Amy Brenneman
Amy Brenneman

October 26, 2015

That Old Shame-y Feeling

My son has started a new school.


We have ventured out from our scrappy, woefully underfunded public school (one with amazing people, amazing mission which in turn gave ME a sense of mission) to a well-funded fancy private school filled with people that I was prepared to hate. Bummer: so far they seem really nice.


We found the aforementioned scrappy, woefully underfunded public school because of his sister, who has a cognitive disability and gets services from the school district. That school practices full inclusion meaning those with special needs are educated in the same classrooms as those without and those who are gifted are side by side with someone who may happen to have a physical disability. Bodhi was not only at the same school as his special needs sister but (even more importantly?) with kids who also had siblings with stuff going on.


Everyone knew each other. Everyone saw Charlotte have a total fucking meltdown at her 12th birthday, everyone cheered for her at the Halloween parade. We were seen, supported, and loved as the eclectic family we are, surrounded by other eclectic families who we in turn supported and loved.


And now Bodhi wanted to leave Eden.


I got it. It was time for the dude to strike out on his own. I also got the hypocrisy of my own hesitation: “Yes, of course honey I want you to chart your own course! Advocate for yourself! Be who you are! As long as it’s in line with my left-y communist viewpoint and we don’t have to hobnob with the elite!” It’s amazing what bullshit I find in my own brain.


He chose well. He likes the school and I like the parents. (Let’s be honest: it’s at least 50% about me. If I have to go to flag football games and holiday concerts and back to school nights, it might as well be pleasant.) And now we find ourselves in a position we haven’t been in for six years: meeting new people and letting them see our family. Shit.


Two weeks ago there was an event at the school and I got a call from M, another new mom at the school, asking if we could bring her son Sam with us, as she had to work. I was happy she’d called – hard to ask for help sometimes in the land of SUV self-sufficiency – and we made a plan to pick him up. I started gathering up my two kids to go.


Bodhi looked at me, stricken: “Is Charlotte coming too??”


So much understanding passed between us.


What he was really saying: “Does she have to meet my new friends? Does she have to dominate in the way she does – talking too loud, talking off topic, bursting out with something weird? What if she does something weird? What if she fucking does something weird MOM???”


After speaking telepathically (and telling him not to curse, even in his mind) I did the best I could. “Yes, she’s coming,” I said, “she’s part of our family and your new friends should know that. But I get it. She’ll bring headphones, music, stuff to do. And my commitment, “ trying to make contact with his frantic eyes as this was the money shot, “is that I will make sure she doesn’t do anything to embarrass you in front of your new friends. But she is not the madwoman who we keep in the tower, Bodes. She’s part of our deal.”


It’s hard with Charlotte. She looks absolutely typical (and with her newly minted smoking hot bod and stunning looks a little better than that.) She doesn’t have a wheelchair or a clear neurological disability. So folks talk to her as they would to any 14 year old, then scratch their heads when her speech isn’t as clear or her thoughts aren’t as sophisticated as they expect. They get that look in their eyes, and she sees that look, and then she drifts away and then another piece of my heart drops on the floor. She’s never had a diagnosis I can wave around before she approaches, like a medieval page announcing a king. I can’t say, “You should know, she is autistic! Or has Down’s syndrome! Or is hard of hearing! Or has cerebral palsy! Know that! And adjust your expectations accordingly!” For years, I longed for a diagnosis that would put me in a club that has a pamphlet that I could hand out to strangers – if for no other reason than to avoid that inevitable look which says: what is wrong with her? The look that clocks from her to me and before I know it – the piece of my heart, and hers too, are all bloody and pulpy on the floor. It then takes some time to clean that up that shit off of aisle four.


Now I get it: in those moments, Bodhi loses a piece of his heart too. In the old school it didn’t happen as much because everyone knew us. But we were entering the big wide world, a new school and in moments a mini-van ride with all of us together, speeding toward the north Valley. Our secret would be out.


I understand secrets. Growing up in an alcoholic home, you get pretty chummy with them. During the bad old days before my dad got sober, there was always an undercurrent of unease, of something happening that was just out of sight or just beyond my understanding. But whatever it was? This much was clear: it needed hiding. My dad – then as now – is a gentle, loving man. His drinking wasn’t loud or abusive (thank God) – he just wasn’t there and my mom was pissed off about it. When my brother was fifteen, he became the emotional lightening rod and began with drugs and druggy friends. Everyone focused MATT and his PROBLEMS but the truth was a fifteen-year old-guy didn’t cause these problems. They were caused because our household captain was AWOL.


