My aunt said my Uncle Bobby appeared and told her he was ok. She didn’t know if it was a dream or not but he came to her after he died, and only then was she able to move on with her life. My mom teared up when I told her the story. She isn’t related to him- he was my father’s brother. But her eyes got full. She cries whenever I bring him up. I honestly don’t remember much about him except that he was cool. Ya know, the cool uncle. He had charisma and he was great with kids. So charming. He knew how to manipulate language. They say he could talk his way out of anything. When I think of him, I think he must’ve been a sad clown. See, Uncle Bobby was an addict. His illness led to the illness that would eventually take his life. And although there is no discussion about it, I believe that his surviving siblings feel guilty. And truth be told, there has been a lot of addiction in my family. We just don’t talk about it. Black people don’t talk about addictions. Or mental illness. Or trauma. We are too strong for that. We lean on God for that.
When I asked my mom why she was crying, she said she thought Uncle Bobby and I were similar. She said if he was still alive, he’d probably be my ally. She said they gave up on him. He wasn’t like them, so he didn’t fit. And I think that is what this life is about: giving and fitting. I think of everything I do and every relationship I have as an exchange. If you give to me, I will give to you. We don’t need to give in the same way or at the same time. We just need to give the same effort. And if you can’t, I won’t say you have given up. I’ll say we didn’t fit. People don’t deteriorate when someone has “given up.” They deteriorate because they are not meant for this world. They are too big for this world. And it is too hard to fit. It is not because they are bad. It is because they are bigger.
Eventually, I began to question the family system that was based on patterns that weren’t healing. And I began to question the socially constructed God that came with it. This God who has human qualities. This God who loves you if ___________. I began to question the family who alienated me. The family who never made one comment directly to me, but instead started theoretical conversations about how gay people are going to hell. So I began to question the concept of heaven and hell and the good/bad binary that would ultimately decide our fate. See, I’m not all good or all bad. I don’t fit in either/ors. And I don’t believe in sins. I don’t believe in a conditional, hierarchical love. But I understand the logic. If you base your morals on a belief system that categorizes certain people or behaviors as inherently bad, then there is only one way to uphold the system. You’d have to agree to a dynamic where those people are always trying to catch up. Everybody would be fine if they followed the program. But the people on the outside would understand that they aren’t acceptable as is. And if you believed this set-up was healthy and functional, it would seep into your other relationships. You would look people in the eye and say, “I’ll love you if__________.” You would sit on a pedestal where they would have to look up at you. You’d feel secure in this because this life is hard. And it’s hard to feel worthy of any love. So you’d feel you found a loophole. Because the person you naturally are and the people you’re naturally inclined to love or fuck or connect with, are all on the right track. That would be the one thing you’d know that is good and true about you. And if somebody challenged you, you’d say they got it all wrong. You don’t think you’re better or more valuable. It’s just that God says __________. You’d say you love equally. You just don’t love what people do. But you cannot love people in parts.
You cannot tell a story to yourself about why you don’t love whole. You cannot really believe that your sex and love are more pure than anyone else’s. You cannot honestly think that the kind of love and sex you have makes you more valuable to God or Source or Spirit. We are all different. We all came here to learn. We all came here to heal. And if I believed in heaven, the way that you believe in heaven, I’d still disagree with you. I do not believe that there is a heaven that my love is too big to fit in. But if there is, I don’t want to go there. And I think that when you align yourself with a better-than belief, you are holding yourself back. You are not making good use of your time here. And you will always suffer in this life. If I am trying to love you in your entirety and you can only love the pieces of me you choose, then we can’t fit. I can’t fit into your image. I am too big. And trust, if you are only loving parts of me, I can’t love you back either. I can only love your parts. Probably the same pieces that love my pieces. So here we are: two whole people exchanging pieces and calling it love. Calling it truth. Truth is, I don’t believe I love anyone who doesn’t love me in whole. In total. I have hurt myself trying to love parts in whole. But the mirror is cracked. If you can’t see me, I can’t mirror you back. And I’m not so small. I will present myself in front of you, with scars and shakes and splits in my spirit. But I swear to you, my soul is whole. And it only gives to those who give back.
