Cowlicks and Compromise
I have a cowlick. I remember the first time I noticed the little tuft of hair—likely no more than 20 hairs total, in my bangs. I was at my grandmother’s house who lived on the farm 1.5 miles west of our own farm. I was washing my hands at the sink, and could just barely see my face and head in the mirror above the sink.
<SIGH> “Lookit this hair! It won’t lay down! It points the wrong direction”.
My grandmother informed me that it was a cowlick. Astonished and more than a little bit worried, I gnawed on my lower lip as I contemplated this new information. Demanding to know the “when and where”, Grandma calmly informed that it happened when I was a baby. I remember thinking, “Who would let a cow lick their baby’s head?” Either Grandma was tired of my questions, or she could see that this greatly concerned me. “It’s like a blessing. Even the cows knew you had great potential. You can do ANYTHING!”
I know she thought she was encouraging me, and later it actually WAS the source of encouragement when I recalled her words. However, she likely would have cracked up if she’d known how often I struggled to wash the cow saliva off my head after that.
Dreams, Goals, and Aspirations
I was a lucky little kid. I grew up in a small town, surrounded by really good people and warm, supportive family members. I was always told that I was really going to be something one day… I was going to make a difference. Whether it was the school counselor assisting me with college applications, or individuals in my church, each time it was said I thought, “This cowlick is coming in handy!”
Obviously, I grew to realize the cowlick had nothing to do with my “can do” attitude, but that seed planted as a youngster, certainly added to my determination. I already had a hearing loss in my left ear as I headed off to college. I would have one more surgery during Christmas break of my Freshman year. I never considered my hearing loss an issue as I had perfect hearing in my right ear.
I know that I am a little bit stubborn. It’s not just because I’ve been told that I am, I recognize that it is hard for me to compromise. I’ve learned to compromise, which has only helped my relationships and even my marriage. I think in the beginning I saw compromise as “caving”. Because I was raised to be a strong, independent woman, I didn’t see how compromise could be a valued characteristic. I think compromise is actually misunderstood a great deal; perhaps even, considered a weakness.
My favorite definition of compromise (because there are a lot of them out there depending on the context in which the word is used), is from Chen (2004), when “a person has to give up something less feasible and achievable in order to accomplish career goals and projects that are more practical and obtainable” (p. 17).
After losing the rest of my hearing (ages 25-30), and discovering that what I thought was a natural “clumsiness”, earning the nickname of “Accident Prone Portis”, was actually Meniere’s disease, I learned to compromise simply because I was forced to do so. I learned to use adaptive devices, technology, and even learned to ask for help. I learned that to be realistic, I needed to cross some things off my my “to do” list. There are some things I just cannot do. That’s ok. It doesn’t mean I’m giving up or “settling”. I do get tickled at folks sometimes when they email me to say, “You are so inspirational!”
Huffingpost Post did a terrific piece on this topic. “When we think about inspiration, what inspires us most are ordinary people who have done extraordinary things. We appreciate when someone has the ability and willingness to be selfless, creative, innovative, or just dares to be different” (Green, 2013, para. 1). I’m not this person. I have no more talent, will power—or even COWLICK POWER—than anyone else. I have really good days. I have really bad days. Just this last week I found myself doing a little “soul cleansing” in the shower (the only safe place to bawl my eyes when you have service dogs in the house who cue off your mood).
I was crying because I was mad. Mad, that I’m forced to change the way I do my make-up. (I know… right?). I’ve always thought my best “feature” was my big, brown eyes and dark eye lashes. When my Daddy finally allowed me to wear make-up I learned early on how to highlight what I thought was one of my best features. My husband told me when we were dating that he just loved my eyes and wrote poetry about my peepers.
With progressive illnesses, one discovers that it is just that.
It sucks. Between my poor balance, shaky hands, and neuropathy in my fingers, it is impossible for me to use eye make-up now. I’ve had to change—to compromise HOW to wear and apply make-up of any kind. This… THIS is what reduced me to tears for a solid week! Some of the folks who write me and tell me that I’m “inspirational” also say, “I find that I spend too much time feeling sorry for myself!” Y’all? I’m crying in the shower because I can’t wear eye make-up!
I’m not very hospitable, but one of the great parties I know how to give is a PITY PARTY. I think most people who live with special challenges and illnesses find that they spend an inordinate amount of time feeling sorry for themselves. One quickly learns not to whine out loud because others frown on that. Both God and my husband know that I’m a whiney-baby. Trust me – I get feeling sorry for yourself. If your “differently-abledness” has you feeling sorry for yourself, you aren’t alone.
Weiner, Graham, and Chandler (1982) did some fascinating research on pity, anger, and guilt. Anger and guilt are associated causes perceived as controllable, while uncontrollable causes of negative events trigger self-pity (Weiner, Graham, & Chandler, 1982). I didn’t choose any of the challenges I deal with on a daily basis. You likely didn’t “sign up for” the challenges you face as well! When things happen outside of our control, it is natural to have feelings of self-pity. Charmaz (1983) explains that the medical field tends to “… minimize the broader significance of the suffering experienced by debilitated, chronically ill adults. A fundamental form of that suffering is the loss of self in chronically ill persons who observe their former self-images crumbling away without the simultaneous development of equally valued new ones” (p. 168).
