It was a tremendous accomplishment, one that would have thrilled a skilled poet who was two or three times her age, and the book garnered worldwide critical acclaim and a number of prestigious awards. The real triumph of the work, though, was as that it came not just from a young author, but from someone who had been labeled “learning disabled.“ Abeel was a bright young woman and a gifted writer, but daily life for her was an unending series of painful struggles to deal with the things most of us take for granted, like telling time, counting money, and working with the simplest math concepts.
Abeel now has a new, hot-off-the-presses book from Scholastic entitled “My Thirteenth Winter: A Memoir,“ that is an eloquent and moving examination of the years leading up to and after the discovery that she had a condition known as dyscalculia. A math-related learning disability, it is a lifelong condition that affects two to six percent of U.S. elementary-school students. Until she, her family and her teachers knew what they were dealing with, the problem affected nearly every aspect of her life. There wasn‘t a day of her life that wasn‘t plagued with fear, tension, anxiety, frustration and even panic. During her 13th winter, she saw the prospects for her own life as bleak at best.
WORKING WITH WORDS
There were, however, some things in Abeel‘s life that would prove to be stronger than her affliction. The first was her ability to work with words and use them to transform the tumult of her life into eloquent expressions of poetry. Equally important were a teacher who noticed Abeel‘s prowess with language and began to nurture her gifts, and a family whose love and devotion for her that while challenged, never wavered. And then there was Abeel herself, who nearly collapsed under the weight of the trauma caused by her disability, but who fought back with determination and valor for each step she took toward regaining control of her life.
All of these factors were critical in Abeel facing her obstacle, though much of the picture of hope painted in “My Thirteenth Winter“ is done with the colors provided by her writer‘s palate. As Abeel‘s talent for writing was discovered and a special kind of venue created for it through “Reach for the Moon,“ a new ray of hope began to break through the dark shadows cast by dyscalculia. It became apparent that learning disabilities and creative talent could exist in the same individual, and with that knowledge, Abeel embarked on a journey of self-discovery, esteem, confidence and accomplishment, the likes of which she had never known .
Abeel says that she began entertaining the idea of writing her memoir about three or four years after the publication of “Reach for the Moon.“ By that point, she was a seasoned pro on the speaking circuit talking about both her book and her learning disease, and wherever she went, she found that her first-person perspective made a connection with audiences.
“I answered so many questions and talked to so many people, and what I discovered was that while a lot had been written by experts on learning disorders, very little, if any of it, had been done by someone with one, especially someone my age,“ said Abeel, who is now in grad school at the University of Michigan pursuing a Masters in Social Work degree. “It took a while for me to get to the point where I knew I was going to do this for certain, and then there was the whole process of writing the book after that. Its been an amazing journey, and one I feel like I‘ve been on twice now.“
After graduating from what was then Traverse City Senior High School in 1996, Abeel attended the prestigious Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts, partially because it had “good support systems in place for students with learning disabilities.“ She earned her degree in 2000 and returned home to Northern Michigan, where she took a job at Interlochen Arts Academy as a resident hall counselor. For the next two years, she worked with students there and wrote her memoir.
“Part of the writing was so hard because I was simply burned out on school, on having it and learning and learning disabilities and everything else connected with it dominate my life,“ said Abeel. “But I had gotten connected with Scholastic and the feedback on my first few chapters was really encouraging. Everyone seemed to feel it had real value, and eventually, writing my book became my sole focus. Almost a year ago, I finished it.“
Abeel says that writing was a cathartic process in many regards, and she worked closely with a counselor while working on the book.
“I relived a lot of traumatic events while talking them out, which is how I make sense of them for writing,“ she shared. “It was difficult, but therapeutic, and I knew I was finally getting my information out there. It was my chance to make sense of events, and that was empowering. Through documenting everything I went through, I think everyone around me finally was able to fit all the pieces together. I was able to resolve things and write about them, and that was a powerful experience.“
My Thirteenth Winter“ is a candid and extremely moving tale, and her stories are recounted in a way that shows her command of the written word. Her sharp observations shirk the need for pity and reflect an introspective sense of maturity that belies her (still) young years. It is evident that Abeel has lived through and dealt with issues that most of her peers have never had to face, but she has used them to weave a rich tapestry of hope with this book.
So far, she says, the reaction has been very positive, and has been hailed as a must-read for anyone concerned with or facing a learning disability of any sort. It‘s also one of the very few books of its kind out in the market, and even though it is showing up now in Youth sections of bookstores, Abeel feels that word is spreading quickly.
“Some of the most touching comments I‘ve gotten have been from people who are in their 50s, 60s and older, and have been through the same experiences, but no one ever gave them a label for it,“ explained Abeel. “They say that all this time, they thought they were just stupid and that is so tragic. Theres very little out there in the major market on the subject that describes what this is like to go through personally, and by someone of my age. There seems to be a certain impact in all of that combined. Learning disabilities arent something you deal with from 8 a.m.-3 p.m. and then leave behind when you come home. Theyre with you every minute of the day.“
Abeel says that her plans for the future are still being defined, and while she loves to write, she doesn‘t see it as a calling in the way she sees social work. She knows she wants to work with people, and it very well might be those with learning disabilities that she‘ll end up serving professionally.
“I‘ve learned that I write best when I have something to say, but right now, I‘m very immersed in social work and there are some possibilities there I haven‘t even tapped into,“ she concluded. “There may be another book as time goes on, but if there is it will be about my own experiences. In the meantime, there‘s a lot to keep me going, and a message and information I‘m intent on getting out there.“