Monday, May 5, 2014

Being a Freak


    We have all been that person at some point of our lives.  The kid who is not normal.  The kid who stands out.  Even the young or middle aged adult who doesn't fit in.  Maybe it's only for an afternoon.  Maybe you decided to try a new sport at age 40.  Maybe you are just being yourself.  Comfortable in your own skin and yet kids tended to pick on you.  Single you out.  It hurts.  It can be humiliating.  It can be confusing.

   I was that kid.  I remember distinctly going to kindergarten and being picked on for how I acted, for what I was wearing or for the music I listened too.  It was shocking at first.   Me? Why don't you like me?  I thought I was cool.  I was into sports.  I was friendly.  I liked to have fun.   Of course it wasn't everyone at school, but the kids who singled me out made a lasting impression on me.   I have been fortunate enough to have an incredible network of friends and family in my life now that loves me just the way I am.  It is a wonderful feeling to be loved for all of your imperfections along with the more likable traits we all have. I was 21 years old when I found my first Best Friend in life.  There were several people along the way that I trusted with that status but got burned badly.  Trusting someone and then having them break that trust is a very painful way to learn a lesson.  It changes you.  I became more closed off to people through my adolescent years.  More protective.  I'm an extrovert, so I was still out there in the world, but I thought of most people as acquaintances, not friends.  I would hang out with them but I would keep personal thoughts or to myself.  I always had my guard up.   Only my parents would knew the real me.  They knew my fears and worries.  I could always count on them.  They were my rock.  I have thanked my parents many a times for their help in getting me through Junior High and High School.  It sucked at times.  Being physically bullied.  Being verbally abused.  It was always only a few people but they made their point.   My parents would explain these people’s actions as jealousy or insecurities.  Their explanations made sense, but this knowledge had no immediate impact on my life.  Someday these people would not be in my life anymore.  I got that, but I wanted it to go away now.  I wanted to be accepted and liked now.  I wanted the focus on me not being 'cool' to go away.
Glenn and me going across country. 1977.

     There were lessons to be learned from all this.  Adversity always provides enlightenment if you look for it.  It can be hard as hell to make it through tough times. Knowing you will grow as a person from adversity doesn't make it any easy to get through.  Understanding how it felt to be picked on made me have more compassion for others.  I was an older brother.  I was not always a good older brother.  I used my size and strength to dominate my younger brother.  I was a controller.  My mom would often say, “You are the only voice I can hear on the street" while we were playing outside.  I dictated how sports were played.  I lawyered my way through discussions with the kids in our neighborhood and with my parents.  I could be a bully.  The very same guy who I despised growing up.  As I grew older and went through more situations of being picked on I matured as a person.  Hopefully I was seen as a more caring person.  I definitely had to apologize to my brother Glenn.  I'm not proud of how I sometimes treated Glenn.  I think he has accepted my apologies.  I know those moments for him will never totally go away and that is what I'm most sorry about.  Glenn was a great brother to grow up with.  He was funny.  He loved sports liked I did.  He wasn't mean.  He didn't play the little brother card with our parents to unfairly get me in trouble.  I'm very close to my brother now and I have some of life's hard lessons to thank for that.
Glenn and I playing football in the backyard.  Yup, I was a bully.

     All of these memories have been brought up for me lately as I navigate through life as a legally blind adult.  So much of my acceptance of my eyes has been extremely positive.  In many ways a gift.  My eyes have clearly made me a much better person.  Anyone who knows me would agree.   My life is not ruined with diminished eye sight.  I still get to do everything I've always done except drive a car.  I'm not less happy now.  I'm not more depressed with each passing day, but I do get tired of being a Freak.

