Wednesday, 25 January 2017

On Capitulation And Saying Yes In The Difficulty Of Social Interaction

25. Dread: Write about doing something you don’t want to do.

For this prompt you're getting something about my life.  No stories about skating on the sea with a goddess or sugar addiction today.  No poems about losing your home.  I see more fiction in the near future.  Today there's this:

A social picture from South Shields

In a social situation I do my best to remain calm on the surface.  This is Clare.  Cool as a cucumber.  That's what is portrayed.  Underneath?  Well that's different isn't it?  At least in some of those situations.  For most of us it's different.  In my case the cucumber isn't just chilled.  It's been deep frozen.  So the surface is unblemished.  The contents are mush, each cell broken, incoherent.   So my face remains impassive or it fakes emotion.  And my brain doesn't have much of a clue what to do.  Everything seizes up, clogged in anxiety.  Old scripts are repeated.  Intellectually learned rules of engagement are followed, one part of the carefully constructed flow chart leading on to the next so I don't have to think.  In those situations conversing and reacting is a logic problem.  Volition is irrelevant.  Desire is irrelevant.  The facade becomes a lie.  And it's only later I might work out what was going on, and perhaps live to regret words, actions, agreements, all those times I nodded my head because it fitted into the rules I thought were there.

These buried-panic situations are like maths problems at school, they're the logic tests from college.  School calculus was easy.  Solving those quadratic equations was simplistic.  Stick in the numbers.  Follow the rules.  Be exact.  Do not deviate.  And the answer inevitably falls out at the bottom.  I didn't need to think about why it worked.  Didn't need to worry that halfway through the calculations a rogue number would creep in and muck up the problem, forcing me at gunpoint to include it in line seven.  Everything was uniform.  Exact.  Numbers knew their place.  Numbers didn't lie.  Numbers didn't surprise and they didn't try to get me to do anything more than arrive at the correct answer at the bottom of the page.

It was the same with logic.  In my one year on a course at the University of Bradford before hearing an imagined voice and rushing off to study theology (don't ask about that today) logic was included in the syllabus.  Two of my term papers, chosen from a range of subjects including philosophy, psychology, and sociology, were logic papers.  They were easy.  Very easy.  I achieved a mark of 100% on both papers and was smilingly congratulated for being so brilliant.  I couldn't understand this brilliance.  I hadn't done anything hard, or so I thought.  All I'd done was to learn a set of rules and applied them to some puzzles.  Stick the rules in at the top and it was inevitable that the perfect solution would follow.  Because those rules didn't lie.  Didn't scheme.  Didn't change.  Didn't expect anything of me beyond parroting them back.

I was at home with those rules.  Some zebras are Capricorn.  All Capricorns are named Brian.  Therefore some zebras are named Brian.  All mobile phones have a screen.  All screens enjoy cricket.  Therefore all mobile phones enjoy cricket.  The logic at college was more complicated than that but year one logic didn't even get fuzzy.  You get the idea.  It couldn't be changed.  Couldn't be altered.  I knew where I was with it and it was immensely relaxing even though my grandad told me that the system I was being taught was overly burdensome and could be greatly simplified.  "Look at this," he said one day.  "Wittgenstein taught me this."  My grandad was right.  He taught it to me and it really was a much better system.  It's a shame I wasn't allowed to use it at college.  It's a deeper shame that twenty-five years later I can't remember the slightest thing about it.  What a loss to humanity:  From the genius of Wittgenstein.  Direct to my grandad.  Direct to me.  And then forgotten before I could ever use it.  Forgotten, almost directly because of that imagined voice.  Again, don't ask.

A social situation is not logic.  There are rules.  Rules that you are expected to follow even when they're as objectively meaningless as all those term paper logic questions.  You know the rule about the weather.  It's been written down and not by me.  Persons A and B meet.  After saying hello and how are you - they're both fine of course - person A says something about the weather.  Person B responds in agreement and adds a little more information.  You don't deviate from that.  Ever.  It's a major social faux pas to disagree or to share a different opinion about the weather.  Even if you strongly disagree you don't say.  That would be classed as a destructive act rather than an attempt at constructive discussion.  I have to restrain myself regularly and force myself to follow the rules.  It was especially hard one day when in one conversation person A had said to me, "It's cold today, isn't it?" and in the very next conversation person A had said to me, "It's warm today, isn't it?"  What's an autistic woman supposed to do?!

Beyond such trivialities and scripted conversations the social gets more complex.  The rules are harder.  The signals more difficult to read.  The number of people increases.  The amount of sheer bloody information you have to process rises exponentially and a calmly ticking over brain has to put more and more of its energy into frantically processing everything and to keep up with things.  It doesn't matter whether it's a social group or a business meeting.  And then there's a lag and you get lost and right through the whole thing you're expected to be able to respond appropriately, participate, answer questions, be a rational human being.

Sometimes, I can't.

