Zebra is a medical slang term for a surprising diagnosis. Although rare diseases are, in general, surprising when they are encountered, other diseases can be surprising in a particular person and time, and so “zebra” is the broader concept.
The term derives from the aphorism “When you hear hoofbeats behind you, don’t expect to see a zebra”, which was coined in a slightly modified form in the late 1940s by Dr. Theodore Woodward, a former professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. Since horses are the most commonly encountered hoofed animal and zebras are very rare, logically you could confidently guess that the animal making the hoofbeats is probably a horse. By 1960, the aphorism was widely known in medical circles.
I’ve been having conversations lately with Skyspook that take massive amounts of emotional and mental energy for both participants. I start to wonder why I bother. Our relationship is good without him exploring the twists and turns of my mind. Lots of my points are nuanced, trigger him in one way or another.
As I’ve been working on defining my personal beliefs and values system in talk therapy, it’s come to my attention that I’m a bit odd. I’ve known this, but in an attempt to make life a bit easier for myself and everyone around me, I’ve let people assume when they heard my hoofbeats coming from my lips that my brain was full of horses rather than zebras.
In the past, this has translated to allowing others to accept the most normal explanation for my words or behavior, even when they were dead wrong.
What is the fucking point?
Skyspook is insistent. I must show him my zebras. It’s not just about me. It’s a core value of his. He wants me to feel free to speak my mind, even if it causes stress between us.
Fine, fine. I knew this stage was coming. I’ve been able to hold the least back from him than anybody else, and this is the soonest I’ve pushed past the point of comfort with someone.
So I say the things I’ve held back, having the sense they’ll be unpopular with him, easily misunderstood, unbelievably difficult for me to describe the meshwork that has formed around the subject in my head in a way that he’ll be able to see it with me. And he responds with his gut, reactionary, get irritated, snaps. I cry. He apologizes, calls himself an ass. I tell him he’s not, that he didn’t hurt me, that the stress did, and he just processes differently than I do. I push on, explain more and more. Eventually, something clicks. He’s seeing the edge of my zebra. He realizes despite the triggery-ness of what we’re discussing, whatever sacred cow I’m dissecting, that I have a valid point, that I’m not doing whatever thing his gut has led him to fear – victim blaming, passive-aggression, territorial pissing, being ruthlessly judgmental or smug vs. him or those he loves. It is a zebra.
At times like these, our relationship shows its relatively young age. I’ve known my intentions the entire time. I know how I am. But trust takes time. And though he trusts me in myriad ways, he’s not used to hearing my opinions, especially not my zebras. He hasn’t yet learned to trust that my opinion is valid when he hears the hooves and starts judging me for what he thinks are my horses. Ugly sick horses whose mouths he’s seen a million times owned by others that he’s known.
Overall, it’s going well, and I’m optimistic as we learn more about each other, he’ll grow to trust me more in this particular sense. I’m just not eager about the learning process.