Quirks fascinate me. What motivates some people to tap their fingers incessantly, or wear different colored socks is intriguing. I have always thought of quirks as fingerprints, characteristics that make each one of us unique in our complexity, with a collection of habits and preferences all our own.
We all have them, and some are easier to deal with than others. One of my biggest quirks? I laugh.
But wait. Everybody laughs, right? It is a spontaneous expression of lightheartedness and joy. Well, at least in my case, not always.
My particular type of cerebral palsy causes significant spasm in my body, which is why I have trouble doing things like bending my knees and gripping a pen. My startle reflex resembles a pose of someone who is in the midst of a million jumping jacks, and even if I sprinkle them with fairy dust and wish with all my might, I will never be able to stretch my arms out completely because my elbows have a mind of their own. The spasm translates into my needing help with everything from bathing to dressing to going to the grocery store to roasting a chicken. The physical side of my spasm is easy for most people to understand. It stands to reason that because I have this particular disability there are some things that I just can’t do by myself.
However, I have found throughout my life that there are some aspects of my spasm that are a little more convoluted. On days when the temperature freezes, it is a pretty safe bet that my muscles will follow suit. And when it comes to what I can do for myself, all bets are off when I am not feeling well. My laughter response is also part of the package.
For as long as I can remember, laughter has been my go-to reaction. Not only when things are funny, but also when I am nervous, confused or uncomfortable. I never choose to laugh in those situations on purpose; it is simply something that happens as I live in a body whose responses I cannot always control. And as you might imagine, it is a response that is not always appropriate. When I was a little girl in Girl Scouts, our troop sang “Old Mrs. Leary” at our fall program one year. As the group got more quiet by omitting some of the words, my laughter became increasingly intense. Several of the other little girls thought I had ruined the show, and completely blamed me. I was devastated.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that usually once I start laughing, my spasm kicks into overdrive and I have trouble stopping. Awkward at best. Most of the time, downright embarrassing. Picture it. I tell a friend that I heard a new joke or I have a funny story to tell them, then I erupt into gales of laughter before I get to the punch line. After about five minutes, the momentum is simply not there anymore.
Since I was born with cerebral palsy, I can handle just about all that it takes away from me physically. Because I have never known what it is like to roller skate, I don’t miss that particular skill. But when it comes to how my disability affects me socially, that is what hurts my heart. When other people are embarrassed by my sometimes inappropriate laughter or ashamed of me because it shows itself at the wrong times, that reality has been hard to accept. I have had many people shy away or scold me when my laughter has gotten to be too much for them. Members of my family have been known to hang up the phone in the middle of a conversation because I could not stop laughing when they thought that I should. On more than one occasion, this issue has been a significant factor in my losing a friendship because this difference I have is impossible for some others to understand. In those times, it has been easy for me to kick myself in the butt, causing me to have regrets and be filled with “if only’s”.
If only I didn’t laugh when I did. If only I could help it. If only I was not in the circumstances that I am in.
But “If only’s” drive you crazy and don’t get you anywhere.
A few weeks ago the thought occurred to me that my sometimes inappropriate laughter is not necessarily the evil thing that I thought it was. It is just a quirk. And quirks are not good or bad. They are simply a collection of characteristics that make each of us unique in our complexity. Since that is the case, maybe what needs to change is not my laughter response, but my perspective about it. Lots of people would like more laughter in their lives. The best thing I can do is surround myself with people who understand this quirk about me and who are willing to share with me a few of their own.
Everyone has things about themselves that they wish were different. “My nose is too big” or “My freckles are too noticeable” are all too common complaints. Some people go to great lengths to make changes to the characteristics about themselves that they find less than desirable. I am beginning to understand that, for me, true contentment can only come when I accept myself, the good, the bad, the ugly and the incredible exactly as I am right now. Are there things I would like to improve about myself? Absolutely. Hopefully, I am always going to be better than the person I was yesterday. However, I don’t have to like every part of myself. I only have to be okay with who I am regardless.
I have spent most of my adult life advocating on behalf of people with disabilities in various ways. I have encouraged others countless times to accept this population that I am a part of as we are, without strings or conditions, to see us as equals and to focus on the positives about us.
I need to take my own advice.
And what will I do the next time I have someone tell me they are embarrassed or ashamed by my inappropriate laughter? I can empathize. I don’t always like it either. But it is what it is.
So, bring it.
Given my personal experience, chances are good that no matter what, I will have the last laugh.