Breath & Shadow
Spring 2019 - Vol. 16, Issue 2
"Smart and Stupid"
Radhika Rao Gupta
My problem is that I seem smart, when actually the opposite is true. This mistaken impression of me that forms in people’s minds is burdensome; unfortunately, being articulate is not tantamount to being smart. “No, really, I’m stupider than I seem,” I want to insist to people I meet for the first time who assume, kindly but mistakenly, that because I am friendly, confident, and articulate, it therefore follows that I am also bright and quick on the uptake. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
One source of the shame that plagues me is officially termed, by neurologists and the like, geographical disorientation. I am grateful for having been born with a dark scar on my left hand because only by glancing down at it quickly do I know left from right. It is my very own cheat sheet, and it is by this crude compass that I steer myself through life.
I learned how to tell time later than my peers because making sense of a clock’s face requires being able to tell left from right unerringly: how to tell how many minutes “past” a given hour it is if you cannot remember whether minutes past are calculated starting from 12 and going to the left—or to the right? And which way is right anyway?
Despite accurate directions, when on the road I lose my bearings with every turn I make and am unable to reorient myself. Even in a familiar environment I am constantly surprised when known landmarks turn up in highly unexpected places. Every time I attempt to go to the local library, for example, I feel certain that the red brick building I love will appear at the very next corner, on the left. But the building is playing tricks on me again and stubbornly sits on my right as I approach the intersection. I am told that my visual-spatial memory is to blame for this—of course all locations are sometimes on one’s left and sometimes on one’s right, depending on the direction from which they are approached. But my mind’s eye is unable to make that crucial distinction, hence my confusion. This element of surprise understandably saps my confidence, prompting further errors. Although I hate to admit it, the “I think I can” approach so highly advocated by my husband does not always work—trying is not the same as succeeding.
Losing my way is a way of life for me—I once became hopelessly lost en route to a 10 a.m. PTA meeting at my daughter Sona’s school—lost for so long that I worried about being home by 3 p.m. to meet her at the end of her school day. Thirty-five years old and looking it, I once flagged down a hardboiled New Jersey cop and asked him to take me home—my home—offering up my address to him for all the world like a well-trained kindergartner. I’ll never forget how the tough expression on his face melted away before my eyes, the tense muscles and lines relaxing into kinder furrows as he said gently, “Follow me, ma’am—I’ll take you home.” He jumped into his car, waited until I was back in mine, and led me to my doorstep, safely delivering me to the brutal questioning I was subjected to by my well-meaning but utterly incredulous neighbors. Still, I could have kissed that cop!
That Sona has to accept this huge flaw in a mother she loves is the hardest for me to come to terms with. That she could not count on me to get her from Point A (home) to Point B (swim class, a birthday party) used to confuse her. Luckily for me she has always been a generous soul with huge reserves of patience for those less fortunate than herself; even as a child she would channel all the sublimated maternal instinct of her young years into comforting me when we were lost. “Don’t worry, Mommy, I know where we parked the car” and “No, Mommy, we didn’t go this way the last time I got a haircut.” “Thank you, darling,” I would say gratefully, marveling at my great good fortune in having her for a daughter. In my more confident moments, I would remind myself that Sona always found me reassuringly reliable and in control of every other aspect of our relationship—it can only be good for her to know that I sometimes have feet of clay.
Several years ago, the phone rang; the voice on the other end of the line belonged to my young cousin, Elkana, whom I last saw in 1970. He was in the country and I was determined to pick him up at his hotel the following day and bring him back to my home. As I cooked and cleaned my heart sang at the prospect of seeing him again—we had so much catching up to do! I called for and received what seemed like perfect directions from a woman at the Guest Relations desk of his hotel. Sona was 7 at the time and her journal entries for the next two days said: “My mother is going to see her cosin. Her cosin is coming to our house for dinner tomorrow. My mother says he’s nice.”
