Three Big Years

And most of my memories have escaped me
or confused themselves with dreams
If heaven’s all they want it to be
send your prayers to me, care of 1983
— John Mayer, 83

Today’s Writing Group prompt: What were the 3 most significant or pivotal years in your life so far, excluding the year of your birth?  Why?

1993: I meet J in August at our summer job. We spend hours in his car, just talking (honest!). I’m his first kiss. I will love him, in some way, for the rest of my life.  I spend the fall semester of my senior year of high school living in Barcelona with my family. At first I hate it – it’s taken me away from everything I know and all the experiences of senior year. After I enroll in school there, everything changes – I’m surrounded by kids my own age who are eager to befriend “la americana,” and we wander the city together for hours on end. I spend four months falling in love with a country, a city, and its people, in a love affair that continues to this day. I cry endlessly when it’s time to come home.

2002: Say it with me: I lose my hearing overnight at age 25; chaos, depression, anger, madness, and, ultimately, acceptance, ensue. Two weeks later, I fall and tear my rotator cuff, ultimately requiring surgery.  Two weeks after that, I come out to the parking lot to find my car with a flat. When I can’t get the lug nuts off I sink to the pavement and cry in defeat until someone drives by and takes pity on me. It is not a good year.

2007: I turn 30 and celebrate in Richmond with a wonderful, intimate dinner with friends and family. I earn my 50-pounds magnet from Weight Watchers. I graduate law school 15th in my class and earn a scholarship selected by the faculty. I move to D.C. to start a somewhat prestigious job, and sometime in my first week on the job, I meet David.  I sack up and ask a man out for the first time in my life – he turns me down, but it doesn’t matter. I buy a new car and then get in an accident five weeks later. In December, David and I have drinks outside work for the first time, and I realize that I am in deep, deep trouble.

Advertisements

Departure

“Try not to associate bodily defect with mental, my good friend, except for a solid reason.”
— from David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

Disclaimer: This is a real work in progress.  I can’t seem to fix it so it doesn’t come across as a lecture, and that’s not my intent.  Please keep in mind that the “you” here is the general “you,” and is not meant to refer to what you personally might have done or said or thought.  Please also feel free to tell me to get over myself in the comments.

*************************************

I’m bailing on today’s prompt – my very first kiss was entirely forgettable and nothing to write home about (but if you want to know about a first kiss, you can click here – this is one of my favorites, despite the ending).  Instead, I want to touch on something that’s come up in a few comments lately but is by no means a new “problem” for me.

My hearing loss doesn’t make me special, you guys.  Here’s what I mean:

Toward the end of my third year of law school, a classmate I only knew in passing randomly came up to me and told me earnestly that she was “so impressed” that I’d managed to get through three years of law school despite not being able to hear.  This was clearly meant to be taken as a compliment.  And this happens a fair amount; in fact, it happened just yesterday in the comments section.

The other way it comes up is, “That sure must have been hard, but look how strong it made you.”  I call that the Magic Cripple.  This also just happened, on someone else’s site.

Let me be clear: I know there’s no condescension intended in these statements, that the people who say these things mean well.  I get that, and I appreciate it.  But the only thing statements like that do is reinforce the idea that I shouldn’t have been able to come through a thing like losing my hearing overnight, that I shouldn’t have been able to succeed at law school (or anything else) because I can’t hear normally anymore.

Having a disability and being successful are not mutually exclusive, and to imply that they are (even if you don’t realize you’re doing it) is harmful.  It perpetuates the stereotype that people with disabilities are less than and can prevent them from even being offered the opportunity to show what they are capable of.  It happened to me.  When I was finally ready to try to find a new job after losing my hearing (and my old job), I sent out hundreds of resumes (which stated that I needed to be contacted via relay) and called so many places (via relay) and was offered . . . three interviews.  And even each of those three places more or less openly doubted that I could do the job once they learned of my hearing impairment, even after meeting me.

The way I see it, there’s no magic in “overcoming” a disability.  It doesn’t make you brave or inspirational or strong.  You were either already brave and inspirational and strong before (or, at least, had it in you to be) or you weren’t.  What I mean is, some people will succeed after, say, losing their hearing or the use of their legs, and some won’t.  What determines that is who you were before, not the fact that a terrible thing happened to you.  I’ve talked about this before:

Sometimes people say, “You’re so brave,” or “I don’t think I could have handled it as well as you have.” I rarely think of myself as courageous, and people only see me that way because they think what happened to me is unbelievable.  They ask, “How did you ever get through it?” I say, “You do what you have to do. You get up every day, even when it’s hard, and you take it hour by hour – minute by minute if you have to: Get out of bed now; go to the gym now; eat lunch now; read this book now. Then you go to bed and do it again tomorrow.” Eventually, it isn’t so hard to get out of bed, and one day you realize that life can still be good and that you want to be a part of it.

You can’t imagine it happening to you, and if you tried, you’d assume that you wouldn’t be able to survive, let alone succeed.  God knows that’s how I felt when it happened to me.  But the truth, for almost everyone, is that you would.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I appreciate where you’re coming from, and I know you mean well.  I’m just asking you to think about the way you see me, and other people like me.  All I’m saying is, what I’m capable of with a hearing impairment is generally not more remarkable than what I would be capable of with normal hearing.  I’m different, but I’m not special.

Doc

Thank you terror
Thank you disillusionment
Thank you frailty
Thank you consequence
Thank you thank you silence
— Alanis Morissette, Thank You

Today’s Writing Group prompt: Gratitude. Write a thank you note you’ve never sent, can’t send or can’t express.