I know a lot about acting as-if. I know a lot about code-switching and camouflaging. This is the nature of having intersecting identities and contributing to your own erasure as a way to survive. This is what it looks like when you’re trying to catch up with the image of yourself. Because I have always lived in between the lines. When I came out to my mom, she said she always knew I was different. She said my dad did too. And I was in so many ways. As a child, I learned how to tie my shoes late, I couldn’t tell time, I kept confusing left from right. These are some of the things I told the psychologist when I was being diagnosed for learning disabilities. I was no expert, but at the age of 25 I knew my brain was different too. I knew in elementary school when I was getting 100’s on my spelling tests and barely passing math. I knew when I was getting hit in the head in gym class because I couldn’t gauge when the ball was close. I knew because my dad spent years trying to teach me how to ride a bike and I still can’t ride one properly. So the results were that I have Nonverbal Learning Disorder, Dyscalculia, and ADD tendencies. And although I always knew, I now had a way to name it. The psychologist found that my writing and reading comprehension skills were superior and my math skills were on a 7th grade level. In a way, I felt embarrassed. During the math portion of the testing, I began to get in over my head. I had seen the concepts before, but I had no recollection of how to execute them.
In another way, I felt validated for all the times people told me I wasn’t trying hard enough. I thought about all the progress reports I took home that said Melanie is not working up to her full potential. I thought about the never-ending homework assignments my dad created for me because he either thought I wasn’t trying or he thought he could teach (abuse) the disability out of me. I thought about the time I told my brother I wasn’t going to re-take my math requirement for a 3rd time and he yelled at me that I just had to do it. And I thought about all the sociology exams I’d passed without barely cracking open a textbook. I thought about my worth. I think my entire life flashed before me. This was my missing piece.
When you are learning disabled, and you don’t want people to find out, you learn to overcompensate. You learn to work with your strengths in ways most people don’t have access to. You excel at whatever you’re good at. Sometimes without trying. Having NLD is the equivalent of having a split in your brain. So I spent my childhood being highlighted for being way above and way below. I was never in the right place. And this discrepancy that took so long to explain, caused me to believe that I was stupid. And I carried that belief with me. So part of my survival technique includes dumbing myself down. It is hard to explain this kind of split, so if I present myself in a way that people identify as “average,” it is easier to blend in. It is easier to explain why I don’t understand things that other people find simple. It makes people feel more comfortable. And as an adult, I actively work out ways to shed this behavior. I actively commit to my own care before other people’s- instead of it being the other way around. I never fit in with the rest of my family. I felt as though I had a different brain and a different heart. And I still feel that way. I just don’t feel shame for it anymore.
The psychologist detailed my diagnosis along with an explanation of my learning discrepancies from age 5-25. I wrote the anecdotal parts and she was so impressed by my knowledge and articulation of my own disabilities, she asked me to come work for her. At 50 pages, her report was thorough. I knew that I would be given accommodations for the ADD and NLD. But she noted that my Dyscalculia was so severe that I should be exempt from math and science for my entire college career. When I returned to the school where I had the most credits and submitted my report, they rejected that suggestion. It is at a school’s discretion to do what they see fit with these reports. The only thing required by law is that they provide (what they consider to be) reasonable accommodations. So they provided me with double time and a private room. I used the learning disabilities tutor the school provided and attempted the math class I placed into (math 100) for the second time. But I was still getting 20’s or below. I failed every test. So I withdrew.
I never did attempt my science requirement, as they don’t offer accommodations for lab courses at that school. After I came in with my report, the school provided me with a counselor from the LD department. Someone who I assumed would help me with any questions I had. Someone who I thought might advocate for me, if need be. So when I met her, I told her my concerns. I told her that I had already attempted the math course with help, and I didn’t believe I had the ability to pass it. I asked if there was a possibility for a course equivalent. She said no. She made a remark that implied I spoke well. Then, without skipping a beat, she said she knew I could pass it. And that was that.
I know that being able to speak well and write well is a gift. Though not being able to do math has affected my life in ways I would never have dreamed. But to be clear, while I still hold some resentment about not being able to graduate from the school where I had the most credits, I do not regret it. I have learned more intellectually/emotionally/spiritually out of school, than I could’ve ever learned in school. There is something about being pushed out, that makes you find new ways to push in. So I push on. After trying my hand at 3 different schools on and off for 9 years, I stopped going at the age of 26. I wasn’t dropping out. I was taking care. It has taken a very long time for me to not get triggered when family members casually ask “you ever think about going back?”- as though it is/was uncomplicated. As though it was something that needed deciding. There was never any doubt. I spent the first 3 years doing different kinds of jobs and finding meaning in various creative projects. And then my panic attacks resurfaced in 2009. I stopped going outside. School was on hold again. But I will certainly be going back. I don’t have a date for anyone. I have a promise to myself. That is what matters.
