A Momentary Lapse of Fear
I did something unheard of today. I went ballistic.
I am a cautious person. I have strong thoughts on many, many subjects, but I reveal my true nature to a few people whom I really trust. My entire life, I have had trouble standing up for myself. I was an only child, and I was so overtaken if a kid my age confronted me, I had nothing to say, because it was always a situation I hadn’t dealt with before. Maybe if I’d had siblings, things might have been different.
Middle school crushed me. I was unafraid to be who I was until then, even though I didn’t know how to argue, until seventh grade slammed my face into a wall made of an inconvenient truth: if you don’t fit in, you are NO ONE. I grew up in the south, where this point is made obvious even more than other locales. The phrase “You ain’t from around here, are you?” tells you everything you need to know about where I grew up.
I spent the next two decades hiding. The things that made me me, my intelligence, my wit, my loathing of “PC” and politics and politicians, my right to question authority, my right to reserve judgment about who my higher power was, my desire to wear “odd” clothing that expressed my personality, my streak of cynical darkness, were all things that were to be hidden at all costs. In the south that’ll get you a cross burned in your yard, a hanging in a local tree, or, most likely, complete social ostracism.
I was who I was with safe friends, family, at concerts and art shows, but when I was dumped into “social” activities, I had to hide. I learned to fake the southern accent that I deliberately chose not to pick up (I’m a great mimic), learned how to fake hug and say “How arrrrre yewwww?” in a fake sugar sweet accent, learned that the dictum about discussing politics and religion was my greatest ally.
Despite my mimicry, and some social standing as a physician, I have NEVER fit in. I can think of two times in my life when I really did: the year I spent doing research at the NIH in Bethesda with 50 top notch med students from around the country, and my residency in New Orleans, where people work to live and not live to work, where no one gives a shit if you dress odd and like to have a good time.
Why do I not fit? I’ve always been really pretty, after my ugly duckling stint in middle school, I’m funny, I’m nice (I think), and now as a doctor I have money, status and power. Why do I not fit in? Because I am TOO DAMN SMART. Too smart for my own good, as they say. I am a certified genius. My IQ testing was off the charts. I’m not bragging, because this is the one big trait that makes my life shit. I just can’t hide that. I can fake sweet, and I can “dress normal” and I can drag my speech out like dripping honey, but you just can’t hide intelligence. Try as I might, I could never fake stupid.
Since they destroyed my soul in middle school, I have never been able to stand up for myself. A childhood where I didn’t learn to argue, a fear of letting people know who I am and what I stand for, a fear that people won’t like me, a fear of burning bridges. You see, most of the views I hold are unforgiveable in the rural south.
I don’t even complain in hotels, or restaurants, even when a complaint is warranted. Afraid they’ll spit in my soup, not wanting to look like a bitch, afraid of causing a scene. Afraid I’ll be seen as high maintenance, or as throwing my weight around as a doctor.
So my entire life, I’ve been a fake and a fucking coward.
My friend told me that I would learn to be more aggressive when I had a child. That if I couldn’t do it for me, I could do it for them. But that hasn’t come up yet. My child hasn’t needed defending. And I continue to hate myself for being afraid.
Today I was sitting in my hotel room taking physician call when my fire alarm went off. There was no reason for it to. I called the front desk and was told they were doing state mandated alarm testing and that “it would be pretty noisy all day.” They told me there was nothing they could do.
It wasn’t just the alarm in the halls. It was the actual smoke detector in my room as well. The shrieking was piercing, it made my eardrums fibrillate, it was incapacitating. The desk said maintenance would be by in a bit.
A knock on my door. Maintenance. In desperation I’d used bandaids to tape a washcloth and a mouse pad over the alarm. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but there’s nothing we can do about it.”
I had finally hit my tipping point. I was no longer at a loss for words. I was no longer afraid to say them.
“I am a DOCTOR. I am taking CALL. I can not only not carry on a conversation on the phone, I cannot even hear it fucking RING. Do you understand me?!? This is UN.ACCEPT.ABLE. FIX IT. NOW.”
The maintenance man looked at his partner, and said, “I know, ma’am, I understand, ma’am. We’ll try to do something, ma’am.” And the way he looked at the other guy, I could tell he thought I was a damn bossy bitch.
And you know what? I didn’t care.
And you know what else? Those alarms that were supposed to be on most of the day? They turned off a few minutes later, and they never came back on.
So I found my voice. For a minute. A small thing, I know.
And you know what else? I might find the strength to do it again. ‘Cause know what else? It felt REEEEAL good, honey.