On being clever

I am clever.

What a socially unacceptable thing to say.

And how can I be clever if it took me 33 years to actually work out that I’m clever?

How come I didn’t notice sooner? Well I think every child assumes the inside of everyone else’s head is the same as the inside of theirs. If they consider it at all. It certainly never occurred to me that some people were clever than others until I was in my 20s. (I just thought some people didn’t apply themselves.) And while I’m pretty sure both parents mentioned my cleverness to me, once you start to grow up even a little bit you realise that the one thing your parents aren’t is impartial about their children’s abilities, so you have to take it with a pinch of salt. Also, adults can easily outsmart children, so again I assumed it didn’t mean much because I demonstrably wasn’t as clever as an adult.

I was also held back from believing that I was clever by really struggling with numbers. I can deal with them if I can pin them down on a piece of paper – hold them in place with their tricky columns of hundreds, tens and units. Unless we get into tens or hundreds of thousands in which case all the paper in the word will not save me from bewilderment. But try to get me to hold and manipulate even small numbers in my head? FAIL. This is what goes on inside my head:

11 plus 88. On paper I can look at the numbers and tell you the answer in a fairly normal timeframe. But ask me verbally to do that very uncomplicated sum and you’ll hit a serious time lag while I try to work out what the sounds mean I have to do. I’ll get to the right answer, but there’ll be a delay that most people can’t understand before I get there.

OK, so what about something a little harder?

23 plus 49. I know that I’ve been given a number with a 9 in it so I can treat it like a round number and then do something to compensate for that adjustment. But what was the first digit of the number with the 9? And where do I give back the imaginary 1 to round it up. By now I’ve completely forgotten the first number and have to abandon it as impossible. Or I could try it another way and add 20 plus 40 plus 3 plus 9, but that would mean holding more numbers in my head so of course I can’t remember any of them and can’t come to the right conclusion.

Tell me to read out 24370 and I’ll have to put my fingers over digits to work out whether it’s 24 thousand or 240 thousand.

I didn’t find out about the existence of dyscalculia until a few years ago, when a book aimed at diagnosing it in 7 year olds passed through my hands; that was a real light bulb moment. I came from a family who could make numbers behave and I, shamefully, couldn’t. I was drilled on my times tables in many child-friendly ways before I even started school, but the main thing I remember from it was the smiley face stickers from the times tables book. My mother uses numbers as tools to make things – accurate carpentry, tiling or dress making for example. My brother certainly gives the impression of one who could dance with numbers should he so desire and my father always appeared to delight in making them jump through hoops. Certainly he enthusiastically tried to teach me a love of numbers, of which the only thing that stuck really was a theoretical fondness for binary because I approved of any way that meant numbers could exist without the evilness of 7 and 8.

One thing you might find interesting is that I still got an A in GCSE maths. How? Because calculators (and lots of paper) were allowed in the exams and because very little of it actually relies on numbers. If you work the algebra correctly, which I’m fine with, and don’t add any confusing numbers until the last possible minute, checking everything three times with a calculator when you do, you can fake it ’til you make it. Most of GCSE maths was a case of 1) remember a process and understand when to apply it 2) follow logic, be diligent and check repeatedly for mistakes. That was fine. And I LOVE the concept of algebra because you get to substitute friendly letters for evil numbers. Were the exams broken or was I just very good at working around my issues? Discuss.

It wasn’t until a few years ago when I realised struggling with numbers didn’t make me stupid any more than dyslexia makes a person stupid when they struggle with words. Also I took great comfort from a few sentences from Margaret Atwood’s Crake and Oryx: “It was because they were numbers people, not word people … Jimmy already knew that he himself was not a numbers person.” Like Jimmy I was not a numbers person, but seeing this made me see that like Jimmy (and Margaret Atwood) I am a word person. I can’t make numbers dance and jump through hoops and do tricks, but I can do all that with words, when the mood takes me. And I’m married to a numbers person. I can’t follow him when he talks his numbers, but that’s OK; I can edit the hell out of anything he writes, and he can help when I’m in a mathematical tangle.

So I established that I wasn’t stupid, which was rather nice. But I still hadn’t realised I was actually clever. Mr S helped with that a bit, as did a friend who (incorrectly) assumed I’d got a first for my degree based of her assessment of my academic intellect. There was probably a steady drip of things.

But it wasn’t until the last few years when I got to enjoy being clever. Various things at work meant that I got public opportunity to be slightly brilliant. I was in the right place at the right time to show off my strengths and I glowed and shone in the spotlight. I came to realise that yes, I am clever, and that I enjoy being clever and being seen to be clever. I realised that I actually was often several steps ahead of the game which is invaluable in project work where time is always against everyone and there’s no time to head off down blind alleys. I made things better by being me. Instead of keeping my mouth shut because it wasn’t my place, I used my words to make people see what I saw as being important. If you’re clever and you know it clap your hands! And everyone else was clapping too. It was heady stuff.

