Unspoken Alone

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By Mark E. Smith

Alone. We’ve all felt it. And that, in itself, is why we’re truly not.

Based on my career in working among a population where trauma is common, I often hear how alone others feel in their challenges and struggles. However, as an ordinary person, I also hear how alone many feel in challenges of all types in everyday life. Yet, I’ve never encountered a situation where someone’s struggles transcended common humanity, where others hadn’t experienced a similar situation, of similar emotions.

In this way, the uniqueness of feeling alone in our struggles isn’t unique at all. In fact, it’s among the most common emotions we all share. It is intriguing, though, that such a commonly shared emotion can be… well… generally unshared.

See, unlike other cultures in the world, we in North America are prone to keeping our struggles to ourselves. The result is, we feel alone. And, so we live in a culture that exacerbates feeling alone in times of struggle, when we’re actually not alone at all in our experiences.

If you’re like most of us, you’ve unquestionably known unfortunate experiences like relationship issues, career issues, financial issues, health issues, and on and on. And, if you’re like most of us, you’ve felt alone during these struggles, as if you’re the only one who’s ever experienced them – especially in the moment. However, most of us have experienced them, too, so why are we all feeling so alone in the process?

The answer is simple: we don’t reach out when we should. As those struggling, we don’t reach out, and when we have a hint that someone else is struggling, we don’t reach out. Why do we behave this way? Well, self-doubt and fear on both sides, that’s why.

When we’re feeling alone in our struggles, we default to these internal scripts, don’t we?

No one understands what I’m going through.

They’ll judge or ridicule me.

I don’t want to be seen as weak.

I’m just ashamed of this mess I’m in.

I don’t want to rock the boat.

Or, for that which prevents us from reaching out to those we see struggling:

It’s none of my business.

I don’t want to embarrass them.

I won’t know what to say.

Based on our culture, these are totally valid feelings. But, there’s one problem with following them – they leave us feeling alone in our struggles, isolated. And, it simply makes any struggle worse and last longer. The antidote, however, is brilliantly simple: share.

Now, sharing can be scary and tough, requiring a lot of courage and vulnerability. But, the rewards of not being alone in our struggles outweigh all of those seeming risks. If you’re struggling alone – and we all do at times in our lives – share it with someone you trust. Interestingly, trust, in itself, can be a far more liberal definition than most might think in times of struggle. Some of the most healing, profound conversations I’ve ever had have been with virtual strangers, those recently met. What’s important is that we reach out, and it’s astounding how the sharing or inquiring of just a hint of ourselves exposes the common humanity of us all, realizing we’re not alone.

I don’t know what you’re struggling with our will be struggling with. But, I know that none of us are exempt from struggles, and none of us need to be alone in our struggles. In your tough times, I encourage you to reach out, where the hand that you grasp will feel comfortingly a lot like your own.

Turning Off Autopilot

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By Mark E. Smith

I’ve spent a lot of my life around two areas – boats and dysfunction – and what I’ve learned is that in either case, if we’re not careful, “autopilot” will fail us.

See, living in dysfunction is a lot like being aboard a boat running on autopilot – we’re not questioning or changing, but continuing on a haphazardly set course. And, as waters worsen or dangers approach, if we don’t take control, our boats – read that, our lives – will collide with them in the most harrowing ways.

For me, taking life off of autopilot has been a very personal process. As one raised in a dysfunctional family, I only knew what I knew, and my emotions were on autopilot for a long time. Turning off that autopilot proved harder in some ways than others.

Alcoholism, addiction, poverty, and a lack of education were all fairly easy for me to avoid because my awareness was so blatant. When I had welfare Christmases, parents with ninth-grade educations, and an unbroken family lineage of alcoholism and addiction, it was fairly obvious that our family’s autopilot was a disaster in full swing, cruising in the Oblivion Sea.

For me, turning off autopilot started as young as 10, but really by my teens I saw my life set on a course for collision and I took control of the helm. I saw everyone around me literally dying from living on autopilot, and I knew I had to turn that monster off for myself. Once aware and assuming conscious control of my life, I steered around the many dangers my family collided with. However, I was fortunate in that aspect – that I somehow had the understanding to do so – where I empathize with how difficult it becomes for many to turn off autopilot the longer we’ve unwittingly been on it, often from birth. It’s simply not as easy as my words read to break cycles of dysfunction, to turn off autopilot.

