A month or so ago, I ate lunch with a friend who writes columns for one of the Chicago newspapers and who has published a book or two. We get together a few times a year. He once wrote a book about hats. I wondered who would read a book about hats. He explained that no matter the subject, there is always an audience. One just has to find the audience. At the last lunch, we talked about autobiographic writing. He said something to the affect of, if you want someone to be interested in your story, you must write something that you are afraid, ashamed or embarrassed about which to talk. After that I figured I would never be published because there is plenty I am afraid to talk about, let alone write about.
I thought a little bit more about those fears recently. Last week, a good friend of mine named John died. He was a few years younger than me. The death was unexpected and very sad. At the funeral service a few days ago, John's brother delivered a eulogy. John was a person of short stature. His brother is typical height. During the eulogy, speaking about John and how they bonded, John's brother said, when they hung out, they never talked about women.
I didn't dwell on the statement. I am in no position to presume what John's brother meant by the statement. Also, the comment made sense to my personal experience. When I was in high school, a close friend of mine said to me, "I wrote in my journal that I would never talk to you about dating." I don't remember how the topic came up, but I remember that the statement didn't need any explanation. I knew what he meant. But later on the day of the funeral my wife brought up what John's brother had said in the eulogy. "It's too bad his brother felt like they couldn't talk about relationships together," she said. That's when I started to think more deeply about what my friend had told me years ago, and what we heard earlier in the day at the funeral service.
Like most other heterosexual young boys in high school, I grew deeply attached to quite a number of women during my high school years. None of them reciprocated. Who knows why. Probably because my attraction pulled me toward all of the wrong people, or because my charms, looks and (most likely) complete lack of coordination regarding the opposite sex were not enough to encourage reciprocation. In all honesty though, I probably attributed some of my failure to my dwarfism. After all, if one scans dating sites, the women seeking men sections on typical dating sites include many classifieds with the criteria, "tall."
When I was younger, I talked about my attractions a lot, pretty much to anyone who would listen. But as I grew older -middle school and high school age -I stopped talking about them. My peers had started to successfully date others while I had not. I was embarrassed to talk about dating because I thought I was the only person who was failing to find romantic relationships. I didn't want to talk about something that I believe reflected a failure in me. Also, I didn't want to talk about something that would underscore differences that already existed between myself and others because of my dwarfism. When my friend made the comment about his journal, I felt like he understood what I believed to be my failures and differences. He was protecting me from talking about something that would embarrass me.
The other day, at the funeral, I just assumed John and his brother didn't talk about relationships for similar reasons. Again, I can't speak for John and his brother, but after my wife made her comment, I began to realize how wrong I was to avoid talking about my feelings, with my friend who wrote in his journal, and with anyone else that would listen.
I would have been better off if I had spoken openly about my attractions. For one thing, speaking with another person would have helped me to work through my emotions and might have better equipped me to deal with future relationships. Also, if differences did exist between myself and others because of my dwarfism, not talking about sexual attractions, something that everyone experiences, would only strengthen the differences. Finally, by not talking with anyone about relationships, I probably only perpetuated the stereotype of people with disabilities as being non-sexual.
There is a stigma around disability and sexuality. If someone acquires a disability, even if that person led a very sexual life pre-disability, people stop talking to the newly disabled person about sex, stop teaching him or her about sex, and start believing that he or she is no longer a sexual person. Many people who are born with disabilities receive similar treatment. Whether it was my fault or society's influence on me as a person with a disability, my behavior regarding my inability to talk about what was happening probably reinforced the stigma that to this day exists around sexuality and disability.
Ironically, I fondly remember commiserating with John about our romantic trials and tribulations. Compared to mine, his efforts to win the affection of women always seemed well thought out and skillfully executed. Though our stories about women often ended in temporary heartbreak, it felt good to share the story with someone.
Quite opposite to how I felt when I was older and shared my stories with John, when I was young and hid my stories, I grew scared, frustrated, and more prone to hide in my shell. When I grew older, I found peers, like John, with whom I could share my stories. Even if the stories had unhappy endings, my confidence grew. My confidence grew because the more I shared with others, the more I realized that my personal experiences, rather than underscoring my differences, made me more human. As a young person, to some degree, I attributed my lack of success to my physical difference. I was the only one with dwarfism in school and I thought I was the only one failing romantically. Therefore, I thought the difference had something to do with it. If I had spoken out more, I probably would have met people just like me, who had experienced romantic set backs.
It wasn't until I started hanging out with more people of short stature that I realized dwarfism didn't have as much to do with my romantic success or failure as I thought it might. Naively, when I started attending Little People of America events in high school and college, I thought I'd find a lot of people with similar romantic experiences in high school. I am sure I met a few. But I also met many people of short stature whose stories of attraction (throughout their young and adult lives both inside and outside of LPA) included a fair amount of success in addition to the heartbreak. I developed a new set of peers who were living with disability and dwarfism and who had this full range of romantic experiences. It helped me understand that my success or failure wasn't so strongly determined by my disability and dwarfism, or anything for that matter. It was about growing comfortable with who we are and being proud of who we are.
At first, my dating attempts within LPA fared little better than those outside of LPA. But in a way, that was a good thing. It taught me that whether I was amongst my high school peers, my college peers, my adult friends, or my LPA friends, I was the same person. It was up to me to get to know who I was and become comfortable with who I was in order to find some emotional and romantic fulfillment. I believe one important step toward finding out who we are as people and individuals is sharing our feelings, and talking to those around us about how we are feeling. Of course, that's easier said than done. But I wonder how different high school may have been if my friend, rather than writing about me in his journal, would have talked to me, and if I, rather than hiding in my shell, would have talked to him.
The best thing for me about turning 30 was the epiphany that life goes on. One doesn't have to accomplish everything by a certain age. There is always more time. That's not a justification for procrastination. It just means that as long as you keep moving in the right direction, what you want will be there waiting for you. Ten years later, I feel the same way. The sad thing is, life doesn't go on for all of those around me. I am going to miss my friend John. I'd love it he were here today and we could share some stories together.