Galen Buckwalter is a “proud gimp.” He’s one of the three central characters in physician/filmmaker Gretchen Berland’s new documentary Rolling. You’ll be able to see him next month go to work each day as a psychologist confined to a wheelchair. Two challenges he recently voiced in a National Public Radio interview are of particular interest to me. The first is how other people’s expectations work to have him fall automatically into feeling and acting disabled. This is an example of social neuroscience working in less than optimal ways. What we know from research is that in a different environment, one with positive expectations and possibilities - say a Special Olympics event, for example - Buckwalter would have a very different experience. Environment often significantly adds to or subtracts from neural development.
If the increasing lifespan advocates are correct and many of us are soon to be living 100 or 150 years, we may well be spending some part of those years in a wheelchair. (Although I can 100% guarantee that the wheelchair of 2050, if there are even any around, won’t look anything like the chair of today). These days, as I feel my knees creak and my hips ache and I take my daily dosage of glucosamine and chondroitin, being wheelchair-bound does not seem like some remote possibility consigned to the far-off future. So, Buckwalter’s experience got my attention, especially his second challenge as he attempts to navigate through a day out in the world; that challenge is gaze-aversion. When he’s out doing his daily life, a majority of the people he encounters simply refuse to make eye contact with him.
I’m one of those gaze-averters.
I’ve been a gaze-averter since middle school. Three bullying incidents stand in clear memory from that time, and they seem to have conditioned it. The first was Billy Zwack and two of his friends who cornered me one afternoon in an alley behind the Westville Theater. “What-chu looking at?” Two of them held me while Zwack slapped me several times across the face.
The second incident involved a friend and I. One afternoon, we encountered Dominic Riggione, a high school dropout, in the woods down behind the housing projects where I lived. “Don’t look at me,” Dominic threatened, as he forced the two of us to first walk through, and then lie down in the icy brook. He followed that by forcing us to catch a frog and eat it, and then he ordered us to hit one another with sticks and rocks while he watched and laughed.
The third incident involved Cleveland Benjamin, a kid that I actually liked and had been friends with. He’d been hit by a car the summer before and he ended up having difficulty walking. One day after school, I was watching him limp across the street over to where I was waiting for the school bus. When he got across, he walked up to me and snarled, “Don’t be lookin' at me.” He then proceeded to take out a straight razor and slash at me three times. Fortunately, it was winter and I was wearing a heavy coat. That, and the fact that I was able to duck and turn, left me with a shredded coat, but with only three small scratches across my back. These three incidents remain powerfully in memory, leaving me with great difficulty in being able to look people directly in the eye. After they happened, looking directly at people suddenly became a very dangerous business.
Gaze-averting, or rather the anxiety that it generates, turns out to be very important information. What it’s telling me, is something that almost all anxiety or upset often tells me when it is not the result of a real, present-moment threat to life or limb – that some traumatic memory living in me longs for healing integration. Some part of my brain is holding life-saving recollections that live in my neural network as one of Bob Scaer’s Dissociation Capsules.
This is both good news and bad news and more bad news. The good news is that I am at least able to recognize that I am anxious. Not being able to look at a homeless person, or a person in a wheel chair is not “simply the way I am.” It’s one way my particular trauma history has conditioned me. The bad news is that I am fearful and anxious about a lot of things – a nasty email, a surly tone of voice, a letter that has the words “Official Business” printed on it from the Internal Revenue Service – all of which do not represent any real, present-moment threat to life and limb. The other bad news is that we haven’t developed very many really effective tools to work with these kinds of daily dissociative experiences. Making contact with people, by smiling and looking them in the eye, as difficult as it can sometimes be though, seems to help. And as I continue to roll through life, I’ll be keeping my eyes out for other healing possibilities. And I’ll be writing more about the importance of eye gaze for mother/baby bonding in future columns. Like people in wheelchairs, it’s a subject that needs to have more attention paid to it.