And, emotionally, I absolutely remained on autopilot for quite some years. Again, for me, getting off of autopilot has proved harder in some ways than others. I grew up knowing that those who loved me also hurt me, so love and hurt were intertwined. My head was off of autopilot – sober and successful – but my heart was still running its course. And, so I found myself in relationships of all sorts – from marital to sibling to friendship – that hurt, that as the psychobabble calls it, were toxic. It’s what I knew, what I grew up in, and continued living. That’s the sinister beauty of autopilot – once you’re on it, it continues on a course without any effort by you.

Awareness, though, once again proved my switch to turning off autopilot. Once I was aware that my heart was on autopilot, steering me into collision after collision, all my relationships changed. Some I just cut off; some I set healthy boundaries; and some I started anew with healthy individuals.

I’m still not perfect at any of this, and never will be, but every once in a while, when the autopilot that I grew up in intrinsically kicks in, my awareness takes the helm in a reflex type action, where I’m able to quickly correct and stay on a healthy course.

Through what I’ve lived and learned, I see among the greatest gifts that we can give others is the truth that they can break cycles of dysfunction, turning off autopilot. There’s a big difference between preaching from the mouth and speaking from the heart. I believe in speaking from the heart, and when a young person at risk in my circle was recently running on autopilot – it’s what they grew up in, escaped, then were thrust back into it based on a traumatic chain of events – I took the time to remind them of how far they’d come, to be aware that although understandably they’d temporarily returned to autopilot, awareness was what would keep them emotionally safe – that is, regrasping the helm and steering a healthy course.

Now, it’s not possible for everyone to just turn off autopilot and get their lives moving in healthy directions. We know of the medical effects that alcoholism, addiction, and mental illness have on those immersed in those conditions. These aren’t autopilots that just turn off. But, for the rest of us – and especially youth in our families and communities at risk – the ultimate intervention isn’t once there’s no turning off autopilot, but acknowledging our vulnerabilities to it early on, and elevating our awareness to the point that we turn it off and truly take control of our lives in healthy ways before life is spiraling beyond our control.

The fact is, we have no choice in how the dysfunction of autopilot gets turned on in our lives – typically, we’re born into it or trauma ushers it in. However, when we’re aware that it’s been turned on and we are running on it or at risk of running on it, that’s the time to turn it off. See, turning off autopilot removes continuing living the pain of our pasts, and allows taking the healthy helms of our futures. May you and I chart the healthy course our lives are meant for.

The Success of Being You

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By Mark E. Smith

If you look back at the GOP primaries of 2016, an interesting dynamic occurred at one point. There were two candidates – Marco Rubio and Donald Trump – with very different dispositions. Rubio was historically one of a positive message, while Trump was much more aggressive. And, both personalities had their place, per voters. Some were drawn to Rubio’s personality, while others were drawn to Trump’s.

Going into the Florida primary, the state was arguably up for grabs. It was Rubio’s home state, giving a candidate typically an advantage, but Trump, a known businessman in Florida, had very strong poll numbers.

However, the week of the primary, a lot changed. While Trump stayed with his aggressive messaging, Rubio made an abrupt change with his. To supporters’ dismay, Rubio went from his typical messaging to very aggressive, Trump-like messaging. And, it contributed to costing Rubio the primary.

See, voters wanted the Marco Rubio they’d always known, not a candidate who suddenly engaged in Trump-like aggressive rhetoric. By all accounts, Rubio becoming someone he wasn’t proved a catastrophic mistake.

Of course, there were a lot of other dynamics – some going back years – that cost Rubio Florida, but by most political observers’ accounts, his trying to be someone he wasn’t in the final week was the tipping point for Rubio’s loss.

The whole situation reminds me of our personal lives, how miserably we fail when we try to be someone we’re not – and worse yet, the toll it takes on us.

Outwardly, we can seem ridiculous in trying to be someone we’re not. A buddy of mine is one of the kindest, most sincere guys you’ll ever meet – the kind of gentleman many women would fall for in an instant. But, he has it in his head that he has to be a “cool player” when it comes to meeting the ladies, transforming into a cologne-drenched show-off who’s… well… ridiculous. The female friends in our circle have told him the simple truth: being yourself attracts others, not trying to be a studly caricature.