And then my health started to falter. When I have a cold I can’t think. I can’t evaluate and make decisions. So when the series of colds that heralded the beginning of this recent period of ill-health came along I was so frustrated. I can’t be the clever me when my brain has a lurgy lurking. At the time I expected to be back to normal in a week or so, but things only got worse. One of the most frightening things while I was ill was losing my cleverness. I enjoy the words “cog fog” and I think they can probably be correctly applied to what I was feeling, albeit mostly in a very mild way.

I didn’t get bored. I wasn’t well enough to be bored. I could probably have spent the day staring at a blank wall without it bothering me. There wasn’t enough processing power running in my head to feel like it needed to do anything. In doctor’s waiting rooms I took a book with me from habit, but it never came out of my bag because there was no need to distract myself. My brain was blank. Instead of the chattering stream of consciousness, the nag of things to plan, analysis of surroundings, etc., it was empty. I watched television and did things when I had energy to do them because I felt I ought to. In a way it was a blessing that while my body was incapacitated my brain wasn’t screaming to be busy. I was aware it was wrong and weird, but I didn’t have the brain power to worry.

The worst mental symptom was much worse, but still I didn’t really have the brain power to worry about it. In fact, once the direct moment had passed I found it funny. It was a time when I hadn’t worked out how ill I was, and that I needed to approach life differently, so I reasoned that not feeling well enough to drive to the doctors I could walk there. As long as I took it slowly that would be fine, right? Wrong. Although it all turned out fine in the end.

I was fine walking slowly … except where the path inclined slightly upwards. I won’t call them hills because in normal health you wouldn’t even notice the road rising. The first time I had to walk ever so slightly uphill was on a long straight road. So when I forgot where I was going and why, it was easy just to keep going in the same direction and the road levelled out and I then I knew where I was going again and it was fine and didn’t even register. I had a sit down on the bench at the end of the road and carried on. It happened again slightly a bit further on, but again resolved itself before I needed to make any turnings so I didn’t really think anything of it. But when it happened in the town centre I was in trouble. I could remember that I was trying to walk to the doctors, and what the doctors looked like, and I knew where I was, but as far as my brain was concerned the roads and footpaths between the two did not exist. There was only a blank when I needed to decide which way to turn. For want of a better plan I turned left. Was this my subconscious remembering that in computer game dungeons I always take the left turn ahead of other choices? Who knows. It was wrong. I carried on, assuming that at some point something right would happen. And at some point it did. I’d been heading in the wrong direction for some time, but by luck the path was going ever so slightly downhill, which took enough strain off the system for my brain to work out where I should be and get me back on track. Because I’d left ages to get to the appointment I still managed to get there just in time.

So that was the lowest point, but everything did get better. One day I realised I was bored. I hadn’t been bored for so many months. It was the most fabulous feeling, to have the capacity for boredom. Unfortunately hot on its heels came anxiety, which I also hadn’t felt for months, but then I remembered some coping mechanisms and put anxiety back in its place. When I first tried going back to work the mental disparity between what I had been and what I had become was massive. I couldn’t take things in, couldn’t make connections, couldn’t do my job. Each thing I achieved was massive and exhausting … and then I’d realise I was supposed to do it again and again, and faster. Despite that, slowly but surely I think I have come back to being clever again. I’m still finding some things more taxing than others. I find it very hard to remember what happened when – was that last week or this week? Today or yesterday? But somehow, in between the last of the fog and interrogating people about which day it is, I am occasionally brilliant at work again. So that has to be a good thing.


4 thoughts on “On being clever

  1. Julie x says:

    You’re always brilliant!x

  2. The Lite Rider says:

    I especially liked your last paragraph.

  3. Liz Dexter says:

    Woz it me wot thought you had a First? I always thought you did, and I’ve always thought of you as “clever”, as in highly intelligent. I think it was you who introduced me to the idea of dyscalculia, or we found out about it at the same time, and it’s really helped me to cope with the fact that I can “do words” but can barely tell the time, for example. I can’t do algebra, though!

    Your descriptions of your illness are scary but also very insightful and I’m willing to bet that understanding how it worked from the inside out will help you to recover fully.

    • Sparrowgrass says:

      It wasn’t you I was thinking of that assumed I had a first, but I’m flattered to hear it, thank you. Yes, I waved the dyscalculia book at you and shared my discovery that day 🙂

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