Thursday, June 02, 2011

Strength Redefined

A former lover of mine once summarized me as follows: “You seem so strong sometimes, but you could fall apart at any time.” Men, as we are taught, are not supposed to be fragile. Though I cast aside most notions of conventional masculinity, a few are especially tenacious and persistent. Or, to be very blunt, I’m supposed to be able to handle my own shit by myself. Both fortunately and unfortunately, crisis situations turn me into a man drowning in the ocean, grabbing hold of whatever or whomever is around to keep my head above water. Like many people with bipolar disorder, I’ve been able to manage an incredible amount of stamina, energy, and work, for a while, but once exhausted, I am mostly useless and frail. Consistent work without lengthy breaks in between to recover is expected behavior on the job for most people. For me, and for those with similar limitations, it’s simply not possible.

I never wanted to be this way. And as I think about this more, I am reminded of the life of the British comedian Spike Milligan, who also struggled with bipolar disorder. While on tour with Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe, who comprised the remaining two-thirds of the popular 1950′s and early 1960′s radio show The Goon Show, the high-strung and neurotic Milligan rarely took criticism well. Once when in Scotland, their on-stage routine ended with numerous boos and cat-calls from the audience. Due to much experience with Milligan’s eccentric behavior, Sellers and Secombe both knew to quickly rush to their partner’s dressing room. It seems that Milligan had locked the door behind him and was once again threatening suicide. Out of long practiced habit, they were eventually able to talk him down and even to coax him to open the door. Crisis averted, again.

Fortunately, it’s been many years since my emotional swings have been that intense and my behavior that extreme. Yet, I still have my triggers, and I still end up feeling guilty when trusted friends have needed to repeatedly calm me down and soothe easily frayed nerves. Certain issues that have never been resolved in therapy or in life continue to create problems. But I also know, as someone with lots of free-floating anxiety, that I never come across as poorly as I always think I do. This goes for everyone, disability or not. I guess I still carry a lot of baggage from previous partners who told me that I was a handful, or that I was too needy, or that they didn’t have the energy, or that dealing with me was such a strain that they themselves needed to go to therapy just to manage. Hearing those words of criticism often made me want to rush to my own imaginary dressing room, though not necessarily to my own demise.

In many ways, these ill-conceived and offensive phrases are lobbed in the direction of everyone with a disability. They’re used to flat out not be accommodating to people with particular needs and restrictions. They’re used to dismiss legitimate concerns out of hand as excessive and unnecessary effort. And, just as I introduced this post, being inclusionary requires both a compassionate attitude and at least a basic understanding of unique challenges. The wheelchair-bound person can tell you all of the means by which this world is not designed for someone unable to walk upright under his/her own power. The person with a chronic illness, no matter what it is, knows what it’s like to lose whole days to pain and suffering, and mourn their loss, no matter how helpful that may be in the long run.

Each of us learns precisely who is part of our support network and who wishes to help, but doesn’t know what to say. Each of us knows with time that silence is not always an insult or a rejection of help. In time, we find ways to adapt, but sometimes we wish that the world might adapt to us even half the way we adapt to it. But lest I seem unappreciative for what I have been given in this life, I hold in the Light the people who have kept me calm, safe, and together. My appreciation and love knows no bounds.

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