A little conversation about topographical agnosia and self-compassion
September 24, 2019 11:29 AM   Subscribe

"Some people “just know” how to get across campus and back to their car. I have very limited abilities in any of these realms, but I have developed another set of skills. I know how to remain calm. I know how to ask questions. I have my paperwork in order." Heather Sellers, the author of the memoir You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, offers the essay "Where Am I?" (Longreads), a lengthy reflection on recognizing and reckoning with her severe difficulties with respect to spatial relationships and perceiving direction.
posted by MonkeyToes (40 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
This piece is both extremely fascinating in terms of the uniqueness of her issues with spatial mapping etc. (it is so interesting to read her descriptions of her difficulties and how she has come to cope with them and ultimately be extremely successful), but also so engrossingly universal in the idea that we need to treat ourselves with the same compassion that seems sometimes to be automatic for others...
posted by Tandem Affinity at 11:48 AM on September 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

Horns blaring, cars careening, I turned left on red lights many times, not able to understand the difference between “right on red” and “left on red” or to remember which one was okay.

I thought this was going to be about the "I have to park in the same spot every time, and I use AllTrails obsessively while hiking" kind of brain that I have. But hoo boy, her issues are much more severe. I'm impressed with how well she navigates the world, give what she's up against.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:08 PM on September 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

Lovely, and I agree with her conclusion that compassionate self-talk and maybe even an accommodations checklist can help. There are plenty of us who are neuroatypical who refuse to be pliable in the face of our own reality, and it doesn't work very well.

Also, I loved the end where she said, "I started hearing versions of I’m terrible at directions from more and more people." I have a rock-solid spatial sense. Most of the time I know where I am in relation to the world, and I can find my way anywhere. But I'm married to someone who navigates only by memorized landmarks because they have no sense of direction and I have a child who still consults the thumb-and-forefinger L & R guide at the age of 36. My kid just went on a solitary 20-mile hike and camped out overnight and I was more afraid for them getting lost than for them getting attacked.

Sometimes human beings are so brave.
posted by Peach at 12:09 PM on September 24, 2019 [7 favorites]

My wife has a mild version of this. She never ever knows which way to turn coming out of the hotel room to get to the elevators or where her car is parked unless she parks in the same area every single time. Before GPS, I routinely had to talk her home turn by turn. I read this with a sinking feeling of shame for teasing her, even though it may be gentle and loving, about her inability to deal with these kind of issues. I hereby resolve to cut that shit out forthwith.
posted by Lame_username at 12:15 PM on September 24, 2019 [25 favorites]

I put a hold on her book so fast, thank you for posting!

The kindness she's decided to show herself is life changing, after I read her book I might be passing it on to my mom who has similar spacial relationships problems. I myself am face blind, and my life got so, so much easier once I learned that it was thing and then started to tell people. My friends have been amazing about it, so many of them will now greet me with "Hi Lepus, I'm your friend ---" when we run into each other in public, which means I can skip the bit of causal conversation where I try to secretly play 20 questions to figure out who I'm talking too.
posted by lepus at 12:20 PM on September 24, 2019 [9 favorites]

I have a friend just like this, and I have known a few others in the past. I don't think it's as uncommon as all that. I am patient with my friend since it's clear to me that it is a disability and not just an unwillingness to pay attention to things that are obvious to the rest of us. But I have to admit to sometimes getting frustrated. This reminds me to be more compassionate. Thank you.