Well, tomorrow came and tomorrow went, but I never laid eyes on my “cosin” and he never tasted the meal I spent the day preparing for him, not even the extra potatoes I put into the chicken curry because I remembered his long-ago love of them. I set off as planned, well-rehearsed directions and relevant phone numbers in hand—and drove around for hours utterly lost before returning home angry, ashamed, and very disappointed. Sona’s journal entry for the next day was brutally honest: “My mother went to get her cosin. My mother dint find her cosin.” Truer words have never been spoken.
People who are directionally normal terrify and confuse me. I am enraged when people thrust upon me information about a store or park worth visiting, and then rapidly launch into a long series of directions: “Go north on Route 24 and at the third light make a jug-handle turn toward the Allen Fairway; go 6 miles due east; make two immediate lefts; head northwest and you’ll be looking at it. It’s real easy.”
Well, it may be easy for you, I want to say between gritted teeth. Only by sheer dumb repetition do I manage to reach a given destination without written directions clutched inches away from my myopic eyes or without my GPS in tow. Only by driving along a given route over and over again do I actually learn how to get anywhere, including to the nearest grocery store.
As I feel more confident, I reward myself with the thrill of discarding the safety net of the directions, of venturing out sans crutches—what a feeling! Bungee jumping couldn’t compare! And just as a bungee jumper must have an umbilical cord of a cable, I have my written directions ever accessible, stuffed into the glove compartment of my car—just in case.
“Don’t worry if you miss the turn—just go a couple of miles and retrace your steps,” they say. “Okay, and while I’m in Kentucky I’ll bring home some fried chicken just for you,” I want to say with my best Dorothy Parker snarl. “Retracing steps”—what an idea!—particularly infuriating because it sounds so easy.
Not even in my mind’s eye can I retrace my steps. I have to assume the posture of a contortionist to recreate the way to the neighborhood shopping plaza, turning myself leftward as I visualize the left turn I will make, lurching rightward with eyes closed tight to shut out all distracting stimuli, making the last turn after the gas station… and finally bumping my knee painfully on the rocker in my living room as I snap out of my reverie. As a result, I am in a cold sweat when a delivery person calls to ask for directions from the top of our development to my front door. “Just a minute,” I say, feminist gorge rising in my throat, “please talk to my husband.”
A compassionate counselor once told me not to be so hard on myself for this handicap. “There’s enough in you that’s worthy of love,” he said. I hope he’s right; for now, I’ll just continue my uphill struggle every day. It does not help that every time I get familiar with my surroundings, we pull up roots and move: we have moved seven times in the last twenty-six years. I think I’ll die in this house.
It wasn’t always this way. Years ago, during high school and 7-plus years of college, I was a good student who consistently got excellent grades. I remembered names and faces and navigated my way through the world breezily. This was in keeping with what I appeared to be, and there was no disconnect between how I seemed on the outside and who I really was.
However, years of mild, undiagnosed seizures that began in my early 20s, followed by more serious, diagnosed seizures, took their toll, as did the ensuing 15 years of anti-epilepsy medications, whose side effects neurologists blandly term “mild cognitive deficits.” That my seizures were controlled by medication for several years was a miracle unto itself, side effects or no side effects, because suddenly one day for no apparent reason my seizure monster jumped out of its shackles: I now had refractory, intractable, or breakthrough seizures, that is, seizures of unknown origin that defied control by any known drug or drug combination.
This was when I underwent a lengthy evaluation to determine if I was a suitable candidate for a daring and cutting-edge (a painful pun!) surgical procedure known as a right temporal lobectomy. The taxing and suspenseful run-up to the surgery involved first identifying what part of my brain the seizures originated from and then removing the guilty tissue, with the hoped-for result being no more seizures.
I was extensively evaluated and tested and my brain and its various functions were mapped; one fascinating test involved putting half of me to sleep at a time in order to determine what parts of my brain controlled certain functions. Another pre-surgery procedure certainly qualifies as medieval torture: I was very used to having electrodes placed on my scalp as part of an EEG exam, so I was nonchalant when, a few days before surgery, I was told that I was to have electrodes placed sphenoidally, that is, in the cavity that forms in front of each ear when you drop your jaw.
