Thanks for your response to a recent post where you spoke about a Captain Mark O’Brien who helped you when you most needed it.
I found your letter so touching Richard, when you spoke of attending his funeral, despite only knowing him for six weeks:
Today I saw how many lives he had touched, and how important he was to people in all sorts of different places. I learned that the many wonderful qualities I'd glimpsed in those six weeks were actually characteristic of him throughout a long life, and I marvelled at the courage of a man who must have been dying at the time (I met him) staying so true to himself.
Why do I grieve for a comrade I knew so briefly? Because he saved my life and probably my family's lives too. He took a chance on me (by giving me a public service job) when I was unemployed and practically unemployable. I was 45 years old and getting by on precarious casual work, with mounting debts and zero prospects. I don't believe I'd have kept our home, or a lot of other things the family needs, much longer.
Certainly I'd lost much of my self-respect and was headed for complete collapse. Then this one man - a brilliant eccentric, kind-hearted, erratic, visionary, and introverted - gambled on me who so many others had rejected. He took me on, instead of the safer options who would certainly have fitted in more easily and caused less trouble for him. It has made all the difference. It was probably the last significant act of his naval career, and I hope he knew how much it mattered.
Richard, in an interview I did for One Plus One a few years ago with author Tim Winton he described the time a stranger turned up at the family home without notice, to care for his father who had been badly injured in an accident. Winton’s mother didn’t know how she was going to cope had the stranger not appeared.
How amazing that you discovered your own angel in Captain Smith. I wonder whether he knew that you were struggling when he gave you that public service job? Perhaps he sensed your quiet desperation?
And how fortunate that you had the gift of seeing an extra dimension to Captain O’Brien by attending his funeral. Now you know what a rare human he was and that some of his hushed magic rubbed off on you, leaving a lasting impression.
Thank-you for telling us honestly about your struggles Richard and for revealing this wonderful individual.
Far too many people have attempted to belittle me. I emphasise the term ‘attempted’ because in those situations I work very hard to ensure they don’t succeed - at least where my sense of self-worth and dignity are concerned.
Sometimes this can be immensely tiring.
Belittling actions occur on a spectrum - from a simple smirk to laughter and pointing. Then there are demeaning comments (often presented as statements or polite) to overt insults.
They hurt - they all hurt.
How does it feel? Like a slight tightening in the chest, a bristle at the back of the neck, a quickening of the heart and breath. In other words, the body prepares for a flight-or-fight response. Meanwhile, I gauge the situation and consider whether to ignore or react.
Which option I choose depends on the event and the strength of my resolve. I haven’t cried in public because I am fiercely determined that my personhood is always carried through and communicated. However, I have shed countless tears in private and cried myself to sleep too many times. All too often I feel like I am in a battle, and it’s a matter of survival that a chink in the armour isn’t revealed and exploited.
At other times, belittling behaviours can occur through ignorance. If that’s the case (and it’s not always possible to ascertain), then I will engage with the person or people because I consider that to be my job. It’s my job as a parent, to inform and correct stereotypes or misinformation so that my child is less likely to be belittled.
I do get battle-weary. On those occasions I nurture myself through art, my family and a good dose of mindless TV comedy (Frasier, Big Bang Theory, Michael MacIntyre).
Jane, I hope this gives you a sense of what it’s like to feel belittled.
Thank-you for responding to my question: what’s it like to feel belittled?
The idea for this question came from seeing your recent video work at The Big Anxiety Festival where you read out pages of tweets received by people with achondroplasia dwarfism, including you. The tweets were demeaning and clearly the desire was to belittle. I know from our One Plus One interview in 2017 that, sadly, you are subjected to name-calling and taunts and that you face this abuse randomly and routinely.
Most of us have been belittled at some stage of our lives.
One of the readers of this series, Trish, noted that “some people say no-one can make you feel belittled or humiliated unless you let them.” Here's another comment I've seen on the subject: “choosing to feel belittled is your choice…how you choose to internalise everything is up to you.”
But the tables are turned when a demeaning comment is directed with frequency at people who look different, as you do Debra. You are the target of daily ‘micro-aggressions’, defined as subtle blows delivered incessantly. I don’t think many of us experience that belittling on that scale.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you are often told that people find you ‘inspiring’ just for being you. Some people can’t imagine what it's like to live with achondroplasia dwarfism.
Your letter says “I’ve shed countless tears in private and cried myself to sleep too many times.” But you never allow yourself to cry in public because you are fiercely determined that your "personhood must always be what is carried through and communicated."
Debra, I promise not to call you inspiring, but I do admire how you educate and invite people to engage in difficult conversations about interacting with people who look different.
Some of us might think we have the gift of empathy, but perhaps that is just something we tell ourselves. Do we want to experience how it feels to be Debra or just feel sympathy for you? Perhaps this is a topic for another day.
In the meantime, what you do teach us is that we must endeavour to apply humanity equally and not selectively.
I have also decided to publish your letter in full, so that people can gain the full measure of you.
Thank-you so much for your response and for a lesson in compassionate assertiveness.
Thank-you for your response to my question: what’s the regret you’ve learned to live with?
You stopped me in my tracks when you said that your greatest regret was having children.
At 63 I look back and saw what an awful mother I was sometimes. I never actually wanted to have children, but I did. I was too young and I didn’t even know who I was myself, let alone know how to raise a child.
I wonder whether you were ever able to have a discussion about parenthood back then with your husband? Many of us just think having children is something we are supposed to do.
I remember what it was like becoming a mother, which I never thought would happen. I was so late coming to motherhood that my husband and I thought about it deeply, knowing it was something that would profoundly change us, but that we both wanted that transformation.
Motherhood suddenly dumps a load on your shoulders, or at least, that’s how it felt to me. Then there are the expectations. A new mother is always expected to have the answers and to know instinctively what to do. It’s the one area where ‘fake it till you make it’ doesn’t work.
Ellen, I sense that you have thought long and hard about this regret.
I didn’t know how to love them unconditionally and allow them to be children. My mother once told my sister that she had to teach me how to love my baby. When my sister told me, I was hurt and angry and my first thought was, if that’s true then what does it say about MY mother?
You have shot an arrow through the key question of life Ellen. What is love?
I see love as very much a verb. It’s persistence and showing up when you don’t feel like it. It’s trying to soothe and explain when you are tired. It’s holding and comforting when you feel angry or hurt. It’s discomfort. It’s trying, failing and trying again. And it’s saying you are sorry many times over.
Love is nothing like the adrenaline-fuelled passion that I used to think it was.
Ellen, though you regret what you went through you don’t regret the individuals you brought into the world:
I took the responsibility of parenthood seriously and I aways put them (the children) first, always had food on the table and I sent them to a church school as it was all I could afford.
Looking around at our society I can see many - including me - who struggle with parenthood. It’s one of the hardest roles in the world. And yet your boys, now adults, are making their own way in the world.
They have turned into lovely men and I am happy for them both.
It sounds like you have accepted those difficult, earlier years and realised that though a tough lesson, your regret helped you to grow as a human.
Thank-you so much Ellen, for helping us and sharing your thoughts.