notemily: Photo of me, a white girl in her mid-20s, wearing glasses, smiling, looking up and to the right (damage may be severe)
I've been thinking about accommodations and disability and school today. Most of the people reading this blog know that I have a LOT of trouble with school--I always have, or at least, I have ever since I started getting a certain amount of homework. (Before then, though, I had problems paying attention in class, so.) Since then, I've had major problems doing my assignments and handing them in on time. It got steadily worse over the years, and college was often a nightmare of all-nighters, crappy work done under the influence of paralyzing anxiety, having to beg for extensions, and getting supremely depressed that I couldn't just do my work the way so many people told me I should. And of course my parents, who shamed and blamed me the whole way, didn't help.

Grad school was worse, though. My college had been populated with people who often rejected traditional ways of learning, even if the professors didn't always agree with them. I knew I wasn't the only one suffering (although it did sometimes feel that way, especially during finals week when everyone I knew was buckling down and I was getting more and more loopy and INTERNET FOREVER). Grad school, on the other hand, was mostly Normal People (i.e. neurotypical, non-ADHD, whatever) who were capable of doing assignments in advance and handing them in on time. And the professors expected that from everybody.

And how could I explain how hard it was for me? Nobody would care. People would be like "tough shit, this is grad school, that's how it is." People would see it as a personal failing, and I had trouble myself perceiving it otherwise.

So, anyway, it was a disaster. I hung on for a semester or two and then started a rapid descent into the usual paralyzing anxiety and disabling depression that happened whenever I had the constant pressure of school and assignments hanging over my head. This time, however, I was an adult, and I wasn't listening anymore to my parents' idea that there was nothing more important than school. My mental health is more important than school. So I dropped out.

It's occurred to me since then that, in theory, I could have asked for accommodations. But what would I have asked for? Extra time to get papers done? It wasn't the amount of time that mattered, because I would always leave it until the last minute no matter when it was due. I didn't need extra time for in-class tests, because I had no problem taking a test when it was sitting in front of me, rather than an assignment I had to motivate myself to work on. I didn't feel like my paralyzing homework anxiety was something that could be accommodated.

Today I am thinking that the entire structure of school is not for me. (At least, not for me as I am now. Maybe as a child, if I had been encouraged to follow my own happiness rather than putting school before everything else, I would feel differently about it now.) I am a great learner. I am an awesome learner. I love to learn. I love to discuss what I've learned with professors and other students. I love to put what I've learned in new contexts and gain new perspectives on it. I can do assignments that have clear instructions and specific correct answers. I can even, sometimes, write papers about things I feel passionately about. But a long paper with vague guidelines? About a topic I'm not particularly interested in? Forget it, that is not happening.

Yet the subjects that I love (humanities, social sciences) often require this kind of paper. Apparently it is the ONLY way to show you've learned about something abstract. You can't, you know, talk about it to someone, or write about it in an informal way, because those are not formal enough and don't have a bibliography. Gotta have a bibliography.

So, the accommodations that would work best for me are things that would go against the grain of academic tradition, and therefore would be considered unworkable. But without them, school and I just don't mix.

A few other things about graduate school:

I had a class with a professor whose voice I just could not concentrate on. It was like the wah-wah voice from Charlie Brown. After a few sentences I just zoned out and had no idea what he was saying. I have slight auditory processing problems and his voice was just the worst instance of that I've ever experienced. I'm not sure if there was an accommodation I could have asked for in this case, except for taking the class with a different professor, but that wouldn't have worked with my schedule. On top of the voice thing, his syllabus instructions were vague and unclear, which pretty much dooms me in any class. I took an incomplete in that class and never finished it.

My favorite teacher in library school was also my official advisor. I liked her classes and they rarely involved long papers, so I did pretty well in them. She was kind of shocked and appalled when she found out how badly I was doing in the rest of grad school. Instead of being sympathetic, she was disappointed and shamed me. That was a huge, wrenching betrayal. Someone I looked up to and admired was basically saying that she agreed with what my parents had been telling me my whole life: that the problem is me, and if I only worked harder, the problems would go away.

On the other hand, I did very well in a seminar with an awesome professor who had studied under my dad. I liked her so much that I signed up for a required class because she was teaching it (online). However, I was pretty deep into my depression-anxiety spiral at that point, and I ended up barely being able to look at the homework assignments for that class, let alone do them. I sent her an ashamed, apologetic email saying that I understood if she had to fail me, because I hadn't done any of the work.

But something extremely unusual happened. She didn't blame me. She did not tell me I should have done better. She did not say she had to give me an F.

Instead she asked if everything was okay.

I cried when I got that email. I'm crying now, just thinking about it. How much suffering could I have avoided in my academic career if more people had, instead of blaming and shaming me, asked if I was okay? If more people had recognized my paralyzing homework anxiety for what it was, and offered solutions that didn't boil down to "just do the work"? I never felt like I could say that something was wrong, because the same thing was wrong every semester and I didn't know how to fix it. (I didn't feel like I could say to my professors "I'm having anxiety problems right now" when school was the cause of my anxiety problems, and I knew I would have the same problem next semester, and the one after that, etc.) I wish someone had recognized that years ago, and been able to help me. I wish I had had the vocabulary to articulate that rather than being lazy and having a bad work ethic, I was in fact dealing with disabling ADHD and anxiety. And that these things are not personal failures.

This shit has followed me my whole life. It's still following me. I'm afraid to start anything new for fear that I won't be able to finish it and the anxiety/depression spiral will start again. I've always wanted to do NaNoWriMo, and I think I might actually have the time this year, but guess what's still hanging around? Paralyzing anxiety. That voice in my head that says that not finishing something is a personal failing and it means I am useless and not good for anything, so I might as well not even start.

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