‘Finding Dory’ is inspiring me to come clean about a long-held secret

I have a confession to make: There”s a piece of myself, my history, that I”ve been hiding for years. Ever fearful that I will be “caught,” “found out,” and subsequently rejected. Of all things, what looks to be this summer”s biggest film, Finding Dory, has inspired me to unearth what”s become – but never should have been – my secret shame and bring it out into the open.

I”m dyslexic. More than that, I”m dyslexic and make my living – at least in part – as a writer. A number of years ago I worked at an advertising company. We were discussing a potential hire when my then boss said that the gentlemen had revealed that he was dyslexic in the interview. For that reason alone, his application was dismissed. (If you”re screaming “that”s illegal!” welcome to advertising. That was the brass operating at the height of their integrity.) I knew then that I”d never tell an employer about my own storied history with learning disabilities. In fact, I”ve shared it with almost no one in my life. 

I”d discovered at a young age how misunderstood learning disabilities are, and as an adult how potentially damaging to one”s livelihood. It shouldn”t be that way, and now that I”ve got even some small voice, isn”t it my responsibility to talk about it? 

Finding Dory is, for many critics, a serviceable sequel that hits several of the marks of the original, and has a nice message at its core. For me, it”s so much more than that. It”s an opportunity for kids with any kind of… challenge (and I hate that descriptor) to see themselves in a way that illuminates a core truth about disabilities: The gifts that emerge aren”t in spite of them – they are as a direct result.

I”m going to pause to pull out the words ‘challenge” and ‘disability.” I”m pragmatic enough to know why they”ve become the prevalent terms, but think about how that situates the diagnosed. They are always in a deficit. There is always something to make up for. I can say that from my own experience, you become the living manifestation of an apology. The desire to overcompensate is overwhelming. When the truth is – nature has already taken care of that for you.

That”s what Dory illustrates so beautifully. Sure, it”s an imperfect metaphor. She suffers from short term memory loss, which was originally just a fun joke about the way a small fish may function. Yet her journey in this film reflects a truth that – as a dyslexic – I”ve known for years. If your mind is structured to see the world differently, then you will observe things that others do not, and that is hugely valuable. 

When I was in third grade, my parents bussed me to a “public Montessori school” in Harlem. Both they and the school had good intentions. The idea was to structure a public education as if it were private. The trouble is that without funding and within the confines of overcrowding, that simply doesn”t work. Kids get lost in the mix. I did.

My parents were both highly intelligent, my dad a PhD, and I had an advanced vocabulary as a result. So it was decided that I would read to the younger children. When I sat down to do so it became clear that there was a disconnect. I remember the letters swimming before my eyes when I was young as my brain struggled to translate what were (to it) meaningless symbols into a coherent code. In other words, language. The odd thing is, I didn”t even know I couldn”t read until that moment. 

When the dust had settled and all the testing was complete, I was diagnosed with dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia. My parents were shocked and heartbroken. My father, in his fear, became distant. The foundation of his self-worth was – and remains – his intelligence. The idea that I, his child, was somehow “less than” in this regard felt like a reflection on him and sent him into an identity tailspin. I see that as an adult. Eight-year-old me only felt the loss of his warm gaze and the certainty that I”d failed, been born “wrong.”

My mother, in her ferocity, decided this was a fight for us both. She reared up like a mamma bear and lashed out against my “illness.” To her great credit, she read every book written on the topic and prepared to educate the entire family. As well as anyone else who”d listen. She was the first person that told me Albert Einstein was dyslexic. There”s been some back and forth about the veracity of this claim over the years. However, what I can say is that was certainly the first time that it occurred to me that I could be both dyslexic and smart. That was important for me. It was a crucial piece of my development into — many of the best parts of — the person I”ve become.

I relayed that story to a friend”s younger sister years later, and I saw the same light come into her eyes. It was possibility. The idea that there was more for us than just struggle. Though struggle is certainly a piece of the puzzle. I won”t lie about that. Just as Dory has a trail of shells to guide her home, I too had support systems in place.

I spent most of grade school (a new, smaller one that I'd enrolled in) in “resource room” for half of the day. I worked with one of the most extraordinary teachers ever to grace the public school system, Ms. Maxier (who was just as toothy and protective of her pack as my mom). She worked tirelessly to help me train my brain to connect the dots between the patterns I saw on the page and the meaning I understood. Tutors were called in, and I spent hours locked in my room head buried in books, determined to prove that I wasn”t defective.

Under threat of transfer to a “special” program, I promised my parents that if they”d leave me where I was, I”d achieve the honor roll. I did. Each semester. For the remainder of my four years at that school. A fact which confused many classmates who could not integrate learning disabilities and academic achievement in their worldview. I”ve always been fairly comfortable with the paradoxical nature of life, and it”s just now occurring me that that ability is another boon I received.

The lessons I took away from these experiences are innumerable, but the easiest to highlight are: A) You can re-train your brain. Be it emotional or intellectual, you can alter your thinking in a literal sense. And B) Resilience. There”s really nothing that stops me from doing something I want to. I may have to work harder. I may have to get creative, but I won”t be halted. I came to California with $1,000 determined to go to a film school that would not skimp on academics. I took the bus, worked multiple jobs, maintained a 4.0, and found every available scholarship to make that happen. (I also left with a mountain of debt, but that”s another article.) I have been described by several employers as someone who can be trusted to do whatever it takes to get a task done. That”s a strength, but like most things, there”s a shadow. The undercurrent of that trait is overcompensation and the fear of being shamed.

