My Better Half

If someone saw me walking around the same four square blocks over and over again, they would think there was something wrong with me. They would be right.

I get lost. I get lost a lot. Two days ago, I spent over an hour walking around the same four blocks in my neighborhood, trying to find the nail salon that I had been to at least half a dozen times before. I have no real visual memory. Often, I get off the subway in New York, and feel, for a moment, that I am in the most foreign of places, no matter how many times I have gotten off at that same subway stop. If someone saw me walking around the same four square blocks over and over again, they would think there was something wrong with me. They would be right. For those who have never seen me walk in circles or struggle with many other seemingly simple tasks, they probably assume I am a perfectly capable if not successful young woman. They would also be right. I am twenty six years old, I live in New York City, I have a great, well-paying job, I’m in graduate school on scholarship, and I have fantastic friends. I also have a severely impaired brain.
Officially, I have a severe non-verbal learning disability. Sometime during infancy I suffered a minor head injury that resulted in neurons on the left hemisphere of my brain to die or shift and swell to the right hemisphere. The left hemisphere of the brain controls things like logic, sequential thinking, gross motor skills, and what has proven to be my biggest deficit: spatial reasoning. I didn’t know the full scope of my learning disability until I was almost twenty three years old. When I was young, school was nearly impossible for me. My handwriting was atrocious and almost completely non-sensical, math and numbers in general made no sense to me. All of my school papers, books and supplies were in a gigantic, crumpled, sticky mess in the bottom of my back pack. I was frustrated, rolled my eyes a lot, and pretended to be sleeping when I didn’t understand what was being taught. My teachers thought I was lazy and rude.
Then in seventh grade, after convincing myself that the teachers were right and I was just lazy , rude (and probably stupid) my teacher, Mrs. Varga noticed that if I responded to a question orally I always got the answer right. I was tested by the Board of Education and diagnosed with dysgraphia, (a learning disability that inhibits the brain from being able to copy visual images) and having a bad attitude. Dysgraphia explained the terrible handwriting and trouble with math, but it didn’t make sense of the other things I had trouble with. I couldn’t then, and still can not put a puzzle together. I can’t construct anything with my hands, copy any picture, image or shape, and I definitely can not read a map. For me, a map just looks like a messy picture, and has no relationship to the actual world. There are also the logistical and sequential difficulties I face; I still can’t figure out why pulling out an orange from the bottom row causes the rest of the oranges to tumble onto the floor of the food store, and why people stare at me when this happens, as if it doesn’t happen to them too, at least once a week.
After the Dysgraphia diagnosis I felt as if I was granted an academic pardon. I started to do very well in school. Instead of going to gym class, I went to a recourse room for extra help. I was stubborn and didn’t accept most of the help, and would often repeat the mantra,” Like any of this is even going to matter when I am older! It’s not like I am going to be a geometry teacher!”
Math was still impossible, my notebooks looked like they were written in pig-Latin then put in the dishwasher, but I figured out how to use the functioning half of my brain. I always remembered things I heard. I started using my verbal memory to my advantage, such as reproducing, word for word my teacher’s exact explanation on any given subject, and recalling the minutest of details from lessons I heard. That made it seem like I was really paying attention. I was able to think and respond very quickly and creatively. Learning foreign languages was very simple, fun and rewarding. I majored in Romance languages as and undergraduate student. I can now speak four languages almost fluently.
I got by in life by completely avoiding the things I could not do. Instead of reading a map, I just asked for directions. If I needed to assemble a piece of furniture, load a dishwasher or parallel park a car, I would pass the task off to one of my many left brain- able friends. Then, after I graduating from college, I moved to Boston and started seeing a therapist once a week, during one session I mentioned some of the things I had difficulty doing. She was shocked and immediately had me make an appointment with her friend and colleague, Dr. Cheryl Weinstein. Dr. Weinstein is one of the nation’s leading experts in adolescent and young adult learning disabilities.
