Lost in space

You may not be able to read a map but I get lost in the supermarket, due to my severe spatial disability.

Published August 9, 2007 11:21AM (EDT)

Things were better during my genius years. I was about 18 months old when my mother found me in the living room with a pile of building blocks -- counting and spelling as I stacked them. She called a medical professional. My mother told the doctor of my wunderkind rate of development and he suggested she bring me in immediately. Tests were done. Psychologists were consulted. Special schools were researched. Should I be put in genius kid school? Should I skip a grade? Two? Better wait six months and see if she "evens out," said the doctor.

He was right. While my parents continued to overzealously ply me with brain food and flash cards, a healthy case of the stupids kicked in, offsetting my projected brilliance. By age 6 I was just like every other kid. Maybe a little bright, but nothing to necessitate a lampshade. I also wet my bed and habitually banged my head so hard against the wall while I slept that my parents installed padding. I was out of the woods.

Then, for reasons unknown to me, all the kids in my grade were told we'd have to take a test on Iowa. I tried to piece together everything I knew on this subject, but I was 7 years old and my brain was like a slot machine: I put in "Iowa," pulled the lever, and it came up all corn. When at last the test landed on my desk, I was relieved to find it was the standardized kind, blessedly devoid of crop rotation analogies. In my head, I thought I did OK. In reality, I bombed, landing in a breathtakingly high percentile (high in this case meaning "of the masses").

The school called, expressing concern. Should I be held back a grade? Two? In one section of the test, we had to look at a series of everyday objects, match them with their proper names, and fill in the bubbles on a Scantron sheet. I got 19 out of 30 wrong.

"Sloane doesn't even know what a spatula is," the school psychologist said, driving home her point.

"Please," said my mother. She marched me to the kitchen, flung open a drawer and held a rubber paddle in front of my face.

"This," she said loud enough for the school psychologist to hear, "is a spatula. OK?"

"OK," I nodded.

My mother went on to explain my brush with brilliance, my aptitude for geniusness, my general awesomeness, but the school was having none of it. They made me take an IQ test, after which the test administrator announced he had never seen such a right-left brain discrepancy. I was diagnosed with a severe temporal spatial deficit, a learning disability that means I have zero spatial relations skills.

It was official: I was a genius trapped in an idiot's body. The reason I did so poorly on the Iowas was that the questions were multiple choice and presented vertically. Once I had decided on an answer (say, "spatula") I had to remove my eyes from the paper and shade in the corresponding choice in a horizontal line of bubbles. This, much like reading a map and telling time on an analog clock, was an impossibility for me.

Armed with parental skepticism and a master's in special education, my mother began testing me at home. Just to be sure. She'd tell me to retrieve something that was to the right or to the left of something else. She discovered that I had already found ways to compensate -- claiming I was distracted while I was actually desperately trying to figure out the answer. At school, if someone asked me what time it was, I'd say my watch was broken or rudely hold out my arm. By age 10, I started wearing a thin gold chain on my left wrist so I could look down and associate it with that direction. To counterbalance my deficiency, my visual memory became stronger. I could sketch the contents of my locker in accurate detail. I just couldnb

I was living in Alice's Wonderland -- if Alice was a little kid lost in a suburban shopping mall, petrified by the knowledge that she will never be able to find her way back home. I never outgrew that feeling of constant disorientation. Rather, it never outgrew me. Coming home from college freshman year, my father and I stopped off at a sprawling Connecticut market with curving aisles, outdoor spaces and multiple entrances. We split up. When I had collected the items on my half of the list, I tried to find him. For 15 minutes, I circled back and forth and through shortcuts that landed me in places I had just left. Should I ask someone to lead me to the manager's office where I could call him over the P.A. system? I once heard that you can find your way out of any maze by keeping your hand on the left side of the wall. Great, but which side was left? I gave up under a sign for fresh corn, thinking it was best to stay put until my father found me. I was 18 and on the verge of tears in the grocery store.

Though they're not as dramatic as they once were, I still have my fair share of Alice moments. Luckily, I have grown more adept at handling them over the past decade. I now know my right from my left and my up from my down. Unluckily, my terrible sense of direction remains. For me, to live in New York City is to never be able to meet someone on the northeast corner. It is to never ever make a smooth entrance, always to get caught looking lost on the street. The only subway I can exit and begin striding forth with confidence is the one by my home, as there is a gigantic park on the right-hand side and I know I don't live in the trees. I am dating someone who lives near the 7th Avenue stop in Brooklyn and an odd phenomenon occurs every time I visit. When I leave his apartment, I go into the subway through the same entrance. The next time I arrive, I find the entrance, go up the familiar staircase, and it spits me out across the street from where I need to be. I have no idea why. We're all mad here, said the Cheshire Cat. I'm mad, you're mad. Of course, I keep this recurring befuddlement to myself because a) no harm done, it's just across the street, and b) part of me still wonders if I'm making this whole thing up.

The biggest problem with my problem is that other people think they have my problem. People get lost going to the airport. They make plans for Tuesday the 16th when the 16th is a Wednesday. It's not their disability, it's their life. Most people will claim they are "terrible with" something. Names, faces, tipping in restaurants. They expect no special concessions. Should I confess to the encumbered nature of my thinking, they're only too pleased to offer an "I know, Ib

For a long time, I agreed with them. I grew up watching TV with my mother while she faux-diagnosed sitcom characters as having ADHD or Asperger's. I rolled my eyes and wondered where all the plain-dumb kids had gone. Why did there have to be a diagnosis for everyone? Were the cave people on Ritalin? I didn't think so. I was my own worst sympathizer and took an entire adolescence to realize something really was different with me and I couldn't outsmart it.

When I told a friend I was writing this, she said she knew someone who had facial blindness, a kind of recognition dysphasia that makes it impossible for her to recall faces of casual acquaintances and old friends. To compensate, she goes through life taking photographs and being dangerously friendly to strangers. I found this woman's existence extremely comforting. Here was someone else who hid her problems in plain sight, compensating for her disability with no end of odd behaviors, working double-time just to keep up with everyone else's standard of "normal." I wondered how many of us there were out there with severe learning disabilities, walking among the mortals like anti-X-Men with useless or detrimental powers.

Recently my sister hosted a barbecue at her home in New Jersey and the best means of getting to her house is to take the bus. I had the opportunity to leave the country for the weekend, so I took that instead.

"We were making fun of you," my mother recounted, "saying, oh, she's going to South America because she's too cool to take the bus." Fine, I thought, let them think I'm a snob. Let them think I'm lazy. Anything is better than admitting the effort it takes to do what the rest of your percentile does with ease. Anything is better than the feeling of loneliness that comes of falling down the rabbit hole and realizing the Cheshire Cat has a better sense of direction than you do and the White Rabbit has facial dysphasia and doesn't recognize you and it's not as if you can read his pocket watch anyway...

But then my mother, still the parent of a genius toddler, continued: "And I thought, that's not it. She won't get on a bus because it'll take her too long to translate the schedule. And then she won't know which direction to go when she gets off. But it's no problem -- I'll just stand at the corner. And when she walks down the stairs I'll be there to meet her."

By Sloane Crosley

Sloane Crosley is the author of the essay collections "How Did You Get This Number" and "I Was Told There'd Be Cake"

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