“Head south on Main street,” my husband said.
“That means nothing to me,” I said. Which way was south from where I was? And, more importantly, where was I?
I stumbled across this wonderful Salon article penned by a woman with the exact same problem—not your average “I’m bad with directions” problem, but a very real and very pronounced spatial relations learning disability.
Similar to the author’s experience, I got tested for the disability when the humongous gap between my verbal and non-verbal reasoning standardized test scores was too big to ignore any longer. I could read before I was three, I read on an eighth-grade level when I was five, and used my photographic memory to learn all the answers on every card in Trivial Pursuit so I could beat my older brothers that same year.
Yet when the educational psychologist asked a 14-year-old me to put together a basic 7-piece puzzle of the human face in three minutes, I could not do it.
I know what a face looks like. I know seven pieces—a mouth, a nose, two eyes, etc—is not a hard puzzle. So why, in 180 painstaking seconds, couldn’t I put even two pieces together? Or match up a tree to its shadow, or any of the other basic spatial things most people can do?
Because something really screwy happens in my brain when I look at or try to visualize non-verbal images or concepts—they get flipped, reversed, thrown into chaos, and no matter how hard I focus, I cannot make sense of things.
Like the author, I don’t “do” north, south, east, or west. The only way I know where the sun rises is to remember which window the sunlight used to stream into each morning when I was a kid—since it woke me up, I could remember it.
I can’t read a map. I can’t follow directions. I get lost in my hometown, lost in the city I’ve lived in for five years; I get lost so often that almost everything is beginning to look familiar (“Oh, I know where we are, I’ve been lost here before!”) I routinely build in an extra half-hour for lost time, and my family knows to keep their cell phones on for frantic “Where am I?” calls.
It took me years to tell time on an analog clock. I still can’t do puzzles, get riddled with anxiety when navigating the labyrinthine hallways of my office building, and even though I slogged through honors calculus, I can’t add fractions, can’t reverse things in my head, and the “P” on the pepper shaker often looks like a triangle to me. I can't asseble things, and despite Scrabble scores of 400, I cannot figure out how to put the letter trays back in their slots in the Travel Scrabble edition. Getting the picture?
And yet, like the Salon author, I’ve learned to adapt. I memorize street signs, store fronts, anything with words, so that my landscape is a guidebook of verbal landmarks. I park in the same place when I return to malls, hospitals, or other sprawling places so I can retrace my exact steps. I rely heavily on my memory to re-create scenes so I know where to go, and when I get lost it my own building and bump into people, I pretend I was going to the copy machine.
I’m so used to seeing the world differently and using my dominant strengths to help balance out the glaring deficits that I don’t even think about it too much. Reading this article made me appreciate just how rote many of my coping mechanisms are—so built into my life that I barely notice them.
It’s the same sort of thing we do with chronic conditions, the changes and adaptations and mechanisms we use to deflect or diffuse symptoms. When I get winded from using the stairs on a “bad” lung day, I duck into the restroom to catch my breath. On a much larger scale, when I lost my adrenaline and my lungs spiraled downwards to boot, I focused on building a career with flexibility. At some point or another, every patient with a chronic disease faces similar strategic thinking and adapting.
Everyone’s got something to compensate for in life, whether it’s a learning disability that makes stepping out of a subway exit a daily adventure in disorientation or a serious illness that makes a simple thing like drawing a breath complicated. I really don’t believe “normal” exists—all we can do is live our lives in such a way that we maximize our strengths and minimize our weaknesses. That’s the ideal, anyway, though getting to that point is the harder part.