My mother always doubted herself, especially her intelligence. She struggled a lot in school academically and that affected his self-esteem throughout his life, namely by feeling stupid”. She went to school in the 1950s and 1960s and, from the way she describes it, she didn’t receive much help or encouragement from her teachers. or her family, she particularly struggles with reading and writing, which causes her to avoid both as much as possible.
I never knew exactly what to make of it all – she was just my mother. But it wasn’t until recently that I thought maybe she had a learning disability, maybe dyslexia. Part of me thinks if she was aware of this, knowing that it’s something millions of others have and can work with, it might improve her self-esteem. But what if it elicits a sense of regret in her (“If only I knew this 50 years ago…”)? Should I let it go or tell him?
Eleanor says: Getting involved in someone else’s mental life is a tricky thing. On the one hand, a diagnosis can be deeply emancipatory – it can help us understand things that have been alienating or frustrating. Getting proper help as an adult can feel like realizing there were headlights while driving in the dark – oh, this is that how it should be?!
On the other hand, loved ones just aren’t able to diagnose themselves, and what’s supposed to be a helpful suggestion can easily look like an insulting beard.
I think it’s very sensitive of you to see the imprints your mother’s school treatment may have left on her self-esteem: classroom punishments and etiquettes can outlive the people who inflicted them for a long time. But neither you nor I are in a position to speculate that she has a learning disability – we can only wonder if it would be helpful to be assessed by a professional. Especially if her story is marred by people calling her stupid, it might be more worth thinking about how to help. his take control of your life than how to float the idea of a particular, fully formed diagnosis.
The problem with asking someone if they would benefit from a professional assessment is that it forces them to imagine two startling things at once: that they are very different kinds of mental experiences, and that theirs is one that most people don’t share. It is difficult to look at each of them.
Sometimes a more useful on-ramp may be to simply start with the idea that there is different mental experiences, leaving entirely aside the question of whether it applies to them. After all, it’s often only once we’ve learned what a particular experience is. that we may wonder if this explains anything about us. I remember being with a friend who had never been treated for anxiety; wait for you don’t thinking about death all the time?
So instead of presenting her with the idea that she might have dyslexia, which might make her feel judged or exposed (her child seeing something about her before she had a chance to reflect on her own), you could try introducing her to the idea of neurodiversity in a broad sense, with no implicit connection to it.
Maybe you’ve done some research, or found a great novel from the perspective of someone who thinks differently, or listened to a podcast about all the ways schools and educators are helping our days. Maybe you develop a personal interest in neurological differences and tell him what you’ve learned. Being able to share stories of different experiences might inspire him to question his own, and the curiosity we develop about ourselves is much more likely to stick than the curiosity others ask us to have.
You may also find that opening up a conversation about being fired all your life might be helpful, in addition to suggesting professional help. Perhaps regular doses of esteem, sensitive attention, and reinterpretation of her child could play their own part in rebuilding the self-esteem that these academic struggles have taken away.
A mind is a delicate thing; the others are doubly so, but you may find that sharing information and loving connection can help you both understand your mother’s life a little more.
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