I Miss My Opposable Thumb

Don’t get me wrong — I’ve not really lost my entire thumb to accident. I merely knicked a bit off the tip with a kitchen knife. But unlike a mere cut where the skin just has to close back together, this is a small concavity that takes a bit longer to fill in. Because it’s on the tip of my thumb, it’s prone to all sorts of ongoing abuse that would prolong the healing process. So, I have one of those plastic caps taped to my thumb to protect it. And of course I can’t really use my thumb for much bandaged like this.

So like many other things in my own life I had to develop coping strategies to accommodate this temporary disability. I use my index and middle fingers in a pincer grip for holding small things (hooray for doublejointedness). Shoelaces are really tricky this way, but I’ve always asserted that shoelaces are the work of the devil (I was in 3rd grade before I finally mastered them), so I stick to loafers and sandals whenever possible.

Last night I remarked to hubby that my entire life is composed of coping strategies.

I have coping strategies to deal with the ADHD forgetfulness, distractedness, and hyperactivity. We have a baker’s rack near the front door for backpacks and shoes. My necessary pocket stuff is emptied onto a special dish at bedtime, and reloaded the next morning when dressing. I set my medicine bottle on my computer keyboard. I write notes to myself (and others) using a dry-erase marker on the bathroom mirror, as one ends up in the bathroom on a regular basis, it doesn’t get lost like scraps of paper, and I can be sure of seeing them when getting up the next morning. I turn off the oven before removing the food. I have an index card in my shirt pocket where I keep my To Do list and ideas to pursue. I set my car keys atop whatever object I need to take with me.

I have coping strategies to deal with the Auditory Processing Disorder blips where I can’t understand what someone has said to me, and the resultant overtaxing of my short-term memory that makes recalling verbal instructions and lectures so damn difficult. I watch television with the closed captions (subtitles in English) turned on. I take extensive notes when given verbal instructions. I request emails instead of phone calls, printed meeting agendas, and transcripts.

I always have earplugs on hand to turn down the volume a bit in noisy places because of my hyperacussis, and frequently listen to background music to drown out my tinnitus.

I have coping strategies to deal with my faceblindness. Like other prosopagnosics, I rely on accessory features of posture, gait, mannerisms, voice, hairstyle and location to identify people. I also rely upon name tags and prompts by family members and others. When we’re in crowds, I instruct people to wave at me so I can find them again.

I have coping strategies to deal with my clumsiness (although given the continuous succession of bruises and the number of scars I have, apparently insufficiently adequate ones). For years we did not have a coffee table because I crash into furniture too often. I transfer raw eggs with my hand palm-up to let gravity work for me. I pour liquids with the containers over the sink to make spillage cleanup easier. I keep burn ointment on top of the refrigerator instead of in the bathroom medicine chest because I get burned in the kitchen, not the bathroom. I skid the sole of my foot across the top edge of a staircase to find the first step. I do complex hand-and-foot actions sequentially instead of simultaneously. I wear glasses with metal rather than plastic frames, as they bend instead of break. I wear snug clothing to improve my proprioception so I don’t run into furniture as often.

I have coping strategies to deal with my intermittent reading & writing transpositions. Everything has to be proofread. I block off extraneous numeric data with a piece of blank paper so I don’t pick up the wrong number. If I have to write out calculations for students, I ask them to watch me really closely and let me know if I transpose something. (This makes me more human to them, and also makes them watch me like a hawk, thus paying more attention to the lesson!)

All these coping strategies mean that on good days I may even be over-compensating for some things. Overcompensation is something I sometimes do well. Spelling was one of my worst subjects; as an adult I became a newspaper proofreader. I had a speech impediment and occasional stuttering that required speech therapy; I’ve recorded books on tape and now I do a lot of public speaking and get return invitations. (I also get queries about my “accent” because when I’m tired I tend to over-enunciate, producing a sort of Received Pronunciation effect.) I have ADHD but for several years of college I lived in two cities and did four jobs while taking classes. I have APD but have been a note-taker for other students, albeit in classes where I already knew most of the material. Adler would be proud.

There is however an inherent drawback at being so good at developing coping strategies: because I can more-or-less get by most of the time, people can’t tell that I’m having to work twice as hard to do what I do. So when I’m tired and/or sick or otherwise stressed, I don’t do things as well. To be frank, I do poorly. A lot of my coping abilities lie in the fact that I’ve worked to create enabling environments for myself. Take me out of those (for examples, when on trips, or when starting new jobs), and a lot of my strategies fall apart.

Because these are invisible difficulties and disabilities, people don’t understand why I intermittently fail or falter. They can’t understand why an otherwise apparently smart person suddenly does and says apparently stupid things. This means that sometimes people will decide I’m being lazy or rude, or if they don’t know me they will decide that I’m stupid.

In the long run, the attribution errors can be the most disabling thing of all.