Jul 3 • 12M

Facing My Worst Fear

How a simple word game made me realize what I'd been repressing.

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My Barnard College yearbook picture. I made it to and through college, painfully, and with a lot of help from my friends (and brother!)…


Sometimes our fears are ones we aren’t even aware of, right?

So I Wordle with a guy I know at 9:45 every morning. We aren’t physically together, but we do it simultaneously and then compare our journeys. (Side note: You can learn a lot about someone by their Wordle choices! I highly recommend it as a dating tool.) One day, I had a meeting I couldn’t reschedule at 9:45 and I Wordle-cheated on him and did it on my own.

It did not go well.

I started out with my usual word: Death (I like to know where my as,es,and ts are at!), but things just went south from there. Look for yourself. (below) Even though I got the first letter right off the bat, once I realized the second letter was going to be another consonant, I kind of lost it. None of my subsequent choices even made any sense. I’m using letters I know aren’t in there over and over again. But putting aside the bad choices, my experience was so interesting.

I. Was. Terrified.

I couldn’t have guessed how much comfort having a puzzle buddy had given me. After my incorrect guess of Dingo, I was literally in fight or flight till the end. It felt like I was a non-swimmer dropped into the ocean desperately trying to stay on the surface…trying to stay alive. But dude, I was playing WORDLE.

Because I’m me, I had to discuss this with my beloved therapist, Joseph: Something happened when I was playing Wordle and I think it may be significant. (Raise your hand if you’re glad you’re not my therapist! 🙋🏻‍♀️) But joking aside, it was significant. What I tapped into with Wordle is one of the many things I was fleeing when I left Seventeen…and my career.

I have dyslexia.

I can’t read and process like you can. Yes, it gives me some superpowers. People are always really quick to say that about dyslexia. That soooo many creative and successful people are dyslexic. And it’s true. There are things I can do that many people can’t. I have a daughter with dyslexia and she’s a fucking unicorn. This girl is ready to host the 7 o’clock hour of the Today show tomorrow and she’s 9 years old for fuck’s sake. It’s truly wild.

But I don’t want to just gear shift into what’s amaaaaazing about this learning disability because today I’m sitting with what’s hard. I can’t easily process text that my 13-year-old daughter can (Sure, she’s a brain but still…she’s 13!). I won’t bore you with the specifics, but I have issues with my working memory – my brain’s ability to hold onto small bits of content while it retrieves other information. Going to that next level of complexity is very hard (sometimes impossible) for me. This also impacts my processing speed. I read really slowly unless it’s super easy and doesn’t require much working memory. Like I’m the Queen of the beach read. 👑 (Where are my fellow Elin Hilderbrand fans?) Anything else? Not so much. That’s why I listen to a lot of talks, interviews and podcasts. It’s much easier for me to retain information that way and I usually take copious notes.

School was always hard for me but like other dyslexics, I figured out my ways around the system. And once I became a fashion assistant, I kinda never had to read a complicated paragraph again so I was in the clear. Creating CosmoGIRL! was a breeze. I’ve always been good at seeing what’s on the horizon and the prototype was essentially several tables of content and lots of images and headlines I pulled together with ease. It was a glorified art project – very much within my wheelhouse.

But then I was an Editor-in-Chief.

Tbh, I kind of don’t want to get into how hard it was for me. I’m here in New Paltz for July 4th weekend, typing while my oldest child is sleeping next to me. Just thinking about how I felt for so many years being slammed with so much copy, so many pages to read day in and day out is so, so hard. I worked non-stop. Literally around the clock. I worked from home half-days so I could focus better. Not because there was that much work to do. But because it was so hard for me to read all that fucking content. The dyslexia didn’t make me lower my expectations for what I wanted, but I just didn’t have the skillset to get it there with ease the way a typical Editor-in-Chief would. Most top Editors go up the ranks through the features departments. These are people who love words. People who are good with words. People who can easily…read words. I don’t know how to describe it to you other than to say it feels like I need to read the words through once before I understand what they mean. It’s not always automatic. Especially when the text is complex. People on my team will remember how many rounds we had to go through on each piece. How long our process was.

I don’t feel shame about it because I know I was doing the very best I could, and I brought other strengths to the table that contributed as much as my deficits slowed down our process. Like my disability also impacted our magazines in a positive way. If words didn’t have a “stop sign” quality to them, we wouldn’t use them in headlines or coverlines. I needed the reader to be able to read a word just by looking at it. We created a design system to help with automaticity. We didn’t use this word for it then. But that’s what our brilliant designers did because I would say things about coverlines like “it takes me too long to read it.” I was so sure this was how everyone experienced the words. I kind of didn’t realize then that this was my learning disability. But I believe it made our beloved magazines easier to digest, our important content more accessible and user-friendly.

But Wordle…Wordle.

What I realized after the Wordle incident was that this intense fear of reading and more specifically processing, is really holding me back in this next chapter of my career. Like, it’s why I haven’t written a book. A best-selling author I really respect called me the other day and literally the first words out of her mouth where, “Where the heck is your book?” I walked away from my first book deal many years ago. And today, I have a wonderful literary agent who also happens to be my good friend. Did I sign with her because I knew she wouldn’t push me? Or did I sign with her because I knew she would? I honestly don’t know but I know she’s got a sacred role in my healing. You’ve got a sacred role, my sister. I’ve had meetings with top publishers. But the truth is: I am paralyzed. I am just so afraid. But it’s not only the fear that’s holding me back. It’s the actual inability to hold complex thoughts together in my writing. I just can’t do it. I just can’t do it. I’m bawling as I type: Just what I wanted to avoid this morning. But for the first time in my life, I’m really sitting with why I have avoided my next step professionally. Why last year, I tried so hard to turn this Substack into a way of telling other women’s stories and taking the spotlight off my own. And this is not just about the work! I would only get serious with guys who had a very particular form of intellect: From my husband to the Bear. The Bear! 🐻 One of the biggest turn ons about the Bear was (I shit you not)…his processing speed! It sounds so asinine, but it’s true. I didn’t think I could survive in the world without someone next to me that had this particular  hyperability…even though this hyperability like other hyperabilities came with other qualities that couldn’t be less suited to me. But I digress….I digress.

Listen, I can’t tie this up in a neat bow. There is no big, beautiful finish where I announce, “And now I have written my book proposal and it’s being published by Simon & Schuster, Spring 2023!” This column is about sitting with uncertainty…making space for vulnerability. This is about holding my younger self who had to sit in class with peers who seemed to “get” it when I never could...who had to fake confidence until it seemed so real that top colleges believed it…Hearst believed it…even I believed it. And a bow to the learned confidence that took me so far in life! Thank you, Confidence. I’m going to sit with what’s beneath you today. I need to hold what’s beneath you…and that is uncertainty and fear. I have no idea what kind of future waits for a writer who is afraid of words. So today I’m resting in this space of, “I don’t know.” Not sure if you’ve ever been there yourself.

Sending love and care your way, 24/7, as always at atoosa@atoosa.com.


xo atoosa

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