Ear-ritation

I think my cold has turned into an ear infection. My left ear hurts. I got ear infections often as a child. The last one I remember developed one night when I was about twelve. Two of my girlfriends were sleeping over. I felt like someone was reaming the left side of my head with a hot poker, rotating it around and around. For some perverse reason I wouldn't tell my dad. At some point in the night my eardrum broke and my ear drained. It didn't hurt any more, but I couldn't hear out of it. When anyone talked to me, I had to turn my right side toward them in order to hear better. My friend's mom noticed and asked me if I was having trouble hearing, and I said no. I was worried. I kept putting off telling my dad about the ear infection and the deafness.

One day we were visiting my grandparents, along with several aunts and uncles, and as my aunt was talking to me, my ear popped and I could hear a little bit. I swallowed several times until my head cleared, and my hearing came back to normal. My head felt five pounds lighter.

I worried a lot when I was a kid, and occasionally something happens to remind me of what it was like to worry and then get relief. The relief of a worry felt physical, so significant as to be almost life-changing. Then some other worry would come along. At one point as a teenager I had such bad TMJ syndrome (jaw damage from teeth-clenching in my sleep) that I couldn't open my mouth wide enough to bite a sandwich. That worried me-and it probably was caused by worrying. I didn't tell my dad about that either, and luckily, it also went away by itself. That was a relief.

There were also plenty of worries at school. Any assignment that involved speaking to the whole class-even for a minute or two-was guaranteed to prevent me from sleeping. I never asked my dad or a teacher for help because I thought there was no help for it. Every time I opened my mouth, the popular (mean) kids found a reason to make fun of me. This could happen any time I was called on in class or any time another kid spoke to me. I'd say something that would betray my personality (God forbid anyone should just be herself), and somebody would erupt with ridicule.

I wonder now: what would have been different if their ridicule hadn't intimidated me? What if I had realized that what they couldn't tolerate was to see a person's unique personality coming through (not just mine, I'm sure)? What would I have done differently? I like to think they teamed up against me because I had somehow intimidated them first, without realizing it, before I learned not to be myself at school, to instead be a quiet mouse.

One mistake I know I made was to openly laugh at the girls who suddenly went completely boy-crazy in the sixth grade. When the girls started at the beginning of the year to talk about which boy they liked and who was going steady with whom, my reaction was that they had to be kidding. These were the same boys who were stealing hats last year and pushing people down in the snow, and now all of a sudden they had become "cute guys." I said they were out of their minds-the boys were just as big of idiots as they always had been, and how could you go steady in sixth grade anyway? We are talking about age eleven. It was the stupidest thing I'd ever heard, and I said so. To me it was as unbelievable as if the girls had all joined a cult over the summer, or they had all been abducted by aliens and replaced with sinister fake girls who looked the same but acted crazy.

I'm sure I was completely tactless and unbearable when the boy-crazy virus hit the other girls and missed me. I had no idea at eleven that you shouldn't just spew out your unvarnished opinions in front of people (even people you'd known since kindergarten). But I was outnumbered, and there were no second chances. Maybe if I'd had a mom to talk to I would have learned some tact and avoided making all those little enemies. Or at least I might have learned to better judge who was and who wasn't safe to be myself with. My dad is a very good man, but it wasn't possible for me as a twelve-year-old girl to confide in him. I stonewalled his dad-like attempts at supportive conversations with expressions like, "Jeez, Dad! No way!" etc. It's so hard at that age not to just see all dads as big nerds.

The moral of that story is: Whenever I am so flabbergasted by what somebody says that I want to yell, "You're on crack!", I had better bite my tongue. In fact, I've gone to the other extreme, and often react with polite neutrality when someone is pulling my leg. Then they end up laughing at me. But that's okay (says Stuart Smalley). One thing I like about being an adult is that when someone laughs at you, they're usually not being mean.

And that is the stream of consciousness that came out of having an ear infection. I was thinking it is so boring to write about being sick, so I hope the direction I steered didn't also turn out completely boring. This has not been a creative week.