'I Was My Family's Biggest Secret'

While watching an episode of Better Things titled "White Rock" for the sixth time, tears streamed down my face. I've always been drawn to this show about a chaotic, loving family run by a single mom, but not because my mother was like Sam Fox, the show's fictional matriarch who is always there to listen and feed her kids—who knows when to step in and when to sit back. After my parents' divorce, things were tough at home. My mother worked away her pain with double shifts as a nurse and drank.

I fixated on the show for days afterwards as though it held the answer to some unanswered question. It felt like I was being haunted by what I saw.

In the episode, Sam and her three daughters visit Sam's uncle Lester and aunt Jarita in British Columbia. The kids quickly form a bond with their distant relatives, with Jarita championing the eldest, who is struggling with romantic betrayal and teen angst, while Lester takes the middle child under his wing and teaches her carpentry.

Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris, pictured right as a child, was born prematurely with a mild case of cerebral palsy, corrected by surgery that left her with a limp. Ellen Birkett Morris

But mystery ensues when Sam's youngest daughter sees a ghost in the form of a sad lady in old-fashioned clothes on the beach at White Rock. She later learns of the story of a local woman who died by suicide long ago.

Maybe it was the three daughters that drew me in? After all, I am one of three sisters, each of us with our own unique challenges. Growing up, my older sister grappled with teen romance while my younger sister enjoyed taking on physical challenges and engaging with the world, playing games with other kids and climbing trees.

I, the middle child, was more likely to engage with a book than jump into the breach of romance or attempt fantastical physical feats. Like the youngest daughter in "White Rock", I was haunted by events that happened years earlier.

I was born prematurely with a mild case of cerebral palsy, corrected by surgery that left me with a limp. My condition became a secret that resided in plain sight. If you were paying attention, it was hard to miss my limp as I walked or notice the atrophy in my leg muscles. But it was rarely talked about inside my immediate family and never outside. No one knew my story.

My best friends never seemed to notice my limp as we shared candy and made each other laugh, but there was always a schoolyard bully who wanted to draw attention to the way I walked. So, I became the quiet kid who flew under the radar.

Until recently, I never thought about the message that silence sent. What I felt was an unspoken instruction to "act normal"—don't ask for help, and don't reach out. It was a message that left me sad, questioning, and lonely.

Perhaps I was drawn to this episode because of the strong bonds the characters forge with distant aunts and uncles? My own aunts and uncles also showed an interest in my childhood passions. They talked to me, played with me, offered me the attention I desperately wanted.

I remember being in a swimming pool with my aunt as she pulled me across the water, smiling at me and encouraging me to kick my feet. Water remains my safe place and where I do my best form of exercise.

Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at 50 years old. As her mobility worsened she could no longer deny the reality of her disability.

The summer before my parents divorced and I started high school, we spent several weeks with my aunt Jan and uncle Larry. "So this is how a real family behaves," I thought. The days were kid-centric; full of play, trips to the amusement park, the arcade, and the lake.

My aunt and uncle had a loving, flirtatious relationship. When he patted her playfully on the behind and she grinned back at him, marriage suddenly looked like something I might want to be a part of someday.

Their lives were completely different from my parents' unhappy household. My mother was exhausted from being the primary breadwinner while my father was angry, his attention taken by a long-term affair that would come to light after their divorce.

The ghost on the beach also resonated with me. Family secrets make us ghosts to ourselves. Reality becomes thin in the face of hidden truths. Throughout my teenage years, many truths came to light, but I always felt there was always a bigger family secret—me.

At 50 years old, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. As my mobility worsened, I could no longer deny the reality of my disability. It became clear I needed more help.

Ellen Birkett Morris
After opening up about her condition with friends and family, Ellen shared her experience with disability publicly, in a magazine. Ellen Birkett Morris

Sometimes I needed a hand to hold going down the stairs or across uneven pavement. It was a huge change from the way I had been taught to deal with my cerebral palsy. At first I would feel a flush of shame. It took a long time to realize people wanted to help.

Of course, my husband had known about my cerebral palsy, but a close friend from high school was surprised when in our forties I shared that I opened up about it.

My rheumatoid arthritis made it clear that there was no hiding my challenges. As I began dealing with my limitations, I started questioning what I had been told and started embracing my full identity.

After opening up about my condition with friends and family, I shared my experience with disability publicly, in a magazine. I talked about my cerebral palsy and later my diagnosis with rheumatoid arthritis. I chronicled my challenges as a kid who limped, who was different, and as an adult who grappled with mobility issues that varied depending on the day.

I discussed what I perceived as my family's denial of my condition and how this enabled me to not address it openly myself, leaving me less impacted by stigma for a while. I revealed how it complicated my life, by teaching me not to ask for the help I so desperately needed, and how it left me split between who I had always pretended to be and who I was, sad and alone.

It was a huge milestone for me, and after the article was published, I got a call from an uncle, Pat, in California. "I never knew any of that," he said. "I am sorry."
I was hit with a wave of sadness that he hadn't known and gratitude that he wanted to reach out to me. I realized I wasn't alone, no matter how lonely it felt at times.

My aunt Jan also commented on my Facebook post about the article saying I was "remarkable." I was warmed by the fact that she had always treated me as if I was remarkable, even before she knew about my medical conditions.

Family secrets, connection with aunts and uncles, becoming a ghost to myself—I realized what ultimately drew me to that episode of Better Things: I felt solidarity with the characters as they accepted the love of relatives outside the immediate family and grappled with the pain of family secrets. I understood the ghost that lingered on the beach, waiting to be seen and acknowledged.

I don't know what to think about my parents keeping my challenges a secret from extended family. They are gone now and I can't ask them. They were good at secrets, good at denial, but that only worked for a little while.

I'd like to think they loved me and wanted me to do well in a world that, in my opinion, ignores the disabled. I'd like to think they were unaware of the mental fissure created by my desire to "be normal" and not make waves or the emotional pain and mobility challenges I dealt with. I know they loved me as well as they could.

In my eyes, I was my family's biggest secret, locked away in plain sight. But I broke that silence. There is no pretending now. I can ask for the help I need, whether it is a hand up to navigate stairs or thoughts for a better outcome with a new medicine. I've said goodbye to secrets, goodbye to shame.

Ellen Birkett Morris is the author of Lost Girls: Short Stories, stories of female resilience, winner of the Pencraft Award. You can visit her website here or follow her on Instagram at @ellenbirkettmorris.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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