The author doesn't say if she's had many auto accidents. Perhaps she doesn't quite know. I really think that someone with this disability should not drive. Behind the wheel my friend is a danger to herself and others. It's one of the (many) reasons I am frustrated by the urban design of the USA, which forces people like this to drive.
posted by elizilla at 12:24 PM on September 24, 2019 [9 favorites]

Yeah, I was holy shit at the turning left on red part. She should not be driving, because she's going to hurt or kill someone, possibly herself. It reminds me of the woman in New York who kept driving despite her seizure disorder causing multiple accidents and near-accidents, until she ran over an entire family in a crosswalk. Which resulted in a miscarriage and three deaths, one of them her own in an eventual suicide.
posted by tavella at 12:31 PM on September 24, 2019 [11 favorites]

She does say that she just doesn't turn on red anymore, but if you can't distinguish left or right to that degree, how does she manage with turning on one way streets?
posted by tavella at 12:34 PM on September 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have known a few people with a milder form of this. It took me a bit of work to try to understand that it's a spectrum of ability, and that things I can take for granted are because I am on the other end of the spatial awareness spectrum. To me, it seems a little like color blindness. Both ways of being must seem perfectly natural if that's your world, but to have someone tell you there's something called "orange" or "north" that they can perceive and you can't, must seem very strange.
posted by Maxwell's demon at 12:38 PM on September 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also, so as not to fixate on that one bit -- the part about helping a student with her ADA accommodation paperwork, and realizing that she could and should ask the world for the same accommodations without feeling ashamed was very real.
posted by tavella at 12:38 PM on September 24, 2019 [11 favorites]

I've got a milder version of this too. I don't turn left at red lights -- but if I'm going north I have to think hard, two or three times, about whether a left turn will take me east or west, and which of those I wanted to go anyway.

I rely on GPS a lot to tell me how to get places I've already been to a dozen times or more, especially if I'm coming from a different direction.

There's a restaurant we've been to several times -- more than once I've gotten lost on my way back to the table from the restroom.

I've had a rough time with exercise videos, martial arts, and the choreography in taiko drumming. By the time I realize that was the wrong hand and tried to correct myself, the instructor is already two moves ahead.
posted by Foosnark at 12:41 PM on September 24, 2019 [6 favorites]

God, so relatable! I am nowhere this extreme but I do also have trouble with both of these tasks. For me dealing with issues in this area was in large part about recognizing the issue and positive self-talk as well - I think early experiences getting VERY lost or DISASTROUSLY fucking up face recognition give you this unconscious but really disruptive anxiety about these activities that makes them seem insurmountably hard. I was raised by two people who are, as far as I know, neurotypical, so of course they never really engaged with me to say, "When you meet a new person, or go a new place, you will need to pay VERY CLOSE ATTENTION to the details of that person or place, and consciously memorize them like you would try to memorize a poem or your arithmetic facts." I can do that, and in fact I do now (because I know this is a thing I have trouble with and it doesn't make me a bad person) and I think I recognize faces almost as well as anyone else, but until I found out about prosopagnosia I had never really twigged to the idea that I should.

For navigation in particular, the world has got a lot better. My car has a heads-up display that shows which way to turn with an angled arrow, and which lane to get in, so it's right in front of my face and I don't need to tell left from right. I am a lot more confident having the arrows every time - and clearly enough people said so that every nav system has this feature. When I first started driving, Google Street View was a game changer (luckily it came out right when I needed it) - being able to visually step through every turn I was going to have to make and see what the intersections look like helped SO much.

When I was a teen I did the same map-drawing she did - but in particular I was copying maps of Disneyland, my favorite place, until I could draw them from memory. It remains the only place in the world I've never been lost. I can navigate there with 100% confidence and have in fact had people comment on how well I know the place and how I can always find the nearest bathroom or little shortcut. By contrast, I've lived in my current city for five years and while I can mostly find my way around, I don't know the numbers of any major streets other than I work on 6th and my home address. To be fair, the numbering scheme around here is *epically* bad - it used to be a few small cities that merged into a bigger city and they all had their own street numbers so the numbers of streets change when you cross into what used to be a different city, which means you'll be on 87th and it changes into 7th with no provocation. In fact the 6th St where my office is turns into 108th just south of my office. I know these things only because I opened the map to tell you though - I have NO idea, and if I try to memorize those street names my brain just throws 'em out.