(I think of the judgment I had for my dear folks when I first got into the 12-step rooms, and how time and my own parenting have softened me. Parenting is hard. Everyone does the best they can with the tools they have at the time. Period.)


So I get it, that shame-y feeling about home. When I was 12 and Matt 16, we had an epic snow day. My parents left for work. Matt was supposed to watch me. His druggy friends came over for a gleeful day of whatever druggy suburban boys did. I called my friend Jill and wept with how scary and unsafe my house felt at that moment. I was embarrassed, needless to say. Jill went to a fundamentalist church and her mother was a homemaker and her father an electrician or something. Jill’s parents hadn’t gone to Harvard Law school and her kitchen had those yellow smiley faces popular in the 70s and I knew that her family wasn’t as well educated as mine and they didn’t go to Tanglewood in the summers and her mom didn’t work but what that meant right now? It meant her mom was home and could come get me. I went to her house and sat with the annoying smiley faces and got out of my weird unsupervised house and feel comforted and fed and seen.
Shame doesn’t like when we are seen. It melts away just like the Wicked Witch under a bucket of water that a little girl throws. Like Jill did, for me.


So I understood Bodhi as we went to pick up Sam. Charlotte sat in the back of the van with headphones, playing a video game. We stopped at Sam’s apartment building and he came out and climbed in, all limbs and flattop. Sam had just moved from Maryland. He was new, too.


I introduced him to Charlotte and they said hi. We chatted about Maryland and the pizza that he misses there. After a few moments, Charlotte spoke up in that deafening way only a special needs-y gal with headphones can do: “MOM??? DOES HE KNOW OUR DOG PABLO???”


A pause in the minivan. Time ricochets between my son’s widening eyes and my own heart circa 1977. Our family is weird. Our family is weird. Your family is normal. Our family is weird. We try to hide it, but now our secret is out.


Back in the topworld, Sam barely notices our family drama. Bodhi shrinks in his seat, a nervous smile on his face that speaks of it all; shame compassion, confusion, frustration and dread of how this evening will unfold. His voice comes out all thin and high – the emotional contradictions wringing out his actual vocal chords. Without judgment or impatience towards his sister he simply says:
“I don’t know if I’m going to be embarrassed.”


Yep. That’s about it. We don’t know if our family’s weirdness will embarrass us, and if so, do we have the strength to survive that? I look at my son and all I can do is smile. I get it. I get it. You are seen. I can’t fix it for you and I’m sorry about that. But we will attempt, together, to not be crippled by historical family shame. Because most likely? Sam’s family has their stuff too.


The evening went great. Charlotte was lovely and responsible. Bodhi and Sam tore it up with their new friends. And two days later, Sam’s mom, M, called me freaking out. The school wanted to meet with her to discuss Sam’s schoolwork. M confessed that Sam had been diagnosed with a learning difference years ago that they’d worked hard to overcome, but she was afraid this new school would kick him out because of it. Secrets and shame. I felt the familiar ping! of God putting me right where I was supposed to be. I said I was glad she called and that I knew exactly how she felt: that our kid was the sole weird one. We think we had to keep the secret because once found out? We’d be kicked out of the proverbial club. I recycled the support and love that I’d been given over so many years, the love that creates connection and destroys the lethal sense of isolation and shame.


So much for our family being weird and everyone else having their shit together.


Met with the school yesterday and said it went great. With compassion and creativity, they worked on solutions to help with some of Sam’s issues. They were not kicking Sam out; they were working with his mom to help him. Bodhi would not get kicked out for having a sister who talks too loud; he would be accepted by true friends for who he is. Jill did not abandon me because of my druggy brother; she gave me support and love when I need it.


Why why WHY do I still believe I will be punished for my vulnerabilities and not given an extra dollop of love because of them? When will I really get that grace comes to us because of our frailties and broken, disappointed, scared little hearts? I have to re-learn this every single day, through the kindnesses of friends, strangers and my family. I guess I’m a slow learner.


So friggin’ what? I refused to be ashamed of that. So there.