Thursday, April 4, 2013

MISSION TWO: Conversation

Before you judge too harshly, I must protest: talking is harder than it seems. At least to some.

I cannot totally blame my naturally bashful demeanor on my disease. To be fair, I was always a shy kid. I was the quiet, blushing girl at family reunions that all my elders would lovingly taunt just to see my face turn beet red. Around my immediate family or friends, I could learn to relax and unwind a bit, but I was always a little uptight when it came to divulging personal information: things that were upsetting me, boys I had crushes on, inner emotions, etc. Tears were sin, at least that's what I believed. My sister "Joan" certainly never took issue with letting her emotions run wild, but as for the rest of my family, privacy and discretion were king.

I sometimes attribute this to my Kentuckian sensibilities. As the eternal neutral state, my bluegrass "peeps" seem to be a little more laid back by birth right. Inside all of us there is a fiercly loyal wildcat but also a worn, tired, and comical old man sucking on his pipe on the porch. He rocks in his chair, puffs thoughtfully, and watches the rest of the mad world go by in his peaceful solitude. "What you do don't bother me none. Be true to yourself, and t' Hell with everyone else." It's a sort of don't ask, don't tell, just shrug and go fishin' mentality. Needless to say, as I matured, my seemingly stable, silent nature made me a favorite amongst my friends' parents. They seemed delighted when I was around, hoping that I would be a good influence, because I came off as "sweet" and "well-behaved." I can't speak for the former categorization, but as for the latter, I was pretty much the most morally rigid and self-regulated kid that ever emerged from the Midwest. Where I went, my lazy tongue followed.

The upside to my lackluster speech skills is my continued ability as a listener. By studying people speaking to each other, or about each other, whether stressed out, sad, angry, or indulging in screaming matches, I have developed ways to balance my intonation for every appropriate theme. In a way, it is a manipulation but not a mean-spirited one. Par exemple, Joan and my mother "Kate" used to indulge in intense fights growing up. It was all noise. Both parties were stressed out and certain that they were going unheard. Both were determined to get their points across, prove that they were right, and obtain the last word. What could have been a calm discussion would turn into a competition of increasing volume, until both threw up their hands and marched to separate corners of the house. All the while, I had been sitting there, taking in both sides of the argument, and registering what the actual problem was, while remaining emotionally detached. Then, I would go to Joan and explain the misunderstanding in a way she could understand, so that she would calm down. Then, I would go to Mom and explain the source of Joan's confusion and anger, so she could make her peace with it. They would patch things up and pretend nothing had happened. The end.

With much practice, I learned how to stop a rising temper or a potential ticking time bomb by talking people away from the cliff before they could even think of jumping. Listen, process, react. I prided myself on my skills, which eschewed judgment, offered sanctuary, and also presented mild and unthreatening instruction, which one could respectfully ignore, should he or she so choose. You see, it was much easier to untangle other people's problems. I liked it. It kept me from having to be emotional myself. If I could keep other people talking, I wouldn't have to reveal what I had up my own sleeves, which were basically made of chain mail. I subdued myself into a mental master contortionist in the hopes that people wouldn't ask about me, my life, or my problems. I was at their service: Merz the Great and Powerful-- but whatever you do, "Pay no attention to the [girl] behind the curtain!"

Now, looking back over my past behavior, I can give kudos to myself in certain ways, but I have also had to humbly accept my flaws in others. On rare occasions, when someone did try to push me to open up or-- God forbid-- take me out of my comfort zone, I could get quite short with people. "You seem upset; do you want to talk about it?" / "No." End of story. "That guy is checking you out, go talk to him! / "No." DNR. I would bring all intrigues to a screeching halt with my total lack of give, stubborn ass that I am, and use a diversion tactic to take the focus off myself. Suffice it to say, I did not like any occasion that would bring focus upon me. I pretty much RSVP'd the same "No" to my own birthday party for, oh, I dunno... 30 years.

