I'm used to different,
I grew up different. I've grown 'old' different. I'm drawn to different.
So when I had the chance to see Emmy-winning musician Billy McLaughlin perform on Friday, I was intrigued by how he does it...differently. He's an acoustic guitarist. But you've never seen anyone play how he plays.
He's right-handed but re-taught himself how to play with his left. He doesn't strum his guitar, at least not in the usual sense. Both of his hands are on the neck of the guitar. The instrument itself isn't held in the usual horizontal position, but rather vertical.
For a period of years, he lost nearly everyone and everything of importance in his life, including his music. And then he fought to re-gain his world.
And last week, we were awed by his story and his music.
With eyes closed, you'd never know he plays differently than anyone else, except that his music is so mesmerizingly beautiful.
As is so often the case in life, his innovative methods resulted from the desire to do something that wasn't possible with in-the-box thinking.
Billy contracted a brain condition called focal dystonia at the height of his 'normal' career. He lost the ability to play in the usual way. It caused his career to crash and burn. At least until; he figured out a new way forward.
That's when he painstakingly re-taught himself how to play with new hand and finger movements over the course of a couple years. Yes, years..
Talk about determination. He kept going even when he wanted to quit, because he didn't know if his efforts would ever allow him to play again. To really play.
To his credit, and to his audiences' benefit, he kept going, And yea, he again really plays. Even though visually, it looks different.
I saw Billy when he was playing at the second annual Brain Symposium, sponsored by the Invisible Disabilities Association (IDA).
Why was I there? Geared toward healthcare professionals and researchers, I was - you guessed it - the one who was different.
I'd been invited by IDA's founders, Wayne and Sherri Connell, who are friends and colleagues. I previously served on IDA's board. Yes, even though my disability is visible. Way visible. Yep, different - again.
I'm so thrilled I attended. Not only to experience Billy McLaughlin's music, but to be reminded that we're all trying to figure out this life thing, no matter our station or situation in life.
The Brain Symposium covered the newest research on so much of what we hear in the news and in our own lives, from Alzheimer's to ADHD, autism to brain injury, EMDR to stroke, and everything in between. My own brain was on overload.
It was good for me on several levels.
It reminded me that despite my own issues, especially walking challenges of this last year, that I have it pretty good. I'm getting better and I can and will continue to get to where I want to be.
It was the first big event I felt up to attending since a year ago. Even as of two weeks ago, my walking was unsteady enough that I wasn't planning to attend. But focused physical exercising helped push me to a place where I was comfortable enough to tackle it, even though it was still a bit of a stretch.
It reminded me that there's a whole world existing beyond my own self-imposed small realm, which got even smaller this last year. Seeing a number of old friends also buoyed my spirits and reminded me of the importance of connecting with other people, especially coming off from this last year of semi-hermitness. It reminded me that despite differences, humans are humans, and we share more similarities than not.
It's been a weird year. I've felt more different than usual. It held smackings of how different I felt during my childhood growing up with rheumatoid arthritis.
For much of the last decade-plus, I've finally gotten okay and comfortable with my own differentness. In fact, I sometimes now bask in it, and I'd have it no other way.
But, as a kid, to be different is to be dead.
And I was. I had no joy of life. No feeling of belonging. No reason to get out of bed, other than it was required of me.
It was an existence, and not much more.
Arthritis hit me hard and fast at age seven. It turned my life and identity inside out. Life was painful, physically and otherwise. I saw no reason to continue it, even by age eight.
And so I planned how I'd commit suicide if I decided to not play the game anymore. I knew how I'd do it and when the windows of opportunity would be. And I kept it in the back of my mind from grade school through my high school years. No one knew because I never shared it.
I couldn't play like, or with, the other kids. I couldn't participate in most normal, fun kid activities. I was seldom asked to be a part of anything or included in events.
I'm grateful to the medical world and for the medications that are now available to kids with arthritis. A diagnosis now doesn't mean the same thing as it did in 1971. One of the perks of having a disease for decades is seeing the improvements in care, and knowing others won't need to travel the same ugly path. Their path will be easier, although still with its own challenges.
But back then, I felt set apart. Different. Not belonging.
What those early years of being different did for me was give me strength. There is a lot of truth in the old adage about what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger.
All my life, I've had to figure out how to do things differently, because my body doesn't move in the ways it was designed. I don't always have the strength to do what's typically needed to get things done, either, so I'm required to improvise.
My everyday life - the details of how I physically get through a day - look much different for me than they do for most people. I get out of bed differently, I bathe differently, I dress differently, I cook differently, I eat differently, I operate my car differently, I navigate differently. I even text differently.
This body may not be equipped to live in a world not created for it, but that has infused me with an inherent sense of creativity, ingenuity and innovation. I see things differently.
Nonetheless, I still despaired at being different in my 20s and 30s, and not traveling the same path nearly everyone else seemed to travel, with marriage and children.
It was a decade and two later when I witnessed too many many marriages crumbling and kids becoming challenges, that I realized I escaped some of the struggles experienced by a 'normal' life. And I began to see how 'different' can carry its own pluses.
I began to appreciate my own life, and what it brought to me that other people missed out on in their more normal lives.
Because I wasn't embroiled in the everyday challenges most people experienced, I could see them more clearly. I became the go-to sounding board for friends and colleagues struggling in their own lives. And that helped me see my own life more clearly than I ever had.
I had also learned long ago as a kid to be comfortable by myself and not to need other people around me. I liked my solitude and my own company. That saved me from making some mistakes I otherwise might have been tempted to make.
Now in my 50s, I see another plus of having dealt with physical challenges early in life. It prepared me for middle age.
Whereas some peers are discouraged by bodies that are betraying them for the first time, it's more of the same for me. Been there. Done that. Got the t-shirt.
It helps me to help them a bit better. I understand what it is to suddenly have a body that doesn't do what it's always done, and that seems to have a mind of its own. Aches and pains that appear for no reason are not new to me. It;'s simply life.
Being different professionally used to be a liability, as well. The corporate world is largely interested in drones, not innovators, as much as they may claim otherwise. They like the norm, and the norm most often bores me.
During my two decades in the corporate sector, being different worked against me. I thought the issue was me. Then I realized that wasn't the case at all.
I had so much more to offer than what could be accepted.
And that's when I began exploring the world of professional speaking and entrepreneurship.
I finally found my tribes. Those worlds are filled with people who don't fit into any norms.
They are leaders, innovators, and they celebrate - and revel in - their own uniqueness.
I was home, for the first time in my life.
Different could be put to good use. It had a place. And it was of value.
My only regret is that I wasn't a quicker learner. But the journey has been worth it.
I applaud the ones in this world who are different. I celebrate true diversity. I'm humbly grateful to be quirky, creative and original.
I'm different. And I'm glad.
About Kris Harty: Kris Harty is founder and CEO of shortCHICK, llc, She brings perspective
and wisdom to the table, and helps smart people like you move from overwhelm and obstacles, to over it and moving on, in life and work, Step by Step. She's a speaker, author, podcaster, and creative, giving voice to hope, joy, encouragement, and wisdom.
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