Evening balcony time with my son was our time to have the “big” talks, and this cool autumn evening when my son was fourteen was no exception. As we spoke about some of his painful school experiences, I tried to empower him, to mirror to him the amazing person I think he is.
But then he told me his truth: “Mom, I just want to be normal! I just want to be like everyone else!”
I have to admit I felt shocked at the conviction in his voice. I had spent so much loving, playful energy into inviting his uniqueness throughout his life. Had I nonetheless failed him?
I remembered the time he first was able to verbalize to me what he was noticing about himself. He was almost five years old. This was before he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s, before we had an official name that would make it easier to explain to him, to others, some of what was “different” about him.
“Mom,” he said. “I am Dumbo.”
It broke my heart way back then. I had so wanted to spare him this feeling. Particularly because I knew what it felt like to be Dumbo.
I knew the pain of being rejected and ridiculed because I was different. As a younger child, I was the “fat” girl that got laughed at and chased around the school by the other kids. As I got older, I became more and more aware that my differentness did not stop at my body. I was too intense, too sensitive, too emotional, too inquisitive. Too much. Inside and out. It was very clear to a deep part of me that there was something very wrong with me. I did not belong. I was not wanted.
When I got older, I changed the one part of me that I could change – my weight – and made myself smaller.
WELL! The world opened to me – or so it seemed. At least on the outside, I was NORMAL!
It was a powerful experience – practically intoxicating! To finally be like everyone else!
And yet, there was always a nagging feeling, a sword of Damocles hanging above me. I knew deep down that this moment in time was somehow illusory, a Cinderella spell. As ferociously as I had worked for this gown of “normality,” I sensed that I couldn’t avoid the clock striking midnight. I knew I was as different as I had ever been. This “normal” body was not going to get me the love that I had been yearning for. In fact, it may even have been taking me farther from it.
The journey ahead was clear: it was ME who needed to embrace all that I am, embrace Dumbo (inside and out), stop pursuing “normality,” and give myself “the generous invitation” to be. This is, of course, the never-ending journey of the self for all of us. Funny how it always feels like a surprising discovery, time and time again.
When my son was born, I felt sure I was going to give him a jump-start on this journey to self-acceptance. I did all I could to playfully mirror, invite, and contain him. That way, from the start, HE would feel the confidence to be himself that I had lacked. Not just in terms of his hypersensitive (autistic) brain – there is more to him than just that – but in terms of all of who he is.
And so, there we sat on the balcony, with him telling me that all he wanted in the world was to be normal, to be like everyone else. I felt despair. But I did recover.
And we began a series of balcony conversations that lasted over the next couple of years about whether it would be better if everyone were the same. About whether being different is being inferior. About wanting to fit in. About not wanting to stand out.
We talked, we argued. And I realized that I had to make room for my son’s insistence that being normal, not being himself, was the way to go. “Normality” has a powerful gravitational pull. We are creatures of attachment. We are social animals. There is a part of us that says fitting in is the answer. So my son wasn’t wrong when he sensed that. I had sensed it, too, when, as a young adult, I brutally halved my body size in order to be “acceptable.”
But there is another equally powerful part of us that cries out when we “disfigure” ourselves in order to fit in. That cry is the stifling of a “barbaric yawp,” a phrase used by Walt Whitman in his famous poem “Song of Myself.” This barbaric yawp shouts, “I am!” It is an expression of a powerful, primal mandate of nature moving us to reach and become.
So here I found myself with my son, confronting a fundamental tension of human existence: Dumbo’s need to belong on the one side, and Whitman’s barbaric yawp on the other.
My son was hearing Dumbo’s lament loud and clear. But I realized I couldn’t MAKE him hear his barbaric yawp. I couldn’t talk him out of wanting to be normal, or even love him out of it. He had to write this song himself. This yawp had to grow in him. And as painful as it was for me to watch, I had to let him ache to be other than he is.
My son’s developmental journey in this respect is only just beginning. But the other day, years later, when we were having another one of our balcony discussions, I prodded him with a thought experiment: if a pill were created that would make your “autism” go away, would you take it?
He thought about this question for a while and then said with conviction, “No, I wouldn’t. My Asperger brain is a part of who I am, and I want to be me.”
My heart skipped a beat. Was that a barbaric yawp?
On the outside, I turned to him and nodded matter-of-factly. Inside, I fought the tears….
Jule Epp will facilitate a scheduled online class offering of Dr. Neufeld’s “Science of Emotion” course, starting January 31, 2020.
See Events page for more information.