Friday, August 2, 2013

Socio-Sensory Distress Is Harsh, But Navigable

Trigger warning: Graphic descriptions of anxiety and pain and wishing to be not-me.
Disclaimer: I speak for myself, but publicly, in case others (maybe kids) may relate.

Up all night thinking about these things, unable to sleep guts twisting as if moved by the spokes of a dullish grappling hook churning slowly round, roiling the inevitable acidic bile I could not determine whether or not would come up if I tried to vomit. It’s not that easy; it’s not that easy to tell: it’s not up to me. However familiar, the nausea has never accepted me as sovereign.

Being sociable has never really been a matter of just do it, get over it, hoist your bootstraps, yar yar yar. Some people think it is, and I can tell that this is what they think (it is very easy to tell when they proclaim such aphorisms) and I early on bought it in my life, and it made me want to wake up not-me, and give myself more grief than ever they could. I knew I was weak, even craven. I didn’t ever need them to tell me so often, in so many ways, so many clichés.

Here is what a social event may be like: there is nowhere to go. And everywhere noise, and smells, noise, visual and audio noise, noise for all the senses, noise and information. And the sense data are far too many, and there are also emotional data that come flying at you from so many directions, and the atmosphere so thick you cannot breathe, even if you had been otherwise able to have a slim chance at breathing despite the light fixtures, invariably tuned to some kind of painful. And all the people are wanting, they need and want from you all the things in the wide array, and you can feel it, and what they say is not the same as what they show.  There is no comfort anchor anywhere, and no dictionary of them

All the people are talking at the same time and there are secret reasons to know to whom you are supposed to be listening more, and what you are allowed to say. The secret was not given to you, and you do not know where to find it. Meanwhile the couple to whom you were just introduced by an alpha person and (at least this time you know one thing) this means your attention is required, these people just as one example are telling you how much they love each other and are happy to meet you, while flinging emo-data of hostility toward you and belligerence to one another, hard. Your teeth hurt. You must listen because you know this rule, but all the people in this world are also simultaneously talking, very loudly, and you can only really pick up every third inconsistent lie-sounding word, and your heart bleeds for them, and there is nothing you can do, because which is stronger, your bleeding heart or your drastic incapacity? Will your heart bleed out?

You concentrate, with all you have, and your head throbs, and the knives of light stab your eye through into your brain because the dreaded cluster headache is coming which may knock you out. (It never does completely. It is too cruel for that.) You can barely hear and you try to control your face the friendly way, desperate to show your caring in a composition in which it will be correctly read. You hear someone you respect say this: “You’re not present; you’re not with us.” Shades of “your own little world,” and though you hurt to hear it, in all honesty you’d give anything, anything, for your alleged stereotypical own little world right now but you have risked it all to be in this world, this world of pain and fear and angst and constant assault and never knowing what to do or if it is right because you love the people and you want to be…

I’ll say it. I will. I will say it: You want to be a person.

And now I shall just easily bootstrap over my just do it and finish writing this.

These things are always worse for me beforehand, in the imagining, especially when someone has been sort of mean or unwelcoming in the lead-up and I have let it spin out of control inside my head. In real life, I have ways of working with it, and I will write some of them here, because in real life, I get through, and often come out the other end very, very tired, sure, but saying it was fun.

Because of this: usually it was the case that I had fun.  I do love other people and in reality believe I am a person.

I am, you know, a person.

A while ago some things happened. One of which was this. I found out it hurts people’s feelings when you never come to their parties. So I wanted to find a workaround. Then soon thereafter I found out that in order to have a professional life you have to do certain kinds of social events whether people’s feelings get hurt or not, because that is the way of the world. So I needed to find several workarounds.

One of the first things I do when I can is case the joint. I try to find the lay of the land. This gives me a modicum of physical comfort. Also this leads into the second strategy I have which is one of my most potent go-to items: giving myself secret jobs. For example, inside my head, I may be The One Who Is Secretly In Charge Of Replenishing Drinks. Or The One Who Knows Where The All The People Are, In Case Anyone Should Ask.  This is very diverting, and gives me a sense of belonging. Also, it causes me to act in ways that transmit my role to those around me, thereby making their actions toward me more predictable and easy to read. Ahhh… comfort.

My mother came up with a good overall strategy once I started needing a more advanced go-to, one for situations and events in which I had not had a chance to case the joint and invent a role. It goes like this, and it has worked well for me. My role in the event is to scan the environment for someone(s) who appears to feel even more uncomfortable or out of place than I feel inside, and show them welcome and a good time.  This is more advanced than the ones above because it does take a certain amount of practice and core confidence to pull this off, for example, I cannot do it while in mid-meltdown.  Sometimes when I am particularly ill at ease in a given situation I will start out being The Drink Replenisher and that will relax me enough to allow me to become The Noticing Welcomer.

What is great about it when I am able to relax enough to become the person who can see that there are others who are even more crushed and stabbed and roiling in the anxiety blender than I am, is that not only am I distracted from the overreactions of my own body, but I am useful, and that makes my body calm down, because it is a good job. And my calm body can bring calm to the bodies of others because that is how things work in the world. I know I can make things less difficult because I know that I do understand what it is, and I will never say oh, bootstraps chin up just do it yar yar. I will say I see you, and I welcome you.

And in so doing, I welcome a person, and bestow upon myself the right to offer welcome.

I have recognized the personhood of both of us.

Later, I will be very, very tired, but I may have made a new friend, and I will be happy.

These things take practice, and the willingness to risk, but they have been worth it in my life.

Thank you for listening,



  1. Thank you for describing how I feel at gatherings. Thankfully, most of the ones I attend are full of family* and friends, so it is a little easier to focus on one thing/person and not the crowd of people. Doing that is a good way to be overwhelmed, and it feels pretty miserable to feel lonely and alone in a crowd of people having a good time. (Or seeming to.)

    I also like dinner gatherings for this reason, or events when there's some focus (my extended family is pretty musical, so usually one or more people have guitars and we have sing-alongs) -- at dinner, I am only obligated to talk to the people near me, so I can try to ignore the rest of the table, and at music events, I can either listen or sing and not focus on the rest of the goings on.

    * And I am lucky to have a family that gets that I need this, as much as, say, they remember my sister is vegetarian so needs meat-free meals. It creates the feeling that the family is a place for comfort and not one where you have to hide your needs because of others'.

  2. Exactly. I used to be the one who found the misplaced books and read them so they could be put back in the correct place.....

  3. Thank you for your honesty. Your words touch me deeply. I struggle alot with bootstraps that others impose on me ("walk, cripple, walk"). And I believe them. This post helps me think about designing strategies to handle them.

  4. Brilliant post. You explain it all so clearly, this should be compulsory reading!

    I also find it more comfortable to have a role in social settings. I often sell raffle tickets or serve drinks.

  5. And it's not enough, it never seems to be enough, when you say you are not able to, and people think willpower, and Should, and just doesn't want. I am sorry you have to, Ibby, and I am glad I know you. <3

  6. Thank you for this beautiful expression of reality for so many. I have a son who was born very premature and he deals with this. I deal with it as well. It is so tiring, yet, we need voices like yours to hopefully help others understand.

  7. Too moved to find words. Very glad I found you on the internets.

  8. Hello Everyone! I revisited this post just now and found all your beautiful words. xxoo What lovely people in the world. Thank you so much for reading and answering. <3 Love, Ib

  9. I'm usually on the lookout for children or dogs at parties since they seem to be more accepting of the social awkwardness that accompanies being anywhere new -- either that or inadvertently start an intense conversation about pop culture.