When we’re outwardly trying to be someone we’re not, we mostly risk embarrassment – or not getting dates in my buddy’s case! However, when we’re trying to be someone we’re not on the inside, it’s painful at best, self-defeating at worst. When I began dating my wife, I put my best foot forward, but I also vowed to myself – and ultimately her – that I wasn’t going to hold any aspect of myself back. If she fell in love with me, great. But, if any aspect of who I am chased her away, it would be my loss, but at least I was honest in the process. Nowadays, when we’re in the kitchen and I’m admittedly letting my twisted sense of humor fly, sometimes to her dismay, I have the ultimate defense, “You knew who you were marrying!”

Imagine, though – or maybe you’re there now – how painful it is not to be able to fully express yourself out of fear of rejection by those you love. Think about what it’s like to be in a family dynamic or relationship where you don’t feel safe expressing who you truly are. We know clinically that when we keep aspects of our identity bottled up, rates of depression, low self-esteem, substance abuse, and even suicide all skyrocket. Not being ourselves can literally be dangerous. Marco Rubio lost an election; but, Tyler Clementi lost his life when he jumped off of the George Washington bridge due to the shame he felt from being outed as gay.

None of this need be – and it’s a two way street. We must have the courage to just be ourselves, and we likewise must create an interpersonal dynamic where we welcome others to be themselves. In living such an open life, just think of how easy, comfortable and fulfilling it all becomes, where you can just be you. A Chinese proverb puts it best: Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are….

That Man – Spoken Word Video

Transcript:

That man. That man. No Sam I am, but I am a minority, rolling with authority, living life proudly as who I am – because, man, I am that man.

No, I’m not a misfit, but a paradigm shift, where when the world says I can’t, and I say screw you, Captain Sulu – because I can. Man, I am that man.

Like a two-dollar bill oddity disband, I can thrive and jive – on the dance floor, had a boombox back in ’84 – and the band plays on and on and on like the wheels rolling on my chair, wind blowing in hair. Because, man, I am that man.

There’s no price of admission – disability isn’t a curse or condition – it’s just the way it is, say it like it is, live it as it is – screw those with ignorance, where what some call a hairdo is really just friz. Because, man, I’m that man.

Bold and determined, bulldozing like a tank named Sherman, I am a minority, and I’ll use my authority to make the world stand on end – screw you, I refuse to pretend who I am, because I’m proud to be me, all that you see – shout it, cerebral palsy – because, man, I am that man.

The Je Ne Sais Quoi to it All

By Mark E. Smith

There’s an ultimate je ne sais quoi to it all. It’s the tipping point where your skin fits – perfectly. It’s that inexplicable eloquence as you glide through life defying any preconceived notions of who you should be, all because you just are who you are, not a facade or a mirage, but true from the inside, out. Your core, anchored stronger than concrete, even an 8.0 on the Richter scale can’t shake you. As Nina Simone put it, “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me – no fear.” And, I’ll add that in everything you do, you don’t need to worry about any of it. Man, Woman, brothers and sisters – the je ne sais quoi of us all – just be. You.

Video:

Foul Mouth Kids

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By Mark E. Smith

In my neighborhood, none of us kids took anything from anyone. It was where the two sides of the tracks intersected – upper- and lower-class kids intertwined. Neither had much parental guidance. You just never knew where anyone’s parents were. Some were drinking in dark bars in the afternoon, others working in the city in high-rises till all hours, and some straddling both lives. Because of this, in my neighborhood, most kids had free reign from parents, and when out wondering our suburban streets, you didn’t take gruff from anyone.

Being the kid who used a wheelchair didn’t make me exempt from any of it – the dysfunctional home, taking jabs from the other kids or dishing it back. Mostly, though, I kept to myself after school. At 14, I had a lot going on teaching myself to be independent with cerebral palsy. I was three or four years into my mission of being as independent as possible and I saw a lot of progress. My main self-therapy was pushing my manual wheelchair for two hours or so after school every day. The repetitive motion of pushing my manual wheelchair was a sound exercise in strength and coordination. But, I was dismal at it. I’d started a few years earlier barely able to propel across our living room, and by this point, I could make it around our neighborhood. Yet, there was no grace in it.

I pushed painfully slowly. Really, it wasn’t even pushing – pushing implies consistent movement. For me, it was push, roll feet or inches, regather my flailing, spastic limbs and then push again. All that mattered, though, was that I was seeing progress.