Initially, this piece was going to be about what it’s like to live with a severe anxiety disorder or other mental illness that gets in the way of daily functioning. This piece was going to be about how embarrassing and painful it is to talk about a disability that isn’t recognized as one. It was going to be about what it’s like to vacillate between pretending you agree with that, and pretending it doesn’t exist in the first place. This was going to be about why I go long periods without dating and why I have historically been addicted to various types of abusive relationships because that’s what I felt I deserved. I was going to write about how being invisible in your blood family travels with you like an open wound. I was going to say that we are socialized to learn about love in our families of origin, so if they can’t see us, we think it is normal and acceptable to not be seen.
But this piece isn’t really about mirrors. It’s about systems. The educational system that churns out “C” students, instead of looking at the strengths and weaknesses of each student. The system that recognizes you’re different in elementary school but pushes you through because that is easier. The system that is set up as though everybody learns the same way. The system that causes people to laugh when I say I’m math learning disabled, because even if they believe it’s a real thing, they know I don’t have it because I speak well. This piece is about the social systems that maintain the hierarchy that lends to the low self-esteem of entire groups of people. The systems that prevent marginalized people from having the resources, time, or ability to be present with themselves long enough to critically look at the larger oppressive system from all angles. So their analysis starts and ends with race, class, and racialized class and “we were born to struggle.” So your family system operates on abuse patterns as a way to honor your ancestors.
This piece is about making a silent agreement to never talk about your queerness, your spirituality, or your invisible disabilities because they lead you one step closer to not really being Black and one step closer to not really belonging in your family. And this is about the systems within our bodies. In a healthy body, you have “a fight or flight” response that gets triggered when you’re in real or perceived danger. But my fight or flight is always on. During the difficult times, it is more like my default than my sometimes. And much like the split in my brain, the adrenaline causes a split between my mind and my body. This is what dissociation looks like. It’s a way for my internal system to attempt to protect me. But it doesn’t feel safe to my physical self, so I panic. And the cycle reinforces itself.
This piece is about cycles within systems that are interconnected- inside of me and inside the world. And they are flawed. And I move through them with everything I have- in my body and in the world. This is not a piece about how my body, my family, or the world has given up on me. This is a piece about how systems taught me what I know about giving and fitting. I’ve survived in this life because of my words. No matter what, I’ve always had my words. And I talk a lot because my words are too big to fit. So I make unsaid agreements with everyone I connect with. We may grow in different directions. We may not stay connected for the entire duration of this life. But if you can give, I’ll give back. I have a place for you to fit. And we will use words, and touch, and truth to heal each other. We will rage and love, and learn together.
The world sometimes feels small when we can’t find our place in it. But the places where we find our power, the places where we meet together are so much bigger than that. Don’t be upset if you can’t fit into someone’s image. Know that it’s simply because you are bigger than that. And if you are still here; if you have survived, despite the alienation, the stares, the pain that brought you to your knees, know that it is no accident. Your path is not straight forward. It has bumps and thumps, and cracks in sidewalks, because you are so powerful. And this life was provided for you as a gift, so you could see how beautiful you are. Their mirrors may be foggy, but your core shines through. I promise you. If you can’t see it now, later you will. I give you these words so they will wrap around you and hold your truth. I promise there is room in this world for you to fit.
Melanie, when you mention ‘disassociation’ are you talking about DID, dissociative identity disorder? My friend, last love, who at 21, last summer, was indeed to big for this world, as you put it, and left it in a violent way, told me her LCSW said she had this. I thought this straight, white woman was wrong, couldn’t understand us and just wanted to label us. I was not told directly, but besides this DID diagnosis, I believe my friend also struggled with ‘invisible’ learning disabilities that were painfully embarrassing to her. She seemed anxious and exhausted often. She used disability support services on her campus and her text books read to her. She couldn’t seem to pass the one math class she was taking while not working that last summer of her precious, short life. And I wasn’t there to tell her ‘fk math’ and that I suck at it too. I had to move out of the state that spring. It was May, and she outgrew earth in June. I wish I had understood clearly what she was going through. I wish I had been leveled with and taught what to do to be the most supportive, the most loving to someone fighting from within and without. Your piece makes me weep anew because I know if her earthly eyes could have seen it she’dve been relieved and known that she was not alone or weird or ugly or useless, but that like other people out there she is beautiful, and beautifully different. She would have been encouraged. She might have shown me so I could start understanding then, instead of now.
Thanks so much for sharing this. I am so sorry about your friend. I do not have DID. I do have severe panic that is accompanied by dissociation, but not on that level that your friend did. I am referring to weakness, dizziness and feeling separate or disconnected from the body- not the experience of having alters. I am glad that my words spoke to you but sorry for the reason why. Thanks for reading.