In 1978, when I was about 4 years old, my parents got divorced. This in itself is not a tragedy, and happens to couples every day. Where things diverged from the norm is that, instead of having a custody battle over me, they decided that neither one wanted to bother with me.
One day, I was dropped off at my babysitter and was never picked back up. Consequently, I became a Ward of the State of Illinois and became a foster kid. Both parents relinquished custody of me to Marge Flory, who became my guardian.
As you can imagine, this is something that can have a traumatic impact on a child. I have blocked much of my memories of my life before age 14, but I do remember that I was a profoundly unhappy child much of the time. There were happy memories, but if my childhood had a soundtrack, it would be played in a minor key. For this story, I am glossing over many of the details, but if you are REALLY interested, my book should be out in 2019.
Marge and her family provided me with stability, love, and comfort. Marge was older, with three grown children. The youngest, Rob, was 10 years older than me, and the oldest, Laurie, was 30 years older than me. The middle child, Linda, was 20 years older, and she is who taught me about resiliency and happiness, even though neither of us knew it at the time. Here's the backstory:
Anyone who knew Linda, knew a few things: she loved Mickey Mouse, Anne Murray, Kahlua & Cream, the Chicago Cubs, and laughter. Linda, from my very first memories of her, had Multiple Sclerosis (MS). She was diagnosed in her 20's, and lived with the disease for nearly 40 years.
My memories of Linda almost always include watching the Muppet Show with her, and singing along with Anne Murray albums while Marge played bingo on Friday nights.
When I was 12, I was going through a particularly bad point in my life, and I was profoundly unhappy. I was sitting with Linda, who by that time had had the second of her legs removed below the knee. Her favorite joke at the time, when someone would ask her how she felt, would be "About three feet shorter." That was Linda.
I remember asking her "how?" How did she make jokes when her legs were gone? How did she smile through the pain and loss? How could she make the effort to comfort a messed-up adolescent kid? I do not remember much of my childhood, but I distinctly remember her telling me:
"Nothing can take my laugh away."
She went on to explain:
"I had no control over this disease. It happened. And it sucks. And it has taken my job, my chance at a normal relationship, and my ability to drive. It has taken my ability to walk, and now it has taken my legs. Eventually it will take my mind and my life. But until that happens, nothing can happen to me that can take my laugh away. If you can laugh, you are still alive. It is our one sure-fired way of giving the universe the middle finger."
Powerful stuff, and sound advice. Which I promptly discarded (I was a messed-up pre-teen, remember?). But here is the thing...I must have carried Linda's message with me subconsciously because without it, I don't know that I would be here, able to write this.
It was not until 2015, as I was hip-deep in a Master's degree in Industrial & Organizational Psychology, that I really recalled this bit of memory from my childhood. I was having to do some journal writing, and because I knew I had some unresolved issues from my past, I decided to write about Marge and a memory I had from then. This bit of writing opened up some deeply repressed emotions and memories, which I began writing more about (this is the aforementioned book, due out in 2019).
So here I am today. By statistical standards, I have beaten the odds. As a foster child, abandoned at an early age, I should be in prison. Or dead. Or an alcoholic. Or...you get the idea. But I am none of those things. I am a (somewhat) mentally stable adult(ish) man approaching his mid-40s. I have a stable career, a happy marriage of 18 years, and by all accounts live a typical upper-middle-class life.
In 2015, as some of this was emerging from my psyche, I was asked what made the difference? And I was stumped at first. What DID make the difference? What in my growing up gave me the ability to not succumb to depression, suicidal thoughts, and bad behaviors?
Nothing. I was depressed. There were times looking back that I was suicidal. I did plenty of "bad" behaviors (I smoked my first cigarette, a Winston 100 stolen from Marge, when I was 9 and I was a "regular" smoker at 10). I avoided none of these things. I suffered. I still suffer to a much smaller degree. But here is what I have figured out is the essence of what Linda taught me, so many years ago: resiliency and optimism.
Resiliency. Optimism. Two powerful words.
Resiliency is the capacity to recover or bounce back from difficulties.
Optimism is the feeling of hopefulness or confidence in the future.
Even before she told me that nothing could take her laugh away, Linda had been reinforcing both of these concepts in me. For that matter, so had Marge and the rest of my foster family.
Linda taught me that by using humor and laughter, we can build resiliency and be better able to bounce back from difficulty. Linda taught me that no matter what happened, if we laughed, there was always hope for the future.
Now fast forward 30 years.
The year is 2015. I am now married for 18 years, and I am working as the Parks and Recreation Director for the Fairbanks North Star Borough. I decided to pursue my Master's degree from Walden University, and I chose Industrial & Organizational Psychology as my field of study. I/O Psychology scientifically studies and works with...well industries and organizations.
Anyone who has gone through any psych class will tell you that it is inevitable that one starts self-diagnosing and labeling. I knew that I had repressed memories, and I knew that I still had unresolved issues relating to my childhood, but I never imagined the track my life would take once I started exploring dimensions of positive psychology, happiness, and resilience.
In the course of my classwork, I was tasked with doing research in an I/O pursuit, and I have always been fascinated with work teams and morale. In the course of my research, I came across the website laughteryoga.org.
The rest, as it is said, is history.
You see, I have been a happy person for most of my adult life. But my childhood was distinctly unhappy. Until I started psychologically self-checking, I hadn't really considered where, when, or how the change happened. But as generally happy as I would consider myself, I still have my moments (as we all do), when we get grumpy!
Sad, mad, angry, frustrated, stressed, depressed...call it what you will, we let our darker side shine through. And as we all know, when we get into those "funks," the last thing we find ourselves able to do is laugh.
But that is EXACTLY when we need to laugh the most!
My first experience laughing without humor was watching a video from laughteryoga.org. There was an older, soft spoken, bald Indian man telling me to laugh! The videos showed groups of people laughing, clapping, and playing.As soon as I recognized what was happening to our body and mind in Laughter Yoga, my Organizational Psychology mind immediately went to how this could be applied. The first time I engaged in a set of laughter exercises, and felt the rush of endorphins, and broke a sweat, AND got a boost of energy, AND walked away happier, I was stunned!
The power of Laughter Yoga is in the way we laugh. And the way we feel when we laugh. We do not rely on humor or jokes in order to laugh. We laugh unconditionally.