Auditory Processing Disorder: One Writer’s Clash with a Learning Disability
I slid into the best seat of the house—again! Day two of third grade. I, little Rissa Brahm, had snagged the front row, smack in the middle of Ms. Q.’s top-level reading class. Ms. Q.—the most popular teacher in my entire elementary school. Why so famous, desired, sought-after, you ask?
Talking birds. She’d bring one or several of her ten conversationally-inclined parrots to class each and every day. Yeah, it was the 80s, when kids often went home to an empty house after school (latch-key kid and proud!), slammed down too many cookies too fast before biking without a helmet to the unsupervised fishing pond while passing who-knows-how-many sexual predator’s homes along the way. Disease-infested, potentially-biting parrots in a classroom environment? Meh.
Returning to front and center and proud. The start of the school year—high-pressure time. You make your mark, show your aptitude. And so help me, Ms. Q. would see what a smooth, top-level reader I was!
Since age five, I’d read on my own for fun. I loved stories! Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss, then Shell Silverstein, Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume—and on from there. When cuddled on the couch or snuggled in bed, I’d read to myself quietly with the same pacing as an adult reads out loud, well, to a child. Sing-songy and slow. Rhythmic. And out loud was how the story-meaning registered for me. In Kindergarten, I had to be taught to stop whispering the words so I wouldn’t disrupt the kids around me on the reading rug. That’s when my inner-narrator’s voice took over. It used the same rhythmic and measured pace and clear enunciation—again, in my head. And although my pace was set to snail, I’d been considered an advanced reader, great in comprehension and clarity—and enthusiasm! Teachers loved me.
But none of my past teachers had been…Ms. Q! Move over birds, I was about to become the new teacher’s pet.
Ms. Q. had us open to a short story that I can’t recall the name or gist of, while she loved-on and woo’d her pretty, pretty birds. She instructed us to take turns reading aloud—paragraph by paragraph, my favorite! Once we had all gotten a turn, she nodded, a most-definite glint of pride in her eyes. Not the same level of pride she showed the three macaws, but near-enough. She scanned our faces, ending with her gaze right on me! Like I’d made her proudest! I mean, I had nailed the passage on my turn—not a single stutter or hiccup or sounded-out-word. My chest puffed a bit, no doubt.
Squawk! I jumped—got an inch of air, even. Sharp, unexpected sounds had always done that to me. Ms. Q. spun around and scurried toward her feathered babies to make sure they were okay. As she adjusted the water bottle in the cage, she stopped whispering to the birds and cleared her throat.
“Children”—without taking her eyes off of precious one, two, or three—“read silently at your desks. The entire next chapter, ten minutes…now, begin!”
Begin!? Said like a bullet to my small, then-heaving chest…
Pause and jump ahead thirty-one years.
In my romance writing, I describe the human heartbeat and all of its pounding and thumping and pulsating to-and-through all of the various parts and junctures of the body. Sixty to seventy percent of the throbbing in my stories hits the more sensual hotspots for very fabulous reasons.
The remaining palpitations: 10% heart-fluttering reflection while the rest…heart-attack level fight-or-flight panic!
That day in Ms. Q.’s class, after she’d announced those words—an entire chapter…ten minutes…now, begin!—my heart nearly choked me out. Filled my throat with expanding dread.
Menus! Every week—every damn week!—on our family’s out-to-dinner nights…menus. My older brother and cousin—what a team they were—teased then nudged then whined then yelled for me to “hurry up, decide what you want, already!”
My parents followed up with scolding words and clicks, hushes and snaps—then all-out pleading to “stop pressuring your sister—she…reads…slow!”
I tried with all my little being to tune. Them. All. Out! No matter the restaurant—repeat or new— with menu options—few or plenty—the choices stared at me while I just stared back. I’d read the choices over and over and over. Nothing would sink in.
And Ms. Q, the woman I needed to impress, had just asked us to read silently! We’d never had to do that in second grade. But K-2 had been baby stuff, whereas grades 3-5, that’s where the real shit started! So, of course I’d be expected to read x number of pages to myself in an x amount of time!
But if I’d known it would be so soon into the school year, I might’ve sat in the far back corner! And not worn my brightest second-day-of-school outfit!
So about that heartbeat slamming-and-squeezing and slamming-and-squeezing my main neck vein? Well, I was convinced that my heart would explode and, far worse than death, I’d be the kid spewing heart-blood all over the floor.
