I guess I lack a sense of intrinsic value. I need to calculate my worth by how much I benefit other people, by being of service. On the day of judgement, in the great cosmic hall of justice (or even just the petty-session blame-courts of the wronged and indignant), I’ll call upon this body of evidence: “Have mercy on me! I was the one who always put the bins out!”
This is probably why I’ve always been socially awkward, although I used to be drawn to company and liked being noticed. My solution was to clown around. When I was young I’d say the most outrageous things just for a bit of attention. I’d embarrass myself and earn the disdain of the people I most wanted to impress. I’d still stay doggedly to the bitter end of even the most tedious parties, convinced that the minute I left they’d bring on the dancing girls, the painted elephants, swinging their trunks, their tusks covered in gold leaf, the fire-eaters…
More recently, but still before I got ill, I’d swoop in to any gathering of people, deluge everyone with a defensive ink-cloud of jokes, opinions and anecdotes, then scoot off like an alarmed squid, realising as I did so that I hadn’t learned anything at all about anyone else. In both cases, I managed to isolate myself by talking. I used to wonder if I was sociopathic. Now I think I’m just clumsy in company.
In workshops, all this translates to a compulsion to fill the silence. I want to help, to be the one who makes it work. At first I enjoyed supporting the group through judicious contribution and well-timed, attentive listening. I was committed to letting others talk, unless there was an awkward silence. I’d end each session thinking, “well, I did my bit, there. Hopefully that was useful and productive for everyone else.” I know, I know – how patronising and ego-centric: “Me, Me, Me! Oh, Please, let me be the one who saves the discussion!” – a patient pretending to be one of the doctors. It was a way to avoid confronting myself.
Worse, as I gained energy I became overwhelmed, again, by the desire for attention. I now had to include myself in every conversation. I became agitated and couldn’t concentrate on the heartfelt, soul-baring revelations of the others. I was so desperate to contribute that I could barely contain myself. I’d say things impulsively, for no reason.
Even if a topic had been fully worked through by other patients, I had to have my self-important tuppence-worth at the end, adding my boring experience and opinions, as if anyone cared; as if they’d be grateful for my support. God, it’s embarrassing! It’s self-indulgent. It’s also selfish and unhelpful because it blocks other people from talking. I’m monopolising the conversations, and oversharing. I keep thinking what everybody else must be thinking: “shut up you boring twat”.
This began to bleed into my interactions outside the workshops. Whereas, previously, we’d pass each other in corridors in silent, miserable solidarity, now I am chatty, over-confident and excitable, passing pointless comment on any number of trivialities. It makes me feel flustered, sick and agitated. I want to restrain myself, be less impulsive and more measured, pause and think before I speak. I want to know what you think, dear reader, but I can’t reach you.
I fantasise, sometimes, about cutting out my tongue.
That was one of the advantages of being ill. After nearly half a century of hearing my own hateful voice droning on and on, I finally managed to starve myself into a blessed silence. I could listen. (Well, sort of, half-listen; listen with partial understanding, scud across the surface of your meanings)
(Half of what I [heard was] meaningless but I [listened] just to reach you…)