As I went out each day, I purposely stayed on quiet streets. I needed to do what I had to do and didn’t want to be bothered. Besides, I never knew if anyone would understand why I was doing what I was doing, and I didn’t want to have to answer any questions. When I was eight, I was in a grocery store trying to buy a pack of gum and an elderly woman made a huge scene that crippled people like me shouldn’t be out alone in public. That experience shook me a bit, and I suppose it made me want to avoid such a scene while out pushing my manual wheelchair, self-aware of how awkward I looked. So, the side streets were my sanctuary, where I could push and progress at my own pace, in solitude.

There was a hill leading to our driveway. It wasn’t the steepest of hill, but long – maybe two blocks – lined by vacant land on each side. It took me a good year to get to where I could push up that hill myself, but I got to where I could do it, although it was forever a challenge, inch by inch.

One afternoon while halfway up the hill, a group of neighborhood kids came up from behind me.

“Need help?” one of them asked as they all surrounded me.

“Do I look like it?” I asked with an attitude, pushing toward a boy standing in my path.

“Yeah,” they all replied at once, laughing.

“Screw you!” I shouted, giving my chair another push, wanting to be left alone.

“Screw you!” they shouted back as they walked in front of me.

“You’ll never make it up the hill, retard,” one kid yelled.

I pushed even harder.

“And I’m going to kick your ass in school tomorrow!” I yelled.

Of course I made it up the hill, and I didn’t kick the kid’s ass in school the next day. I guess achieving one of my two goals wasn’t bad considering the circumstances.

The Iris Effect

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By Mark E. Smith

Ninety-four year old fashion icon, Iris Apfel, once said, “I’m not going to be a rebel and offend anybody, but I’m not going to live in somebody else’s image.”

Being somewhat of a public figure, I recently was engaged in a several-day online banter with an individual being very critical of me, to the point of irrational. Still, I felt the need to respond to his criticisms. For one, I didn’t want false statements about me left unaddressed in a public forum, and secondly, I was trying to be respectful and not ignore the individual. I didn’t take it too personally, but I also didn’t just let it emotionally go – and logistically it consumed a lot of time. However, I finally realized I didn’t deserve to be treated that way, and I didn’t care what else was said of me – and I simply ceased the unhealthy dialogue. I know who I am, I know what I do, and I’m proud of it all, so there’s no need to waste time with concern over others’ opinion of me – good or bad.

Most of us have been in this type of predicament, sometimes more serious than others, right down to abusive. I mean, maybe you know what it’s like to be inappropriately criticized, judged or condemned by others. And, it’s most painful when it’s by those who claim to love us. Something as small as a comment like, “You’re not going to wear that, are you?” after we’ve gotten dressed up can sting. Of course, situations like when parents stop talking to a child because he or she came out as gay can crush. From tiny comments to huge judgments, it all just hurts, doesn’t it?

But, there’s a way to stop it all, to take away the pain – and, more importantly, remove the power of others from effecting us. We need to realize that, if we’re good people, living good lives, no one has the right to criticize, condemn or judge us, period.

As I grew up with a severe disability, it was always in the back of my head whether others would accept me? This insecurity extended well into my adulthood. Granted, I was really good at concealing it, where self-confidence was a mask I wore. However, in my 30s – and it’s unfortunate that it took me that long to come to such a simple truth – I realized that I was to be accepted as I was, and I didn’t need anyone’s approval toward my having a disability. It’s really a brilliantly childish life strategy: I don’t need anyone to accept me because I don’t accept anyone who doesn’t accept me. It’s my ball, and if you don’t like the way I play, then I’m taking my ball and going home!

See, the prize is in you and me, not those who criticize, condemn or judge. I’ve run into several circumstances where friends have come out as gay to their parents, only to be shunned. Again, imagine how painful it is to have your parents shun you. However, who should shun who in such a circumstance? It’s painful and hard, but a child needs to say to his or her parents, I’m your child and I deserve to be loved as-is, and guess what, folks, until you love me as I deserve, you’re going to have an empty chair at the dining room table.

Life and relationships are full of compromises, but our intrinsic value isn’t. We shouldn’t live to others’ criticism, condemnation and judgment. I know, it can be hard to break free of investing in what others think of us, especially when it’s gotten to a toxic level in family dynamics and relationships. Yet, we owe it to ourselves to be our own cheerleaders, champions of the self, where the only opinion that counts is our own, based strictly on the positive, meaningful lives we lead.