Bob Meadows
March 20, 2006 12:00 PM

Dana Buchman had a growing sense of dread that something was wrong with her daughter Charlotte: She never crawled, by age 3, she hadn’t learned to count, and her speech was indistinct. In 1991, after Buchman and her husband, Tom, took Charlotte to a series of doctors, a psychologist delivered the news: The 5-year-old had what would be pinpointed as a language-learning disorder. Though she knew nothing about such disorders, Buchman burst into tears. “I was devastated,” she says. “I thought she might have to live in a group home.”

For an overachiever like Buchman, the blow was particularly painful. At 40, she was a designer with her own lucrative label, two daughters (Annie was then 3), a fabulous loft in New York City, a lawyer husband and a case of “have-it-all” perfectionism. Charlotte’s learning disorder, Buchman says, “wasn’t what I’d signed on for; it wasn’t what I expected.” The shock, though, was followed by a kind of relief: Buchman was confident in her ability to attack a problem. “The good thing was that I had the assignment of looking for a school, therapists and specialists to help.”

The bigger challenge for Buchman, now 53, was coping with her own feelings along the way. In her new memoir, A Special Education: One Family’s Journey Through the Maze of Learning Disabilities, she offers practical advice and emotional guidance for other parents. “In my job I meet women who are living driven lives like I did. I hope the book will help parents from making the same mistakes I did,” she says.

As a child, Charlotte was never told that she had a learning problem. “I found out gradually,” she says. “Even at the special school, you’re told you learn differently, but it’s not clear at all. But as you watch your sister as she’s able to read Frog and Toad and you’re not, and you do math and notice that it’s so baby compared to what she’s doing …”

At the Churchill School, a private school for children with learning differences, Charlotte proved to be an eager student. “She’s got an incredible work ethic, and she perseveres in spite of things being 50 times harder for her,” says Buchman, who had herself been an A student growing up in Memphis, the daughter of a homemaker and the owner of a steel fabricating company. “She’s basically an optimist.” But inevitably the family dynamic began to reflect the concern about Charlotte. Having a special-needs child “takes a lot of time,” says Tom, 52 and now a judge. “You worry about depriving your other child. It creates some stress in the marriage. But then child-rearing is tough, and marriage is tough too.”

For years Buchman remained stoic, taking refuge in her high-adrenaline job, she says, to repress the shame she felt when her daughter missed a cue during a class performance or didn’t understand a joke.

That all ended in 1999, when, alone in her family room, Buchman was stricken by a panic attack: “I had this overwhelming sense of unease. I was hyperventilating; I thought I was having a heart attack,” she says. A psychiatrist recommended by her physician helped her realize that she needed help and that the nasty episode had been caused by a lifetime “of holding in my messiness,” as she puts it.

With the help of therapy, Buchman learned to take the slow road. Over time she stopped multitasking, dropped her perfectionism and began delegating at work. She’s given up her light drinking (alcohol “makes you less perceptive”) and—most important—opened up on a subject that she once avoided.

Her biggest fan: Charlotte, now 19 and a cross-country runner who’s getting As at her small liberal arts college in New England. Though she still struggles with some everyday tasks including organizing papers and making change, she not only vetted A Special Education but wrote an afterword for the book. Charlotte was touched by Buchman’s revelations. “It was interesting to see how my mom felt,” she says. “I didn’t know how much she struggled.”

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