   Learning to use a cane has mostly been wonderful.  It has given me great confidence to get around in any condition.  My cane has been especially helpful in new areas and at night anywhere.  I'm still a relative newbie at navigating with a cane, but I'm really getting use to it.  So use to it, in some ways it bothers me.  I feel a bit naked without my cane now.  I didn't feel that way 6 months ago.  Am I relying on my cane so much that I have given permission to my retinas to die faster?  That thought scares me.  I feel like I am in a constant battle of accepting my declining vision and holding onto the vision I have left.  It's a battle that can really weigh on me.  I have actually thought recently of wearing my blind glasses (fully occluded) while getting around because in some ways it’s less stressful to not see.   If I can 'see' it’s harder to gather all the information from my surroundings through my other senses.  My eyes just aren't as trustworthy as they use to be.  I'm learning to decipher the information from my eyes, cane, and my ears all at the same time, but there is a tendency to only interpret what my eyes see.  That sure sounds a lot like giving up.  Hell, it sounds insane, doesn't it?  A guy with vision is purposely occluding his vision to help him get around?  My new hero is Charlotte Brown and as you can see in the video below, not only is she a legally blind pole vaulter, but she walks around with much less vision than me and she doesn't even use a cane!  What I am I thinking?  Welcome to the exciting and sometimes not rational world inside my head.

Check out my new Hero, Charlotte Brown:

    However I decide to get around in this world or come to grips with the loss of my vision, it won't exonerate me from being seen as different.  Not normal.  A Freak.  Someone to feel sorry for.  Someone to stare at.  I'm guessing 90% of people who see me in public stare at me.  I'm sure they stare at me for all kinds of reasons.  I too stare at people who are different.  I can feel sorry for people who have a physical or mental handicap.  I stare at someone who looks different.  Wears different clothes, hair colors, haircuts, piercings, tattoos, and shoes.  I'm not discriminatory.  I will stare at anyone who stands out.  Don't get me wrong.  I’m all for it.  I am an artist at heart.  I love people being expressing themselves.  I tell my girls all the time that hair is a renewable resource, so cut it however you want.  I wear ear rings.  I love glitter.  Burning Man looks like a hoot.  Let your freak flag fly! But it's nice deciding when that happens.  I don't dress like that at work.  I don't always wear glitter.  Sometimes I don't want to stick out.  That is why I can struggle with using a cane.

   When I use my cane I am basically wearing a huge scarlet letter.  People do everything they can to get out of my way.  They jump off the sidewalk.  They yell at their kids to get out of the way.  They freeze behind light poles hoping I will miss them.  They verbally let me know they are behind me.  What is that?  Why would someone tell a blind person they are behind them?  Are blind people more apt to suddenly back up while walking down a street?  Do sighted humans have eyes in the back of head and therefore don't need a warning that people are coming up from behind?  I thought teachers were the only humans that had eyes in the back of their head.  It can be hilarious if I choose to laugh at the situation but sometimes it can be draining.  Yes I'm an extrovert but that doesn't mean I always want to be the center of attention.  I think this is why my childhood memories have been in the front of my mind lately.  What I am describing in many ways is totally different then being picked on as a kid.  The kids who singled me out wanted to hurt me.  The people I meet in public most of the time don't want to hurt me.  It's the complete opposite.  They want to help me.  I am sincerely thankful for those people.   There are so many loving and caring people out there who want to help others.  I usually just want to be left alone.  I like being lost in the crowd.  Not noticed.  Competent to get around myself.  Independent.  I sometimes squirm when someone takes the time to tell me everything on the buffet line or who offers to walk me to my bus.  How do I handle that?  Tell them I can partially see?  I sometimes do and of course that makes them scratch their head.  I'm sure there all kinds of ways to deal with these issues but sometimes I don't want to. I realize that many of the same feelings I had as kid while being picked on has come up while using my cane.  It can be humiliating to be helped.  I can feel insecure when people are staring at me or treating me like I'm contagious with some deadly virus.  I just want to fit in.  Not be a walking car wreck.  Not a one man freak show. 

  I'm curious how I land in this post.  Is this subject best left for my counselor to hear?  Do you come away with Keith playing the 'poor me' card?  I hope not.  My hope is for my blog entries to help people see the world a little differently.  Maybe the only thing people get out of my blog is there are many levels of vision out there and just because a person uses a cane, they are not completely blind.  That would be a fabulous outcome of my blog.

  This is just another snippet of my life as a visually impaired man.  I spend many days walking around not thinking about anything I wrote above.  Then there are days where I would love to fit in.  Life is a roller coaster.  I'm learning this day by day.  I get frustrated.  I get inspired.  I get angry.  I get happy.  I get tired. I get sad.  And no matter what knocks me down I will always do my best to get up.  Life is way too wonderful to not keep trying.