My kids notice where we are all the time and it's SUCH a relief to me that they seem to be a lot more spatially aware than I ever was. My daughter helpfully tells me right and left when we're walking together which is sweet but mostly unnecessary. I think she likes that there's something she can do easily that she knows is hard for me.

I suspect she also has aphantasia. To me all these seem like a constellation of "just deeply not visual in these ways" related disorders. When I write fiction I have to be reminded to describe what the characters look like, because I don't personally care.
posted by potrzebie at 12:48 PM on September 24, 2019 [6 favorites]

I have a limited, milder version of this and relate it strongly to the idea of 'dyscalculia', which is a narrowband dyslexia most clearly affecting the ability to read and reproduce numerals. I conceptualize it as difficulty with modeling binary relationships, such that 'left' and 'right' are forever arbitrary to me and given the need to name the given direction, I just pick one at random, which means I am correct half the time. It also affects my ability to read, play, and memorize music (I may randomly transpose a section such that it is tonally inverted, something like a variation, or swap chord order, for example). It can affect my spatial perception as well regarding the area immediately around me, such that I can occasionally miss when placing a vessel or item on a nearby surface, but this is relatively rare.

When tired, red traffic lights can flip over to mean 'go' for me. However this experience is extremely rare. I have never experienced her confusion with regard to right-on-red.

It is clearly biological and inherited as I am an adoptee who met my birthmother around my age 50 and she consistently says 'left' when she means 'right' and vice versa, and appears to have the same challenges with regard to reproducing or recording numeric strings as I do. Her father, whom I never met, also had these particular challenges.
posted by mwhybark at 1:01 PM on September 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

O'Hare airport is always a hot mess, but (so far) whenever I ask a random employee how to get to something, they are always nicer to me than they have any right to be. It reminds me that there are plusses to living in The Midwest.
posted by Dmenet at 1:08 PM on September 24, 2019 [4 favorites]

I went to the zoo, once, this summer. Other people I knew were there that day but I had gone off on my own. I was nearly in tears at one point when I realized that I had forgotten to get a map, and Google Maps didn't have sufficient detail to figure out which path branches to take to get back to where I'd been. There are not words for how relieved I was for some acquaintances to pass by; I didn't go anywhere else myself for the rest of the trip.

The driving part of this was incredibly relatable. I started having panic attacks while driving in part because, in separate lessons with my divorced parents, both of them did the same things: Aren't you paying attention? Not that way! How do you not know to get to your grandmother's house? It took a long time to get over, and was not a pleasant process. I did learn to drive, eventually, but it took more than a decade after the start of the process, and anxiety treatment, and taking the test in a small town and starting very, very slow with my solo driving. I still rely more on looking at my GPS screen than I do on what it tells me. Part of the thing I like about Google Maps is the ability to review it ahead of time, so that the GPS voice is only a reminder. I use Street View a lot to figure out where tricky lane changes may be, or how to wrangle parking. I didn't do right turns on red for a long time and eventually internalized it more as "closest valid lane on red", which is actually usually the real way it works.

I manage okay. But I can't very well say, oh, she should definitely learn to drive, it only takes, um, a decade and a sufficiently small town and anxiety treatment. It makes a lot of sense to think of this as a learning disability. You can probably get there from here if you put in enough effort, but you've only got so much energy. There are so many ways things could be set up to require less energy expenditure. But probably I should also just let myself ask people at the zoo which path to take, instead of feeling like I don't deserve thirty seconds of a stranger's time in an unfamiliar place.
posted by Sequence at 1:16 PM on September 24, 2019 [5 favorites]

I'm just gonna point out here that a huge proportion of the drivers out there are far more impaired than just not knowing their left from their right, and that I recently turned left on a red light because I wasn't sure if it was green or not--and I'm a pretty safe driver apart from my intense impulsivity and distractibility. Be careful out there. None of us should be driving, honestly.
posted by Peach at 1:19 PM on September 24, 2019 [7 favorites]

tavella, there are plenty of places where you just don't encounter one-way streets very much. I almost never do. I try not to drive in those places because I know it will be Scary.

