Sunday, September 6, 2009

When I First Knew I Was Different

I wrote a slightly longer version of this back in 1999, as part of my coming to terms with my then-recent diagnosis of bipolar. It was one of the original articles that appeared when mcmanweb debuted in late 2000.

I always knew I was different, but the day I knew that I knew came in the fall of 1956 when I was six going on seven. The big event of that time from my perspective - and ultimately the world's - was the Coming of Elvis, but it wasn't until the release of "Hound Dog" that I was aware the cosmic order was no longer the same.

I knew it then and there with all the sagacity of one uncorrupted by life experience.

The world that fall had irrevocably altered - a tectonic plate shift - a movement of the heavens and the earth that had the ground and everything on it vibrating to a new frequency. Nothing would ever be the same again.

History, of course, would prove me right.

We had just moved into a new house in a new neighborhood cleared out of woods and old pasture land in central Connecticut. I didn't know it then, nor did the rest of my family, but we were making history every bit as significant as the Coming of Elvis.

In moving out of their old Irish Catholic neighborhoods back in Springfield, Massachusetts - actually a series of moves over eight or nine years - my parents, along with the millions of others of their generation, had taken us to the uncharted shores of a brave new world, an immigration every bit as significant as the ones associated with the Potato Famine and Ellis Island.

And there to welcome us were our new neighbors - Italians, Jews, a lone Greek family, WASPs, Germans, Poles, and - oh yeh - some Irish. What was missing, of course, were blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, but that would be Stage Two. In Stage One, first whites had to learn to live together. We were integrating. We were never just white.

It was then and there, in my new neighborhood, just as white America was in the process of becoming one, that I realized I was different.

Had this been 1955 instead of 1956, I might have passed for normal. But "Hound Dog" blew my cover. I couldn't just splash through the mud or climb trees or kick through smoldering piles of raked leaves or jump off half-finished garage roofs into conical piles of sand like the rest of the kids. No, I had to stop and savor the moment as I gyrated my body and yelled out, "Y'aint nothin' but a hound dog!" at the top of my lungs.

There was something about the song that put me in a different place, that temporarily stopped the sun and suspended gravity and lifted me into a different realm. The shrinks have a name for it. Peak experience, they call it.

My new and mostly older buddies were not slow to recognize the amusement value in my antics, particularly when yet a new Elvis song came to my notice, "Hard Headed Woman".

So it happened that one day we headed home from a far-flung corner of our great vast adventure playground, needing only to cross an intervening bull pasture to get back in time for the "Spin and Marty" episodes on "Mickey Mouse". Or maybe it was something completely different like "American Bandstand," but "Spin and Marty" with its Triple-R Ranch and kids doing dangerous things on four-legged animals seems altogether more appropriate to a story involving a six-year old Elvis fan and a herd of bulls. Probably they were just steers.

Then one my friends - Cartman or Butters or Kyle or whoever - happened to mention what a pathetic lot these particular creatures were. No horns, just munching on grass, lying down, waiting to become steaks, too lazy to even chase the flies away.

You could see where this conversation was heading. Next thing, I was swimming with the bulls. Without giving the matter a second thought, I straddled one leg in the air over one reclining beast. I thought this would impress my friends, but no, half of them were gesturing me to sit while the others were gyrating to "Hard Headed Woman."

I shifted my weight and the leg came down. Instantly the horizon dramatically changed. I was high above it and the scenery was moving. I didn't wait to see how this would turn out. I jumped off, but without kicking off. Somehow, I willed myself into the air, and when gravity reasserted itself I landed like a cat, found my bearings, then dived through a nearby electric fence with a precision and athleticism that would have put Jim Brown, the best running back in all history, to shame.

Chalk one up to - drumroll please - the amygdala and its fight or flight supporting cast. Mine checked out just fine.

My first thought - once the luxury of thought returned - was that I had somehow not lived up to the faith my friends had in me. I had bailed out, aborted the mission in mid-flight. I was nothing more than a scaredy cat, which is the worst fate that can possibly befall a kid, particularly one looking for approval from his elders. I gathered myself on the ground, trying to hide my shame, then stood up to face the music.

But instead of the barrage of ridicule that I expected, I gazed up into expressions of amazement and disbelief, the kind of looks that might have greeted me had I just emerged from a pool of crocodiles. In other words there was no way my older buddies were going to do what I did, not in a million years, not even to show me how easy it was.

How could I be so stupid? I suddenly realized, feeling my face go red. What idiotic thing would I do next? Stick my hand in a running lawn mower? Suppose something had gone wrong? Suppose I had got these bulls really angry? Suppose I had set off a stampede?

Bulls on the patio, bulls in the flower beds, bulls crashing down houses, and trampling babies, here in this brave new world that our parents had only just created. Maybe I should just start running right now.

But it was the prospect of school the next day that frightened me the most, for here I knew with absolute certainty what fate had in store. Humiliation before my peers, forever branded as the moron too stupid to stay away from danger. Even the kindergartners would show me no mercy.

But none of my friends were laughing. If I were red, then they were pale. I was safe, I realized, much to my infinite relief. Turning me in, after all, would only draw attention to themselves, brand them as accessories for egging me on, expose them to the same ridicule, get them into even worse trouble than me. This was serious business, and it was all taking place on the unspoken level.

It never happened, simple as that. That was the silent pact we made. We wouldn't talk about it, even amongst ourselves. We wouldn't even think about it. It was as if we had the power to take those last few minutes back. By the time I got home it was even a secret from me.

But one thing had irrevocably changed. I knew that I was different, that the momentary terror I had felt on that back of that bull had been nothing compared to that fear in my gut over being singled out for ridicule for the rest of my life. Sure, it didn't eventuate, but the warning had been sounded. I had been given a little foretaste.

In the meantime, I still had a few carefree years ahead of me. Elvis would later go into the Army, and when he came out the world would once again be different. And so would he. And so would I.


Willa Goodfellow said...

I read this and feel such affection and admiration for this daredevil bronco rider -- I always felt imprisoned by my inability to do the wild thing, a different version of shame. Now I find myself recapitulating my previous coming out as a lesbian, and will post "Coming Out Crazy" for Mental Illness Awareness Week, in early October.

Wendy Love said...

What a wonderful story! This is my first visit to your blog but I will return. I too am bipolar as well as an artist/writer...seems to be a common denominator. I was right in that story with you, your writing is wonderful! Keep up the great work.

Lucy Talikwa said...

Thanks for the story. I grew up in the same time period as you, with 18 cousins. I had a nearly identical experience at age 12 -- on a 4th of July. I took a dare (as always) to climb on the back of a Jenny (a small female donkey). Someone smacked her rump and she took off across the field. The world passed by, hot-green. I decided the electric fence might be hot, too. Like you, I bailed. I also woke to a circle of stunned childish faces. The only seismic shift for me was that of the ground, not of the psyche or of self-knowledge. I had already known for a long time -- as they had -- that I was different. I was already known in jest, as "crazy Lucy." They had to lead me out of the field that day. It was only one of many stunned fields and hot fences of my impulsive life. But I have many pathways now and can walk out -- at least most of the time -- by myself.

John McManamy said...

Hi, Willa. I know what it's like. By the time I was 12 that 6-year-old was dead. Bringing him back to life is what my recovery is all about. I hope to share more of this in future blogs.

John McManamy said...

Hi, Wendy. Very much appreciate hearing from you and so glad you identified with the story. Keep coming back and make yourself at home.

John McManamy said...

Hi, Lucy. It's great hearing your story. Looks like we grew up in parallel universes.