NVLD/Anxiety/Depression/Addiction, by Jacob

By June 21, 2023 July 5th, 2023 NVLD Bloggers

Hello, my name is Jacob McDonald. I am a 23-year-old male and I have a nonverbal learning disability (NVLD). Before I share my story I would just like to say how pleased I am that there is a website that fully explains this neurological condition and that there are people out there that experience very similar issues that I have in their lives. It makes me feel not alone and more compelled to share my experience with others so that more awareness can be spread about this highly complex and serious condition.

Anyways, with that being said, here is my story:

Growing up my life had never been easy. I always knew there was something off about me ever since I entered the school system. When I was in Kindergarten to the third grade my school life was problematic. I was unable to keep up with the demands of the teachers as well as my parents. Doing homework seemed to take me triple the time it would for my other neurotypical classmates. As well, I found it extremely challenging to properly communicate with my classmates and teachers about anything as it is very hard for me to pick up on nonverbal social cues and linguistic nuances such as body language, facial expression, tone of voice, sarcasm, etc. Making and keeping friends has always been a huge challenge for me and I was utterly shocked at the profound damage this had on my self-esteem and mental health overall. Seeing my peers make friends so effortlessly and seeming so happy and stress-free really took an immense toll on me because I felt like an outcast. Destined for a life of loneliness and eternal unhappiness. I never enjoyed building with blocks or LEGO growing up due to visual-spatial processing issues it fatigued my brain to perform motor tasks like this. I never really enjoyed art or drawing anything due to the same deficit. While in the public school system, I did struggle academically. Mathematics was an area that I did rather poorly compared to what was expected of me. To make matters worse, my teachers had no idea what was wrong with me and it sure didn’t help when they would make passive-aggressive remarks towards me like “Are you even trying?” or “What’s the matter Jacob I already taught you this and the rest of the class is getting it, just put your thinking cap on!” This was so frustrating to me because I knew I was working harder than the rest of the kids I was just unable to live up to the ever-growing expectations. I would fight back tears of frustration every day. Tears of self-hatred. Tears of loneliness. Tears of trying to exist in a world that just wasn’t cut out for my brain.

Luckily, my parents who are both teachers themselves, caught onto my quirks and differences rather quickly. They worried about me and feared that my success in school and life would be limited. They then signed me up to see the school psychologist to get a psycho-educational assessment done on me. I remember working with the school psychologist (Nicole) at least once a week and she performed a series of tests on me. I remember feeling terrible about myself when getting tested. I just couldn’t understand I was the only one in my class having to do these things. The worst was when the psychologist would come to the door of the class and call my name “Jacob, it’s time for your weekly testing again hun” in front of the whole class and I had to take the walk of shame all the way to the door to exit the class. I just remember feeling like a liability to everyone in my life and that my friends are a very empty and helpless feeling.

After the testing, the school psychologist gave me a diagnosis of nonverbal learning disorder (NVLD) when I was 8 years old and in the third grade. When Nicole explained the symptoms to me and my parents it really hit the nail on the head! Poor spatial awareness, poor motor control, and trouble reading social cues. These all accurately described my problems. I know my parents felt a sense of relief as there was an actual reason for why I struggled so immensely. My parents then decided that the public school system was not for me and they sent me to a private school specializing in helping kids with learning disabilities/ADHD called Foothills Academy in Calgary, AB.

I attended Foothills Academy from grades 4-12. Foothills Academy was good and bad for me I felt. I enjoyed it because the class sizes were very small (about 12-15 kids per class) and the teachers were very patient and understanding which I so desperately needed. However, as I got older I realized that the help they were giving seemed to be strictly academic as most learning disabilities seem to affect kids strictly in the school setting. There was no help for visual-spatial issues and no help on how to make friends and read nonverbal information. It was just assumed that students would pick this information up through observation. It was very hard for me to ask for the help that I needed because no one knew what NVLD even was nor how to address the many challenges associated with it. This made disclosing my diagnosis very hard to do because I had to explain to people what it was and even when I did I felt like people didn’t understand and I felt even more misunderstood. I did manage to make some really good friends at that school and whom I’m still friends with to this present day. Because of all the academic help and support at Foothills Academy, I was able to excel. By the time I got to high school, my marks were really good and a post-secondary admission was in sight! Mathematics, which was previously a struggle for me, became something that I genuinely enjoyed. I still had to work very hard in high school but I graduated high school with flying colors and was third in running for valedictorian in my graduating class of 2018! I was so happy and I thought there was nothing that I couldn’t achieve!

