Image default
Features Stigmatized

Stigmatized: Sophomore Ava Gutheil shares her fight to stay focused

Sophomore Ava Gutheil has skied since she was about five years old. She has long brown hair, a wide smile, and dresses to her style. When she wakes up at seven each morning, Gutheil takes a few moments of “chill time” in bed, twenty minutes of the day she can truly relax. The clothes and the backpack she packed the night before lie nearby, ready for school.

Gutheil has a long day ahead: six hours of lectures where she will try desperately to focus on lessons and decipher scrambling words. Through her school years, she has struggled with dyslexia; AD/HD; three concussions, which resulted in memory loss; and the most recent addition to her struggles — anxiety and depression. In order to combat these challenges, she established a routine. At the start of each class, she pulls out her planner and writes down her homework for each period. Carefully and neatly, she prints in the empty zero period column every upcoming event, reminder, test or quiz, and every day she should prepare for them. Each day she tries “to stay on top of everything” because it is very likely that whatever she does not write down, she will not remember.”

Gutheil and her family first realized that she might have dyslexia when she struggled to read in the second grade.

“I just kept reading the same things over and over again down the page. The only help I got was that [teachers] gave me a ruler,” she recalled.

Gutheil was nonetheless determined, and she soon learned how to use her organizational talent as her main weapon against these difficulties. She began to write reminders in her planner to compensate for memory, reading, and attention difficulties. These habits helped her to succeed in class and get A’s and B’s.

“I think it would change my academic performance if I didn’t have [organization skills] because this is what helps me remember everything.”

Ava Gutheil with her dog Kaya. Credit: Ava Gutheil.

As Gutheil combatted her learning disabilities, she was emotionally and physically struck down by two concussions in her last year of middle school. In eighth grade, while playing soccer, she was hit a brutal three times on the head. She already had a minor concussion in the fourth grade, but this one was especially traumatic.

“My psychologist said [it] was the equivalent of receiving the shock of a bomb blast.”

Gutheil had headed the ball, then got hit in the head by the ball a second time, and was finally pushed to the ground by another player. It was two concussions in just fifteen minutes.

“I sat out because I was stuttering. It was very scary … You are not supposed to stutter. That not only freaked out my parents and teammates, but it also freaked out the doctors. The doctor I went to said ‘I have never had a patient who stuttered before.’”

Ava Gutheil does a throw-in during a soccer game. Credit: Ava Gutheil.

Eight grade turned out to be the hardest year for her. She was dealing with the stresses of her learning disabilities, preparing for high school the next year, and was forced to stop soccer because of lasting concussion symptoms.

“The concussions changed me. I don’t remember what I was like before … That’s where most likely my anxiety and depression stems from because I did not have those before. And my memory issues just went down the hill.”

Her parents even described her as a “wet noodle.” She explained, “There was something off about me. I had a personality, but I was sort of not there because my brain was very affected by the concussions.”

Healing from the concussions was an abnormally long and unpredictable process for Gutheil: “Some days, on good days, you have hardly any symptoms. You can go to school and do all your classes. Then the next day you feel a tingly in the front of your head, and then you are drowsy. You have mood swings and headaches. You are feeling wobbly and your hands are shaking,” she recalled.

Gutheil believed she was suffering from post-concussion syndrome. According to Mayo Clinic, people with this condition retain concussion symptoms that can continue from weeks to years after the accident. However, for most, the symptoms last no more than ten days.

Young Ava Gutheil (in lead) plays soccer with teammates. Credit: Ava Gutheil.

Gutheil’s memory was badly impacted and many of her concussion symptoms continued for years after the occurrence. A few months after she received her concussions, she had no recollection of her fifth grade trip to Outdoor Education.

“I knew I went to Outdoor Ed because everyone was like ‘You did it,’ and there are photos of me doing it, but I have no memory of it.” It came to the point where her memory was what she had written down in her planner.

The symptoms continued unexpectedly into ninth grade, and she had to drop wrestling, a sport she had just started after soccer. To this day, Gutheil still sometimes has a sudden “high sensitivity to flashing bright lights and loud noises which are concussion symptoms.” On these days, “sunglasses are my best friend,” she said.

