When I was at school in the 1970s ‘Get Lost’ was a standard retort when somebody was annoying you, a bit rude but not enough to get you into trouble with teachers. It’s kind of gone out of fashion now but I have stayed pretty attached to it because I never know quite where I am. At some point in my first nine days a brain bleed ensured that, in addition to my more obvious CP symptoms, I would find how to navigate the world a bit of a mystery because I can’t make mental maps; in fact, I find it hard to imagine what one might even look like. Once I turn a corner, I have no mental picture of where I have been, or how where I currently am relates to it.
Apparently, what I have is called Topographical Disorientation and, if you Google it, you might be told that it’s ‘newly-discovered’. I can tell you, with confidence, that I discovered it in 1975, in my primary classroom during a ‘fun’ ‘Let’s Draw Our Route To School’ activity. In a moment, I realised that everyone else had the information neatly stored away in their heads: whether they had to turn left or right, roads they needed to cross, where they had come from and where they needed to go to. I knew my home address and the name of my school but had no idea how to get between them.
Since then I have devised lots of strategies to cope with the situation (I wouldn’t want you to think that I have spent the last few decades wandering aimlessly around the world). I remember names of shops and pubs etc., carry sets of bespoke written instructions, enlist the help of bus drivers and passengers, get taxis and, whenever at all possible, travel with other people. I have become pretty skilled at concealing the full extent of my ineptitude. I count myself lucky that the curriculum mostly didn’t focus on the things I couldn’t do and so I was able to leave school with my self-confidence pretty much unscathed.
That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been a few sticky situations. The maths O Level I had to re-sit because there were too many questions that required the bit of brain that I don’t have, the time I was ill and needed a colleague to take me home and couldn’t direct them, the many times crucial names of shops etc. have changed and, since the wheelchair, the loss of access to much of the Tube network, rendering most of London a mysterious wasteland to me. I miss the certainty of the topological map and the lists of written destinations on platforms which meant that I could travel alone with a lightness that I have never felt elsewhere.
What I can definitely say is that my life has been shaped by this particular aspect of my brain injury. It is no accident that I have had the same workplace for 23 years, that I used to live on a small Hebridean island with two roads and no roundabouts, or that I have a husband with such good mind-map making abilities that his career is built on them. I should also add that my brain has done a pretty good job of compensating. Unable to fill the gap where my sense of direction should have been, it got busy honing my verbal and written skills instead. I suspect I wouldn’t have become an English teacher had I not also been a premature baby. It may not be nearly as obvious as my wheelchair-use but, like many invisible impairments, its influence is no less powerful for that.