Indepth: The Invisible Struggle
The world is not always as it seems. A casual conversation could hide hearing loss. A pair of contacts could disguise an eye condition. Hours upon hours of studying could mask dyslexia. Even a smile could cover the depression, anxiety and PTSD underneath. However, with some deeper digging behind the facade, the truth can eventually surface. Giving a voice to those who face challenges in silence, six Bull Dogs have shared the truth about their invisible struggles.
Unable to see from his right eye, at the age of five, junior Luke Swain asked his mom, “What
is my right eye for?” Soon after, Swain was diagnosed with degenerative myopia, a condition that makes him unable to see from his right eye, and his vision in his left eye is full of cataracts and astigmatisms, causing blurry vision. As a result, Swain has had to make changes in school, such as moving closer to the board, asking for electronic versions of assignments or copies with a larger font. He has also had to avoid sports played with balls, like tennis or soccer, where he could get hit.
“The biggest struggle is probably just not really knowing anyone else who has the same condition that I could relate to,” Swain said. “It is just hard not being able to connect with someone else that shares the same experience that I have.”
Although he has many friends and family members that support him, Swain has to rely on himself to get help when he needs it and speak up for himself.
“A lot of times I have to advocate for myself,” Swain said. “That is one of the biggest and most important parts of being disabled. You have to ask for help yourself and you can’t wait on someone else to do it.”
Over the years, Swain has learned to live his life with degenerative myopia. Though the condition limits his capability to participate in certain activities, he has adapted and made accommodations that allow him to be independent.
“Many people have the idea that if you are blind you need a lot of help. When you see someone who is blind walking down the street, you automatically think they can’t make it to the other side. I think
you should just know that it is okay and you should just let them do it by themselves,” Swain said. “I think that sometimes people are overly sympathetic, but it is never in a mean way. It is just human instinct to care about other people, but it is also important to know everybody is trying to figure out their own way.”
Handling homework, studying, sports and extracurricular activities can be tough, especially
in high school. Dealing with multiple mental disorders on top
of that seems almost impossible for some students. For sophomore Candace Harden, who has PTSD, anxiety and depression, it is part of her daily life.
“There are a lot of struggles that I have to go through inside my head everyday,” Harden said. “There is the process of realizing that you have (the disorder), the process of accepting it, realizing that you have to stay focused despite all of it and that you have to put it in the back of your mind for a little while, especially in school.” Harden’s conditions can cause difficulty sleeping, panic and anxiety attacks, and sensitivity to certain triggers.
“Everybody who goes through this and is still here [is] strong, but they can be fragile sometimes,” Harden said. “They can be fragile in a way that their depression and anxiety can be triggered really easily. They can be fragile in the way that you can say one thing to them and they are going to break down completely.”
In second grade, she failed her first test. In elementary and middle school, her grades kept fluctuating, and she took twice as long to complete her assignments. It wasn’t until eighth grade that senior Kat Steilberg was diagnosed with Attention Deficit
Disorder (ADD). It was only two years later, during her sophomore year, that Steilberg met with a psychiatrist and got help for her condition, which causes inattention and distractibility.
“It is harder to focus and really tune in on something. I have to focus all my attention on one thing if I want to get it done. I always hear other things going on, like my mind is being pulled somewhere else,” Steilberg said.
After talking to her psychiatrist, Steilberg met with her guidance counselor and got a 504, a plan to ensure that she will receive accommodations because of her condition that will help her in school. Now, Steilberg is able
to ask for more time to complete an assignment, get extra time on tests, including standardized tests, and listen to music during study time in class.
“It is just something that a lot of people have and I think there should be more awareness about it. If somebody had known earlier that I ADD, I would have been a much better student. A lot of people in my situation just didn’t it realize before,” Steilberg said. “For me, it was just a long journey to figure it all out. It has been a huge learning curve
for me. I pretty much had to relearn everything in order to be successful. A lot of people never do, and they can’t really progress with their life. It’s withholding them from what they could be.”
Steilberg’s condition is not unique. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 percent of American children are diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Despite the large number of Americans with ADD, there are many misconceptions about the disorder.
