When I was 11 years old, I borrowed (stole) my father’s inhaler. This was a misguided choice for two reasons:
1. My father had asthma and needed his inhaler to breathe.
2. I did not have asthma.
The motive behind my crime was to be like Mikey Walsh. Mikey was the lead character in my favorite movie at the time, The Goonies; a story about a group of adolescent misfit friends who go on an adventure to find hidden pirate treasure. Mikey was the awkward, but sincere-hearted leader of the group. He was also an asthmatic, and would fumble for his inhaler at several tense points in the story, providing moments of comedic relief.
Mikey was the heart of the group. A clumsy hero who managed to find the treasure, save the day and kiss a high school cheerleader. He was a nobody who became a somebody.
In the 6th grade, I felt like a nobody and I desperately wanted to be a somebody. I wanted to be cool. I wanted to be in a misfit gang. I wanted to be like Mikey. And what did he have that I didn’t?
And that was a solvable problem. With the borrowed (stolen) inhaler in my pocket, I headed off to school.
The plan was to introduce my classmates to my condition at lunch. Timing would be key. The wheezing would need to be subtle. Casual. Something I dealt with all the time. I’d nonchalantly slip the inhaler out of my pocket and, after a puff or two, my peers and I would laugh together knowingly. “That’s sooo Mikey,” they would say.
For a brief moment, the fantasy made me feel hopeful. Powerful.
I sat down at a crowded lunch table and casually began to wheeze. And nobody noticed. So I wheezed louder, eyes widened for effect. Still nothing. I began frantically patting my pockets, as though looking for something. Then a small voice inside my head spoke up, “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea. What if…hear me out on this….what if asthma isn’t that cool?”
But the voice was too late. I was giving the performance of my short lifetime. After eliciting a few confused glances, I “found” the inhaler, took a puff and encountered the single worst taste I had experienced in my entire life.
Mikey never gagged.
My face reddened as I frantically guzzled down my Hi-C Fruit Punch. My faux asthma was cured. But my desire to be a somebody wasn’t. I was still lonely, still feeling sad and invisible, still convinced I didn’t belong and didn’t matter. In other words, I was still looking for my treasure, and the treasure I was searching for was a place to belong. I was searching for my Goonies.
The need to belong is a fundamental emotional need. We have a deep longing for a stable place where we feel accepted and looked after. Belonging is one of the essential elements of a meaningful life.
And it is so elusive.
So we do anything we need to do to find it. We pretend we like things we don’t like. We do things we don’t want to do. We say we believe things we don’t really believe. We put up with things we should never have to put up with.
But that kind of belonging is as fake as my asthma.
I wonder if the reason belonging is so hard to find is that it isn’t something we find. It’s something we build. We build belonging by looking for similarities we have with people, instead of focusing on differences. We build belonging when we extend acceptance to others when they are different than us. We build belonging when we validate the experiences and perspectives of the people we encounter. We build belonging when we risk being vulnerable and straightforward, rather than pretending to be something we’re not. We build belonging when we give others a sense that they belong.
Ironically, I had an allergist appointment this week. Twenty-nine years after my desperate lunchroom debacle, I now have my own inhaler. The good news: I can now belong to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. The bad news: the voice in my head was right; asthma isn’t that cool.
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