This is where the depression factors in. Shyness is a character trait; social anxiety is a symptom of profound fear. I would feel myself being rude, ignoring the person standing beside me trying to engage. I slighted my friends, disrespecting their trust in me by refusing to return the favor by unburdening my own inner torments. With my brand of depression, there was always something between me and whomever was on the non-receiving end of my tightened jaw. I now refer to that something as "The Wall." In actuality, I can talk just fine. I know this, because I talk to myself constantly. (And you think my written monologues are bad...).Yet, only on the rarest of occasions could I step out of my shell and be extroverted enough to start dialogues or fully contribute to them. I seldom would speak of my own volition and interjected absolutely never. I told myself to do so was rude. With a best friend, family, and oddly around gay men (wherein there was no sexual threat nor fear of rejection), I could be quite chatty and even intelligent in the way I expressed myself. Increase the numbers, throw in strangers, and I would transform into the dumb, mute, blond girl instantaneously.

My excuses were, of course, rational to me:

  1. Denial: It doesn't matter. I know what I think, and it isn't necessary for me to voice it.
  2. ProcrastinationWell, the time has passed for me to speak up now. It would be ridiculous after such a long breadth of silence.
  3. DisdainThese people clearly believe what they want to believe, so why challenge it?

Then, there were the irrational and uncontrollable provocations of my silence:

  1. The Brain Freeze, in which my entire being froze, and I couldn't answer the simplest of questions. "My favorite color? Uh... uh..." The entire spectrum of hues would disappear.
  2. The Masochist, in which I would tell myself that anything I said would sound stupid or come out bass ackwards as verbal dyslexia, as it normally did (particularly around men).
  3. The Zombie, in which I would find myself overly intimidated by my surroundings and simply mentally vacate-- physically alive, mentally dead. Most people rightly avoided me in this state.
All these factors were part of the Wall, that strange invisible force that made it impossible for me to break through and interact. It had a strange, paralyzing force over me. I feared everyone on the other side of it and maintained my place in a glass cage where I could sometimes work up the energy to smile and nod but, internally, I was a shaking, sweating nightmare. (Imagine the Golem from Lord of the Rings, and you've about got it, except I had no penchant for round, golden jewelry).

Since I have been taking my medication, that Wall has crumbled away. This disappearing obstruction was, in fact, what alerted me to my progress and demolished any skepticism I had toward my treatment. That nearly agoraphobic feeling  of great distance, which I had previously imagined from everyone, and the imaginary threatening sensation I had also felt emanating from them, simply dissipated. I was no longer nervous talking to my boss, because I suddenly recognized that he was just a human being. Just another guy. Passers-by I once saw at my office building every day and had maintained a mere polite formality with, I am now suddenly able to greet with more honest warmth. Communication in general flows with more ease and even with more instigation on my part. I now casually and blithely ask others about their day; I discuss things that I think and feel in length as if it has always been second nature. There is no more "No" Wall-- just an opened door of self-expression.

This isn't to say that I am cured. I definitely still struggle with my shyness. I'm never going to be the loudest girl in the group or the one holding court over conversation. I still grow a bit silent and blushy, especially when a cutie enters the elevator. However, in general, I am now able to recognize that the Wall was a total invention on my part. It was my mind playing tricks on me, distorting what I saw in others and what I imagined they saw in me. The world and the people in it are more real to me now, as am I. It is fascinating to see these changes in myself and the changes in my perception, which has given birth to bolder and more confidant actions. It allows me to forgive myself and to let the damaging, overly protective defense mechanism of verbal roadblock go. The gag in my mouth never belonged to me. It was never of my doing. It was a birth defect that a miracle of science was able to correct. I am no longer crippled. I no longer loathe the sound of my own voice. Most importantly, I can finally appreciate that other people kinda like it too.

1 comment:

  1. Mer,
    Everyone always appreciated your kindness and eloquence. Your brain just wouldn't let you see that.



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