That didn’t happen. But what did happen felt far, far worse.
The three flippin’ parrots (nothing against the ‘pretty, pretty birds,’ btw!) spoke and squawked and called out in staccato-shrill chorus at the front left of the room. Ms. Q. made puckering noises at her pets while feeding them crackers then cooing.
At the same time, my crush, Steven S.—sitting right behind me!—whispered-away at some way-less important boy next to him. Psst, psst, psst. Probably about me, and probably all bad.
The wall clock tick-tick-tocked along with each passing second while the lawn mower outside the classroom window revved and buzzed with no rhyme or reason. Then Cindy with the brunette bob in front of me alternated her gum-smacking and bubble-popping—Ms. Q had been too busy with the birds to notice the gum-chomping infringement.
The brutal mix of all those sounds echoed in my head even before my eyes zeroed in on the heading of the chapter in the big mean textbook with the collection of short—but not short enough—stories laughing at me from its pages.
I blew out with determination and grabbed the first word on the page, then the next. But by the period at the end of sentence number one, I’d realized that I hadn’t grasped a single noun, verb or stupid adjective. No meaning, no comprehension. I read the same first line again, then again…over and over and over. The words wouldn’t sink in no matter how—pucker, smack—hard—psst, pop—I—buzz, squawk, hell-o?—tried.
Mind you, the noises around me weren’t the only issue sucking away my focus, wrecking my ability to process beyond the first damn sentence of the very first paragraph of the first…you get the idea. Combine jungle birds, lawn mowers, whispers and popping bubble gum—my inner narrator, who didn’t appreciate interruption or competition, started speeding up…if only to get a word in edgewise.
Result: MY MIND GOT COMPLETELY CLOBBERED!
Then it all got so much worse.
Slam. Jaime’s book whoosh-clapped shut to my right. Then four more books. Kids were finishing the chapter. Already? More textbooks closed like popcorn popping in a microwave—yes, we’d just gotten one at home, and oh, did that white noise drive me nuts! Anyway, the classroom’s soundtrack from hell made the words on the page in front of me blur and merge and jiggle. Were they laughing at me?
“Three more minutes, children.”
The tears fell like water balloons on the Times New Roman print—and then I really did have blurry vision. My pulse had squeezed through my entire panicked body, my bladder included. I had to pee so bad…but my brain, so pummeled by pressure and inability and fear, couldn’t even connect the gift of escape the need to pee had lent me. Later on that day I’d kick myself for not having run to a toilet stall and hiding ‘til dismissal. My teacher had been so damn preoccupied with the birds that she would’ve even noticed my empty desk. Okay, maybe she would’ve, but I was eight and felt invisible most of the time anyway.
Anyway, I figured I couldn’t possibly raise my hand to ask to use the girl’s room because that would have somehow drawn complete attention away from the stupid birds and onto the God-awful fact that I hadn’t finished the first page in the chapter—heart-sink—the first paragraph! Still!
My breath stopped.
“Close your books and get your pencils out for a pop quiz.”
Okay, I do recall that Ms. Q. announced my name—just me, no one else—and scolded me in a series of shrill squawks. And then she kept me inside for recess—with the shrieking birds… To read!
The kids, Stephen S. included, snickered when they left and as they returned from the swings and kickball and jump rope…maybe not as loudly as my heart recollects, but their hot glad-I’m-not-you spotlight had burned pretty good. And I still had to pee! I made it to the girl’s room at lunch time—releasing my bladder and my dammed-up heaves and sobs of mortification. Ms. Q.’s teaching assistant came to get me after two minutes. I sucked it up, red swollen eyes and all—no I wasn’t crying, Stephen S.!—and returned to my desk amidst the clamor of the classroom.
The topper of that fateful day…bird-lady handed me the incomplete quiz…to be signed…by my dad—dun, dun, dunn. A dire consequence, indeed. Showing my dad branded the shame deep into my psyche, for sure.
But it also fueled me for the fight through Ms. Q.’s class—from that day on, I’d pre-read the stupid out-loud chapters at home the night before. And I did that preemptive kind of thing throughout the rest of my school career. I conquered honors and AP classes, then my competitive college courses. I never got tested for anything, so no diagnosis, no named issue—I was just officially sloooooooow at reading and writing and math, etc. and I needed complete silence and loads of extra time to absorb then process then retain it all. But I wouldn’t and couldn’t let my sloth-slow learning habits stop me. I fought—and I thought I’d won!
