At some point while raising my children, I stopped using “fine” as a crowd-pleaser response when asked how I was. I started telling the truth.
Things were touch and go when my children were very little. I watched other mothers who seemed on top of things, which I found impressive and very suspicious. My reading had taught me that mothers loved the toddler years, yet I was a mother and I wasn’t loving it.
Saying I was fine was more of a wish than a fact.
The first time I told the truth was with my friend Claire. She asked me how life was. Tired and discouraged, I took a chance, feeling sure that I’d sound bizarre and it would end badly.
I told her that my son was in the hospital again, and the doctor had said his anti-seizure medication wasn’t working. I told her how we needed a second drug to boost the first one, and now a third to counteract the side effects of the second.
I admitted I’m also a recovering alcoholic, and that I worry about my other kids and all the things we miss.
“How do you like me so far?” I asked Claire. I braced myself for her to run.
She looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Like you? I love you knowing that!”
We sat for an hour and talked. I heard about her son’s school issues and the effect his problems had on her marriage. By the end we hugged for a long time. We’ve been close friends ever since.
But not everyone buys this approach. My sister once warned me about being so open. “Don’t people treat you differently knowing those things?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered. “They open up about their own issues. People tell me incredibly personal things.”
I know why she worried. We’re trained to keep life’s struggles a secret, and we avoid the truth with the precision of a B-29. But I’ve learned that telling the truth connects us directly to the best parts of other people. It lets us tap into our suffering in a communal sense and to the hardships we all have in this thing called life.
Sociologists have a name for what we do when issues are real and raw. It’s called “disaster convergence” in reference to the way that others’ problems suck us in and make us want to help. It’s the reason you hear things like, “the community pulled together,” after a tornado rips through town and levels the neighborhood.
The same thing happens when people see my disabled son, Porter. I watch how he yanks their hearts right out of their chests.
My son’s labels include “developmental delays” and “autism.” He’s a person that would have been locked in an institution 50 years ago so the rest of us didn’t have to see him. But if he were locked up I wouldn’t have learned the things he taught me.
When you prop open the door to your heart, people come in.
Porter’s brain injury prevents “executive function,” or the ability to plan and focus on the future. Thus, his world is a continuous “now.” That cuts on down on some anxiety. It makes the world a good place for him.
When Porter was five, we went to the indoor park in dead of winter. He ran around manically, chasing balls and flapping his hands. I chased behind him, wondering why I thought this was a good idea.
I turned my back. It was just for a moment, but long enough that he was gone. The perimeter was crammed with families sitting on the gym stage on blankets, their picnics spread out in front of them. I ran from group to group calling his name, panicked.
I finally spotted him nestled in with a family dipping pita chips into hummus. His helmet stood out amongst the head scarves. I knelt, winded, and thanked the family. They responded but I couldn’t understand them. We spoke different languages, yet Porter spoke to all of us.
Dorothy Day, the founder of Catholic Charities, knew about the phenomenon of disaster convergence. During her seminal experience in the hours after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, she watched the emergency bring out the best in people around her.
As an eight-year old she realized that these qualities were there all along. She wondered why people didn’t act like this with each other all the time. She wondered why we didn’t help each other when our compassion was there right beneath the surface.
Our built-in connection detector is always there, but it’s switched off most of the time. Sometimes we need a gunshot or a seizure to wake us up. Disability does this for us, too, when we let it.
The truth is that these kids are here to enlighten the rest of us when we meet them in this moment and let them.
To read more from Sarah Bridges, please buy her memoir “A Bad Reaction” (Skyhorse Publishing) available on Amazon.com. For more “Free Range Lives” messages, click and subscribe to the blog. We appreciate your support and your “shares” as we create a community of support and hope.