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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Shelly and The Brace Man

 For about the past year or so, I've wanted to join a book club. Though I feel ridiculous admitting it, I haven't done it yet because I am scared. My fear comes down to two things: I might hate the other people there, or they might hate me. I want to join a book club because I love reading and I am always looking for other people who have read the same things I have so we can discuss it or who enjoy the same kind of books I do so we can recommend books to each other (and discuss them). In particular now, since my move to Oregon, I also think it would be a good way to make friends, which I have a hard time doing. I have found two book clubs in my area and have even checked out the books they are reading from the library so that, should I have a burst of bravery, I will be prepared to go. And yet, with the meeting time about a week away, I am already talking myself out of it.

I have learned that people are generally scared of things they are not familiar with. As a child with cerebral palsy, I had a lot to fear because I rarely knew what was coming next. Since my family did not have a lot of money, when it was time for my cast to come off after my achille's tendon surgery, we headed over to a clinic for children like me. The doctor came about once a month, I think, so whenever we were there, there were tons of other kids and it was generally an all day event to see the doctor and the brace man.

I met the doctor for the first time when we were ready to take my cast off. I remember him as a very creepy man who I hated to see every time afterward. He was tall and skinny, balding on top with thin grey hair down to his shoulders. I remember thinking that his nose looked more like a beak. After seeing tv shows where people have to do community service for some conviction or another at places like clinics, I have wondered if it was that type of situation with the doctor there. He never seemed happy about his job and I was certainly never happy to see him.

So on that first visit, as we removed the cast, he wanted me to get off the examination table and walk around a little bit. He warned me not to put too much weight on my left leg because it would be weaker since having the support of the cast. At 5 years old, I was convinced that that was the dumbest thing I had ever heard! I was walking just fine (to my knowledge) before having surgery, had finally been able to walk on the cast w/out crutches after the surgery, and walking now would be no different. So I hopped down from the table and would have fallen had not the creepy doctor been prepared to catch me. I was shocked and puzzled by the weakness of my left leg. Though the doctor had warned me about it, nothing in my experience prepared me for it's seeming malfunction. I then walked carefully around the room and the doctor happily passed us (my mom and I) along to The Brace Man.

The Brace Man (the only name I ever knew him by) was one of my favorite people in the world. He was a little overweight and very jolly and was clearly happy working with kids. He had me smiling and laughing the moment I met him and I always looked forward to that part of the visit, even though it was often physically painful to meet with him. He was always saying the kind of outrageous things that kids love, things like asking me if I was sixteen (which, at 5, I found hilarious), asking if I had a boyfriend (when I hated boys), etc. He always explained what he was doing, though usually he'd make a joke about it first. The first time I met with him, I had to be fitted with a brace and later, as I grew, we would repeat the process. This involved lots of measurements on my leg and he would have to draw all sorts of lines all over my leg with blue ink that would not wash off for days. He told my mom when to come back for the brace and would give me friendly admonishments about going easy on the boys as we left.

The Brace Man made an impression on me for several reasons. He knew I was shy and was able to draw me out without embarrassing me (as people sometimes do when they meet someone who is shy--they just comment on your shyness and how you are blushing, making everything worse and your desire to flee merely increases). He explained what was going on so that I knew what he was doing and why, making it much easier to feel comfortable with him. He understood when what he was doing (tightening a brace, for example) was painful and would let me cry, but also make me laugh again afterwards so I always left my sessions with him on a good note and even looking forward to seeing him again.

Depression, I think, is a lot like my visits to the doctor, at that clinic. There are a bunch of other people there, but they don't look exactly like you do, and you can tell some of them are in worse shape than you are and some better. You don't know exactly what's coming during that visit and when you sink into that darkness, it is hard to say that you'll make it out. No matter how many times you've been there, each time is a little different and each time you think "How long do I have to do this? How long will I have to keep coming back here?" But hopefully, while you're there, you find a Brace Man to help you figure out a little bit of what's going on, laugh through the pain, and make it ok when you have to visit again for a new brace (coping skill) or just adjusting the one you already have.

When I met Shelly at Adult Partial Hospitalization, she became my "Brace Man." Never have I met someone who's connected with me so well on what my depression is like in all its stages and been able to reach out to me in that darkness to say, "Here's what we need to do" and "Yes, you will get out" while helping me laugh in the midst of all that pain. My visits to The Brace Man were necessary in helping me learn to walk again and learn to walk properly so that my achille's tendon would not just shrink again and leave me with a permanent limp. Shelly, my other "Brace Man" helped me learn that my visits to Adult Partial were also necessary for my recovery from depression. With depression, when I'd land back in that clinic, back at Partial, I couldn't help but to feel like a failure--like the lessons I'd learned, the skills I'd developed were wasted on someone who could not make them stick. Shelly helped me learn that just like those visits to The Brace Man as a kid were necessary-- because I was growing, so what one brace could accomplish for a time, a different one would be needed for later because that old brace just wasn't adequate anymore--visits to Partial were not something to be ashamed of, but something to embrace as part of my recovery. And though often painful and scary as we adjusted this coping skill or tried that one, Shelly let me be myself, met me where I was at, and helped me laugh through the pain.

For better or worse, I often hear Shelly's voice in my head, giving me a new perspective or catching me in a thought process I know I can (and for my health, should) stop. Lately, as I've thought about this book club, I hear her again and again saying, "Really, Larissa. Just try it. What's the worst that can happen? You are not going to run out of the meeting screaming...and even if you do, so what? Just don't go back to that one again. But you and I both know you won't. Maybe it will suck...maybe you'll hate everyone there and they'll all hate you. But maybe (and this is something she always loves to point out to me)...maybe you will like it! And would it be so horrible to enjoy something every once in a while? I know this is a risk for you, but try it. It's a "safe" risk, in that it's a risk you can take that does not have the world riding on it. It's a chance to make some friends who share your interests. Even if you never go back again, just try it." And at this point, with Shelly in the flesh, or Shelly in my head, I generally get annoyed because either way, she's right. Sometimes risks are worth it just to find out that you can do something, even if you discover you don't like it or it isn't what you wanted or can do it when you were scared you couldn't.