In general, I wish I lived in a place that had better options beyond driving. I don't think I'm 100% terrifying behind the wheel, but it's because unlike many modern drivers I am laser focused on the task at hand and doing it safely instead of putzing around with my phone, and because if I know I'm going someplace that will be challenging I make sure I just call a Lyft or have someone else drive me. I'm mostly fine in places I go a lot.
posted by potrzebie at 2:08 PM on September 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

The left/right conundrum reminded me of a high school classmate who would have problems with directions and would try to use the hand trick. Unfortunately, when she looked down at her thumb and index finger, she'd exclaim, "They both look like L's!" Her first name began with an L.

I laughed because she would always laugh when relating that problem, but it also made me incredibly grateful for the limited spacial sense I have.
posted by mikeh at 3:39 PM on September 24, 2019 [3 favorites]

I am at work about to cry because I have some of these issues and always felt so stupid. I get turned around so often. I do so many things to cope. I am crying from relief now to know that other people have this, too. Some not as much. Some a lot more. It's not just me. I am never sure about right and left. I have to pretend to write but very secretly so I know my right hand. Sorry this is a jumble. I am in shock. This article has changed my life.
posted by narancia at 3:41 PM on September 24, 2019 [30 favorites]

narancia, it is not just you. As the author notes, you need accommodations, and you can and should give them to yourself, and ask that others do the same. You are not stupid. You may be non-neurotypical in your perceptual abilities. There is inherent value in your experience and viewpoint.
posted by mwhybark at 5:15 PM on September 24, 2019 [7 favorites]

I didn’t understand my confusion. That’s the signature move of confusion. It creates pervasive static in your brain and covers the world with a veil.

quoting that because it's poignant, but also because that's how anxiety feels to me. Especially when I'm driving and my partner, who has dyslexia and struggles with directional words, is navigating.
posted by a halcyon day at 6:27 PM on September 24, 2019 [4 favorites]

This. Article. Is. Me.
posted by Construction Concern at 6:55 PM on September 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

Honestly, that sounds like ADHD to me. Both the inability to filter out distractions, and the inability to focus on details enough to navigate. The inability to remember directions.

When I was screened for ADHD myself, we discovered through the testing where my actual deficits were. One is in reading and remembering strings of information, like a grocery list or a phone number. For me, I can do the first 3 or 4 items or numbers just fine, the 5th is a struggle, and after that...poof. If I keep getting more info, my brain doesn’t just forget everything after 4, it forgets the entire list.

I have a good sense of direction and an excellent memory (assuming it’s not being delivered in a list of more than 4 items), but sometimes I have problems like the author mentioned, like someone being like “There, the giant red doors, over THERE!” (C’mon lady. Don’t just point across the entire fucking terminal and say “there!”) There’s just so much visual noise and information in an airport that it’s hard to filter out.

I just now did a very shallow Google search, and Dr. Google spat out a whole page of results saying that difficulty in spatial awareness is, indeed, a common manifestation of ADHD.
posted by Autumnheart at 7:03 PM on September 24, 2019 [3 favorites]

"The left/right conundrum reminded me of a high school classmate who would have problems with directions and would try to use the hand trick. Unfortunately, when she looked down at her thumb and index finger, she'd exclaim, "They both look like L's!""

Yeah I've done the exact same thing, the hand trick is garbage.

