Ever since I was little, I have tried to fathom the silences of others. The anxiety silence engenders can be terrible for a child already uncertain of her status. In response, I have always tried second-guessing what lies behind the walls I encountered so as to know if I am safe or unsafe or to know if the silence had anything at all to do with me.
I find the frustration of not knowing the thoughts of someone with power over me to be a key to my adult depression. I am certain it stems from feeling uncertain how my mother would inevitably dispose of me.
I knew she loved me, she was always telling me so. I knew she always had my best interests at heart. She told me that, too. But, I discovered as a child that there are worse things than being dead: if you are disabled, you can simply be “wished away”. Banished.
Looking back at it now, I can see such worries recruited in me a deep desire to defend myself. Self-defense needs created a structure not terribly uncommon, but nearly imperceptible to me because it took shape at such an early age.
See, a part of my intellect was partitioned to do a single task: analysis. It still functions, watching for inconsistencies in the words and actions of others. It weighs out meanings. Meanings are then held up to a set of rules. The rules have been created within me and when inconsistencies are contrasted against them, the results let me know whether or not I may respond contemporaneously, or, whether I must suppress the urge and save the information.
At five-and-a-half years old, my mother made a bargain for love’s sake: she would find a way to get rid of my older sister so that she could remarry. She explained her solution to her family as in the best interests of my sister, but she only told one of her sisters that her motive for sending the girl away was because her new man found her blind daughter “unbearable to be around”.
I admit to eavesdropping and I admit to powerlessness. There was simply nothing I could do to save my sister from going away.
In the end, my sister’s banishment lasted longer than my mother’s second marriage. But having once crossed the line of action no mother should ever cross, banishing a child, it became a useful tool she would use against me when I was naughty the way all kids can be. She would tell me that “if I didn’t behave”, she would send me away and that I wouldn’t be going to the same place as my sister---I would be going to a place where they “kept epileptics” for the rest of my life.
It can be difficult to fully communicate the power of this kind of threat to people who do not live under its shadow: a specific Hell created with you in mind, from which you would have no means of escape---and you would be sent there, to that place, by the ones you trusted most in the world. By the ones who told you every day how much they loved you.
In my teens, I remember one hot summer day and a man on a bicycle who passed by me. He was memorable to me because he was about 40 years old, and yet dressed childishly in overalls and an engineer’s cap.
I lived with my family in a little town in California where everyone liked to brag that they knew each other’s stories. So, I asked about this odd man and I was told that the man “had epilepsy and was probably a little bit retarded”. I was also told that he was “no threat” to anyone in town, now.
When he was 16-years-old, he had been sent away to live in one of those places where they “kept epileptics”; but instead of living his entire life there, the hospital offered his family a choice: he could be released or retained. His family made the decision that was ‘in his best interests” and he had been sent home. Castrated. Everyone in town could relax after that.
In over fifty years with E., I have yet to fall victim to this threat. What begins to emerge for me now is less a picture of social banishment and more one of age-and-infirmity-related discrediting. I find I am still second-guessing what those around me are thinking, but today I have stopped wondering how anyone could possibly dispose of me.
Having disclosed myself to the world as a person with E., I am less burdened by the secret and more ready to take on whatever challenges present themselves to me.