My entire relationship with life, I realized today, has been astigmatic. For those of you not in the know, an astigmatism is an ocular malformation—when your cornea is slightly misshapen. Light enters, but because of the warped lens it does not strike the retinal nerve at the back of your eye perfectly. It's slightly off center, causing blurred vision, and/or headaches. The funny thing about astigmatism is that you can have it and still have 20/20 (or better) vision. I do. It just means that my eyes strain three times harder than your average bear to see the world as it really is. It also means that I suffer from some pretty nasty headaches on occasion.
And that's a pretty accurate description of how I deal with life. It takes a certain amount of extra effort for me to see clearly; my natural inclination is to see it slightly blurred, a little fuzzy. For the most part it makes no difference. On a day-to-day basis, I compensate and self-correct without even thinking about it. It's automatic. I take extra care to map out my surroundings; physically, emotionally. I've been doing it for a long time. That's a skill kids learn when they grow up in unstable environments. It's a survival skill, the ability to read between lines, to read a room, to interpret body language and tone of voice. When you're the person least able to defend yourself physically, you compensate in other ways. And you know what? It's an incredibly valuable skill, that awareness of surroundings.
I remember when I was maybe nine years old, my mother came home early from work with severe food poisoning. She couldn't make it up the stairs. She collapsed at the foot of them. My sister, 8 years older than me, fell to pieces. I was the one who had to call 911. When the ambulance arrived and the paramedic wanted to know which of two hospitals we wanted her taken to, I was the one who had to decide. Truth be known, I would have been a lot more comfortable if I could have driven me and my sister there instead of my sister, but some things are beyond a 9 year old; one of them is convincing anyone to let him drive.
We compensate for our deficiencies; be they inherited or thrust upon us in less natural ways. I was never the strongest kid, never the most popular, never even the smartest (but that's another tale for another time). I had that ability to sniff the wind, so to speak, and the ability to think clearly in crisis situations. But beyond that, I had a great faculty for endurance. I learned to endure a dysfunctional family, poverty, two alcoholic stepfathers, school bullies. I learned to endure anything that life threw at me. Broken hearts. Pain, suffering. Defeat. Disappointment. I endured four years in the army. I endured the sustained, coordinated assault on my life by X. But you know, It's like they say: when all you have is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail.
I'd always been a bit unstable emotionally (another 'nother tale for another 'nother time); but my first breakdown and subsequent diagnosis of acute clinical depression took that to a whole different level. I was paralyzed. I was an engine that had seized. And the funny-but-not-in-an-amusing-way thing about it was my capacity for endurance was what allowed it to get so bad. I had learned to deal with external hardships so well that when the hardship was internal, I made the terrible mistake of trying to endure that as well. Which meant that I let myself suffer needlessly for months longer than I should have. I was hemorrhaging inside, emotionally, mentally. It was as if the appendix of my psyche had burst, and I was treating it as if it were a case of indigestion. That's a good way to end up dead.
Sometimes our greatest strengths end up being our Achilles' heel.
In the aftermath of all that, slowly, I began to understand that I'd gotten so good at surviving that I had made it a lifestyle. I never gave a thought to how I should go about the next step. I never considered how I should go about trying to thrive. Because of that metaphoric astigmatism, I spent so much time and energy focusing on what was at hand, that I rarely if ever glanced up and tried to figure out what was going on in the wider world. I was first class at one foot in front of the other, but not so good at things like planning a destination.
I'm trying. But it's still very hard. It's hard to rewire yourself. It's always easier to start a project from scratch than it is to make running repairs. But sometimes you got no choice, so get on with it, yeah?
So my advice to anyone in a similar situation is this: Endure-in an enlightened fashion. Always keep an ear cocked to the inner workings. Don't do a rush job. Live with the mess and the dust and the discomfort and the inconvenience. Because really, truly, it's better than the alternative.