The Secret to Life

As I age, I reflect more and more on the forces that shaped my life, I feel incredibly lucky to be alive, to be me, just turned 67, happily married and feeling at peace with myself. The journey was difficult. It took a lot of hard work to trudge through alcoholism, depression, multiple suicide attempts, psychiatric hospitalizations, periodic homelessness and physical pain. But I made it. Throughout it all, one of the biggest challenges I’ve had to face is feeling invisible to other people–unseen and unheard.

Since my childhood, I’ve felt ignored, taken for granted, virtually unseen by the outside world. When I was young, I was dressed up and trotted out like a prize pony, to be admired by adults who spoke a language I didn’t understand. English was rarely spoken at home. My mother’s side of the family was Ukrainian, and that was the language used most of the time. I was carefully excluded from learning Ukrainian, for it was the language that adults spoke for privacy in front of a child. That also applied to my father who, being Swiss/French, didn’t understand a word of Ukrainian either. I guess we were both thought of as children. Little wonder he didn’t spend much time at home.

I played by myself as a child, pretty much all of the time. My parents never played with me. They were not particularly interested in children. Not surprisingly, I was an only child. The kids on the block were a few years older, so there was little companionship there. I took my isolation for granted. I took it to school, never speaking to anyone in class or in the hallway between classes, both because other people frightened me and because I couldn’t see well enough to recognize anyone.

As long as I can remember, I was extremely nearsighted. I had a blurry perspective on the outside world, and I assumed that was the way the world looked to everyone. Since I couldn’t see other people very well, I assumed they couldn’t see me. Even when I had glasses to correct my vision, I refused to wear them, preferring to live my blurry haze. I felt safer that way, hidden and unseen.

Invisibility became a part of my personality. I wasn’t aware of it. I just felt at home in my isolation. I never knew what I was missing. From my earliest years, I never realized that I didn’t speak either.

When I was fresh out of graduate school, I was awarded a national grant from a federal agency to conduct my own research. It was kind of a big deal and the organization I worked for threw a party for me. I couldn’t go. I sat in my cubby and cried. I would have given the grant back just to be able to go to the party and know how to talk to people and feel comfortable. No one could understand why I wasn’t elated. I felt as if there were some secret to life that I didn’t know about, but everyone else did.

Ten years later, I was getting married and the people where I was working threw a wedding party for me. I went this time, had fun, and realized that these people had no idea that this was a brave new world for me and as far as they could tell, I was just like them. It was heaven.

How did this come about? I discovered the secret to life.

I stopped drinking and using drugs in my 40s, but the first thing that happened was that I became horribly depressed. I was still isolated. I could feel all the symptoms caused by my twisted, isolated childhood. It brought me to thoughts and acts of suicide. I spent nearly a year in psychiatric hospitals and many more out on my own, trying to recover.

For about seven years I worked on my recovery, doing everything I was told to do to get better. I was lucky enough to be able to surround myself with a community of caring peers who were really helpful. I began to want to feel a part of something. I was getting glimpses of life beyond my self-imposed isolation, and I wanted it. It took a long time for me to understand what was done to me and what I was doing to myself; to believe I could do something about it; and to believe that I could feel at home in my own skin and comfortable with other people.

My first healthy impulse was a desire to belong. I wandered into a church where the sermon was about just that–how we were all members of the body of Christ. I don’t think it matters much what type of spiritual community you wander into, dogma-wise, as long as there are good people who can teach you about unconditional love. That was very important; it gave me something to believe in and a place where I was welcomed.

At the same time my counselor sent me to several different kinds of self-help meetings. It was there that I learned to speak. (They don’t throw you out of those meetings for being socially incompetent. If they did the rooms would be empty.) A person who doesn’t think other people can see or hear her and doesn’t speak even when directly spoken to, can safely hide out and learn by example at these meetings. They saved my life. To my utter amazement, I discovered other people who told a story much like mine. I was no longer alone. I was learning new things every day. Most importantly, I learned that there is no secret to life that everyone on the planet knows but me. The secret is there is no secret. You can learn everything you need to know if you listen and watch and get involved.

I started to wear contact lenses all the time so I could see what was going on around me. I learned to recognize faces and learned to acknowledge them. Later, I had cataract surgery that gave me 20/20 vision for the first time in my life. Not only could I see my toes, but also the world was permanently in focus for the first time. There was a lot of beauty out there that I hadn’t noticed, a lot of people to be recognized. I’m still not great about remembering faces and names, but I’m aware of the people around me.

After a few years of therapy, meetings and community, I turned down a 100% disabled for life categorization by the federal government and returned to work. Taking my cue from people at meetings, I started to talk to coworkers. Small talk was not exactly in my repertoire, but through trial and error, I figured out the rules of saying hello to people you saw multiple times during the day at work. Do you say hello the first time and ignore them afterwards since you already said hello? In case you don’t know, there is really no rule, but if you say “hi” each time and smile, people think you are outgoing and friendly and will generally respond in the same fashion. Unless, of course, they are jerks and then it is not your problem.

One of the things that helped me the most, which isn’t a rule but probably should be, is to always be the first one to forgive. It doesn’t matter who did or said what. Apologize for your part (it takes two to disagree), and do it right away. It isn’t a matter of right and wrong, winning or losing. Apologize for your part, no matter how big or small. Every relationship is important. This is tough. Sometimes you can’t bring yourself to do it. Do it when you can, but do it. I’m sitting on an apology right now that will kill me, I’m sure. But it is important to own up to who you are, for your own sake. You don’t want to be wandering around believing the stuff your head tells you as true without critically examining it. If you reestablish harmony by acknowledging and apologizing for your part, you’ll get to know yourself as well as the other person. You’ll be able to live with yourself too.

I learned I had to be brave in regard to other people. I had to take risks, talk first, and smile. Always smile. People won’t notice that you don’t know what you are doing if you smile. They’ll basically treat you the way you treat them. If you smile and acknowledge them, they will generally reciprocate. If they don’t, it is their problem, not yours. Don’t worry about it. Pay attention to the people who smile back. There is nothing wrong with being the first to smile, to speak, to forgive. You can become the person you want to be, and be rewarded for your bravery with friends, down the road.

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