level.
Then I was diagnosed with an LD (learning disability) at 10 years old. Through my mom’s persistence in getting me a neuropsychological evaluation, I found out that I was struggling in school because I had serious deficits in executive functioning, working memory, and auditory processing. On the other hand, I also discovered that I had a number of strengths, including advanced verbal skills and a near perfect visual memory. Having this diagnosis not only allowed me to get the academic accommodations I needed, but also gave me a comprehensive picture of how I could use my neurodivergence to my advantage. As a result, I became a much better student and developed a greater sense of confidence in both my intelligence and my academic capabilities.
While I’d like to leave the narrative of my LD on this happy note, I think it’s important to tell the whole story. Having dealt with all of these negative ideas surrounding my abilities pre-diagnosis, I still have the childhood voice in my head that tells me “I am not good enough.”
This voice has been somewhat detrimental because it has not reacted well with other aspects of my identity throughout my life, particularly my queerness. When I was in middle school, I began to understand I was gay. This was hard for me—I had just come to terms with my LD, and now I had to abruptly navigate a newly realized identity that I didn’t know how to deal with. My queerness also exposed the same fears about myself that my LD did: that I was inadequate.
Before the mid 2010s, the media and my peers always portrayed queer women as subjects of ridicule and less than straight people in a variety of ways. Therefore, my queerness served as yet another identity that made me feel inferior. I was no longer only dealing with residual feelings of internalized ableism, but also internalized homophobia telling me that I was not enough.
My troubled relationship with both my LD and my queerness took a toll on my self-image, particularly throughout high school—and in toxic ways. I developed serious problems with perfectionism in my academics. I felt that I had to compensate for two identities that made me feel imperfect. I would study excessively and put unrealistic expectations on myself for success to try to overcome these feelings. This was only made worse by the fact that I had to work extra hard in school because of my LD.
This created excessive stress surrounding grades in many of my courses. For instance, in Honors Chemistry (a class that particularly worked against a number of aspects of my LD), I got a B- on a test that I had spent endless hours studying for. Even though this was not a bad grade, my score upset me so much that I went straight to my room after finding out about it. Although insignificant, this grade seemed awful to me because it threatened the academic success I relied so heavily on to compensate for the insecurities surrounding my identities.
In the end, my insecurities and subsequent perfectionism were detrimental to my well-being. In high school, I sacrificed my social life, sleep, and happiness to succeed academically, always trying to get around my LD and to run away from my feelings of inadequacy.
Things have gotten a lot better since then. I’ve been out of the closet for a few years and I am comfortable with being gay. My relationship with my LD also continues to improve. However, from time to time, I still hear my childhood and closeted teenage selves in my head telling me that I am not enough.
If you’re like me and have had to deal with additional identities on top of an LD—identities that have increased your burden of feeling less than—know that you are not alone. You are enough. And you should be proud of yourself for getting through in a world that isn’t always kind to you, whether because of your LD, your sexuality, your gender identity, or your race. We need to ask ourselves how we can truly love and support people with LDs, especially when they’re part of different communities. They are perfect, despite living in a society that tells them otherwise.
Julia Nessman is a member of NCLD’s Young Adult Leadership Council and is a senior at Bryn Mawr College. She is studying anthropology, biology, and health studies and plans to pursue a Master of Public Health degree after graduation.