Thursday, September 29, 2016

A Lesson 63 Years in the Making

I have never fit it.

Perhaps I should say more clearly, I have never felt that I fit in.

As a very young boy I knew deep inside of me that I was different from other people. I lived in a small mining town where boys were boys and girls wore frills. It was the kind of town where when a girl wore pants to the elementary school because it was the deepest of a deep cold winter she was expelled for the day. What a fight that caused. In that environment I had identified somewhere deep inside of me that no one could ever know the secret I carried.

It's a huge burden being a child with a secret.

You fear every day. You fear your own weakness. You fear your trust of others. You fear your need not to be alone with a secret that grows proportionately with your fear of exposures.

It's a huge burden being a child with a secret.

I learned for fear others. Fear being with others. I felt that when I was with others, I had no place to be. No place simply to be.

As a very young boy, I was 'big boned' according to my family and 'fatty fatty two by four can't get through the kitchen door' to everyone else. I was called names every single day of my life. I was called names multiple times every single day of my life. My weight was like a target placed on me. People, boys and girls equally, loved tormenting me. If I'd be standing at my locker some young 'wit' would push himself against the opposite way and shout, 'He takes up so much space!' Some other young wit would point out my chest and bemoan that she didn't have tits like me.

Sitting on a bench was torture, if my body touched others, most often caused by the number of people on the bench, it would result in a 'ewww, gross!' Even though everyone's sides on the bench were touching everyone else's side. I'd be the cause of the tightness. I'd be the cause of what happened to me. I always thought it was my fault.

It's does damage, never fitting in anywhere. It teaches you to hate yourself. It teaches you that there is no where safe. It teaches you that the world, for all that it is, isn't big enough to have a place where you belong.

Years later, becoming a wheelchair user, this was amplified. My taking both space and time - needing a second longer to get into an elevator or off a subway. Needing space in a restaurant - a bother. Needing space on a subway car - a hindrance. Needing space on a sidewalk - why do you people go out?

No where to belong.

And now I have another secret. I fight and fight and fight to keep silent about my own complicity in my own oppression - I believe they are all right. I believe that I am too big, too bulky, took different and that I should be grateful for what I'm given. I don't believe I've earned anything, I believe that those who are kind to me are simply charitable. I believe I am not worth of that charity.

And then.

I found a slow rage building in me. A rage that surprised me. I didn't know it's source. But it would burst out every now and then. I'd snap at anyone who did something that reminded me of the cruelty of the boys at school or said something that bit like the girls at school. I'd find myself feeling like a little angry boy who had been a little angry boy for a very long time.

Oh, I managed to create a safe space around me. In my home, in Joe's company, in the life we built together. But even there, even in those places, I wasn't entirely safe from me. From the blame I heaped on myself. From the apology always on my lips about taking space and time and help.

On February 1st, I started a new way of living in the world. I wanted to do things to ease the pain I felt every day of my life. I started lifting weights and controlling my blood sugar. Simple things. Private things. But then the private became public. I stopped allowing Joe to push me. I pushed myself down hallways and on to buses. I pushed myself from the car to the hotel lobby. I pushed myself from the movie theatre to the restaurant.

The reaction to this wasn't pretty. I'm slower. I take longer. Hills are a challenge and I slowly push up them. Ramps are even more of a challenge and I'm even slower. But I determinedly make my way. I am going to be stronger and I'm going to be as pain free as I want. I came to realize that if I wanted to stop feeling the pain in my body I was going to have to deal with the pain inflicted by impatient people who simply want me out of the way.

Now let me define out of the way. Wheelchair users in general, and fat ones more specifically, are like rolling Rorschach tests. People see what they want to see. People see what they fear or what they loathe or what makes them angry. I am not human. I am not real. I am simply something in their world that they get to interpret in any way they want. I can be rolling towards a door, there can be space all around me for people to easily pass, and people will get behind me and 'be' inconvenienced. There can be a mile of space all around me and people will follow me and complain about me slowing them down. There can be another door to go through but they will wait as I push myself through the disabled automatic door. People want me to know the results of their Rorschach, an aptly named test because it sounds like a combination of 'roar' and 'shock' which is how I'm responded to most often.

A few days ago, in California, I am pushing myself up a hill on the way to the hotel we are staying in. Joe is getting things from the car. He knows I prefer to do this now myself. Even if it's hard, I want to get up the incline myself. Two people get behind me. I look around. There is so much space to walk around me and get to the door.

I realize that they want me to feel in the way.

