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I Have A Reading Problem

Funny thing, being a creative person who writes a lot of non-fiction. I have a problem with my ability to read. I can comprehend and retain very well, but when it comes to sitting down and opening a nice big blog of text, funny things happen sometimes. It’s not consistent, and this is perhaps because I have developed a lot of coping strategies (some of which I am using even as I write this). And I haven’t talked about it a lot because it hasn’t been consistent enough to cause me a disability. But it’s there.

The problem is that sometimes, when I’m reading a book or a website or a magazine, things start moving around on the surface they are printed on. It starts off like any other sit-down to read does: I proficiently pass my eyes across lines of text, and narrate them in my own head as I read them. But then I start having serious trouble being able to read the beginning of the next line, and instead frequently wind up reading the beginning of the same line I just finished reading. And it takes me a couple of words to catch myself. Then I start stopping mid-sentence when I actually did read the beginning of the next line, and check to make sure that is in fact, what I just did, which requires re-reading what I just stopped in the middle of. Take this random paragraph about a zombie apocalypse for example:

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, while not a zombie novel proper, prefigures many 20th century ideas about zombies in that the resurrection of the dead is portrayed as a scientific process rather than a mystical one, and that the resurrected dead are degraded and more violent than their living selves. Frankenstein, published in 1818, has its roots in European folklore,[6] whose tales of vengeful dead also informed the evolution of the modern conception of vampires as well as zombies. Later notable 19th century stories about the avenging undead included Ambrose Bierce‘s The Death of Halpin Frayser, and various Gothic Romanticism tales by Edgar Allan Poe. Though their works could not be properly considered zombie fiction, the supernatural tales of Bierce and Poe would prove influential on later undead-themed writers such as H. P. Lovecraft, by Lovecraft’s own admission.[7]

Now this is how I might read it:

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, while not a zombie novel proper, prefigures many 20th century ideas about zombies in that the resurrection of the dead is portrayed as a scientific process rather than a mystical one, and that the scientific profess rather —
and that the ressurected dead are degraded and more violent than their living selves. Frankenstein, published in 1818, has its roots in European folklore,[6] whose tales of vengeful dead also informed the evolution of the modern conception of vampires as well as zombies. Later notable 19th century Bierce‘s The Death of Halpin Frayser, and various Gothic Romanticism tales by Edgar Allan Poe. —
Later notable 19th century stories about the avenging undead included Ambrose Bierce‘s The Death of Halpin Frayser, and various Gothic Romanticism tales by Edgar Allan Poe. Though their works could not be properly considered zombie fiction, —
Though their works could not be properly considered zombie fiction, the supernatural tales of Bierce and Poe would prove influential on later undead-themed writers such as H. P. Lovecraft, by Lovecraft’s own admission.[7]

There’s a lot of stopping and resetting and restarting involved, even in a short paragraph. I struggled through this in public school by simply avoiding the task of reading as much as possible, even though when I was able to read books like Christine and Thinner over Summer break, I rather enjoyed having done so and felt a sense of accomplishment for doing it without being prompted to do so. When it came time to read Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre in high school, I procrastinated until the day after the required literary essay was due, picked which ever one seemed easier to speed-read, and scribbled out what I was certain was going to be the shittiest essay I’ve ever written, all within an hour before class. And you know what happened? I got that essay back, saw 95% written in large red teacher-scribble at the top, and without even having sat down in my seat yet, said “Are you kidding me?” out loud enough for the entire class to stop everything and listen for harassment fodder they could use on me later.

His response? “No, I’m not kidding. This is the best essay I’ve read from a grade 12 English student in all of the five classes I teach this term.”

I mean, what the fuck do you say to that?

But here’s the thing about my reading problem: it doesn’t just stop with reading the beginning of the same line I just finished (even if I use a bookmark to underline the lines so that I stop that — which doesn’t work), and I can’t just overcome it by speed-reading instead. I’ll shake my head very suddenly, try to look at something that isn’t words for a moment, and then go back to reading. And for a few moments, my brain decides it’s an expert at reading, allowing me to smoothly plough my gaze right through an entire paragraph in a few seconds, the length of which just took me half an hour to get through. And then the words start swimming. By that I mean, I’ll be in the middle of a line, when all of a sudden, the entire line just lifts off the surface it’s printed on, and starts moving sideways over a negative image of itself in the place on the page where it should be, so that I have to shift my eyes faster to read it until the end. By negative image, I mean, when I’m looking at black text on a white page, all of a sudden, I’m looking at hyper-white text glowing underneath moving black text on an off-white page.

Soon enough, it’s the entire paragraph. Then the entire page. Then the text blocks that are swimming sideways start whirling. And the whole time, I know this is physically impossible, but it doesn’t stop it from happening. The harder I try to focus, the worse it gets. I try to give my eyes a break from the block of text by looking at something not-text, and when I go back to the page, it starts immediately with the entire page of whirling black text over a dizzyingly bright negative image of itself where it should be — where it’s stationary. And if I struggle through this too? Then my ocular muscles start actually twitching. Now it’s not the words on the page moving around, it’s the fucking physical muscle of my goddamned eyeballs doing it. If I still keep trying to persevere, it gets to the point that it’s disorienting even when I’m not looking at text, and as soon as it goes away, I’m left with a cluster headache.

