'Everyone's Favorite Cripple'

My friend Charlie put on a cheerful face after he became a quadriplegic, and still I watched his well-wishers fall off the face of the earth

There’s no reason that we should have bonded. Charlie was a young, athletic, new-girlfriend-every-week artist and I was a middle-aged, married copy editor. But we hit it off from day one at our ad agency jobs.

On Tuesdays, Charlie taught contra dancing and encouraged me to come. I remember him swirling me around the room while I tried valiantly not to barf on his cool-guy shoes. He also invited me to his art show, and I traipsed 35 miles to see it. His stuff was great, and he hugged me goodbye before I traversed the huge crowd that was there to support him.

That was the last time I ever saw him standing up. The very next day, he slipped, fell, and became a quadriplegic. The accident could have happened to any of us, but it happened to him — the most active, life-embracing guy I've ever met.

When word of his accident got out on Facebook, he had so many visitors that a second message was sent to not visit him; Charlie wasn’t getting any rest because he was too busy hosting well-wishers.

That was two years ago this month, and Charlie says that pretty much every person who came to see him those first few days? Gone. He never sees them anymore. Some have even told him they just can’t handle the intensity of a visit.

“I know I’m the person who makes everyone feel like shit,” he told me recently. “I get that.”

Since his accident, Charlie has done a lot of reading about tragedy, pain and suffering, and how people tend to react to it. He said that, put simply, when there’s a weak member of the pack, the instinct is to abandon him.

Charlie went on to tell me that when he admits he’s feeling awful, people immediately try to fix him (“You’ll feel better soon!” “You should write a book that will help others!”), make the whole thing seem like a huge blessing (“You’re my inspiration!” “Everything happens for a reason!”), or, most often, fail to respond to him altogether.

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He said if he posts on Facebook that he’s having a bad day, he’ll get zero replies. If he says something hopeful? More than 100 people will click Like. So to be less of a weak member of the pack, he puts on a brave front.

“I try to be everyone’s favorite cripple," he said, "cheerful and joking and living a complete lie.”

The lie, he admitted, is better to live with than the total abandonment that would otherwise happen. The lie keeps him surrounded by friends, and I use that word loosely.

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What I really wonder is — what the hell is wrong with all of us?

Are we that scared to feel bad for a while or to admit that sometimes life is really hard? Our culture seems doggedly determined to feel OK at all times, so much so that we’re willing to abandon a friend in his darkest hour.

I don’t know why I don’t have the abandon-Charlie instinct. It’s certainly not because I’m a warm, wonderful person. Truth be told, I’m kind of an asshole. On the other hand, I’ve encountered a couple of times when showing up for someone is the harder choice, yet if you just sit still and let yourself feel all the sadness and horror for, oh, 15 minutes, it generally goes away.

The comedian Louis C.K. does a really great bit about our cell phones, and how they distract us from having to feel anything. He says you need to build an ability to just be yourself and not do anything, and deal with that sometimes sad, empty feeling that comes up. When it does comes up, the very first thing you want to do is distract yourself, and cell phones are perfect for that.

And I know I sound like one of those annoying old ladies who can't get "with it," but I wonder if people are so overstimulated by tweets and texts and having the entire Internet in our hands that we can no longer face anything difficult and human. I mean, there’s the whole instinctive abandon-the-weakling thing, sure, but it also can’t help that we don’t even talk on the phone with each other anymore, much less just hang out and visit.

I told my 27-year-old coworker about this article, and Charlie’s situation, and without my mentioning anything about our culture, she said, “I wonder if we just can’t socialize properly anymore, and become really intimate with people. I mean, your friend’s situation: There’s no emoticon for that.”

She’s right. There isn’t. But maybe someone should design an I’m-scared-of-feeling-bad-but-I’m-going-to-show-up-for-my-friend-anyway emoji. It would look like a frightened smiley face.

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Tags: memoirs

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