While dealing with the traumatic effects of her concussions, Gutheil began to experience depression and anxiety. While she does get anxious about tests, she described her anxiety disorder as something on a whole different level.

“It’s like you go into a downward spiral of bad things that could happen. It’s not necessarily ‘I have a test today, and I am freaking out’ … I feel like I am not going to have enough time to finish my homework. It’s like a chain reaction. If can’t do this one thing, then I can’t do these other things. It goes out of my control.”

Fortunately, the rigid routine of school days help keep depression at bay, but when school is out, it’s a different struggle: “If I am on vacation, and I haven’t seen my friends in like a week, or when I am not leaving my house, that’s when it hits home really hard. You are just stuck in your bubble and that’s hard to get out of.”

Gutheil knows the most effective way to deal with her suffocating anxiety and depression is through prevention. She can’t get too “worked up” or overwhelmed as these are triggers. The best way to cope is by maintaining control through organization.

“I have to plan and make sure I can manage my times so I will make it to the end of the week without having a break down. If I can’t control the variables in some way or be able to work with them, then that’s when my anxiety starts ramping up.”

Ava Gutheil’s Planner. Credit: Ava Gutheil.

However, her anxiety, AD/HD, dyslexia, memory issues, and depression haven’t stopped her from learning and following her passions in history and the sciences. Determined to embrace her innate curiosity, she is taking Computer Animation and A.S. Chemistry. This summer she plans to be at a marine biology camp as well.

“I have always been really good at science. One of my favorite TV shows when I was younger was Myth Busters because they had a lot of science involved like explosions. I also really like history. It interests me a lot, and I watch documentaries in my free time.”

Gutheil also found comfort in reading. One of the first series she fell in love with was Percy Jackson. Most of the characters had some learning disabilities like AD/HD or dyslexia.

“It kind of rocked my boat … I encountered a fantasy world that was beyond all my wildest dreams where the characters were just like me. Characters who resembled what was going on in my head, who get me.”

She read the first series entirely out of order because she just couldn’t stop reading more about those characters.

However, her anxiety, AD/HD, dyslexia, memory issues, and depression haven’t stopped her from learning and following her passions in history and the sciences. Determined to embrace her innate curiosity, she is taking Computer Animation and A.S. Chemistry. This summer she plans to be at a marine biology camp as well.

“I have always been really good at science. One of my favorite TV shows when I was younger was Myth Busters because they had a lot of science involved like explosions. I also really like history. It interests me a lot, and I watch documentaries in my free time.”

Gutheil also found comfort in reading. One of the first series she fell in love with was Percy Jackson. Most of the characters had some learning disabilities like AD/HD or dyslexia.

“It kind of rocked my boat … I encountered a fantasy world that was beyond all my wildest dreams where the characters were just like me. Characters who resembled what was going on in my head, who get me.”

She read the first series entirely out of order because she just couldn’t stop reading more about those characters.

At the Renaissance Fair, Ava Gutheil (right) looks up at the sky with friend. Credit: Ava Gutheil.

As Gutheil copes with reading, organization, and exploring her passions, she finds that her learning disabilities have positives. With AD/HD, Gutheil’s mind often goes on frustrating tangents. However, these tangents provide a unique insight or interpretation that is particularly helpful in classes like English.

She reflected, “I am able to think of stuff that other people don’t … That can be very helpful in letting me see things that others don’t. I am really good at finding the plot holes and problems.”

Gutheil can also connect with others knowing that everyone has some internal battle just like how she struggles with her learning and mental challenges.

“I want to give people a chance because not everything you know about a person you see … You might not be able to physically see something is wrong, that someone is hurting … It has made me see other people in a different light.”

After a long day, Gutheil goes back home. Once again, she will try to stay focused while completing the homework written in her planner. She will then prepare her clothes for tomorrow and finally pack her backpack.

“If someone looks at me they are probably not going to know I have all these learning disabilities and mental stuff going on and that I have had three concussions.”

Related posts

Simone Kennel: Her Life Story and Passion for Education

Natalie Silverman

Who is Ms. Kleeman?

Danielle Balestra

Matthew Zito: Transforming M-A From “Penal Institution” to Paradise

Natalie Silverman
%d bloggers like this: