- As a teenager, Insider reporter Margot Harris was diagnosed with a learning disability that impaired her visual-spatial reasoning.
- She moved through her teen and college years saddled with insecurity – after all, she writes, “what normal adult forgot what her own face looked like and cried over puzzles intended for toddlers?”
- After signing up for a jewelry-making class, she realized that her peers didn’t notice or judge her deficits, and she wasn’t the main character in everyone else’s inner narration.
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“Just do the best you can,” my test proctor told me, placing the red and white puzzle pieces in front of me. “Just make it look like the picture.”
I started rotating the plastic triangles, trying to match them up to the geometric design from the laminated diagram. How had they gotten the red triangle in the upper-righthand corner at that angle? I clenched my jaw and held back tears.
I was fifteen, and I recognized the pieces from a box in the toy store marked “for ages three to eight.” Several teachers had suggested that I spend three days undergoing diagnostic testing, and I was determined to prove that nothing was wrong.
Weeks later, a specialist delivered the test results in a 20-page report: I had a learning disability that impaired my visual-spatial reasoning. According to some poorly-photocopied handouts, the condition had no name, but it had plenty of consequences. I might “become easily lost in unfamiliar environments” and struggle to interpret graphs, charts, and maps. The disability might also affect my sense of direction and my ability to correctly estimate how long tasks would take. I could also expect to live with visual figure-ground weakness, which, I learned, meant I might not even be able to find things on a messy desk.
I chewed on the inside of my cheek and pictured all the students who had scored higher on the puzzle section.
My diagnosis was hardly a surprise
While my classmates eye-rolled through geometry, bored by the simplicity of congruent triangles, I glared at the textbook diagrams, willing them to make sense. In biology class, I was unable to label the circulatory system, despite spending hours staring at the matching textbook illustration. None of the pieces aligned as they should – I’d close my eyes and think back to the drawing, and all I could visualize was a cartoon heart from a valentine.
When standardized testing season approached, my internal organs knotted at the prospect of having to properly match up and fill in sheets of tiny bubbles. I always drew outside the lines or skipped a row, throwing off the answers.
My issues were not limited to the classroom. I got lost in the old three-gate terminal in my hometown airport. I found myself stumped when faced with “basic” tasks like using a parking meter, laundry machine, or gas pump; I was overwhelmed by the buttons and dials and coin slots. I forgot things constantly – no visual could stay clear in my mind. Sometimes my own facial features surprised me when I looked in the mirror. I would forget the scar above my left eyebrow or the color of my eyes.
Such deficiencies, I soon discovered, could lead to public humiliation. One afternoon not long after my diagnosis, I boarded the bus as I’d done every week after school. When I pulled out my card, I froze. I searched for the scanner pad. It has a photo of the card on it, I scolded myself. Find it. There are people waiting behind you. As my heart raced and feet tapped behind me, each part of the machine blurred together.
“Have you ever ridden a bus before? How old are you?” the driver asked. The passengers waiting behind me groaned.
As I got older, I found ways to hide my disability
In college, I waited until four in the morning to do my laundry, because I knew I’d have the usually-packed room to myself. After a decade of washing my own clothes, deciphering the dials and settings still took over an hour. I’d repeat the instructions out loud. Insert your student ID, upper right-hand corner. Set water temperature, left-hand dial. Select setting, delicate, right-hand dial.
I also tried to maintain my dignity by taking classes that avoided the dreaded territory of graphs, maps, and diagrams. No one needed to know that I couldn’t remember cardinal directions and frequently mixed up the x- and y-axes.
I felt limited by my safe choices. I wanted to be more creative, to use my hands, to see visual connections, but I couldn’t risk revealing my glaring lack of competence. What normal adult forgot what her own face looked like and cried over puzzles intended for toddlers?
But I had always loved jewelry, so I decided to turn it into an outlet
I admired the round cut diamond of my mother’s engagement ring and found myself distracted by the intricate design of an earring or the sparkle of someone’s pavé wedding band. After missing my subway stop to examine the delicate lines of a fellow passenger’s boxy rose gold bangle, I knew I had to create my own.