I’ll bet reading sounds like it’s a fucking wonderful and relaxing evening activity for me now, doesn’t it? Like nothing will put me to sleep faster than picking up a big old boring textbook and reading myself into “why the fuck am I still awake?”

I graduated high school with a C average (no doubt, an effect of how much reading I avoided doing) without grade 12 Math (I also refused to write the final for it, as my average for that class going into the exam was exactly 50%). I went to an upgrading school the next semester, and without paying attention or doing exercises in the work book, frequently showing up late for class, earned an awesome 85% on an exam that I scored 32% on when I was trying my goddamned hardest in the previous attempt. And something similar happened again in first-year university-transferable Physics, when for the first half of the semester, I read the textbook and did homework and extra exercises and took notes, and for all my work, was punished by seeing my C+ score drop to a C-. So in the second half of the semester, I applied myself to not paying any attention at all, and when I got that test back? 81% (more than a full letter score higher).

I discovered some coping mechanisms when I was taking my 6-month condensed format medical office diploma program (a credential usually requiring a two-year program elsewhere), which required me to slog through an average of 60 pages of terminology, prefixes, suffixes, and various other “word parts” with minimal context, for each “system” of the human body — I distinctly recall the urinary system and cardiovascular system each being three times longer in length than the endocrine system or ophthalmology. I had to come up with some sort of coping mechanism, or I’d fall behind like I nearly did during the Microsoft Office User System (MOUS) textbook we had 8 weeks to complete prior to that portion of our education. MOUS is a goddamned brick of exercises in Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Access, and Outlook, of greater than a thousand pages length, and we had five exam days and five projects due in that 8 weeks on top of it. And between MOUS and the terminology textbook? First Aid training and a textbook on medical office procedures. After the terminology textbook? A textbook on medical transcription, complete with assignments at the end of every chapter.

I got through it all in four months by committing 13 hours of each day to constant reading. It was torture, made worse only by being in the same city as my biological parents at the time. In Winter. In the prairie province where “Winter” means an average temperature of -30 °C with a 30 mph wind. At least I didn’t want to go outside.

I coped by multi-tasking. I’d listen to music I was already familiar with, like Rammstein and Dimmu Borgir (the only kind of music that’s loud enough to compete with the fucks my head is full of). I tried reading the words out loud to myself when I was at home, while also narrating the words in my head as I read them. I used my fingers to try to keep my place on the page sometimes (as long as my finger wasn’t moving, maybe it would hold the words down? I don’t fucking know why this works sometimes and not other times). I would take breaks for about 2 minutes at a time, every 15 minutes. Even if I was just staring at the wall, it was still a break. I read while I was cooking. I read while I was eating. I even dreamed of reading (and still do, despite contemporary psychology claiming that this is impossible).

When I was done my course, I felt like someone had released me from prison. The entire world was open to me, and I was ecstatic about my new career (and the permanent release from the bondage that was reading for a living). Of course, within two years, it was pretty clear to me that I had just made the first step towards a career in which I was in charge of people, rather than being told what to do all day. That’s when I enrolled in college, to try and pursue dental school. And that’s when I discovered philosophy, psychology, anthropology, feminism, and how difficult it is to get a post-secondary education with this reading problem of mine.

I procrastinated reading because I secretly dreaded it. So much so, that I often did the entire semester’s required reading in the week before exams for my philosophy courses. It’s not that I’m a bullshit artist — it’s that I genuinely understood the topic at hand without having done any of the assigned reading after the first couple of weeks. I used my “listen to really loud music and drown the world out” method, and I told other people about how when I think of a particular song (say, Lateralus by TOOL) during an exam, I can think of what I was reading about at the time I last listened to it (such as the life cycles of ferns). I was repeatedly told “I don’t know how you do it. I have to have complete silence to be able to read.” I also got up and switch spots a lot. I’d check Facebook on my laptop during my two-minute breaks. At a certain point, I decided I would only take a bite of food or sip of my beverage at the end of every paragraph.

Not surprisingly, I performed fucking terribly in the sciences despite my instructors telling me that I’m able to connect abstract theory to concrete examples more astutely than virtually anyone else in my classes. Or that I’m able to understand abstractions from concrete examples we are given in labs when I ask for help, while everyone else just expects to be given the answer. My problem was that I couldn’t give the answers to the questions I was confronted with during exams. My head was just stuck in the abstract all the time. I’d see a question about the structures of bacteria, and I’d be thinking of how that applies to Gram staining and antibacterial soaps, causing super bugs. And I was even worse with math (again). After the first year, I started having anxiety attacks during my exams, when my brain would just go completely fucking blank. Because it’s just such a useful organ!

I’ve been told both that this sounds like dyslexia, and that this is nothing like dyslexia at all. I don’t know what to think of it. It’s just a problem I don’t know how to fix, because the harder I try, the worse it gets.

This is all very frustrating, only made more frustrating when someone singles me out for criticism of my intelligence on the basis of what they think is a deficit in reading comprehension. I’m hard enough on myself (having spent $50,000 in student loans to decide I’m never going to work as a doctor or a doctor’s subordinate again) without requiring a volunteer to step up and put me down. If you’re reading this, and you think you might do that from time to time, cut that shit out.

2 thoughts on “I Have A Reading Problem

    • I’m glad! Writing is really cathartic for me, and it’s important that the voices of those who traditionally just don’t have a voice (or whose voices are taken away, for instance, by the education system), are out there and are heard.

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