I realize that is the message they want to send me.

I realize that none of this is an accident.

I realize that this is prejudice made flesh.

I realize that they want to define who belongs and who doesn't.

I realize that they want me to know that I don't fit.

That little boy in me, the one with the secret, the one with secrets, the one who knows he doesn't fit.

That boy spoke to them. The voice was a man's voice but it was a voice that had never spoken before.


They look shocked.

I told them to go around me. One of them said that I should either hurry up or get help. I raged, "THIS SPACE IS MINE, I BELONG RIGHT HERE."

The tone startled them and they stepped to the side and walked into the hotel. I pushed myself on my path.

It's my path.

It's mine.

And I have a right to be here.

That little boy was wrong. I do fit in this world. I do have a place in this world. It's simply been waiting for me to claim it.

And I claim it.


I belong.

This is the lesson that it took 63 years for me to learn.


leslie sobel said...

I am impressed with your wisdom on this. People can be jerks and it takes a lifetime to realize what is external to us but still leaves internal scars.

Unknown said...

Creating a safe hard that is, for those of us who grew to adulthood with the bone-deep certainty that we did not belong in the world and that we were always in danger. The damage of emotional abuse in childhood pierces the spirit of the child and leaves scar tissue that is hard and stiff and prevents growing fully into life. Uncovering and healing that scar tissue is a lifelong challenge.
Take good care, Dave. And Joe, who shares in the, too, take good care.

SammE said...

Hi Dave. I've been thinking about this post, and what would happen if I were one of the people in your story today. Unless I were in a hurry for some reason, an appointment maybe, I would likely have just kept on following you through the door. I wouldn't have considered you as hindering my entry at all. Am I weird, or would I have been chastised as the others were if I had chosen to wait?
I'm sorry you have had to deal with the treatment you write about today. I don't doubt it at all. Being a primary teacher, I certainly know how cruel children can be. Luckily for me, being that teacher has taught me a lot about people, and to see the person behind the difference whatever that might be. Not sure I'm being very clear. I am always interested in people, and your blog has been thought provoking always. Thank you for that, Dave. I admire you.

Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt said...

'One of them said that I should either hurry up or get help.'

You had every right to be there. You weren't asking for anything - and were entitled to use the public path like anyone else.

Those people could have said something like, "Excuse us," and gone around you. Or even, "We're going to go around you - is there anything you need?" if they wished to appear helpful (in case you wanted a door held or something).

That would be appropriate.

I hope you blasted them out of their complacency, self-centeredness, and complete lack of self-awareness. Maybe they'll think next time.

"Excuse me? Who made you king of the world?" would be appropriate for you whenever you need it. Along with your best stare.

Sandra Fleming said...

Glad you have learned!
Or should I say I am glad that you are learning as it never seems to end

Each of us deserves our space whether physically or emotionally. Trying to claim mine each day while respecting the space and claim of each individual. Being the type of person I am I usually add the proviso that it is done politely -- no yelling, no pushing, no bullying, etc.

Purpletta said...

SammE, I second your admiration of Dave. However I am distressed by your question as to whether you would have been "chastised as the others were" if you had chosen to wait when following behind Dave, should that instead have been the circumstance. The term chastised implies the recipient of the correction has done something wrong. In the case of the scenario described it doesn't seem to me that the wrong-doing was that someone followed Dave up the ramp but rather that someone followed Dave up the ramp while making it abundantly clear in word and deed that the follower felt Dave was in the way, should hurry up, or should find help for himself. The follower *was wrong; that warranted censure. I am confident that had your scenario been the case, your appropriate and respectful sharing of space - with someone you see as an equal or in Dave's case someone you admire - would have been met with like respect.

Purpletta said...

Dave, Thank you for sharing this. My heart is so very happy for you. And hopeful for my own self & others who work on learning this lesson each and every day. God bless you, Dave. I am grateful for you.

Sherry-Lynn K said...

This brought tears to my eyes...sadness for you, and for everyone else who has ever been made to feel like they are an inconvenience to others.. and fear that perhaps my son experiences this same thing but doesn't tell me. :( I know he did as a young child (a teacher said that his wheelchair was "inconvenient" for her...I went all Mama Bear on her and reminded her that his disability and all that it entails, including the attitudes of others, was FAR more "inconvenient" for him than it would ever be for her.

My son tends to not speak out...and I will share your story with him in hopes that, should anyone treat him like he (and his wheelchair) are in the way, he will find his voice and roar.