All of us grew up with dreams and aspirations. Some of us read books about having one year goals, five year goals, and ten year goals… working hard to lay the groundwork to make sure the goals were attainable. Instead, life happens. You may feel as if your life has been de-railed as you struggle to stay on track on a journey you had all mapped out.
The key is to compromise – but not give up. You may have to change the way you do things. I threw away all my eye shadow and purchased a magnified mirror and set up a means to steady my hand so that I can at least wear mascara. Other compromises are more worthy of being called “growth”.
Finishing school through distance education instead of doing so through a brick-and-mortar institution.
Using a cane and service dog to avoid running into quite so many walls each and every day.
Asking a student to follow-up with an email because I cannot hear them over the “buzz of sound” after class, and the acknowledgment that if they speak loud enough for me to hear them, everyone will hear.
Letting someone with normal hearing take the minutes of a committee meeting, even though my desire is to take notes.
Sitting on my caboose during the music in church because I cannot stand when the words are on a screen with lights, movement, and flashes. (Remember the good ol’ days when we used hymnals?)
Asking a family member to chauffer me around if I have to be out after dark (oncoming headlights trigger vertigo).
Using a cutting board ALWAYS, since not being able to feel your fingertips is dangerous when wielding a sharp knife.
Asking my service dog to fetch clothes out of the dryer so that I can fold them, even though I occasionally have to wipe doggie drool off of clean, dry clothing.
The KICKER compromise that many of us have to learn as a result of our new normal?
Asking for help to do something when we once did it all by ourselves.
When Do You Choose Not to Compromise?
A tough lesson in living a differently-abled life, is learning how to compromise by your own volition and to accept your own reality, and learning when NOT to compromise for others. Having a long-term blog on disability issues, invisible illness and chronic conditions, I have received one type of letter more than any other.
“My _______ (family, spouse, friends, co-workers) want me to stop using ________ (a cane, walker, service dog, assistive listening devices, medication) because it _________ (embarrasses them, makes them uncomfortable, makes me look bad).”
I wish I could reach out and SMACK UP ‘SIDE the HEAD, the folks who are saying this to you. They don’t realize all the compromises you’ve already made in order to successfully navigate your life and accommodate your new normal. (That’s right… you’ve resorted to mascara ONLY).
My friends? Don’t ever compromise… on chosen means of compensating just to make someone else feel better about your challenges. That isn’t compromise. That’s caving to a bully. Compromising by doing something differently in order to continue DOING means you are in control. Buckling to the pressure of someone who doesn’t live what you are living, will only yield bitterness, brokenness, and an unhealthy dependence. Do we need to ask for help sometimes?
However, having a means of independence and being asked to give it up to help someone else deal with your issues is detrimental to your mental health and relationships. There are plenty of people who care about me that I have learned to not “talk out loud” around. They misunderstand the reason I’m belly-aching and offer selfish advice.
“You get so mad when people interact with your service dog. Why don’t you stop using one and find some other means to cope with your disabilities?”
This from a peripheral family member who:
- Is never around for me to ask THEM for help because they are in absentia nor have any meaningful intersection in my life.
- Is able-bodied (though mean spirited)
- Hates dogs
If using a service dog has enabled you to be more independent, then:
- Be more careful of whom you belly-ache too. Contact a fellow SD partner or a trainer.
- Find a way for the “drive by petting” interactions to become a positive advocacy channel.
- Join some face-to-face or virtual support groups with individuals who mitigate their disabilities with the partnership of a service dog.
I was recently contacted by the wife of a guy I graduated high school with in 1984. He’s coming up on the BIG 5-0, and she was looking for pictures “from way back” that we had so that she could use them at his birthday party and celebration. I took out some old yearbooks and began flipping through them. My senior yearbook had some great pictures of “all those from the class of ‘84”. In one section, the class voted on and selected one male and one female for specific “categories”. I was selected as “friendliest” and also “most likely to succeed”. (Don’t get any grand ideas… my graduating class boasted of 22 students). I sat there a couple of minutes wondering…
“Am I successful?”
“Did I waste my cowlick?”
What I find valuable is making a difference, even if in only in one person. I have good days and bad days, but ALL days are lived where I look for and try to make a difference in at least one. It’s an adopted attitude that has really helped me adjust to being a person with invisible disabilities.
2016 Personal Hearing Loss Journal
Charmaz, K. (1983). Loss of self: a fundamental form of suffering in the chronically ill. Sociology Of Health & Illness, 5(2), 168-195. doi:10.1111/1467-9566.ep10491512
Chen, C. P. (2004). Positive compromise: A new perspective for Career Psychology. Australian Journal of Career Development. 13(2), 17-28.
Greene, R. K. (2013). What is the true meaning of inspiration? Retrieved February 1, 2016, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/r-kay-green/giving-back_b_3298691.html
Weiner, B., Graham, S., & Chandler, C. (1982). Pity, anger, and guilt: An attributional analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 8(2), 226-232.