Depression, dyslexia & attachment style – what’s the link?
If I were a child today, my learning disability would (hopefully) be diagnosed early and I’d be provided with a package of support to help me achieve to the best of my ability. Back in the 80s, however, it was just accepted that I was a poor reader, that I couldn’t spell and that I had to work much harder than other kids. It wasn’t until I reached university that took myself off to be assessed, and was diagnosed with dyslexia.
I developed lots of ways to hide my difficulties. In primary school we would have to line up to read out loud to the teacher. I’d excuse myself to go to the bathroom and when I returned, I’d join the end of the queue, with the hope that the teacher would never get up to me. In high school I worked really hard, doing hours of homework on weeknights and all-day Sunday. Spelling was a nightmare, and the dictionary was often no help, as I couldn’t work out the first few letters of the word in order to look it up! As a waitress in my early 20s I’d write orders on my pad in really messy writing to cover up any possible spelling mistakes.
Even though I did well in my degree, I always set the bar low for myself. My attitude was ‘I can’t do that’, rather than ‘that sounds interesting, I’d like to give it a try’. My friends with a ‘can-do’ approach to life bewildered me, I just couldn’t understand how they were so confident. I experienced the world as a confusing place, I was shy and risk averse. All this, I thought, was due to dyslexia which left me feeling dumb and that there was something wrong with me.
It wasn’t until I started therapy for depression and anxiety in my 20s that I began to understand the link between my childhood anxiety and dyslexia. I learnt that due to early neglect my mind was not open to learning, as I didn’t feel safe enough to be curious, to explore, to take risks and make mistakes. These are tell-tale signs of a dyslexic child, but they are also present in those with an ‘Anxious/Preoccupied’ attachment style. In the first 18 months of life, we develop an attachment template through which we experience and predict the world around us. Those with ‘insecure’ attachment are more likely to develop mental health issues.
A genetic tendency towards dyslexia, coupled with early neglect, made learning difficulties more likely for me. If my attachment issues were addressed, perhaps I would have found learning less challenging. Researchers now understand that it’s not just our genes or our environment that shape who we become, but rather it’s the interplay between the two. Epigenetics shows that our environment can cause changes that affect the way our genes work, which suggests we could think of dyslexia in terms of ‘what’s happened to you?’ rather than ‘what’s wrong with you?’
Despite the struggles, there is an upside to dyslexia – the very act of struggling inadvertently helped me develop positive skills. I’ve always tried hard at whatever I do. I have no other way of operating. I just keep persisting, no matter the obstacle, and this effort eventually leads to success. This has paid off in study, work and interpersonal relationships. Also, I’m ok with little gains, just taking one step at a time. Since I don’t expect things to be easy, I’m not undone by setbacks – they feel normal. I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, which has perhaps been my most powerful weapon against depression and anxiety.