I've always been shamed for my clutter. Back in sixth grade my teacher dumped my desk onto the floor as a means of guilting me into cleaning it. Then in high school I won the "Messiest Locker" prize. And once my car was stolen in Philadelphia, taken for a joyride and later recovered neater than before it was stolen.
But it wasn't until hired cleaners refused to clean my house that I admitted I needed help. This happened a few years ago, when my impeccably neat in-laws were visiting from Florida. They were planning to stay with my husband and me, the prize-winning mess who married their son. I was understandably anxious, and decided to be proactive and scheduled cleaners to come beforehand. I knew (and my husband also acknowledged) that even my very best cleaning efforts weren't going to cut it, but I was optimistic that the professionals could get it done.
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Maybe they would have … if they'd accepted the job. Instead, with my in-laws set to arrive within the hour, the pros flatly rejected my house. "There's too much clutter ... too many piles of papers, all of this stuff," the cleaner said, gesturing contemptuously toward my extremely random assortment of useless tchotchkes, chewed-up cat toys, old holiday cards, expired gift cards and beaten-up old books. "We don't organize, we just clean, and we can't clean around this."
To my in-laws, I'm the prize-winning mess who married their son.
I would later find out this was true: Most housecleaners don't organize your stuff for you. At this news, I started to shed hysterical tears of panic and shame. My husband and I did our last-minute best, and my in-laws did an admirable job of pretending not to be appalled, but the damage had been done. Having professionals reject my house shouldn't have left me in a state of adrenaline-frayed, hiccup-sobbing panic. I knew this wasn't normal and knew I needed to do something about it.
The only problem? I also knew clutter was only one aspect of what never seemed normal in my life. I got lost constantly, still had issues telling right from left and got into more than my fair share of car accidents. Sure, I won the school spelling bee as a kid, but I was terrible at math and geography and still break into a cold sweat when someone asks me to read the time from an analog clock.
In third grade, I was diagnosed with a condition called dysgraphia, which relates to difficulty with handwriting. My teachers recommended I get tested after noticing I held my pencil in an odd way and struggled with cursive. But the dysgraphia was only part of a larger problem that I later learned was called Nonverbal Learning Disability (NVLD). This condition means that taking chaos and sorting it into an organized, functional system feels not only difficult, but often impossible.
One of the biggest symptoms of NVLD is having trouble with eye-hand coordination, and that explains why I get lost all the time. (I once got lost on a beach for over an hour, a moment that felt very much like getting lost in a desert.) I also have difficulty with spatial organization, and it's challenging for me to arrange things in an efficient and space-saving way. This is why loading the dishwasher can feel like an advanced filing system. It's why I'm terrible at puzzles, and my little niece and nephew consistently destroy me at Q-Bitz, a game of multiple visual challenges. And ultimately, it's why, when I look at the mess in my house, car or desk, I genuinely don't know where to begin.
When it comes to this condition, I'm a pretty extreme case. I was officially diagnosed with NVLD last year by Amelia Lavin and her colleagues at Widener University's Neuropsychology Assessment Center in Pennsylvania. Since then, I have pursued occupational therapy to work on minimizing my struggle. Every other week, we meet to go over goals and strategies for improving my cleaning and organizing skills, as well as navigating the visual world in general. I've learned to play to my strengths — words and language — to compensate for my deficiencies. Mnemonic devices help me convert a visual task into a sequence of steps I can remember. Cell phone alarms, timers and verbal cues help as well. Sure, this occasionally encourages me to talk to myself, but I'd rather be the crazy lady who talks to herself than the crazy one whose house is hideous.
But sometimes I'm both. Sometimes my house is still a wreck. It's never going to be perfect, and it's always going to be a challenge. It's possible I'll always get lost and inspire car thieves to tidy up. The difference is now I have a few basic tools in place that I can turn to when things feel out of control.
And for special occasions, I also have a great cleaning service that, luckily, hasn't rejected me yet.