Dear Dr. Ditto,

I don’t know if you remember me.  I came to you nearly 11 years ago only a few days after the worst day of my life.  I was 25 and terrified.  My world was upside down and I desperately wanted you to tell me it could be set right side up again.  You didn’t, of course; you couldn’t.  There’s no cure for the thing – there’s still no name, no one knows what happened – that stole into my room that night while I slept.  I don’t remember your exact words, but the bottom line was: “You might get a little better but, for the most part, this is permanent. I’m sorry.”  Ten months later, I got even worse, and your office was the first place I went, terrified again.  You told me the truth of just how much worse I was and, again, you said, “I’m sorry.”

I want to thank you.  For your expertise, certainly, but mostly for your kindness and your patience.  My parents and I were so scared and had so many questions, and I often spent large amounts of my time in your exam room in tears.  You told me I’d never get better in the gentlest way possible, but also made sure I knew that you and your staff – Kim was my angel, you know – would help me navigate my new life.  You made sure I knew that this wasn’t the end, even if I was sure it was.  When we wanted second and third opinions, you pointed us to the best places – UVA and Johns Hopkins – and called ahead for us.  When I decided to go ahead with my surgery, you gave me your blessing and a recommendation for one of the best implant centers in the country.  You gave me the map, but you let me chart my own course.  And I always knew you were rooting for me.

I should actually send this letter, or a less flowery version of it.  I think you’d be so pleased to see where I am now.  Nearly 36 and so different from the sad, broken girl in your office all those years ago.  I finished law school, you know.  You helped; you wrote the letter that made them get the best accommodations for me, that made it possible for me not just to attend, but to kind of kick ass, too.  Thanks for having my back.

I Googled you just now.  You’re still practicing, and I’m glad.  I think the world’s a better place for it.  I hope you’re well.

Sincerely,

Melanie

Ten

When you come to the edge of all the light you have and must take a step into the darkness of the unknown, believe that one of two things will happen to you: Either there will be something solid for you to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.
— Patrick Overton

Ten years have passed since this terrible day.  In my sadness and anger, I could not see this far down the road, could not even imagine that a life existed for me this far in the future.

These ten years seem both the blink of an eye and a lifetime, and in some ways, I think both are true.  Whenever anyone asks me what happened and I tell the story of that terrifying morning, my face, my eyes, my voice reveal that it’s always with me, right under the surface. But so much has happened in that time, and I am so different from the person I was that day, that it sometimes almost seems like it happened to someone else and I only heard the story.

It didn’t, of course.  It happened to me.  And it was, as I’ve said, heartbreaking and terrifying.  And I was so angry and so sad for such a long time.  I spent literal years in counseling, dealing with the aftermath and accepting my new reality.  Mostly I’m ok with it now.  There aren’t whole days where all I do is cry and feel sorry for myself anymore.  I don’t melt down anymore when someone reacts rudely or ignorantly when I reveal my hearing impairment.  I don’t often get frustrated when I can’t understand someone.  In fact, I rarely cry about it at all anymore.  Not because it’s ok, and not because I’m not still sad about it – there are aspects of my life that will break my heart forever – but because, really, what good does it do?  This is just the way I go through life now.

Truth be told, it’s not that hard anymore.  I “pass” as hearing for at least 90% of my day, thanks to my cochlear implant.  David’s gotten used to communicating with me late at night or in the morning when I don’t have my processor on – we would kick ass at charades.  I’m surrounded, both with family and friends and at work, with people who know about my hearing loss and accept me without reservation and who don’t blink when I ask them to repeat themselves or turn the captions on.  I’m lucky that way.

Ten years ago, I thought the world was over.  Now, though, I can see that it was really just a kind of beginning.

Trade Offs

Letting go doesn’t mean giving up, but rather accepting that there are things that cannot be.
— Unknown

When I first lost my hearing, I used to say, “There’s almost nothing I wouldn’t sacrifice if someone told me it would get me my hearing back.”  I thought, “Want a leg?  Take it.”  “Never get married?  Ok.” “Work at McDonald’s forever?  Yes.”

Ten years on, though, that’s no longer true.  Not because I’m glad it happened – I still can’t bring myself to say that – but because it’s no longer the tragedy it was in the first two years.  Don’t misunderstand me: It is the great sadness of my life.  But having lived my life these last ten years and achieved a modicum of success – personally, educationally, and professionally – it’s clear to me that my early imagined sacrifices were born out of fear and uncertainty about what kind of life I could lead with a hearing impairment.

When my dad came down the day after I lost my hearing, I remember sitting across the table from him in a Taco Bell in Richmond, saying, “How will I ever get anyone to marry me now?”  I already knew that my loss would be permanent, and I really did believe that I was broken, that everyone would always see me that way, and that it probably meant no one would be willing to make the effort to get to know me.  I also thought I’d never be comfortable enough with myself again to let anyone get to know me.  As my world shrunk when friends disappeared or stopped trying, it only convinced me I was right.

Luckily, it turned out I was wrong. And I’m not just talking about David; I mean friends I made in law school and after, too.

So when the Genie comes and says, “You can have it all back – music, the rain, babies talking, singing, all of it – if you only give up David (or your law degree, or your leg, or anything else you value),” the answer will be no.  Because, as hard as it sometimes is, as sad as it sometimes makes me, this is who I am, this is my life, and it’s pretty great, all things considered.