The truth is, I have come to believe – to know – that my greatest assets are not in spite of my dyslexia but have a direct link to it. Albert Einstein aside, there”s certainly no shortage of information on famous figures who had, or have, learning disabilities. Walt Disney, Thomas Edison, and Leonardo da Vinci among them. In fact, there”s been a great deal of theorizing about the type of person who”s been described as “the dyslexic visionary” over the last several years. These are trailblazers whose radically singular perspective allows them to break the status quo and introduce a new way of thinking, living the world, and doing business.

One article outlines it as a condition that “many perceive as a handicap, but which is really just a state of mind, and sometimes an advantageous one.” It points to da Vinci”s ability to see patterns, meaning, and opportunity where many do not. To strategize a new, often better, way of being and doing things. Those are all traits that we see shared among many dyslexics – and are certainly my greatest gifts. Ones which have come into play in both my personal and professional life.

By the time I was in high school it became clear to my parents that dyslexia hadn”t stunted my intelligence… nor my ability to find trouble. So it was that I found myself testing to get into an exclusive private school for gifted children. There were two-tiers to the process: An IQ test and a written portion. The admissions officer stopped at the IQ test in my case and immediately offered me entry. Whether you embrace the IQ test as a measuring tool or not, the important thing is how certain messages play into our own personal mythology and impact who we are. Portions of my IQ are, as I was later told, immeasurable. They simply went off the charts. Key were the sections that had to do with analysis and logical reasoning. Years later, we were able to send my results to a prestigious college in order to re-open the application process well past the deadline. (Again, what happened there is a story for another day.) Interestingly, that”s another aspect of my past that I very rarely share. Two sides of a coin, and both inspire a feeling of embarrassment for me.

I had many obstacles as an adolescent, and there were a multitude of circumstances that played into me failing to “apply myself” as I might have. However, one thing I can truly own is that, in many ways, my IQ made me complacent. I”d showed my dad that I had worth in the only area he truly valued – intelligence. I squandered my years at this private school, and some part of me still mourns the loss. There was an element of “now am I good enough for you!?!” to my response, which was both self-defeating and childish. It”s complicated, and I certainly don”t blame anyone else for my choices, but one thing I now see is how important it is to find balance. If I hadn”t been so shamed into overachievement then I may not have reacted with so much push back to the news that I”d been gifted, rather than faulty, all along. The truth is I was, and am, both. We all are. That”s kind of the deal with being human. The trick is to focus on the former, and find ways around the latter.

One of the best pieces of advice I”ve been given by a boss (HitFix”s own Richard Rushfield, in fact) is as simple as it is true: “Happy managers focus on their staffs” talents and find a solution for the things they aren”t good at.” We can drive ourselves nuts about our friend Dave who”s always late, or we can always tell Dave that the meet time is an hour earlier than it actually is. It”s worth it. He”s Dave. The same is true of how we relate with ourselves. We can spend time lamenting our foibles or aim more and more to exist in what Gay Hendricks calls our “zone of genius” rather than our “zone of competence.”

When I began working in entertainment journalism, I was terrified. I”d written in my previous jobs, but that hadn”t been my primary function. Both of my parents were writers, in their own way, which created a certain level of expectation. When I was a kid the only things I ever seriously or consistently said that I wanted to do when I grew up (putting aside “astronaut”, and conversely, “be Chuck Yeager”) were “writer,” “actress,” “director,” and “I wish I could just watch movies and TV for a living.” Thank you on that last one, universe, by the way. The desire was there. With it came extreme trepidation. 

The pace with which we”re expected to produce content in this industry, along with the lack of copy editors, has sadly meant that typos are a reality for pretty much everyone. No one is less happy about this than us, the writers. Still, it remains true. I”ve seen it happen to the very best of us, and with some regularity. Yet each time I discovered a typo in my own work, a wave of shame would come over me. I felt panicked, sure that I”d be “found out” and summarily dismissed. Not just from the company. No, that fearful little girl that is still a part of me truly believed that the whole world (see parents) would abandon me. 

It”s possible that my typos are a result of my dyslexia. Or it”s possible that they stem from rushing and having limited support – as they do for the lion”s share of my colleagues. I”m able to find and correct their errors just as they are mine. I spent years overcoming the limitations. I”ve seen great editors and terrible ones, and learning disabilities were never a factor. Ultimately, the end result is the same. We need structures and support to catch mistakes. So why was I so distressed when the truth is that what I bring to the table has nothing to do with being a grammar Nazi? (We have one of those, by the way, and she”s great.)

My value in this field, and in each of my previous employment incarnations, can be linked directly to the way my brain functions, which simply isn”t like everyone else. My efforts to learn in the standard format gave me determination as well as, not just the belief, but the certainty that obstacles become opportunities. If you remain ambitious but grounded, wonderful things will happen. More than that, though, my native talents are born of my “disability”: a unique perspective which can be applied to both content analysis and organizational structure; the ability to hone in on strategies for growth and improvement; finding hidden gems; and seeing a window where it looks like there”s a wall. These are the gifts of dyslexia.

I”m not naïve enough to imagine that my story will directly mirror each person, or family, who has faced these kinds of challenges (that word again). Yet, what Dory demonstrates so well for both parents and kids who find that they are different in some way is how important not only acceptance is, but also mining for the gold. Her parents loved her, unequivocally, but they also understood how to make the world work for her and she for it. When Marlin created the space for Dory, believed in her, she discovered a way through their predicament as only she could. Dory is only deflated when she”s told she”s limited… When she”s trusted to do the things that she excels at, she shines. We”re all the better for it.