A Wish Come Clear

Choosing Love, Losing Fear, & Finding Home

I Wanted To Blend In, But Special Needs Mean Standing Out

She leaned toward me as she said, “I’d always wanted to blend. You know? I never wanted to stand out. And when I had my son, I knew that I would have to lay that down, and it was hard.”

Photo Credit: Brian Taylor Photography

My new friend Kristy was sharing her experience as a mom to a child with special needs, speaking about her challenges in a straightforward, matter-of-fact way.

It takes courage to speak one’s truth to a (relative) stranger, and I admired her for it. I leaned in, listening. “I know just what you mean,” I said. “And it is hard to give that up.” Kristy knew that my younger brother Willie has autism, and that I’d lived in L’Arche (an intentional community wherein people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together) as well.

Knowing this, Kristy also knew that I’d been on the receiving end of odd looks and critical stares. She knew about wanting to run and hide when caregiving got to be too much. She knew about needing ‘different’ foods, noise levels, and the social awkwardness of adaptive equipment. She knew, because she’d lived it, too.

Even so, Kristy couldn’t have known what was in my mind at that moment. I was thinking of a calendar I’d kept in middle school, wherein I recorded what I wore to school each day. My rule was to avoid repetition of outfits for as long as possible. Sitting across the table from Kristy, I remembered filling in the details of my clothing choices every day. I’d used a red pen to log my attire. Red, the color of criticism.

***

Memory fails to call up a catalyst for this compulsion. Did someone say something harsh to me? Did I overhear a heartless comment about another girl repeating her outfits? Or was it simply a result of the rampant insecurity that every middle school student faces?

I may never know how it started, but I know why I did it. It wasn’t to stand out or be original. On the contrary, I wanted to blend. I wanted to be invisible. I didn’t want to attract attention, and I believed repeating an outfit would do that. I wasn’t good at recalling what I’d worn week by week, so I devised a system that would remember for me.

I clung to my calendar because I didn’t want to face the truth: being Willie’s sister — being fully myself, for that matter — meant that I would never really ‘blend’.

When Kristy talked about laying down her desire to fit in, I saw myself tearing the pages of that calendar and throwing them away. I saw myself inviting friends for a sleepover, though we all acknowledged that Willie would probably have a meltdown. (He did.) I saw myself going out to supper with members of L’Arche, feeling proud to be with them. And in all of these memories, I saw the mercy in not getting what I wanted. 

***

Sometimes, it’s okay to stand alone in the sunlight.

I look back on that compulsive pre-teen now, and I want to take her into my arms. I want to say: Honey, you don’t have to do this to yourself. You’re loved as you are, and no amount of outfit repetition can change that.

I know that being different feels like a curse, rather than a blessing. It’s hard to believe this now, but it is going to be all right.

I wish that she could hear me … and who knows? Maybe she did. Maybe an older, wiser self gave her the courage to throw those red-lettered pages away.

What I know for sure is that being Willie’s sister (and a friend to the people at L’Arche) has unraveled the old me. It’s helped me to embrace the beauty in neurodiversity, and the fact that real, loving relationships are worth so much more than ‘fitting in’ with any crowd.

There are times when I feel the old desire to be invisible sweep over me. But then I remember that being invisible doesn’t square with what my friends at L’Arche have taught me: to let your light shine.

And as someone who would rather have more books than more clothes, there’s no hiding the truth …

Nowadays, I repeat my ‘outfits’ all the time.

***

Have you struggled with a desire to ‘blend in’? Join the conversation in the comments!

***

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About Caroline McGraw

I'm a would-be childhood paleontologist and recovering perfectionist turned full-time writer, digging for treasure in people and uncovering sacred stories in ordinary days. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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12 Replies

  1. susan shannon

    I had the opposite challenge growing up. I’m an identical twin and my identity was always folded into that of my sister’s. People mistakenly assume that because you look alike that naturally everything about you is the same (i.e. likes, dislikes, what interests you) I was always wanting TO BE SEEN as ME, not my sister. So a rebel I became; this did not always work to my advantage. As an adult I’ve grown to appreciate more the things about my sister and me that are very similar. Still, I try to be as opposite of her as I possibly can be. I guess I’ve always been shining my light.

    1. Wow, Susan, what a great connection! Thank you for sharing from your life’s experience — I can imagine it must have been tough to shape your own identity in such an inherently close sibling relationship. Here’s to being seen as you!

  2. Sarah B.

    “And in all of these memories, I saw the mercy in not getting what I wanted. ”

    Caroline! What a beautiful illustration of such a profound lesson!

    1. Thank you, Sarah! That was probably my favorite line to write (and realize) as well. :)

  3. Caitlin Smith

    CGM,

    I couldn’t be more glad to know you as the stand out you are today! I loved reading the history of your outfit choices & knowing now the choices you make today. If an outfit choice can be an indication of who we are, you are a knock out– always standing for what’s right &’good and not stopping till it’s done.

    Thank YOU

    1. :) What a beautiful comment to come home to – thank you, CB. I’m honored. I miss you & am thinking of & praying for you guys in this season of new life!

  4. Caroline, thanks for sharing your beautiful clutter busting story! It’s amazing how when the insight hits, it suddenly becomes easy to let something go. Like it unlocked a hidden latch.

    I think not wanting to stand out is one of the glues that keep the clutter stuck in our lives. Often the grip of clutter is fear based. The fear makes us want to hide. But hiding takes a big toll. It’s like a horse that doesn’t get to run. The non-judgemental looking makes it possible for the fear to lose its power.

    I think you help a lot of people let go of their fears with your blog posts. You write with such a kind openness. It inspires people to naturally unfold. Thanks for your words!

    1. Brooks, I’m so happy to hear that! Your words have a similar effect on me – when I read your blog posts (readers, they’re at http://brooks-palmer.blogspot.com/), I always feel a sense of strength and compassion moving through them. And you’re right – it felt amazing and empowering to let go of that calendar, and the corresponding fear. Thank you for the work you do – I can’t wait to read your new book!

  5. Don

    Nice post. Nice photo of you. Nice person.

    I wear the same blue jean shorts every day – I must be pretty psychologically healthy?

    1. Don, you crack me up. Thank you for that affirmation! Also, I thought of you the other day when I woke up, stumbled into our (not-yet-reconstructed) kitchen and quoted you: “…I need coffee in order to make coffee.” ;)

  6. Melissa Javier-Barry

    I’m a little late on reading this post, but I’m so glad I got to it. I love the term “neurodiversity” I haven’t heard it used before like this. I smiled when I read “let your light shine.” How often we’ve sung “This little light of mine…” the next time I sing it I’ll think of my light shining as the opposite of just blending in and being invisible. Thanks!
    Melissa

    1. That song was definitely on my mind as I wrote! In particular, I heard Eileen’s voice singing strong. Thank you for sharing :)