Saturday, January 20, 2018

Expecting to Fly

         Dishwashing disc today was "Bufallo Springfield/Retrospective". When "Expecting to Fly" came on at the end, it took me back to a dream I had, shortly after moving to Portland.

The move had felt a bit like crash-landing; we'd made it but now we had to keep making it, and there wasn't much to work with. We were broke monetarily, and somewhat broken psychologically. All three of us had extensive baggage, if you know what I mean. And I believe at this point, my physical and psychological ailments had hit me very hard, and I was in a fight, and I was in trouble.

I try not to play "the blame game" with other people. "If they'd only done (x,y,z), they wouldn't be in this position." It's hard not to sometimes. But the person I've usually hit hardest with this is myself.

I have spina bifida. It's a birth defect, you're born with a hole in your spine. Many people with it are paralyzed from the lesion down, some are brain damaged, the list of concurrent ailments is considerable and unpleasant. I got lucky, and was not hit with many of those, and for the most part, it wasn't even visible. This is good, but there are drawbacks. People can expect more of you than you may be capable of. If you're me, you try anyway, and do everything possible not to show any difference.

If someone tells you that you are somehow "lesser than", even if it's through no fault of your own, you only hear that first part. You can be told over and over, as I thankfully was by my family, that I could do anything I put my mind to. But there's always a subtext traveling beneath the words, showing through eyes and posture and slight nuances of vocal tone: "believe that because we love you, we think you are great, but something really is wrong, and we know it. You know it, but hopefully we can help you not to focus on it." You can't get away from that. Also, if your body malfunctions in a nasty way on a daily basis, you can't get away from that either. But you can try.

So I spent a lot of my life refusing to let a birth defect define me. To call it an uphill battle doesn't cover it. It's a case of compartmentalizing, splitting off the part of you that deals with it every day from the part that won't dwell on it except in the most mechanical way. On the surface, you can make this work. Beneath, it's a war every day, with your psyche as the battleground.

When I was very young and still believed in God, I would wonder why I was made this way, was there a purpose, was it a sick joke, etc. One day- and a bad day it was- I started cursing to the ceiling, and suddenly realized that was exactly what I was doing. I was at the end of 6th grade, 11 years old.

After that, I went through a period of internal drifting, being sad, trying to figure out what I was going to do because my way of dealing with my disability was coming to an end, and I had no idea what would come next, or if I could deal with the suggestions that finally did come. There came then a period of stubbornly refusing to move on, a  halfway return to a sort of arrogance I'd had a year or two earlier when I had succesfully been cruising on the belief that I was some sort of superior kid. It didn't last the year, and when it finally came crashing down and I was left scraping bottom, I had to fight my way out. That took a couple of years, and the method I hit on was a kind of self determination. It was a decidly psychotic, mutant self-determination for a number of years after that. I was about 16 before I fully realized my progress was up to me, and nothing beyond that. And I still wonder.

But: enter the the late '70s, early '80s, and all the self-help everywhere stressed: you are the captain of your ship, it's up to YOU! I'd already been on that road for a long time, although my head seemed much clearer by this point. But things kept going wrong. I couldn't handle college, I dropped out. Job after job made me feel like I was losing my sanity, depressed me, made me feel useless. But it was always MY fault that this happened, you see; the weakness was mine. Other people did these things every day. So what was wrong with ME? I'd heard that far too much where my disability was concerned, and I wasn't having it: nothing was wrong with me, or if there was, I wouldn't let there be something wrong with me, I had to fight it and win. If I lost, it was my fault and that was that. If I couldn't make it in the world, then I was too weak to be here. Every failure in my life, everything I'd ever wanted and didn't get, was down to my own weakness. I had talked myself into this and couldn't see any truth outside it.

But after moving to Portland and trying to get a new life going here, I hit a wall hard, and I couldn't get around it. And I was having to deal with finding another way to make it, and I felt very, very weak, and very "lesser than". And there was no way I could feel otherwise, at least not consciously. I'd been reduced to asking for help. That sat very badly with me.

I'd skirted the law when I was 15 to get my first job. (You're not legally allowed to work in the States until you're 16.) I'd paid, ultimately, for my own musical instruments, sometimes working dirty and even dangerous jobs so that was possible. I didn't ask for help. And yet here I was having to do it.

The circumstances that led me to this are probably best left as a story for another time. But I had reached the point where if I didn't fight for some kind of relief, I would make it permanent. One night I sat with a sharp piece of my father's bones, which had somehow survived his cremation. While divvying up his ashes in summer, I took it for myself. Here I was in winter, maybe six months later, and was about to slice my wrists with it. And then I thought, there's one more thing I hadn't tried- asking for help. It was not an appealing thought, but it kept me alive. Meanwhile, the bone was still mine, and if it failed, I could always come right back to this and finish the job.

Nonetheless, I couldn't escape feeling really lousy about myself- weak, without any qualifiers. I couldn't make it on my own and it was my fault. It had to be, there was no other reality.

And then, one night, to bring us back to the song that started these words off, I had a dream. It was a flying dream, or should have been. I'd had them before. Your body becomes airborne, you can rise into the air and fly where you like. I kept trying to take off, and every time doubt crept in, I fell. And after a somewhat visible start, I simply couldn't do it anymore. And I blamed myself, I was angry at myself. And then suddenly, this song was everywhere, coming in on one line in particular. I thought about my spina bifida, as though from the outside, and all my head troubles. And it came through: you've been trying all along, but you couldn't have helped these things. They are not your fault. Forgive yourself, you did nothing wrong. And the line in the song was, "I tried so hard to stand, as I stumbled and fell to the ground". And there wasn't a drop of falsehood I could discern in what was coming through to me. I couldn't argue with it, it felt undeniably true. It said, Look! Take a good look! These are things you did not choose. These are things you could never be at fault for. You cannot be to blame for this. Accept that. It's true.

This is something I'd never wanted to see, because of its negative side. I'd run from it because I'd never wanted to take the easy way out. "I couldn't help it". Because then, I'd be defined by it, "the poor little handicapped boy", and I couldn't stand that. Can't do it? I'l fucking show you what I can do. So I shoved that all into the background until I could no longer recognize any validity to it, I would not allow it. And yet it was still real and it was still true. And I suddenly knew it was all right to forgive myself for not having done better, I really did have some seriously heavy shit to deal with that others did not. Even typing this now, I find the idea hard to accomodate. But in that dream, it was undeniable and real. It comforted me as only a truth you cannot face consciously can do, when suddenly it comes and insists you see it. I felt a lot better in my sleep. I woke up with tears on my face and the feeling was still there. It wasn't all my fault. It was a relief I deserved to feel. It was OK.

If I told you not only what I dealt with on a personal level, the kinds of things I saw as a kid, many of them on a daily basis, I suppose I could make a better case. In my elementary school, I saw almost every birth defect you can imagine, disabilities from parental abuse, or from horrible accidents. Or kids simply not showing up one day and you didn't know if they were transferred, got better, or died. Then there was all the family stuff- so much, a parade of stories with harsh lessons. There were really things in my life that I had no choice but to experience, truths I learned early whether I was ready for them or not. There were genetic time bombs all set to go off in my psyche as soon as I hit a certain age and certain types of stressors triggered them- my father suffered with these terribly. Again though, these are other stories for other times. Now we're talking about a song and a dream. I can't hear the song without thinking of this, even though I know that's not what it was about. The experience was a bit of wonder, a valuable gift, maybe from one part of me to another, whatever the case, I don't know. But I'm glad it came when it did. I'm glad it came at all. Because I'm still here, and that might not have happened otherwise.

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