On The Need to Feel Normal When Nothing is Normal

An excerpt from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou and an essay on special needs parenting (forgive the long excerpt, it’s worth the read)…

“In our society, where two-legged, two-armed strong Black men were able at best to eke out only the necessities of life, Uncle Willie, with his starched shirts, shined shoes and shelves full of food, was the whipping boy and butt of jokes of the underemployed and underpaid. Fate not only disabled him but laid a double-tiered barrier in his path. He was also proud and sensitive. Therefore he couldn’t pretend that he wasn’t crippled, nor could he deceive himself that people were not repelled by his defect. Only once in all the years of trying not to watch him, I saw him pretend to himself and others that he wasn’t lame.
Coming home from school one day, I saw a dark car in our front yard. I rushed in to find a strange man and woman (Uncle Willie said later they were schoolteachers from Little Rock) drinking Dr Pepper in the cool of the Store. I sensed a wrongness around me, like an alarm clock that had gone off without being set.
I knew it couldn’t be the strangers. Not frequently, but often enough, travelers pulled off the main road to buy tobacco or soft drinks in the only Negro store in Stamps. When I looked at Uncle Willie, I knew what was pulling my mind’s coattails. He was standing erect behind the counter, not leaning forward or resting on the small shelf that had been built for him. Erect. His eyes seemed to hold me with a mixture of threats and appeal.
I dutifully greeted the strangers and roamed my eyes around for his walking stick. It was nowhere to be seen. He said, “Uh…this this…this…uh, my niece. She’s…uh…just come from school.” The to the couple – “You know…how, uh, children are…th-th-these days…they play all d-d-day at school and c-c-can’t wait to get home and pl-play some more.”
The people smiled, very friendly.
He added, “Go on out and pl-play, Sister.”
The lady laughed in a soft Arkansas voice and said, “Well, you know, Mr. Johnson, they say, you’re only a child once. Have you any children of your own?”
Uncle Willie looked at me with an impatience I hadn’t seen in his face even when he took thirty minutes to loop the laces over his high-topped shoes. “I thought I told you to go…go outside and play.”
Before I left I saw him lean back on the shelves of Garret Snuff, Prince Albert and Spark Plug chewing tobacco.
“No, ma-am…no ch-children and no wife.” He tried a laugh. “I have an old m-m-mother and my brother’s t-two children to l-look after.”
I didn’t mind his using us to make himself look good. In fact, I would have pretended to be his daughter if he wanted me to. Not only did I not feel any loyalty to my own father, I figured that if I had been Uncle Willie’s child, I would have received much better treatment.
The couple left after a few minutes, and from the back of the house I watched the red car scare chickens, raise dust and disappear toward Magnolia.
Uncle Willie was making his way down the long shadowed aisle between the shelves and the counter – hand over hand, like a man climbing out of a dream. I stayed quiet and watched him lurch from one side, bumping to the other, until he headed the coal-oil tank. He put his hand behind that dark recess and took his cane in the strong fist and shifted his weight on the wooden support. He thought he had pulled it off.
I’ll never know why it was important to him that the couple (he said later that he’d never seen them before) would take a picture of a whole Mr. Johnson back to Little Rock.
     He must have tired of being crippled, as prisoners tire of penitentiary bars and the guilty tire of blame. The high-topped shoes and the cane, his uncontrollable muscles and thick tongue, and the looks he suffered of either contempt or pity had simply worn him out, and for one afternoon, one part of an afternoon, he wanted no part of them.
     I understood and felt closer to him at that moment than ever before or since.”

