Tuesday, July 7, 2009
When People Look
Sometime in the middle of last winter Sam went to the ER two times in three weeks. Once was a fall on the school playground. The suspended bridge on said playground is not very forgiving when eight year old skulls smack into it. His explanation - "I didn't duck enough." Dad dashed him to medical attention and he got off with a few well placed butterfly bandages.
The second incident happened at home. My boy who skis expert hills, skateboards with his teen aged brothers and could bunny hop his bike in his sleep (and never gets hurt) was running through the living room and tripped. A sturdy bookcase and his forehead had a quick encounter and within seconds our tan living room rug was covered in red. This one was a doozy. We packed a washcloth into it (did I mention it was deep?) and made the familiar drive. Later that night we walked out of the ER with ten fresh new stitches marching across his head.
For the healing weeks he diligently covered them with a big Band-Aid. Soon it was time to lay on that paper covered table and let Dr. Karen snip out the remaining threads. He was left with a tender, red scar that would eventually fade but on that afternoon, it was pretty sensitive. We had to quickly run by the grocery store on the way home and I didn't realize until halfway down the middle aisles that my boy was quiet. Suspiciously quiet.
When I asked him if anything was wrong he looked up at me with sad puppy eyes and said, "Everybody's lookin' at me." He then pointed aggressively at his new branded forehead.
After giving him the automatic mom hug I pulled my digital camera out of my purse and took a picture of his forehead. Turning the viewfinder around, I showed him just how un-obvious his injury really was. It seemed to appease him, although he did insist on wearing his bangs down, 'long in front', for the next few weeks.
I am no stranger to feeling like 'people are looking'. For most of my walking life I have had reasons for people to look. I hid it well through childhood but the cumulative deterioration of my deformed foot made my limp much more noticeable in my twenties.
By the third decade of my life I was wearing a leg brace every day and limping too much to hide. Finally getting my artificial leg gave me the chance to blend in more, as my gait on some days can be almost normal. But in summer months, when I live in shorts, all bets are off.
My kids love to play a game that we have yet to name. They walk about twenty feet behind me, when we are in public places, and count how many people stare at my leg after I have walked by. It's an innocent, humorous game in our family, because it is inevitable that people will look.
To me it's expected.
I have metal where my ankle should be. My calf is made of plastic.That's not something you see every day.
I have to admit I look twice when I see someone with an artificial arm or leg. Not because I'm in their club, but because it's different.
My first prosthetist told me, 'your brain expects certain things. People have two arms and two legs that look a certain way. When someone deviates from the expected norm, your brain wants to figure it out. So you look again.' I like that explanation.
Some of my amputee friends struggle with wearing shorts. They cringe at the second looks or the children who downright stare. I tell them I have no problem showing off my leg because I understand why they are looking.
It's not because I'm weird. It's because I'm different. Not at all the same thing.
I often watch people as I stand in Wal-Mart waiting for a checkout line. There are a lot of people out there who limp a lot more than I do. Many of them have injuries that keep them sidelined. I might limp, but I'm doing what I need to every day and immobility is not holding me back. I feel luckier than many of them.
In fact, I figured out a long time ago that I will never know the actual thoughts of 99% of the people who give my bionic leg a second look. They'll walk away and I'll never know what they were really thinking.
So I get to pick. I get to pick what I think they were thinking.
And if I choose to assign them positive thoughts, it's much better for my mental health. So I choose to think they were admiring my leg. They were intrigued and fascinated with it. They thought it was really cool and wished they could find out more about it. Who cares if that's not what they were really thinking. I get to pick my assumptions, and those work for me.
Someone once told me that whenever you feel insecure in social situations, remember that most people are thinking about themselves, and how they are being perceived, not about you and whatever hang ups you happen to have.
We assume way too much about how much other people are judging us.
So when a boo boo forehead is troubling my boy, I can say with authority, "Sweetie, no one's staring at you. And if they happen to notice your stitches scar, they're probably thinking about how much it hurt you and how brave you must have been."
There are going to be plenty of times in his life where he has legitimate excuses to feel insecure.
Teaching him a healthy way to cope with those feelings is one of my most important jobs.