I ignore my gps's totally incomprehensible verbal instructions (especially Google maps which seems to think people know East from West???? Wtf???????? The only time I would possibly know that is when the sun is visibly rising or setting and honestly I constantly forget which one of rising/setting is supposed to be east/west anyway) and follow the visual instructions.
posted by Cozybee at 8:03 PM on September 24, 2019

It may be common but it isn't diagnostic; I'm ADHD but have excellent spatial awareness but am moderately face blind.
posted by Peach at 8:06 PM on September 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

OMG. I'm 51. In the last 7 years, I have found out that I have ADHD, prosopagnosia, autism, dyspraxia, selective mutism and now this. I couldn't travel by myself without great fear until I had a smart phone, and even then, I had to watch the blue dot going in the wrong direction before I could orient myself. I dropped out of uni the first time, in part because I couldn't find my tutorial or lecture rooms, and I didn't realise that the guy who talked to me in psychology class was my brother's room-mate who I saw every weekend. I moved to a big city when I tired of people recognising me in the mall, and me having no idea who they were and feeling incredibly rude.

I drew maps as a child, but they were more, I think, to create a story base. This is my island, this is where I will grow my veges. This is my underground bunker, this is where the dormitories are.

I am so so proud of travelling with a tour group around NZs north island, though I rarely recognised anyone unless they had some outstanding characteristic AND were near the bus, and I did have one terrifying night when I left the bus to go to the toilet, and couldn't find my way back.

I am so so proud that I chose to travel down the east coast of Australia, by road public transport, because I wanted to see it, not fly over it, and I didn't take one taxi at all, but some nice people on the train to Melbourne showed me which was the right tram to catch to get the ferry to cross Bass Strait. I spent another couple of days in Devonport, accidentally walking hellishly long distances because I made a wrong turn and hadn't noticed soon enough (oh yeah, staying in Byron Bay I made some wrong turns that had me walking 31km in a day, my longest walk was 37km - now that I knew I could walk that far I kept doing it, but again, another wrong turned added 10k to my trip, and my phone's battery died and I ended up chasing a bus, not to catch it, but to find a way out of the wiggly bit of suburbia I ended up in).

Just knowing about this being a thing, and not me just not trying hard enough, oh what a pleasure. Now if someone can tell me why, when I put something in a cupboard it ceases to exist for me, that would be handy.
posted by b33j at 8:25 PM on September 24, 2019 [4 favorites]

I recognize some of her experience here, mostly the terror of getting lost and the disbelief others can have of how very lost I often am, but two parts are very different for me. I strongly prefer directions involving left, right, 10 meters ahead, and so on. Landmarks (like those red doors) are hopeless for me — I don’t see them and panic when I have walked for some time and not seen them. It seems like she prefers landmarks though.

The other, possibly related, difference is that GPS is basically how I function. I travel for work somewhat frequently, including to some very much not-a-grid cities, and I can’t imagine doing this without GPS. I started traveling just before GPS in phones became a thing, and I remember being terrified one snowy November somewhere in Boston, on my way to a job interview where I was supposed to stay at a place where one must check in by 10pm, trying not to cry as the paper map I had was already getting wet from the snow, hoping they wouldn’t close before I managed to convince someone to help.

Oof. But now, with GPS, for me it is an absolute game changer; it is the accommodation I need, basically. Thanks, general relativity!
Now if only phone batteries didn’t run out..
posted by nat at 10:10 PM on September 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also make sure me wonder if there could be alternative versions of the wayfinding GPS systems do. For me, I want an overhead map that draws a path and shows me my location and current orientation on that path.

But maybe a more landmark-based system might work better for her? Maybe a toggle would be useful here?
posted by nat at 10:12 PM on September 24, 2019

I imagine Google has enough data now to create something like that. "Walk until you reach the steps of the large church (St. Whatever). Look around until you spot the TV transmission tower. Follow the street going that direction."
posted by Harald74 at 1:24 AM on September 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

They were testing it a year ago, I ran into it a few times and hated it passionately. But that’s because of my own directional quirks. If they ever do get a working version, I hope it comes with an off switch— so people like the author can have it, and people like me can turn it off (and everyone else can choose).
posted by nat at 1:49 AM on September 25, 2019

