Still Processing: Grappling with Learning Disabilities and Familial Expectations

Photo:  iStock

Photo: iStock


I moved to Iowa City, Iowa to pursue my master’s degree. I experienced culture shock because I am from Texas— a hot state. So, when Christmas of 2016 rolled around, I was extremely excited to head home. I had been dreaming about the BBQ, good queso, and margaritas I was going to inhale as soon as I touched down. I was elated to see my dad and my sisters. The only thing that I was dreading was talking about the grades I had received after my first semester.


I did not do the best, to be honest, I did terribly. Even though I did terrible on paper, I knew that I had done everything I could do. I was in office hours with my professors. I was the first person to arrive at the building and the last to leave—no exaggeration every morning I arrived at 7 in the morning. It took me three hours to read a twenty-five-page article. This routine had become my standard. I thought it took everyone that long. I sold my season tickets to the football games because I couldn’t give up my entire Saturday because I had to get work done and this broke my heart because I love going to games. I stopped going to different events on campus, even if they were educational. (Spring semester, I passed up on meeting Francesca Ramsey and that hurt!) I stopped replying to text messages as quickly, thankfully my real friends understood.


I was making all of these adjustments because I was struggling in classes and I was trying to get rid of all the “distractions” so I could focus. 


None of these things mattered to my father when I got home. Why? Because even though I had done all of these things, I had still “managed to find time for a relationship.” (those were his words, not mine.) I tried to explain that I had done everything and I had done my best my first semester. And even though I had a new relationship, that relationship was far from a distraction because my partner is a doctoral student and the times we spent together involved the library or a local coffee shop. It did not matter.


I was supposed to be home for two weeks; however, I cut that trip short because for seven days straight I was reminded of how terrible I did the previous semester. It was like I was not able to engage in conversations unless I talked about what I planned to do better the next semester. And I honestly did not know the answer to that question because I did not know what else I could besides lock myself in a room and only do work. And that was not the life I envisioned for myself because that is what I had done my entire high school career and it created too much anxiety and depression and unneeded pressure.


It is hard to relay a message of “I did my best” when your best and your family’s definition of “best” are two different things. I had created a definition of my personal best, and I knew I had achieved it; however, to certain family members, it looked like I did not try hard enough. Or that I blamed my bad grades on my professor who had said some extraordinarily racist and bigoted remarks to me, which really can take a toll on academic performance.


I knew that I had sacrificed so much and I still wasn’t receiving good grades, and I had already gone through the process of beating myself up. The extra familial pressure and constant discussion on a trip home that was supposed to be fun just made my self-esteem even worse.


Even though I knew I had done my best, something was missing. I needed to know why I still didn’t do well in a class despite giving my all. I began to question if there was something wrong with me. I thought maybe I had ADHD and that is why I couldn’t focus on the reading.


So finally in the April following this trip home, I sought out learning disability testing. After seven hours of diagnostic testing with a neuropsychologist, the tests determined that I not only have one learning disability but that I have three. Yes, you read that right. The doctor was shocked I had even graduated high school much less college. She was astounded that I had made it to graduate school with such severe learning disabilities.


You would think that finding out this news would be liberating; however, even though it was a little bit I somehow had more questions than I did answers. What is Nonverbal Learning Disability? What does it mean to have a reading impairment? What the hell is a processing disorder? I am still finding out these answers every day. 


Thankfully I did not have to do this alone. I was able to receive academic accommodations from the university. An option I did not know existed until my former boss told me about the student disability service office on campus.


Things began to make sense slowly. And as they started to make more sense, I would fill my family in on developments. Honestly, this was pointless. They did not understand. My father even said that he still was getting over the fact that I was not just using this as an excuse or a crutch. That hurt my feelings. My whole world had been turned upside like I was an extra in Stranger Things and it felt as though I was not getting any support.


Since I am writing this, I may as well keep on keeping it real. I wanted a damn apology from my family. I wanted my dad and sisters to apologize to me for not believing me over Christmas break--that I had done everything I could do to succeed and it just wasn’t enough because of these undiagnosed learning disabilities. And since I am open, I have yet to get that apology.


But the most important thing I had to do, especially since I was not going to get an apology from my family, was apologize to myself. I know that that sounds crazy; however, it was necessary. I had allowed the comments of my family to dictate how I felt about my accomplishments. I acknowledged how they viewed me, as not good enough, was how I began to see myself. And I needed to apologize to myself because I knew deep down that I was good enough and that I had done my absolute best.


Today in therapy, my therapist said that sometimes stress and other people’s perceptions could be a distraction from all the things you have already accomplished. They also said that they were worried that I did not see all the fantastic things that I have done and that that was one of their biggest hopes for me—to see myself and everything great I have done and I am doing.


That seems like an easy task, but it is not. Sometimes it can be hard to look in the mirror and not see yourself staring back but instead the failures everyone else has placed on your life looking back at you.


As a graduate student, I was shocked to discover that I had three learning disabilities, but I was more shocked to find out that I was not alone. I do not think it is selfish to think that I was because when you are going through a difficult time, it is easy to feel as though you are alone. But if I were alone, there would not be an office on campus to support me.


I am still struggling with not letting my learning disabilities define who I am but instead allowing them to be a part of me that completes me. They have made me who I am today, and that is scary to think sometimes, that something that can be viewed as negative is the reason I am who I am today.


The most significant lesson for me is recognizing that I know me better than anyone else. Only you can be the judge of the effort you put into something. It can be hard not to let everyone else’s expectations creep up in your life but learning how to keep their comments and suggestions out of the forefront of your mind.


I wish I could say that I have figured out how to do this, but I cannot. But I am open enough to say I am learning. Yes, our ancestors dreamt of the days that we would be allowed into these institutions of higher learning and our parents are sure to remind us of all the sacrifices they made for us to get here, but that should not determine and dictate how we view ourselves and what we decide to make our goals. 


About the Author

Joy Melody Woods is a M.A. student at the University of Iowa studying the sociology of education and sport. She is passionate advocating for mental health disorders and learning disabilities in graduate students. She is also a proud Dallas Cowboys fan and considers chips and queso a food group. Her work can be found at and on her podcast: Morning Joy