I just can't.  Knowing what's being said.  Processing the words.  Understanding the meaning.  Understanding subtexts.  Body language.  Facial expressions.  Motivations.  I just can't.  Turning it around so I know what to say.  Saying what I mean.  Being able to stand up for myself when I've not even got the strength left to understand what standing is.  I just can't.

And so it is that I find myself agreeing with things I disagree with and then I find myself agreeing to do things I don't want to do and don't need to do.  Combine that with being a normal, nice human being who wants others to be happy and wants to be accepted.  Combine that with every bloody thing that comes from being autistic and not even knowing about it for most of my life.  Combine that with anxiety issues.  Combine it with sensory issues that may be making concentrating on the situation at all and act of fierce, strength sapping willpower.

It's a fatal combination.  100% on tough University logic papers.  Bloody easy.  Well done Clare.  Not screwing up my life in a social environment.  Bloody hard.  I'm never going to achieve 100% on that one.  It's not a question of "if."  It's a question of when I'll screw it up and how badly I'll manage it this time round.  It's a question of what I'll say that sounded perfectly pleasant when the words were formed but which was majorly offensive.  (Did I tell you about the time I said something to my Priest that came out totally wrong resulting in him never speaking to me again?)  It's a question of what I'll agree to do that I shouldn't be agreeing to do.

So it was a couple of weeks ago.  I was in a business situation.  A meeting with a dozen people round a table, under the strip lighting.  I wasn't coping very well.  I'd spent the whole morning in a state of useless near motionlessness.  Great anxiety about attending and putting all my focus into not allowing it to escalate into a major panic attack.  Perhaps I shouldn't have attended the thing at all.  Should have stayed away and written poetry or got stuck into a writing exercise.  Or just gone for a walk.  Anything but attend a business meeting that I didn't need to attend in the first place.

There was a need expressed at the meeting.  An important need.  I perceived that there was nobody else to fill that need, at least not round the table on that day.  I perceived everyone was in a hurry to have that need met and it would be burdensome to them all if it wasn't met.  All eyes were on me.  Will you do it?  Will you do it?  Well someone's got to do it.  Will you do it?  And there I was.  Not coping but trying to present that facade of smoothness.  Heck, the last time I'd been in that meeting I walked out half way through because I wasn't coping at all.  Everyone just assumed it was because a particular person had entered and was talking but that wasn't it at all.  I just wasn't coping and in any case I knew that I needed to tell people that I was withdrawing from other things I said I'd be doing when I wasn't meant to be doing them.  Sorry.  That sentence was cryptic by necessity.  The perceived badgering continued.  Will you do it?  Will you do it?  It's enjoyable I promise.  Sign up.  You won't be liable for much, we'll try to make it so you won't be liable for everything if things go bottom up.  Please.  Will you do it?  Dammit I felt a hell of a lot pressured than they felt they were pressuring.

I said yes.  Found myself on the committee of an organisation.  An organisation that I knew I should be serving in that capacity.  I knew that saying no would have been wise.  I knew that I didn't want that role and that it wasn't for me.  It's like if I was asked to be front of house staff in a busy café.  I should say no because saying yes would be a disaster for me and for the café.

I said yes.  What can I say?  I agreed that there was a need and stepped in to fill it because on that day there wasn't another.  I caved to perceived pressure.  I wanted to be useful.  And I've felt shit about saying yes every day since.  I know it's wrong.  I have told another committee member that I'd only do it for six months - and less if someone else stepped up.  I'd fill the need.  Solve the immediate problems.  But I wouldn't be a long term solution.  I wouldn't get stuck in it.

Two weeks of anxiety about doing this thing I'm not meant to be doing.  Two weeks of bad sleep, of worrying about how the hell I would cope with it, how the hell this name on a piece of paper in an organisational structure could ever translate to a useful reality.  Who knows?  Maybe it could.  Maybe I'd turn out to be wonderful.  So I tell myself to give it a go.  And then I panic.  Like a fly in a web, a butterfly pinned.

No.  It's enough.  In response to messages telling me about how I wanted to be on this committee I've been able to say - in writing and out of the stress of a physical gathering - that I didn't want to be on it at all and only said yes because I felt pressured and caved, and because there didn't seem to be anyone else.  I felt like a piece of excrement writing that.  It was the truth though and I needed to tell it for my own well being and safety.

It has worked out.  Today, thanks to a kindly individual, I have been given opportunity to withdraw.  Before attending a single meeting.

I am told that everyone will understand.  Of course I'll still feel like I'm letting them all down.  I am assured that people won't see it that way.

Today I am greatly relieved.  I know it wasn't my place.  It's a Wednesday so this morning I will attend a group in somewhere that I have discovered is my place.  I will meet with people - a social gathering yes - who I am learning are my people.  It's a place where I can be me.  A place where I don't feel an overpowering need to follow rules because nobody there particularly cares about them.  Creativity trumps rigidity.

Today I am greatly relieved.  I'm back on the path I know I should be following.  I'm facing the right way again.

One hundred smile emoticons!

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