She was 12 and in junior high school and had a problem of falling down at inexplicable times. Kids were mean.
To prevent herself from collapsing all the way to the ground during these falls, she carried herself on crutches. That way, when she fell, she fell only as far as the rubber arm rest.
During class, when she sat at a desk, the crutches lay beside her on the ground. If a teacher left the room, the boys in the class would tug the rubber arm rests from the crutches and wag them lewdly in her face.
That was pretty bad.
But the worst part of this is she could not explain to anyone – not her friends, not her teachers, not her parents and not her doctors – why she was falling. She did have a growing sense that certain things prompted the falls – blinking Christmas lights, staying up too late, slumber parties at the house of a friend who played really loud music.
She was tested for things that scared the hell out of her parents. MS. MD. Something called Guillain-Barre syndrome, which – like severe forms of muscular dystrophy – paralyzes its victims rapidly and ultimately causes organ failure.
This was 1989, and before the internet, so she couldn’t do much research on her own.
When the junior high boys began with the sexually-charged arm rest bullshit, she decided she’d rather risk a fall to the ground. She gave up the crutches.
That Christmas, she sat at the dinner table with her extended family. Her aunt – a child psychologist familiar with neurological disorders – had a striking moment of realization when she watched her niece uncontrollably fling a fork across the table.
“Test her for epilepsy,” she said.
A couple of weeks ago, my family was all together in Birmingham. My 11-year-old daughter told my aunt that she would like to be a teacher or a psychologist when she grows up. This is right up my aunt’s alley, and the two of them launched into a conversation about neuropsychology, child development and the mysteries and magic of the human brain.
One part stood out to me, a now 35-year-old epileptic with my seizures (and demons of those douchy junior high boys) under control: Sometimes, my aunt said, the structures and synapses that cause a brain trouble are the same ones that prompt its best attributes. Moments of insight. The ability to empathize. Creativity.
I was thinking about connections between my epilepsy and my writing this morning when I drove my daughter to school. The grandfatherly coach who manages the drop-off line at her middle school held the door open a bit longer today. “Lily is such a sweet girl,” he said. “Truly.”
My girl has parents who are divorced but love her strongly and with gentleness and creativity. My ex-husband writes little notes for her lunch box on the mornings he packs it. I have a “present box” with little trinkets I surprise her with from time to time. He takes her shopping for pretty dresses. I take her to concerts. The three of us – along with our families and his wife and stepson – spend holidays and special occasions together.
I believe our living-apart but parenting-together system is one of the things that has made our lovely Lily a concoction of independence and immense gratitude for other people and experiences.
One of her Christmas presents this year was a “Lily’s Favorite People Party”. Her idea. She wanted all her friends and her parents’ friends and her grandparents to be together over dinner. She leaves thank you notes behind for hotel maids and restaurant servers. She made t-shirts for the little girls she’s co-opted into a “dance studio” that takes place – for the most part – in their parents’ living rooms.
My aunt was primarily discussing the intersection of psychology and neurology, but in my daughter’s case I believe the crossroads of psychology and experience is the shaping force.
Absolutely, her parents’ divorce has invoked pain and confusion, but also compassion and leadership.
Some people say “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” In fact, maybe those things make us wholesale better.