I went to see Dr. Weinstein with the attitude that there was nothing she could tell me that I didn’t already know about myself. I was greatly mistaken. Dr. Weinstein administered several hours of testing. The tests ranged in everything from copying simple diagrams; calling as many pieces of fruit and furniture I could think of in sixty seconds, to using building blocks to recreate pictures of buildings or structures. Some of the things, like using the blocks were actually impossible for me, I could see by Dr. Weinstein’s twisted and concerned face that something was probably very wrong with me. At certain points of the test my unusual strengths became very apparent. Dr. Weinstein read me a one page story and asked me to recount it as accurate as I could, one minute after she finished reading, than again ten, thirty and ninety minutes later. The testing left me exhausted and a little embarrassed. Two weeks later, I returned to Dr. Weinstein’s office to go over my results.
“Well Samantha, I am so glad you came to see me, your results are fascinating,” Dr Weinstein said this to me as I settled into the huge leather arm chair in her office. I raised my eyebrows in horror, she smiled than continued, “I have never, in over twenty years of experience seen a high functioning adult score as low as you did on the visual special tests. I have never done this before, but I actually made photocopies of the geometric diagram you copied, because no one would believe how badly you copied it.” She took out the original diagram then placed my version next to it. “Do you understand the huge discrepancies between the original and your version?” She was right, I didn’t even come close, looking at my mangled version, I felt sick, like I had been sent back to the sad girl I was in fourth grade. I wanted to run out of her office and hide away forever.
“But on the verbal reasoning sections you literally scored off the charts.” I could feel the corners of my mouth lift into a smile and I decided to stay in the office for the next couple minutes. “Your ability to recall verbal information and your mental flexibility is outstanding.” Dr. Weinstein went on to explain how I was probably injured as an infant, and the right side of my brain (which controls language and creativity) hugely overcompensated. When she was finished going over my results I felt an eerie sense of loss, and sadness for having never known myself as well as I should have. “Well, what can I do about it?” I asked. “Nothing, I am afraid. Well, actually, you already did it; it didn’t seem to stop you from doing anything you wanted to do. I must tell you though; you will probably never be an engineer.”
I laughed and said, “Well I guess I can cross that off my list.”
Dr. Weinstein was right, I never did become and engineer. A year after my diagnosis, I started working as a nanny to a deaf- three year old girl. This little girl, Bea, and I must have the exact opposite brain landscape. For her, the verbal world makes little sense and she navigates through life using visual reasoning. She loves to put puzzles together, build things and play visual memory games where you have to find the two matching picture cards. In the beginning she used to think I was letting her win the games. After a couple games she figured out I was trying, and actually began to help me. While turning over a card that was clearly not the match, she will place her hand on top of mine stopping me from turning the card, then point to the correct card.
Bea often grows frustrated to the point of absolute tantrums when she can’t communicate as well as most children her age. She feels frustrated, left out, and that most people think she is stupid. I empathize with her pain more than most people ever could and I reassure her that she will fine, no great in life. She may not be an interpreter for the U.N., but she could most definitely be an engineer.
I used to be afraid that when I had children, and I couldn’t help them make a diorama or explain to them what a rhombus is, they would think I was dumb and I would fail as a mother. Or that I could never have a “real” job because I am so disorganized and clumsy. I don’t feel that way anymore because, as I get older, I become more comfortable with who I am. I let my gaurd down and sometimes people notice my disability. It used to bother me, and I felt like I was the only person in the world with these problems. I now find solace in knowing that there are hundreds of thousands of adults with Dyslexia, A.D.D, Autism, or any other learning disability, that lead normal productive lives, despite the embarrassing road bumps along the way.
Recently, a man I am dating told me when he read a non-edited version of something I had written, he was shocked at how bad my spelling was (most people learn spelling by recognizing a word visually and reproducing it) and thought that I probably had a learning disability. After the pangs of embarrassment went through my body, I told him he was right: I do have a learning disability. I am pretty sure he doesn’t mind, we’re still dating. Often, during Bea’s therapy I have to do the same thing she is doing, even if it includes scissors and glue. Years ago, if someone pulled out art supplies I would have pretended I needed to go to the bathroom and hide until it was over. Now, I just try to make the star out of construction paper, even if Bea laughs and says, “Why your star look so silly?” I laugh too, because quite honestly, what else can I do? I will, however, start using a nail salon that is easier to find.


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