Spending 25 years of my life with a storyteller begins to make one see stories everywhere – and recently I noticed that this is something we all do. We tell stories to ourselves about who we are, what we’re capable of, where we’re going. Some of the plot lines come from our friends and family but we take that inspiration and run with it.
Take this tale that started when I was 2 and continued on for the next 35 years:
When I was was about 18 months old and really beginning to walk around, my parents noticed a disturbing habit I had. I would walk straight in to walls. They took me to the doctor and it became clear that I had a lazy eye. My right eye was legally blind and my left one wasn’t doing so well either. And so, at that young age, they gave me a tiny pair of glasses.
This worked beautifully – so beautifully, in fact, that within a few months I was reading simple words and by the time I was about 5, I was able to read grown up novels though I am sure my comprehension of “Jaws” was pretty limited at the time. Still, I was curious – it was such a popular movie!
Unlike many kids my age, I was thrilled to start kindergarten. From all I’d read and seen on TV, school was a place where we could learn all day. How amazing was that? But all was not well and not long after I started my mom and dad got a call from the school.
“I’m sorry, I think there is something really wrong with your child. He may be developmentally disabled. He spends a lot of time staring blankly at books. We haven’t taught them how to read yet so I think he’s just in another world.” (Well, I was, but not the one Mrs. McKnight thought I was in! But dutifully my parents took me to a pediatrician for a checkup. He did all of the usual checkup tests but also bounced a tennis ball and asked me to catch it which I did pretty poorly at. At the end of the exam, the doctor explained “He’s 100% fine but is a little uncoordinated.”
Two things came from that diagnosis. The first was that I was sent to some gifted classes which were really interesting and challenging. The second is that “Uncoordinated” embedded itself in my brain and my parents.
In Grade 4 I’d get another element for my story. After doing poorly at ball games (“He’s uncoordinated, don’t you know?”) I, along with a few others were placed in “Remedial gym class” where we practiced those problematic skills. I never did get any better.
But what I did get out of that was another idea: If people are put in remedial math or reading because they can’t add or read well, then people who are put in remedial gym are bad at gym. My Grade 4 mind latched on to that idea pretty firmly. And over the upcoming years, I grew not only to dislike throwing and catching games but everything about gym: running or exerting myself in any way felt horrible and probably that meant it was bad for me. After all, I’m not good at gym. Probably it was best I stop.
And so it went for years and years. I remember when I was 19 my housemates wanted to go for a run. They were friends with me and I knew they wouldn’t make fun of me if I had trouble so I did. But it wasn’t good. We ran for about 30 minutes and I felt awful. Never again, I vowed.
And that’s how it was until I was 36 years old and now the parent of an 8 year old. Check that, a very lucky 8 year old who always seemed to find amazing toys and lego sets just left in the recycling room of our building and this time, when our dentist had a contest for kids who brushed regularly with the winner getting a bike, Daegan said “I’m going to win that.” We corrected him – “You might win.” After all, we didn’t want him to be disappointed. But wouldn’t you know it? A few weeks later here he was:
At this point nobody else in the family had a bike and he was too young to really go anywhere on his own so I decided I would get one also so he’d have someone to ride with. Before long, I wasn’t just riding with him, I was riding to the store. I was riding to visit friends, and eventually I started commuting 25 miles round trip to/from work. As I did this, I started losing weight also. And before long I looked as fit as my 20 year old self.
I tried riding in the winter as many diehards here do but couldn’t get interested in it and so I eventually found spin classes to keep me riding during the winter. And there I learned something new. The first few classes were hell – all those terrible out of breath feelings I felt in gym classes and that one run with friends came back and I wanted to give up. But the music was good and the instructor so encouraging that I kept at it. The lights were usually dimmed nearly off so there wasn’t much chance to feel judged or to compare one’s self to others. And so I pushed through it and realized a new lesson: That “want to die” feeling is temporary and on the other side lay the happy land of endorphinia.
All this time another idea started percolating: If I could ride my bike to/from work, couldn’t I ride to another city? What would that be like? In three years I would find out as I signed up for a charity bike ride that would go almost 400 miles to Montreal in the space of 5.5 days. We’d average about 60 miles a day. Now I had a sense of purpose in my spin classes as I imagined riding to Montreal. And in the spring I started group rides that worked their way up from 20 miles all the way up to about 80.
There were times I wasn’t sure I’d be ready but the day finally came to leave. The ride was fantastic in so many ways – a whole entry on its own, really. And the second time I did it even became a blog of its own.
As we rode in the final stretch, having ridden nearly 400 miles, I realized that not only had it not been particularly difficult, it had been the time of my life. And there is really where I realized that the story I’d told myself (with the help of people around me), that I wasn’t any good at physical activity and that was fine because it was horrible anyway was completely untrue. A short time later a bit more of the story fell apart when I realized this: I’m not bad at gym. I’m bad at catching things thrown to me. And this is completely because of my vision. There was never something I could do to fix that no matter how much remedial education I was given. The mistake was tossing out all other physical activity along ball sports – which comprise the majority of the physical education curriculum.
Once I learned all that – that I not only can do physical activity but actually thrive when I do it, things changed. I eventually did go back to running (on a break now due to an injury) and ran many races. I’m not terribly fast but I often beat my past self which is quite satisfying as in that case I win against a man sometimes years younger than me. Daegan still has a friend to ride with even though now he’s old enough that he could go out on his own. But instead of riding down in the park, we ride hundreds of miles for days on end and have the best time.
I could focus on the regret I have that I never really realized the massive misunderstanding I had about my own likes and abilities but instead I use it as a lesson and question other assumptions about myself like “I don’t like public speaking” (until my boss asked me if I’d deliver training for two weeks – I was terrified but had so much fun), “I can’t perform” (I’ve performed in several improv troupes and told true stories on stage, and “I moved away from the US for a reason. I don’t like visiting there – especially the south.” And then I learned I liked a lot about it. And so, questioning my own stories is now a habit of its own. Some might say my new story is “I sometimes tell myself untrue stories that keep me from being happy where I am.”
What stories in your life do you need to question?