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     Tears, in glasslike sheets, now soak the lower half of my face, pouring down my neck, filling the concave spot at the base of my throat, running down my chest as if I were a human downspout directing a flood. This…now this I understand. Only one who has experienced judgment and rejection could write in such a way that captures this specific and underrated need…the intense need to feel normal, if only for a moment. Only one who has known the shameful embarrassment of standing out the wrong way in a crowd, could appreciate the total joy of disappearing in blissful anonymity.
As the mother of an autistic child who is prone to violence, elopement, and very demonstrative public fits, I know all too well this craving to blend in, to feel normal, even if only briefly. During painfully public displays, I too, have frequently caught the eyes of others, reflecting like mirrors, either contempt or pity. After years and years of such reflections, I can no longer remember what I actually look like. Somewhere along the line, these gazes have become my truth. I have, at times, come to believe that I am the despised beast or the pitied creature… this, and nothing more.
And so I’ve manufactured ways to convince others of my normalcy, that in turn, normalcy might be reflected back to me; and so that I might believe, albeit momentarily, that I lead a normal life. Like Uncle Willie, I stand erect, hide the cane, disguise my limp, shoot daggers at anyone who might threaten to give away my secret. Normalcy has become both my shield and my crutch. If I look put together, no one will know that I am a mess. If my house is well-decorated, no one will know that I am crumbling inside.
But somewhere along the line, “normal” began to lose its appeal. It became common and dull. I looked with fresh eyes upon my “high-topped shoes and cane, my uncontrollable muscles and thick tongue,” and I held them with the tender love and compassion of a new mother. I allowed myself the freedom to cry the tears long dammed, and in reverential silence, bore witness to the shame and embarrassment so deeply buried. I gave myself permission to grieve the looks of contempt and pity, and the years of feeling anything but normal. I looked closely at the “me” who was hiding behind the protection and shelter of attempted normalcy and extended a soft hand to ease her transition into the light.
And as this timid part of “me” stepped forth in high-topped shoes, leaning heavily on a cane, thick-tongued and muscles yet uncontrolled, I grabbed her and pulled her close in an understanding embrace, and softly whispered in her ear, “I love your cane. I love your high-topped shoes. I love your thick tongue. I love your uncontrollable muscles. Look no longer into the eyes of others for feedback; from now on, look only within. Enter the world not as you wish to be, living the life you wish to be living; but enter as you are, living proudly the life you actually lead, back into the world as it actually is. Limp as you will, but limp with your head held high. For within that limp is contained all suffering, sorrow, madness, and despair. Within that limp is contained all things wild and uncontrollable, and within that limp is contained all love, joy, beauty, and depth of soul. Our humanity is held within each fragile and broken step we take; and so, do not hang your head in shame for that which is shared between all humans. Re-enter the world, still broken, still healing, and reclaim your rightful place within.”

Speaking the Unspoken Truth

**Spoiler alert – contains spoilers regarding the movie “A Monster Calls.” **

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Over Christmas break, I took my kids to the movie, “A Monster Calls,” based on the New York Times Bestselling book.  I had no expectations or understanding of what it was even about.  That being said, I managed to cry my way through the last half of the movie.  It is very rare that a movie grips my mind and thoughts long after the credits are through rolling.  But this movie was so poignant and in my opinion, touched on the very struggle of what it means to be human.

The story is told of a young boy whose mother is facing cancer.  He has a recurring nightmare in which he is holding onto his mother who is about to slip into an abyss and he cannot hold her any longer.  The boy repetitively wakes up just as he loses grip and she begins to plummet.  The long and short of the plot is that an ancient tree awakens and shares three stories and tells young Conor that after the third story, he will tell his story (nightmare) and will tell the truth of it.  The following is an excerpt from the book.  Forgive me for a lengthy quote but I cannot summarize in any way that would do it justice…

From A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

“Because, yes, Conor knew.  He had always known. The truth. The real truth from the nightmare…  ‘Please don’t make me,’ Conor said.  ‘Please don’t make me say it.’  You let her go, the monster said.  Conor closed his eyes tightly but then he nodded.  You must speak the truth and you must speak it now, Conor O’Malley.  Say it.  You must.  ‘It’ll kill me if I do,’ he gasped.  It will kill you if you do not, the monster said.  You must say it.  You let her go.  Why?  And then he spoke the words.  He spoke the truth.  He told the rest of the fourth tale.  ‘I can’t stand it anymore!’ he cried out as the fire raged around him.  ‘I can’t stand knowing that she’ll go!  I just wanted it to be over! I wanted it to be finished!’  And then the fire ate the world, wiping away everything, wiping him away with it.  He welcomed it with relief, because it was at last the punishment he deserved.