This is me. For example when friends came to stay with me in my apartment they pointed out on their first day that I was walking about twice as far as I needed to in order to get to my local metro stop based on the convoluted route I was taking without realising it. It took me ages and lots of professional instruction for me to pass my driving test. In school it seemed like all of a sudden everyone else knew their left from their right and I had no idea how they knew. When I was in my twenties someone luckily told me the L with the left hand trick and that does work for me. All this to say it's such a relief to see I'm not alone.
posted by hazyjane at 3:50 AM on September 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have ADHD and I identified with a lot of this. I could get lost going through a car wash. I often have to meet people 10-15 times before I remember their face+name combo. To punch numbers into the phone I used to have to do it 2/3 at a time. I've gotten on medication since and can now reliably remember strings of numbers up to 7 or so, recall names (faces still hard) and find my way around easier. But still I didn't drive until I was 24, I'm semi- terrified of new places and people, and I frequently mix up left and right.

Thanks everyone for sharing. The bit about being compassionate to yourself hit me hard. I've had to learn to do that since being diagnosed, and it's helped me a lot to tackle some of the bad thought patterns but I could still do better for myself. It's just an instinct to deny myself accomodations because I don't want people to think I want "special treatment" (hate that phrase)
posted by captain afab at 3:56 AM on September 25, 2019

Chiming in on the Not-ADHD front — the face-blindness and directional issues can also be manifestations of an impairment of familiarity, such as in autism (that’s totally my bag, man).

I have no issues with either focus or memory, according the whitecoats who evaluated me.
posted by Construction Concern at 5:05 AM on September 25, 2019

I didn’t understand my confusion. That’s the signature move of confusion. It creates pervasive static in your brain and covers the world with a veil.

This. These lines were the reason for the "i'mnotcrying" tag.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:45 AM on September 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

I held up the slip as though it were proof of my goodness, my hard work, my right to belong in the world among the well-adjusted effective people. Did I want her to say Oh you are doing such a good job, no one keeps track of their slip? I did.

this bit was so familiar to me of when I run into something difficult that everyone else seems to get. like her with her dad, I kind of assumed, like I felt my dad did, that I was being purposefully obstinate to gum up the works when I didn't like something, and obviously I was a terribly selfish person, which I did kind of embrace for a while. but I really do just want to be a good kid and have people believe me that I'm not making things hard on purpose! even having known I have disability-type problems for years now, I didn't realize I still had the good kid-bad kid narratives in my head until a therapist pointed it out to me recently.
posted by gaybobbie at 6:58 AM on September 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

See also
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 7:44 AM on September 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

I really liked the part where she asked herself what kinds of accommodations would help, as though she were one of her students.

Did y'all notice how living in a place where driving wasn't required and streets were organized on a grid made the problem much less of a problem? This doesn't just have to be a handful of older cities; we can do this elsewhere. Auto-centric land use is ableist.
posted by asperity at 8:13 AM on September 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

It makes no sense to think someone is stupid or careless for having trouble doing stuff that we do without thought or effort.
posted by straight at 9:27 AM on September 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

Well this just wrecked me.
posted by 41swans at 12:07 PM on September 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

I’m also terrible at way-finding, and also driving stresses me out for other reasons, not least of which involve how my ex-husband used to yell at me anytime I would drive us home (but by the route I was comfortable with) because he was too drunk. I’m much better at it if no one else is with me, bc I don’t have to worry about their disappointment if I get lost or take a longer way. If I’m alone, I can also just turn the radio on and let myself feel lost for awhile until I figure it out. I sometimes have to go from landmark to landmark, even if they’re way out of the way, because I’ve memorized how to get from A to B and B to C but not A to C. I just give myself a lot of time. I’m ok with left v right but I always get confused on east v west and have to say to myself “Never Eat Sour Watermelons” while thinking of a drawing of the United States and the compass in the corner.

I rely on rides from other people if I can get them.
posted by oomny at 11:42 AM on September 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

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