Ten years after I sat in the proctor’s office toying with a toddler’s puzzle pieces, I signed up for metalworking class – eight weeks of wire cutting, filing, soldering, and hammering in front of ten or so classmates and a trained professional.
Thanks to my disastrous spatial reasoning, I’d never designed anything before. Or dared to pick up tools. I worried about forgetting what the correct blade looked like and slashing an artery with my unwieldy hands. But I was determined to wear a ring I’d crafted myself. I drove to the dingy studio every Sunday afternoon and followed along as our instructor demonstrated crimping, forging, and scoring.
I spent the first several weeks fixating on what classmates thought of me. I assumed the middle-aged man with a wrist tattoo who joined the class to make an engagement ring for his girlfriend thought I was a moron when I couldn’t locate the precision screwdriver on our desks. And I figured the two best friends with matching hoop earrings thought I was pathetic when I immediately forgot the steps for soldering silver wire.
As they picked up jewelry-making techniques with ease, I decided that they saw me as incompetent and slow. I peeked over my shoulder to make sure that no one noticed me fumbling with my pliers, clasping too close to the end of the silver wire and breaking off the tip. I muffled a yelp after hammering my finger on a mandrel, hoping the blunder had gone unnoticed.
After several weeks of creating scenarios of humiliation in my head, I finally realized that my classmates weren’t watching me or passing judgment on my mistakes
No one looked up when I turned up the polishing tool to its highest speed, sending my newly-crafted ring flying across the studio. My deskmate wordlessly handed me a Bandaid when I stabbed my finger pad with a file for the fifth time. There was no hint of a laugh or an eye roll.
In the absence of projecting my insecurities onto the people around me, I had more time to focus on my jewelry. The burned palms and bleeding fingers, with time, gave way to a motion my hands could memorize. I loved the rhythm of building a heavy bezel setting and the endorphin rush when the solder sparked and two ends of metal wire adhered.
After eight weeks and five pieces of wearable jewelry, I had physical proof that I could make something – that I could learn something unintuitive.
Making jewelry hasn’t cured my learning disability, or freed me from my insecurities
I still can’t label the parts of the circulatory system, and I recoil at the prospect of doing a puzzle. Last month, I felt a familiar knotting in my stomach when Twitter erupted over a viral video of a woman struggling to align the correct side of her car with a gas pump (a dance I’ve done many times). Commenters delighted in her stupidity and privilege – how could she fail to do something so simple? Had she never pumped her own gas before?
I lashed out at one commenter in defense of the driver. “We don’t know her circumstances,” I scolded, referencing my own difficulties. They told me to “have a nice night, lady,” and blocked me. “Maybe this video isn’t about you,” another added. The fear of judgment – and the impulse to project – still pokes it head up sometimes.
I’m easily reminded of the 20-page report listing my low percentiles and speculating on my educational outcomes. A viral video or a laundry machine mishap can send me into a tailspin.
But then there are the times when I’m reminded that I’m not the main character in everyone else’s inner narration
When I started a new job in January, my greatest fear was navigating the company’s imposing coffee maker. I chose a time when the kitchen was relatively empty – there were a handful of employees perched at the counter – to approach my nemesis. I reached for the filter and tugged on its handle. It didn’t budge. I pulled harder – nothing happened. What do I pull now? What piece do I touch? Everyone saw me approach this machine, I’d better leave with coffee. It had been an exhausting morning of explaining away my lack of coffee to my coworkers. “No, I’m just not a coffee person,” I’d insisted.
I whipped around, ready to be met with judgment and confused giggles from my observers. But they were engaged in conversation and hadn’t noticed my presence at all.
I opted for water instead and perched at the counter with a plastic cup. That’s when one of my fellow employees looked up.
“I like your rings,” she said.
“Thanks,” I responded. “I made them.”