She was a disappointment for her mother, a hopeless case for the teachers. It wasn’t until she was an adult that Sigrun Misselhorn understood that she had dyslexia.
As soon as our teacher came into class with the dictation books, everything in me cramped. The children with the very good dictations got their exercise books back first. The last issue, the one with the five or six, landed on the class failure table every week, accompanied by reproachful silence or perplexed sighs. It was my notebook.
I was the fool
Because the procedure was always the same, my classmates knew without words: I was the stupid one, the one with the chaos of letters who could hardly write a word correctly. I was laughed at, stood alone in the playground. Neither my teachers nor my parents suspected that my problems had a medical cause, especially since I was very good verbally.
Shame is the defining feeling of my childhood. And fear.
Instead of playing games in the afternoons, I sat at my desk for hours improving my dictations. Because I couldn’t remember the order of the letters despite my best efforts, the improvements were mostly wrong. And everything started all over again. It was torture and it was my everyday life.
I had to repeat the second grade. “You can’t even read,” my classmates scoffed. And my mother, a refugee child who had been denied the chance of an academic career due to the war, was disappointed: her daughter was a resident who was building up the future. I was ashamed.
Nobody had heard of dyslexia in the 1970s
Shame is the defining feeling of my childhood. And fear. On Sundays I dreaded the new week. I had frequent migraines on Mondays. My soul sent the body forward. But my mother didn’t understand the connection. Hardly anyone had heard of dyslexia in the early 1970s. And so she sent me to high school against the advice of the teachers. After all, I did well on the IQ test. But again I failed, had to repeat a class and was sent to secondary school. The pressure eased there, but I remained an outsider, if only because I was two years older than my classmates as a double stalwart.
James Dean saved me
My salvation came in August 1980. I was 15 and, like many of my peers, had a crush on James Dean. His star cut hung life-size on the door of my room. My mother fished the Schmonzette “Giganten” from the shelf. The fact that I still couldn’t read frustrated me like never before. Now or never, I thought.
The summer vacation had just started and I had unlimited time. While friends and family sat fascinated in front of the TV during these weeks and watched the TV soap “Dallas”, which was broadcast for the first time, I deciphered sentence by sentence in the garden. Each page took me hours. It was worth it to me. By the end of the vacation I had taught myself to read. Finally! But to this day I have to concentrate hard and I don’t read casually like other people with ease.
Of course, after secondary school, nobody would trust me to study. Except for myself. I dreamed of a job in advertising and, thanks to my good grades in math and physics, actually made it to high school. A trick helped me here in German class: I risked as few misspelled sentences as possible by rewriting all the words that I could not spell correctly with certainty. My essays were flowery and unusually long, but I somehow got through.
Not even my husband knew about my reading and spelling disorder
I graduated from high school and found a job in an advertising agency. Again I thought of strategies to hide my weakness. At conferences, I put my notebook on my knees so that my neighbors couldn’t read, and, to be on the safe side, I wrote so scruffy that no one could decipher my notes. My heart was racing when my boss appeared next to my desk and asked me to quickly handwrite the color and size on a design draft. My hands were sweating, panic crept up: Now I’m being exposed, now everyone is realizing that I’m too stupid to write.
In my desk, hidden from the others, was the Duden, which I read several times a day. Later on, no one was as relieved as I was when the computer spelling programs were invented. Because I couldn’t explain why I found reading and writing so difficult, I didn’t even tell my husband, whom I met in college, about my hardship. Especially since he had made fun of spelling mistakes on postcards from other people a couple of times – without knowing anything of the effect on me. In no case did I want to lose his appreciation.
I didn’t find out about my dyslexia until I was in my mid-30s
I was in my mid-30s when I zapped into a TV show one evening in which an older professor talked about his ordeal as a dyslexic. He described how no one realized that he was an intelligent child and still could not remember a sequence of letters. That his brain cannot perceive or differentiate between similar or rapidly successive visual stimuli. And how he continues to write the same words in different ways over and over again, mostly incorrectly, and therefore suffered for years from fear of failure and feelings of inferiority.
I could not believe it. The professor described my life. And gave my problem a name: I had dyslexia, no doubt about it.
I wasn’t stupid or abnormal, I just belonged to the five percent of people in Germany in whom certain areas of the brain are not activated when reading and writing.
Dyslexia research compares our condition to a house in which some lights are not connected, so the rooms remain dark even if the light is switched on. For us, it remains dark. When I happened to see this TV show, the term dyslexia was only known to professionals. It’s different today. But schoolchildren with extreme problems in the subject of German are still far too rarely tested for dyslexia, so that they are denied an academic career.
Today I write novels!
At some point, we had been together for 15 years, I told my husband about my terrible childhood and the self-diagnosed dyslexia. I hadn’t spoken to anyone about it before. He was stunned: “Why are you only saying that now?” Because I was so ashamed!
To this day there are moments when I feel inferior and break out in a sweat. For example, when I have to quickly write a text under time pressure in the design company that I founded with my husband. “Please leave me alone!” I say then. I can’t stand him waiting impatiently for my laborious spelling.
But today I’m dealing aggressively with my weakness. I’m talking about dyslexia. And I know that I can compensate for this deficit professionally through my creativity, sociability and structure. It may sound crazy, but I now write novels part-time. Why do I do this to myself, even though it takes so much courage and time? Because I like to tell stories well, because writing is more than just stringing letters together – and because I’ve learned over the years that it’s wiser to accept your own weaknesses instead of hiding them.