Unfortunately, the high of success was temporary. After I graduated high school, I worked for 4 straight years as a baker in a bakery to save up some money for post-secondary education, something that I’ve dreamed of my whole life. It was at this time that the challenges of NVLD really started to get to me. When I was in school I was unaware of how NVLD would affect me in the real world. All the accommodations and support that I got in high school seemed to vanish before my eyes once I entered the workplace. I was very slow at my job for a very long time and my supervisor did not appreciate that as he thought I was just lazy and unmotivated. I tried my best to disclose my NVLD but that only seemed to make matters worse as NVLD is a very misunderstood neurological condition and is not formally recognized by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Obviously, my supervisor had no idea what I was talking about and thought I was just making excuses. The emotional pain of being misunderstood by people in my life was growing at an alarming rate and I felt as if all the hard work I was doing was meaningless. I cried myself to sleep many nights and was later diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). I truly feared how I would be able to manage a job that requires education as I was having trouble in what was viewed as a very basic job by society’s standards. I worried about how my poor visual-spatial abilities and poor coordination would play out in other, more intense jobs. I also feared how my inability to read nonverbal cues would affect me in the workplace as I try to navigate office politics and communicate effectively with co-workers who do not understand NVLD.

The anxiety and depression were caused by more than just my issues in the workplace. It was a result of everything that NVLD consisted of. One thing that really gave me a lot of anxiety was my inability to have a relationship. I am 23 years old now and I have never been able to experience an intimate relationship. This has made me feel very insecure and has greatly reduced my self-esteem. It’s really hard to see my friends be successful in their relationships as they do not have the neurological challenges that I do. Many of my friends are even married now and are talking about having children while I’m just standing on the sidelines congratulating them and wanting so badly to be loved and understood by a woman. I fear that my sensory sensitivity, shyness, and overall lack of communication skills will prevent me from achieving a healthy intimate relationship. I don’t like when people ask me why I’m still single and I have to give a fake answer like “Oh you know dating just isn’t my thing” and then people say “Oh why Jacob you’re such a good-looking guy someone would be attracted to you.” The truth is I have had many women approach me over the years but I am always unable to read their nonverbal cues and my self-esteem is just too low so they have never ever worked out. I just feel too awkward to have to tell my friends and family the real reason why I’m single.  I strongly hope that I can move past my fears and find better strategies to cope with my NVLD.

I’ve always wanted help to cope with the challenges that NVLD throws down on me but because it is not officially recognized by the DSM-V getting help is easier said than done. I feel like the help that is offered to me is the wrong kind of help even though the people I ask mean well and really do want me to feel better. I remember I went to a therapist in my second last year of high school to try and help deal with my anxiety. I disclosed to her my NVLD and she had no idea what it was…. my therapist. I told her about how anxious I was and all she did was give me a series of breathing exercises to try at home and some mindfulness techniques. I’m not saying that stuff is not good or helpful but it does not even begin to understand the emotional pain that NVLD brings on such as not being able to make and keep friends, or not being able to drive in a semi-straight line, or just the overall crippling feeling of isolation and loss and not being able to do things that most people can do automatically. NVLD is by far one of the most misunderstood neurological conditions out there and when the help that’s offered makes you feel worse and even more misunderstood it leaves you with very few options to cope with this emotionally devastating condition.

When I was about 19 or 20 years old my mental health was plummeting like a ship anchor through water. My anxiety/depression was sky-high and I felt like no one understood how I felt and what I was dealing with. As a result, I ended up using drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with all the confusion in my life and numb the pain that my neurological condition bestowed upon me. I am 23 years old and I have tried 16 different recreational drugs. Even just writing that makes me feel crazy my god! Very quickly the disease of addiction was folding its vicious jaws around my mind. All the emotional pain, isolation, and misunderstandings that I’ve dealt with in my life seemed to be ok when I was under the influence. The COVID-19 pandemic certainly didn’t help with all this. Looking back now I realize I was never addicted to drugs. I was addicted to the way they changed how I thought. I was addicted to feeling like I could communicate with people normally without awkwardness. I was addicted to feeling successful. I was addicted to feeling comfortable in my own skin. I was addicted like I could do anything I put my mind to. I was addicted to feeling that all human beings were nice and that they were able to understand me. I so strongly hope that one day I can feel these things without the use of substances and that I can find better ways to cope with who I am.

I cannot emphasize enough how badly NVLD needs to be included in the DSM-V. NVLD needs to be recognized and understood by future generations of doctors and mental health professionals so that stories like mine don’t become a reality for future people with NVLD. Please put it in the DSM-V. I beg you. The NVLD community is begging you.


I am currently attending the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and studying Chemistry with hopes to work in the pharmaceutical industry. I am currently undergoing CBT therapy as well as substance abuse counseling. I hope my story helps fellow people with NVLD know that they’re not alone in their fight.

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