Nonverbal learning disorder consequence; inability to organize and clean
This post and the one I will put in next are about a consequence of nonverbal learning disorder (NLD) few people talk about. I had no idea how to organize myself and no idea how to clean.
I was messy growing up. When I was a teenager my mother went back to work and we had a cleaning woman a few times a week. She wasn’t allowed in my room unless it was already cleaned. My parents tried teaching me both by lesson and example. Unfortunately the lesson didn’t take.
I have always said if I could have one ability I don’t have now, it would be the ability to sing. I had the rock star look, from hippie to goth, down perfectly. People would commiserate as they too thought I should be a rock star. (I wouldn’t even play the tambourine in a college band, but I had big dreams.)
However there’s one thing I wanted more. One thing I dared not talk about and I can be a compulsive teller of tales of my life and woes. I wanted to be organized more than anything. From a young age I knew that I wasn’t and from a young age I knew the ability to organize oneself was instrumental in living a full, rich independent life
Yes my father, a CPA, stressed perfection and organization.
But I saw it for myself, from the time I lived in college dorms, Israeli kibbutz volunteer housing, houses and apartments with friends and/or boyfriends who complained about my housekeeping. They saw it as laziness, not caring, and/or a character flaw. I can’t even mop a floor without leaving marks.
When I was 25, in 1976, I moved to an incredibly boned beautiful studio, in a non-doorman sixteen apartment, six story limestone building, on East 63rd Street off Fifth Avenue that hadn’t been renovated since it was built in the 20’s. The refrigerator was one step up from an icebox. The gas stove with oven probably hadn’t been cleaned since the Madam who lived in my apartment before me moved in the year of my birth. I didn’t think to ask the landlord to have the stove cleaned.
The studio was a 12-by-25 feet bay windowed room with a 5-by-5-foot archway, 10-by-10 kitchen, tiny hallway and small bath. There were three closets. Two were almost walk in. In the days before California type closets and The Container Store, I had no frigging idea how to organize the closets.
The kitchen was another problem. I bought French wire shelves, a long butcher block counter, a butcher block table, new, but not self-defrosting, fridge and a never-heard-of-before convection oven I used instead of the oven. Still it had little pantry space. I made it seem servicable.
The building didn’t have laundry machines and there was no laundromat in the immediate or far neighborhood. I lived across from 815 Fifth Avenue, 820 Fifth–some of the richest buildings in New York. I had very famous and some infamous neighbors. None of whom, I was sure, had to worry about laundry or cleaning.
People had their laundry done. I was too unsophisticated and scared of both the prices and laundry workers judging both the quality and condition of my clothes. While most of the world thought I had style and great clothes I was my judge, jury and executioner, and the toughest one at that.
Every available space was filled with clothes. I lived near Alexander’s, the world’s most eccentric department store with the worst service, and learned to buy much underwear and linens.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know trash belonged in garbage pails. Somehow newspapers, paper bags from The Viand Coffee Shop, bills, and food crumbs would end up on the floor. There were times I would sit in the dark because in those days you paid a bill in person or in the mail, and I couldn’t find the bill or the late notices. Other times the stamped envelope sat in the bottom of my cluttered pocket book. Somehow there weren’t any bugs.
Yet the image I presented to the world was one of beauty. I couldn’t iron but would steam clothes in the shower. I loved clothes and loved make up.
I couldn’t live like this with filth everywhere.
I didn’t know how not to live like this.
I would leave the apartment to go to the subway and turn back to check the gas though I hadn’t used the stove. I would obsessively check everything as often as possible. I was so scared somebody would walk in and see the filth. I was bored on jury duty and began obsessing about my apartment. I ran home during the lunch break to check everything. I was always checking.
I could focus on my work; I loved it and loved my coworkers–240 overeducated people mostly around my age. Some remain my best friends. None remember my apartment the way I do.
My apartment was a meeting place. On Saturdays, in the early to mid-’80s, my woman’s group met there. My apartment was perfect for large parties and I had them twice a year in between many smaller ones.
I painted my apartment bright colors, sanded and deck-painted the parquet floors, divided the main room into a bedroom and living room with a muslin palm tree room divider, a flamingo decorated couch and huge, white, whole wall unit that screamed, “Disco lives here!” (I’m so not a disco person, but I loved the wall unit.) People remember it as a wonderful apartment. How do I remember it so differently?
In the first couple of years, every two months or so, I would buy huge contractor trash bags and mercilessly throw out everything that wasn’t furniture or something in one of my collections. I know a lot of my bills went into the trash.
I lived on the first floor and would take the trash out late at night before trash collection mornings, petrified I would run into people from the building. Looking back I can’t believe I would let the garbage pile up for months. Sometimes some of it was sitting in huge bags waiting to be taken out.
I felt paralyzed much of the time but I would think; do I want to live like this? The answer was always no. Yet sometimes I was so ferklempt from work, and/or life I didn’t see things pile up at first. Then it would spin out of control. Usually my need to have company would win out and I would take two sick or vacation days off to clean.
I didn’t know then a hoarder, a psychiatrist, lived next door to me, and another one, a cab driver, lived four stories up.
The woman who lived below him was bipolar and suicidal. The police and ambulances came often for her. My other next door neighbor, bipolar also, was “kept” by a scion of a rich and influential family.
My landlord had keys to my apartment, and used them. A lawyer he knew my father slightly, professionally, and once told me he was going to call him. I wanted to die. I would feel shame each time I saw him even when my apartment was clean but aside from that one time he went out of his way to make me feel comfortable
In many ways I was a model tenant as I always made sure that the rent was paid on time. People mistook me for a soap star or somebody important and my landlord liked that.
My father was always offering to pay for a cleaning woman. I was too embarrassed.
When I tried broaching the subject to whoever my therapist was they would change the subject. I realize now I wasn’t explicit enough, and never once said: I live in filth.
After a number of small inconsequential relationships, I met a boy. I stayed in his East Village apartment that first night. In the morning, I was taking a shower and felt something on my leg. It was a mouse. I did what any Uptown girl would do, I screamed.
Long story short, we moved into my apartment and cleaned it.The lights and gas had been turned off as I had forgotten to pay the bill. The condition of the fridge–I don’t want to go there. I don’t know how he summoned the will to clean it all. I will forever be in his debt for that.
He turned out to be as messy as I was. He was a musician and would stay home and lament his fate–he wasn’t famous and deserved to be–while he smoked joints and drank Dixie Beer. I supported us. It was a passionate but tumultuous relationship. After several years I kicked him out. I deserved better.
.That relationship made me grow up. I found him a sublet, paid the first and last month’s rent and cleaned it when he left. I didn’t clean it very well.
I was now in my 30s. My apartment looked company-ready unless people looked in the closets or drawers and I lived in fear of that.
This is the first part of a series. The second part will discuss how and why I relapsed after I moved to Riverdale, The Bronx. There is a happy ending. In 1997, I bought a coop on The Upper West Side. I taught myself some organizational skills. I own a house now on the coast of South Carolina and still wait to relapse. I haven’t.