But then I got married…and it all caught up to me.
Marriage. Ever hear the words, “You don’t ever listen to me?” All spouses have said or yelled it, heard or ignored it, thought or dreamed it, or some combination thereof.
In my case and for the first four years of my now twelve-year marriage, the blame fell on me for the most part. I didn’t successfully hear or listen to what my husband said. Almost ever. It drove him nuts! And it drove me nuts because I’d been positive that I actively listened to him in our day-to-day. And our night-to-night. And the idea that I didn’t value his words or thoughts or opinions…well, it caused havoc in my heart and in his.
So time and regular married-fun went on until one day, so the story goes, my husband told me something. He’d said it at his regular decibel level—he’s got this rich (loud) and deep (damn sexy) radio voice going on—in the completely empty and quiet kitchen on a calm Friday night. I’d only been drying dishes—nothing else. And silent moments after he’d told me what he’d had to tell me, I’d apparently left the room—on to my next task—with no word, no comment…just nothing.
An hour later, my not-a-doctor husband sat me down, squared my shoulders, said my name slowly, clearly and then waited for one long—strangely awkward—moment for me to focus my eyes on his. I smirked, almost ready to laugh at his ultra-seriousness. But I knew better.
“I got the promotion.”
“You got it…finally?” I hugged him hard then kissed him congrats.
He pulled away from me and showed me stern-face again. Then he spoke—not about the promotion, but of his diagnosis. APD, Auditory Processing Disorder. His brother had severe and undiagnosed ADHD, so he’d recognized something in me.
Anyway, I tuned him out, of course. Not just because I most-definitely do have and always have had APD, but because, “Everything is flippin’ diagnosed these days!” And he’d gotten the diagnosis off the web? WTF!
But as his slow-spoken words settled and simmered and days passed and memories flooded, I realized there had been too many examples, including the times when my husband or my kid had spoken to me and I’d stared back, no clue as to what had been said.
Do you remember that narrator’s voice in my head when I’d silent-read as a kid? Well, it also speaks my thoughts to me—it’s like my life’s real-time audio book—and that’s how I’m able to process and function. Again, unless that voice is interrupted. But as I think about the example of my husband in the kitchen, I believe my mind’s narrator had evolved—it had gotten louder and stronger and more stubborn over the decades. Like it knew that my mental processing could only handle one-voice-at-a-time—one-input-at-a-time—so it just learned to overpower-then-eliminate all other voices. Including my husband’s.
Except for helping create our totally fantastic kid, the time and energy and love it took my just-right-match of a husband to pause and research the possible diagnosis—and then work to change our ways around this new knowledge—it became one of the greatest gifts he’d ever given me. Mind you, however, that the John Lennon painting on vinyl and the framed, personalized chromosome mapping of our daughter were close gift-rivals. What can I say, the man just kicks total ass and takes names (big glow-y face here.)
And now we know that to communicate anything to me, my name must be said to get my full attention and to silence that inner-narrator. Whether it’s “the car keys are here” to “the airplane is about to leave us,” the urgency level matters not at all. And when my daughter needs help with homework or my husband has to go over plans or my past life as a CFO required twenty P&Ls analyzed in x amount of time, or now in my newer dream job—writing then reading and re-reading and revising then re-re-reading my heart-pounding romance series—well, the time and quiet I need to process information has to be longer and deeper than what others might need.
And since my husband’s findings (and a medical diagnosis later), time has begun to heal. That rushed-embarrassed-panic from third grade no longer plagues me. Why? Because we all understand my APD. And accept it, even. This is just how my brain functions, how I function. And I am smart and savvy and creative—Hello Stuart Smalley—but those attributes come out best and brightest when I have only one stimulus coming at me at a time. One input to focus on.
At the end of the day, coping with APD is just another challenge—most people’s hurdles are miles more trying than mine. For me, I just take it slow and steady and one day at a time—and the hand-made D-N-D door hanger my daughter made for me helps my focus and my heart.
So with loving support and loads of patience and self-perseverance, I believe we can conquer whatever challenges we’re thrown. Yes, we can soar as high as our strong and vibrant wings will carry us! Why? Because… Squawk you, Ms. Q.—just squawk-and-brrrrrraachk-achk-achk-achk you!