Thursday, February 26, 2015

Facing the Flinch

It starts as a conversation accidentally evolves, a casual question is asked, or eyes stare too obviously, while trying not to look, at a scar. To which you state honest and simply, "I had brain surgery." (or survived/are surviving some other treatment, aliment, or trauma) It is always followed by the reaction. The flinch. Always. The only difference is which flinch. 

Sometimes it is the empathetic flinch, a slight flinch which recovers in a stumble but is fraught with sympathy. "Oh, I am so sorry... That is awful..." 

Other times, it is the curiosity cat flinch, wide-eyed which lurches forward. "Oh, god. What happened?". 

Then, of course, there is the awkward flinch, a bit off but polite. "I didn't realize.... I had no idea." 

But, sometimes it is the dreaded recoil flinch. A whole body flinch, with a shifting of weight and eyes that no longer know where to look. They usually only say "Oh" and suddenly jump to a different subject entirely, wanting to talk about anything else and be anywhere besides facing you. They want to flee. Sometimes they actually do, and leave you standing there.

The flinches are often difficult, even when you know they are coming. What we have survived and the scars of it are very much a part of us, both on our flesh and in who we are now. I must say, I have learned to take an inner beat. Sometimes, I admit, I roll my eyes in my imagination as part of the pause before addressing the reaction. And then, I tend to shrug it off. "Brain surgery happens." or "It was a while ago." Sometimes I have even been known to reassure them I am alright now. (Sometimes even when I had a headache and didn't feel alright at that precise moment.) 

I am guilty of wanting to make it easier on them, and make it less about who I am then it actually is. Which, when you think about it, is silly. I had brain surgery. I survived that. I went through it and deal with the repercussions of it. Why should I lessen that, apologize for it, or soothe a flinch?

Why? Because we want people to like us. We want people to see beauty in us and not ugliness. We don't want to scare people or put them off us. We don't what to be the freak or the patient. And realizing that, I have started to Face the Flinch. It is human nature, those flinches. I embrace that. People are allowed their reactions, just as surely as we are allowed how we face them.

I allow people their reaction moments to deal with as they need to, now. (This includes allowing them stupid inappropriate blurts like "That's the last time I ask you a question, Jesus.") Then I share my story, often in an edited form for polite conversation, but I bring it into the light none the less. I do not ignore that part of me. I am simply honest. 

I do not intend to burden people with my story, but it is not a secret. It is part of what shaped who I am now. If people can not handle it, or wish to avoid that part of me, they will never know who I am or see my true worth. And, life is too short to waste myself in the silence of deferring or denying. We survive and that isn't something to be ashamed of. 

(Recently, when the subject came up, I went as far as offering to let a roomful of people feel my scar. It is a doozy and the bolts along a trench beneath the skin feel surreal to the touch. People's reactions were amusing, boundaries came down, taboo and shame didn't have a place there. One friend stroked the bolts and ran his fingers through my hair in the most tender and soothing of ways that felt like a quiet acceptance I hadn't known before. We all experienced this together, solely because I chose not to hide it and shared my scar.)

However, there are other, more precarious sides to the flinch as well. These sides are harder to deal with and much harder to navigate for they usually involve someone much closer to you. People who matter and are long past the initial flinch phase. These sides tend to fall firmly in the "Right now, I need to talk about it, but you can't handle it" category. 

Sometimes when you survive something, you need it to be okay to talk about it casually, or with humor, or without weight, or with weight to vent out the burden. But sometimes when you need this, other people need you to shut up. There are key signs this is happening, often subtle: eye contact starts to drift, shifting in seats occurs, hand patting commences. Sometimes it is more obvious, eyes well with tears and there can even be a soft statement of "No more, it hurts me to hear."

This is the see-saw flinch and balancing it is tricky. You want and need to respect other people's pain and difficulty with what happened or is happening to you. You want and need to not lessen in any way their struggle with your struggle. They need support as do you. You don't want your story to be something that overwhelms others, but you also need to be able to share. It is how we all breathe brave and survive. 

There is a huge learning curve here and we all make mistakes along the way. I have started to softly own my survival when this occurs. I state simply, "It was my brain surgery, you loved me through it, but it was mine. Sometimes I need to talk about it and that needs to be okay." 

You can not push and respect must reign. But, honesty here matters. This goes both ways though, because sometimes they will need to recollect that time and struggle at a moment when you just want to forget for a while. Hence the balancing act.

Try to find a middle ground. Remind them of a private moment you shared that mattered to you both or remember a funny time which lifted you both out of the mud for a bit. A moment of light in the dark is well worth revisiting. Sometimes sharing the memories can be close and tender, allowing the conversation to continue and evolve in a way which respects both your needs, and may surprise you. In those moments, not only can we breathe bravest, but sometimes find we can breathe easier having shared them with someone else.

Have your own flair to facing the flinch? Share your skill. Let us know about it.

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