‘It’s my fault,’ Conor said.  ‘I let her go.’  It’s not your fault, the monster said, its voice floating in the air around him like a breeze.  You were merely wishing for the end of pain, your own pain, and how it isolated you.  It is the most human wish of all.  ‘I didn’t mean it’ said Conor.  You did, the monster said, but you also did not.  Conor sniffed and looked up to its face which was as big as a wall in front of him.  ‘How can both be true?’  Because humans are complicated beasts, the monster said.  How can a queen be both a good witch and a bad witch?  How can a prince be a murderer and a saviour?  How can an apothecary be evil-tempered but right-thinking?  How can a person be wrong-thinking but good-hearted?  How can invisible men make themselves more lonely by being seen?   ‘I don’t know,’ Conor shrugged, ‘Your stories never made any sense to me.’  The answer is that it does not matter what you think, the monster said, because your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day.  You wanted her to go at the same time you wanted me to save her.  Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary.  And your mind will punish you for believing both.  ‘But how do you fight it?’ Conor asked, his voice rough.  ‘How do you fight all the different stuff inside?   By speaking the truth, the monster said.   As you spoke it just now.  Conor thought again of his mother’s hands, of the grip as he let go ~ Stop this, Conor O’Malley, the monster said, gently.  This is why I came walking, to tell you this so that you may heal.  You must listen.  You do not write your life with words, you write it with actions.”

The bare naked truth of the matter is that we all have secrets.  Perhaps we have never actively done anything horrifically wicked, but we have all had thoughts that would mortify us if spoken out loud.  I will be embarrassingly transparent regarding a personal example.  One day, my son threw a fit and ran away and was threatening to run into a busy road.  His fits are not uncommon, as a child with special needs, and it had been a particularly bad week.  As he ran toward the street, the thought flashed through my mind that if I let him run and there was a fatal accident, my life would be so much easier.  Of course I stopped him from running, yet I felt crushed under the weight of my hideous thought and punished myself internally for days.  This is one of many reasons why the above scene absolutely pierced my heart.  Anyone who has suffered or experienced grief also understands the desire for an end to pain, for an end to the isolation of it, for an end to the weariness of it.  After that incident, I did some intense soul searching and demanded of myself to know how any decent mother could ever even allow the faintest of such thoughts to be entertained.  I felt like a blasphemous cartoon character deserving of the proverbial lightning strike from the sky.

And so, many of us carry this needless guilt and shame.  We begin to identify with these fleeting thoughts.  We even may hate ourselves at times for thoughts we have, ways we have hurt others, and the supposed truth over who we are.  But herein lies the problem.  We are not the summation of our thoughts.  We are complicated beasts, as the monster so aptly points out.  It is possible to be wrong-thinking but good-hearted.  Life does not seem to have the same problem with dualistic truths as we humans do.  But we must learn to speak the truth.  We must own our morbid thoughts.  We must open up our dark, cobwebbed closets and let even the smallest aperture of light in.

Ultimately we must understand that the majority of our terrible thoughts do not stem from some deep-rooted wickedness within, but rather a wound that needs to be healed (“This is why I came walking, to tell you this so that you may heal.”).  Our ugly thoughts, our rage, our embarrassing failures all serve as an indicator to show us where we are broken, where we are suffering, where we need mending.  What good would it do to suture up an infected laceration?  It would only fester and rot and cause further damage.  This being the case, we still hide in shame rather than risk being exposed.   And so, we suffer while smiling and silently endure our infected wounds.  We would rather die than expose the truth.

However,  if we will be brave enough to speak that which is unspoken, we will find peace and freedom.  We will find that our thoughts, once uttered, become powerless over us.  The shackles of guilt and self-chastisement will fall away and we will realize that our thoughts are simply…thoughts.  They do not define us.  They cannot control us.  And then, we will reclaim the power to write our lives with our actions, instead of being tormented by our thoughts.

“Conor let out a long, long breath, still thick.  But he wasn’t choking.  The nightmare wasn’t filling him up, squeezing his chest, dragging him down.  In fact, he no longer felt the nightmare at all…”