“Some people think that it doesn’t exist. Sometimes people think you’re just stupid. I thought I was stupid for a long time. I thought, ‘I just can’t figure it out. I’m dumb.’ People beat themselves up a lot, but they don’t realize it could be an actual problem,” Steilberg said. “That
is true for a lot of disabilities, when you can’t see them. There is no obvious sign for it. Nobody can tell when they look at you. I think mental illnesses and mental disabilities receive a lot less sympathy.”
Unlike most physical disabilities, mental illnesses are often invisible to outsiders; struggles go unnoticed, and as a result, outside help seems unnecessary.
“When people have physical disabilities, it is easier to help them. If somebody is in a wheelchair, you open the door for them,” Steilberg said. “If somebody has ADD, and they are struggling in a math class, you just think, ‘This is so easy’. It is harder to understand or be able to help because you don’t know how.”
Despite the added challenges and struggles Harden experiences, her PTSD, anxiety, and depression are not things she talks about a lot and share with many other people.
“Everybody that knows about it, they don’t treat me any different than they treat a normal person,” Harden said. “They know what that is like and know that if you have depression or anxiety, you don’t want to be treated different than anybody else. You want to forget about it.” Mental illnesses affect each person differently, making it hard for others to sympathize them. “They will never completely understand what is going through that person’s head when a panic attack or anxiety attack comes up, or you have a random sprout of depression,” Harden said. “If someone doesn’t talk about what is going through their head, it is not because they don’t trust who they are talking to, they just know that even if they talk about it, nobody is ever going to really get it.”
Despite feeling that others cannot fully grasp the scope of her challenges, Harden believes that she can work through the difficulties.
“With time and the right people, it won’t completely go away, but it will get better. It won’t get better in a way that they are going to completely forget that it is there, but it will be easier to handle and cope with,” Harden said.
Cruising down the road on his way home, he saw a sign; gas was $5.11 a gallon. He blinked and shook his head. The numbers on the sign rearranged themselves into the correct order: $1.51. Because of his dyslexia, earth and space science teacher Wayne Britton confuse the order of letters and numbers.
“They just don’t line up evenly for me. It slowed me down, and it slowed down my ability to read at a regular rate,” Britton said. “I just really couldn’t keep up at times. I’d stay up later and had to work harder, and there were times I’d give up quicker because I just couldn’t get through the reading.”
From a young age, Britton experienced the consequences of his dyslexia. Others viewed him as incapable because he struggled with spelling.
“I was definitely told that my spelling made me inadequate,” Britton said. “I would end up in tears as a kid because the other kids would make fun of me, and of course, I had all these barriers I built up in my own mind about it, and it got worse and harder.”
Throughout elementary school, teachers could not understand Britton’s condition and assumed his difficulty with spelling reflected his intelligence.
“As a kid, I definitely felt disadvantaged. It wasn’t [until] seventh grade that I had a teacher pull me aside, and she was like, ‘You can do all these other things. You understand all this other stuff. It’s just your spelling. You’re not stupid,’” Britton said. “And that was the first time I got moved from mid-tier into higher-end courses, where I was actually challenged and really learned things and was pushed. And at that point, I really started to like school.”
In college, Britton’s struggles with dyslexia continued, especially in his foreign language classes.
“Being dyslexic and trying to learn [Latin] was so hard for me. To spell in English was hard enough, but to try and learn to spell in another language, where the sounds are different from the letters and sounds you know, was overwhelming for me,” Britton said. “Luckily, one of my really good friends helped me study, and I went from barely getting a C to making straight A’s in Latin. It just took persistence.”
Today, rather than treating dyslexia as a disadvantage, Britton views it as a useful tool.
“If I’m very careful and read
every word, my comprehension is really high. Usually, I get almost everything out of an article the
first time I read it. It’s [also] made me more empathetic to students who have poor handwriting. I’m willing to slow down and carefully reread it,” Britton said. “If I hadn’t embraced [my dyslexia], and I had fought against it, I’d just be angry and frustrated by it, instead of using it as a tool.”
Overall, through a lifetime of ever-present challenges, dyslexia has taught Britton a life lesson that he continues to carry through his daily life.
“One of the worst things you can do is run from your problem,” Britton said. “The more you embrace it and talk about it and make it your own, the less power it has over you and the more power you have over it.”