When I was younger I was desperate for attention. I’d worked out that the basis of most types of humour is saying something inappropriate, flouting the expectations of a particular social script. So I clowned around, verbally. I said the first thing that came into my head. I got a lot of laughs but it was very hit and miss. There were also a lot of doubtful looks, puzzlement, offence, irritation, disdain. I grew increasingly sick of the sound of my own loud voice wittering on. I began to associate it with exposure and humiliation.
By my early 20s I’d managed to condition myself to associate hangovers with shame, largely because of stupid things I’d said. Waking up with a headache, I’d immediately by coated in a sweat of embarrassment, assuming I’d made a fool of myself, even if it turned out that I’d been very good and quiet. On one occasion, I stood up at breakfast at a work training weekend and announced “I’d just like to apologise for calling Yoko Ono a talentless gold-digging witch…” I was the only person who’d stayed up that late who’d also made it to breakfast. (Mind you, my party piece, at this point in my life, was taking all my clothes off and running around naked, which requires no language at all.)
I’m not knocking humour. Victoria Coren-Mitchell said, on Radio 4, that she was brought up to believe it was extremely rude not to make light of everything. I like that idea: humour can be humble and compassionate; taking the piss is often the only way we can challenge the self-important newspeak of corporate diktat.
Looking back, I think I was never very good at relationships. Friendships were immensely important to me and I realised that conversation was the most important element of these. But my only area of expertise was myself and expressing that, and you tend to keep to your comfort zone. Besides, asking people about themselves seemed like prying. Is this something associated with men? Has society conditioned us to make statements and expect response, rather than actively inviting others to join in by asking questions?
When you’re really thin, your poor, wasted brain can’t cope with language very well, especially conversation. There are too many streams of data – you are overwhelmed by all those yammering, competing voices going on and on, overlapping. It’s not the noise that is distressing so much as the turmoil of information. You yearn for simplicity and cool emptiness and to be presented silently with single things.
Talking itself becomes difficult. My voice-box locked up, at one point, so that everything I said came out in a hoarse, forced monotone, as if a small, angry and exhausted person was shouting for help from far away.
I also couldn’t work out how to organise my words, what to emphasise, how to properly explain myself. So, if cornered and forced into speech, I’d just keep rambling on, more and more desperately, until somebody cut me off. This started happening with greater frequency and I’d feel grateful to be side-lined, to become silent and withdrawn, a solitary figure dozing in the background. And this felt good, after all those years of endless, head-ache-inducing, mouth-drying monologues. I could ask questions, pretend to be attentive, to be a good friend.
And, anyway, you become impervious to awkwardness. Embarrassing silences were just chances for me to have a little snooze, a micro-nap. I didn’t care.
The problem was that the worn circuitry of my brain couldn’t cope with any conversation at all, even a quiet chat with the people I was closest to. The people who were most concerned for my well-being were the ones I felt most tormented by, forced to respond to when there was nothing to say. It was so exhausting. I could follow what people were saying but I couldn’t feel the importance of it. I began to dread meeting them.
So it became clear that there is more to being a good companion than just not dominating the conversation. You need to be willing to make social noises: cows in twilight signalling that they’re still there and still aware of each other, mapping the herd. Speaking is part of showing concern for other people.
Now that I’m better(ish) the compulsion to TALK ALL THE TIME has reasserted itself, a constant urge to join in. My working day is full, full, of contributions, of asides, bon mots, quips, my tuppence-worth, anecdotes, jokes, my version of events, droll observations, theories, interruptions, personal histories. I am hoarse and hateful with it. I am soiled and exposed by my own lack of reticence. I have nothing useful or unique to contribute. Everyone got on perfectly well without me when I was silent. Of course, I tell myself that human contact is necessary for mental health and I’m only being polite and avoiding awkwardness, cultivating necessary relationships and nurturing a mutual sense of community, but it’s not true. All the things I say seem to be about myself because that’s what I know best. (Apart from literature and politics, which no-one likes to talk about). I’m forcing myself on people. I should just ask them about themselves and listen attentively.
It’s not solipsism. Honestly. I’m very very interested in other people (and bored with myself) but I find them difficult to reach. That‘s part of the reason they’re so fascinating. I just find negotiating relationships difficult. If people approach me, or if I find myself in company, I take fright, throw words at them and gallop off down the field like a startled colt, until I come to a halt, quivering and agitated. Is this more alert state simply the condition of being a communicative person connected by a network of relationships? Have I just been shaken out of my somnolent (somniculous?) existence? What’s wrong with talking?
All the same, I hope reticence is something I can salvage from this collapse. Most days I find myself praying: “please, please let me be quiet today”.
But enough about me. How are you?