This proved to be brutal—without any anesthetic or even a warning, long steel rods, with wires trailing, were plunged first into one side of my face and then the other and kept there for days; I was later told that the information obtained by these invasive electrodes was crucial for the subsequent success of my surgery. Finally, I was triumphant when I was found to be an ideal candidate for the surgery and told that any surgical risks and possible deficits would be the lesser of two evils, that is, that continuing to have unchecked seizures would injure my brain and chip away further at my intelligence and abilities.
It was 1993, I was 33, happily married and the mother of a 4-year-old daughter I adored. The surgery involved removing the affected chunk of my right temporal lobe, which was a safe distance from the part of my brain that housed language and memory functions. Given that I am an English major and have made a modest living as an editor and writer, my doctors were exquisitely careful to not mess with the language centers of my brain; luckily, these were found to be on the left, far from the lurking lesion.
The surgery lasted all day, and was remarkably successful, but it is impossible to know exactly what deficits it has caused. However, I remember my surgeon being overjoyed when my first words after emerging from the fog of anesthesia were a joke; apparently, there had been some fear that I would lose my sense of humor, or at least my sense of irony, and become a wooden thing, prone to literal and concrete thinking, a not-quite-Radhika. This is how that bedside conversation went:
I in my hospital room, bald as an egg but more bloody with vicious metal staples holding my long skull incision together; the surgeon, flanked by other doctors, nurses, and students, said, “So, Radhika, how did you do this morning?” He was a well-known and talented doctor and he had the large and expansive manner of a man who thought highly of himself. He was, after all, a successful brain surgeon, the very epitome of brilliance and skill. His belly preceded him, and notably, he had the softest, most delicate hands I have ever encountered.
To which I cheekily replied, “Surely the question is how did you do this morning, Doctor? I did my part by staying unconscious the entire time!” At this, the team of surgeons, assisting doctors, neurologists, nurses, and assistant nurses burst into laughter so disproportionate to my retort that I quickly realized that it was fueled by their immense sense of relief, and for the first time since surgery had been contemplated, I felt a distinct frisson of fear, followed by a flood of gratitude. Belatedly and dimly, through my pounding postoperative headache I realized that the outcome of my surgery could have been very different, and that I was very lucky indeed to be still quintessentially myself.
Since then (it has been 15 years) I have had just one (albeit terrifying-in-its-out-of-the-blueness) seizure, which happened years after I had been completely weaned off any anti-epilepsy medication. Lurking malevolently in the wings, epilepsy leaped out at me again just when I least expected it. That it happened when I was on vacation far away from home, indeed on another continent, was appalling, but this was nicely balanced by the fact that it happened in the presence of a doctor friend, a woman who loves me dearly and who proceeded to get me exactly the help I needed right away. After being stabilized (imagine my terror at waking up in an unfamiliar hospital with an I.V. in my arm) I was advised to resume an anti-epilepsy drug regimen, and years later, I muddle through life with all my deficits: mild cognitive impairment, geographic disorientation, a poorer memory for faces, and an adversely impacted short-term memory.
While I am very grateful for all that remains intact, I am a great example of how frustrating it is to have an invisible handicap. One boss, an otherwise mild-mannered soul, slammed a door in my face at work one afternoon, yelling, "For someone as smart as you, you’re really stupid!”
And that’s the rub: if you met me you would think that I was articulate, bright, and charming, with oddly endearing gifts (I can recite from memory more poetry than some people have read in a lifetime) but I am also slow on the uptake, forgetful, easily overwhelmed by any procedure that involves more than two steps, and I can lose my way in a tea cup.
Squaring these two polar-opposed aspects of my personality remains a challenge every single day; sometimes I wish I could sport a dunce cap to identify myself like the fools of old did so that people would be alert to and sensitive about the fact that years of seizures, medications, and radical brain surgery have taken their toll on me and that although I am thrilled to be alive and well, the world really does need to cut me some slack.
Radhika Gupta is a freelance editor and writer. She has worked for over 30 years as a medical editor and has also edited and proofread fiction for companies like Bloomsbury and Penguin.