By Carla MacInnis Rockwell
If I were to be a happy person, accepting myself as I was born to be was necessary in developing the gifts I might not otherwise possess had I not acknowledged that my "different"ness was nothing to be ashamed of, to wish away or to ignore (ignoring it was never really an option). I liken my differentness to a companion who will be with me forever, a part of everything I do, from rising in the morning to going to bed at night. My companion's name is cerebral palsy. Perhaps, ultimately, my companion has defined my character, shaping the stuff of me that would ultimately be the best of me.
Too often, people define happiness based on what others bring to them or share with them, tangible or intangible. Sitting back and waiting for happiness to come to you is wasteful of time and energy that could be better spent creating your own happiness and simultaneously spreading that happiness around you, to siblings, friends, colleagues, a spouse or partner. Happiness flows out, flows around, then flows back after bumping about to touch others; a complete circle.
Happiness is not something that should be weighed or measured, as what makes me happy may not make another happy. And it should not be our job to make another person happy - to position ourselves as a "happy maker" has potential to be exhausting; ultimately, it may well destroy relationships.
From years of observing people interact, I've come to realize that many of us simply have not developed the ability to enjoy and appreciate being alone. We have developed a reliance on others for amusement, for stimulation, for affirmation. Certainly, we all enjoy praise and acknowledgement, but to seek it out to the exclusion of giving something back does not allow us to grow in any meaningful way. In reality, happiness is unwittingly diminished by always wanting and never giving.
Some people treat relationships as something disposable; once it's ceased being useful to them, they abandon it. Persons with disabilities, no matter the type or degree, are not so readily inclined to do that. Our connection to others is critical to survival, well-being, communion and connection. What a person with disability brings to a relationship - be it brother to brother, sister to friend, daughter to mother etc. is full disclosure. We cannot hide who we are and what we may need in terms of assistance from day to day, week to week, month to month. We cannot afford to take anything for granted.
Over the years, many have asked me how I could possibly be happy, given I live with various disabilities. Well, why would I not be happy? What did I really lose to cerebral palsy? I do walk, albeit awkwardly; I don't run and never will. Besides, what's the rush? I don't think, had my legs been sound, I'd have been an athlete, but I can't be sure. My siblings engaged in various sporting activities during their school years. Brothers experienced broken bones, broken teeth and torn ligaments on the hockey rink; sisters suffered burned knees, broken toes, scrapes and bruises on the basketball court. I'm most assuredly glad I didn't experience that - I bruise like a banana! I did, however, get to watch them at play, and on one occasion, a brother suited me up in hockey gear to tend goal for a backyard rink hockey game. At least I got to experience joining in a game with siblings and friends - the joy of being included. There would be other such inclusions as I grew up with my siblings and our collection of friends and playmates.
I didn't have to seek out happiness - I rather fell into it, just like anyone else. Baking cookies with my sisters, topping pizzas with my brothers, making soup with Dad and any other siblings he happened to round up when the mood struck him to play "master chef" with minions at his beck and call. In reality, Dad never made the soup; my brothers, sisters and I did. In sharing and creating, we made each other happy. The soup recipes, the favourite pie recipe, a sister's brioche recipe, a brother's pizza recipe, all borne of those happy times, travelled with each of us as we grew up and went on to settle into our own lives. Though some of the recipes have been adjusted to suit personal tastes, the happiness in creating them is still present.
That is where I found my happiness, in creating: a handmade rug for my eldest sister on the occasion of her wedding, which she still uses 45 years later; decoupage wall plaques for my parents, which upon their deaths came back to me - those images of Gainsborough's Blue Boy and Lawrence's Pinkie hang in my home, to remind me of the joy expressed by Mom and Dad when they received them all those years ago. One long-ago Christmas when I must have gone a bit insane, in the two months leading up to the holiday I knit four blankets, one for each of my brothers - in fact, I completed one on Christmas Eve. All still use their "Carla Creation."
Several years later, one of my brothers, who lived just a few blocks away from me, made me temporarily unhappy; he burned a hole in his blanket and came round to my apartment asking me to make him another one. Instead, I set the damaged blanket back up on knitting needles and found some matching yarn. I guided my brother's hands to get him started to knit and purl the required stitches to make the repair. I was thrilled that he was keen to actually engage in such a "girly" task, as often men can be such boys! In understanding what went into making the blanket in the first place, he gained an appreciation for the gift of the intangible - the time and effort that I gave him - in addition to the tangible, the blanket. What made me happy was that he was willing to learn how to restore the blanket so it could be used and enjoyed once again. In those moments, he also appreciated just how much patience I have.
It was with patience that I developed an array of hobbies and interests that made me happy as a child and still make me happy as an adult. Making someone smile makes me happy, especially if they're stuck in a bout of self-pitying, self-destructive behaviour and the time I spend with them turns things around.
I'm also happy to turn off the telephone ringer and immerse myself in a good book, sipping on a fine single malt, with soft music playing in the background. Often my wee terrier is curled up on my lap, his breathing in sync with the rhythm of the music.
When I do choose to share myself, I find happiness in preparing a meal, nothing fancy, for friends or family. I'm always gratified that I have in a small way brought something memorable to their day, to their life, as they have to mine.
After all is said and done, the single-most important thing that makes me happy is the creative expression I have found in writing - sharing who I am and what I am. If sharing what I have learned from more than five decades with cerebral palsy helps even one person, then it has been worth it.
As we are able, we who live with challenges have a duty to clear the way for those who may be similarly impacted by obstacles to the "good life." Clear the way with the message that happiness is not always found without - the more sustaining and sustainable happiness is found within.
For more of Carla's musings and observations, visit her website. Carla can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.