Thursday, August 09, 2007

Thank You, Salon

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.
--Sloane Crosley

There are times when I contemplate canceling my longtime subscription to Salon. It's not that I don't like this online cultural magazine or that I want to eliminate it from my life. It's just that there is so much to read and do these days, with more and more on the horizon, that I wonder if I'll be getting my money's worth by keeping it. Then I stumble onto articles like the one I read today and all doubt is erased. I'm keeping my subscription.

The article is titled Lost in Space and is about one woman's constant struggle with what she calls "spatial disability" and others call nonverbal learning disorder or some such thing. Whatever it's called, she seems to have a pretty severe case of it, and so do I. I've made references to this in the past, but I've tried to turn this blog into less of a pity party than into something more upbeat.

Yet, I want to point out, to anyone who's interested, that the disorder in question is more prevalent than many might realize and that it can have a profound impact on people's lives. I know it has impacted mine to an almost devastating degree. Fortunately, I'm getting some help with it. But if I had gotten that help decades ago instead of now, I might have accomplished far more and suffered far less than I have. I hope and pray that every child afflicted with some variant of this disorder or with any other learning difficulty receives the help he needs as soon as possible so that he might live as productive and happy a life as possible instead of floundering in failure, frustration, and a crippling sense of inadequacy.

After reading the article, I posted the following letter to Salon:

I'm extremely grateful for Sloane Crosley's article and for all of the accompanying letters from readers who share some type or degree of this disability or know someone who does. For while I wouldn't wish nonverbal learning disability on anyone, it's comforting to know that I'm not alone with this problem. And believe me, it HAS been a problem in my life. So much so, in fact, that I have been profoundly crippled by it.

As a child, I quickly realized that I couldn't find my way around, follow or give directions or instructions, assemble models or fix my bicycle, learn to play chess or numerous other games, or do countless other things that came easily to my peers. In junior high, shop class was torture. In high school, I gave up a promising future in basketball, the sport my life had revolved around and that had provided me with just about my only sense of capability and competence, because I couldn't learn the drills or plays and endure the unending frustration and humiliation of team practices. All through school, I took aptitude tests with resulting graphical profiles of towering verbal peaks next to gaping nonverbal or visual-spatial valleys. I came to unshakably believe that I was stupid in every way that mattered, so I hid from the world and shied away from taking on challenges, became a proverbially "perpetual student" in college because I believed that I lacked the ability to turn any major into worldly success, and, afterwards, wrapped myself in an adolescent cocoon of homebound television, books, the Internet, and aimlessness rather than apply for jobs or engage in other activities I was certain I couldn't do or socialize and face the dreaded, "What do you do?" question.

And since I've been married, I've eschewed fatherhood because I don't want to be a hapless provider and teacher for a child, I fear traveling to new places and getting lost and overwhelmed by their unfamiliar complexity even though my wife is bored to tears staying home so much, I can't repair anything around our house or offer any suggestions or assistance for home improvement projects, and I hate our trips to Home Depot because I feel utterly and completely out of my element and distressingly unmanly there. At 54 years of age, I have accomplished virtually nothing worthwhile, am a dismally inept husband, and am seeking entry-level work in what seems to be that impossibly rare field that requires virtually no nonverbal ability or the need to learn an even moderately complicated set of procedures.

I marvel at how others here, some with what sound like even larger cognitive deficits than mine, have managed to accomplish so much more than I have. For my part, I have tried to explain my situation to those who need, or I need, to know about it. And I'm receiving help from the state Department of Rehabilitation and from a clinical psychologist specializing in neuropsychology who has diagnosed me as having mutually reinforcing nonverbal learning disorder and ADD. I would like to think I'm making progress, and I feel more hopeful than I have in the longest time that I can still do something with my life. But it has been and continues to be very difficult. I'm a poster boy for how psychologically as well as intellectually disabling this condition can be and how vitally important it is to get help as soon as possible for children plagued by it before it does to them what it has done to me.

And then I followed one of Salon's links to this blog entry by a wonderful writer named Laurie Edwards that eloquently describes her lifelong struggle with this problem. Here is a quote from that entry:

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?

Thank you Salon, Sloane Crosley, and Laurie Edwards for helping me to realize that I am not as freakishly defective as I used to believe and that one can still make a decent life for oneself despite this disability.


Finding Fair Hope said...

Bless you, Steve, for posting on this. I had picked up that you have some kind of disability but over time you seem to adapted to it so well that you're more than functional -- you're an inspiration!

I read both your links. Now I'm thinking of people who may have this disorder to a lesser degree. People who say, "I have absolutely no sense of direction," and they don't just mean they get lost every once in a while -- you can't give them directions or a map but someone has to bring them to the location.

I'm sure it made life an endurance contest, more than it normally is. You have been very brave just by accepting your lot and doing what your can to work with it.

I hope you make that trip to New York and I hope you can enjoy it!

Nagarjuna said...

Mary Lois--
I think Sloane Crosley and Salon have done a great service exposing this disorder to the world. I suspect that many more have some degree or variant of this disorder than I previously realized, and this is only one of many types of learning disorders that interfere cognitively and, often, emotionally with people's ability to function effectively in the world. But the more the general public becomes aware of these disorders, the more quickly and effectively they may be able to intervene with young children to see to it that they get the help they need during their formative years, and the less inclined they may be to dismiss adults with these disorders as all-around stupid, as not trying hard enough, or as lazy good-for-nothings. It is also my hope that even adults with learning difficulties of various kinds, and especially those with a lot of psychological fallout from them, will seek help the way I finally have. I'm now seeing a clinical psychologist who specializes in neuropsychology.

As for that trip to New York, I too hope my wife and I can make it one of these days. If not as soon as we had hoped, then at least as soon as possible.

Anonymous said...

I have the same thing as a 25 year old woman. I can understand humor and social cues, but visually processing most things is extremely difficult (I can not drive.) I would love to talk to you about this... for me this is completely crippling and worst of all, I feel no one understands it.

Because I present myself just fine verbally and socially, people just think I'm lazy or not trying hard enough.

I don't know about you, but for me, the anxiety is unbelievable. I have trouble leaving my apartment for more than a few hours. I can't hold a job and while I'm in college, I'm not convinced that I'm going to pass. For spacial or visual classes (math, science, geography, etc.) I practice anywhere from six to eight hours a day to just barely pass or not pass at all. Do you have any advice? Please email me, I would love to talk to you. My email address is

Steve said...

I just saw your comment about your own struggles with this condition. I'm
chagrined that I didn't reply to you at the time, but I'm hoping that, even
after all these years, it's not too late to reach you with this reply, to
hear back from you about how things are going, and to thank you for
reaching out with your comment.