Even I don’t, sometimes.
Seriously. I walk through my days, going about my regular business, living my life, interacting with people, doing what I do, making mistakes, making it right… working (hard) to keep up. And I do manage to keep up. Most of the time.
At least, that’s how it looks on the outside. I’ve learned, over years, to present in a certain way… to project a certain image… to do a passable job of fitting in, by mirroring the mannerisms and “social pacing” of people around me. And it works. I had to figure it out by trial-and-error, but I did eventually figure it out.
In my early childhood, when I was first learning about how to live outside my parents’ house — in school, especially — I had a very hard time fitting into my surroundings. My early grade-school years were rocky and rough, and I went through a lot of bullying and teasing and marginalization. I also had a very, very hard time dealing with academic requirements. I could pretty much get by, but it was — again — trial and error. I remember working so very, very hard to make my teachers happy… without fully understanding why they were asking me to learn certain things and complete certain lessons.
I think part of the problem was that, despite having a hard time keeping up with what was going on around me, I was ahead of the kids around me, subject-wise. I grew up in a family that valued education and spent a lot of time exploring the world of ideas. My parents were — and still are — very well read, and my grandparents were experts in their fields. I was well accustomed to sitting around talking about complex subjects… more comfortable doing that, in fact, than spending time playing with the kids around me.
And it was awkward. Very awkward for everyone. At least, I think it was. I didn’t understand my peers very well, and they didn’t seem to understand me at all. Or maybe my perceptions were skewed because of my TBIs — poor judgment, slowed information processing, and misperception of the actions and/or intentions of others are all hallmarks of TBI. Maybe everyone was fine with me; I just wasn’t fine with them (or myself).
Anyway, I don’t want to harp on all my difficulties. Let’s just say my childhood was somewhat challenging.
All that started to change, however, when I started getting connected with kids who were several years older than me. My family had moved to a new area, and we had started attending a new church. That church did not have a very large concentration of kids exactly my age — they were either several years older than me or several years younger. My parents talked to the youth director and managed to get me “in” with the older kids in the young adult youth group.
I really wasn’t sure about it, when I started. I was painfully shy — no, shy isn’t the word for it. I was completely out of my depth. All the boys and girls — young men and young women, actually — who were part of the youth group seemed so with it, so together, so … grown up. They seemed like they knew what everyone was saying when they talked, and they seemed to know how to act around other people.
I was amazed. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to initiate conversations that weren’t about some academic matter, and I sure as hell didn’t know how to keep a conversation going. I was petrified, the first months I hung out with the other kids. But fortunately, some of the most popular kids in the “gang” at church were second cousins of mine, and they knew me from family reunions. So, I was “in” with the crowd, even when I couldn’t manage to put two words together.
It would be really easy for me to focus on how challenging those years were for me. But I’d rather focus on how much I gained from meeting those challenges head-on, and learning from them. Those several years with the older kids — I spent about 3 years among kids who were several years my senior — taught me volumes about how to make my way in the world. By watching them and seeing how they interacted with others, I was able to model my behavior on something positive — and types of behavior that obviously worked. I watched the kids who were clearly popular and having a great time being alive, and I mirrored their words and actions. I’m sure I looked a bit spastic, at times, tagging along and clumsily imitating everyone at the start, but eventually I learned how to smooth it all out and “deliver a seamless presentation” of the kinds of behavior I saw other people using — that worked well for them in social situations.
I could tell things worked, if people laughed at jokes. I could tell things worked for them, if other people smiled when they approached. I could tell things were “clicking” socially, if everyone was relaxed and enjoying each others’ company. It probably sounds pretty remedial and basic, but that’s how I learned. And I learned pretty quickly, too — so long as I could be a part of the group, but still be able to withdraw, now and then, when I got overwhelmed. Because I was with kids who were some years older than me, I was able to get “special dispensation” because I was younger. I was “just a kid” so I was allowed to mess up, now and then. Not all the time, but they tended to cut me some slack, which was helpful.
The fact that all this took place in a church environment, where there were very strict rules about how you did and did not behave was very helpful also. All the boys were well-behaved, and all the girls kept to very high standards of behavior. Even though a lot of us eventually left the church and went our own ways, far from organized religion, the fact that there were clear guidelines in place for us to follow made it pretty straightforward for me to figure out how I should — and should not — behave around others. The kids who were ahead of me modeled acceptable behavior, and I followed their example. I was part of a “gang” — but the gang was all good Christian kids, so I had the benefit of being in a group of pressuring peers who pressured me in directions that did not lead towards drugs, alcohol, petty crime, and teen sex. (That pressure took place in the other “gangs” I ran with, several years later, in school and at jobs I held.)
During those early teen years in the church youth group, I learned how to integrate socially through the various activities we had — Sunday School, prayer meetings, weeknight services, organized youth group activities, like trips and outings, Bible quiz team, and countless other get-togethers that were organized by the youth leaders. They really did have a good program, I realize in retrospect, and I benefitted from it a lot. Being able to be around kids who were older than me gave me license to just be who and what I was — a little dorky, a little geeky, gangly and awkward and prone to say dumb things that were out of context — and be accepted, anyway, because I was young. I don’t remember being stigmatized, probably because it was generally expected that I was supposed to be different — but that was because of my age, not because I was a queer little brain-damaged freak who couldn’t fit in with my peer group.
What a relief it was, to be allowed to be different! I had been battling against my social surroundings for years, but that had gotten me nowhere. And I mean, nowhere. Standing out as being different (which was my “default setting”), had resulted in a lot of bullying, ridicule, and general hardship for me. It had also not helped my academic performance or my general ability to get by in the world. But being able to hang out with kids who were not only older than me and showed me how to behave, but being given some leeway with how I behaved, totally took the pressure off.
I was finally able to relax, socially. And I was able to learn. I was able to pattern my demeanor after the most socially successful members of the youth group — the guys and gals who were the most capable, the most popular, the smartest, the most respected-by-adults. I’m sure I looked kind of dense, stumbling and bumbling my way after them. But you know what? No matter how dorky I looked around the older kids, when I was around my own peer group, those behaviors and mannerisms made me look a lot more mature than I felt. I didn’t need to understand exactly why someone would say certain things (like social pleasantries) or do certain things (like strike up a conversation with people you’ve never met before in your life). I only needed to understand how they did it, and that it worked for them… and perfect my impressions of the most socially successful people I knew.
Granted, my “performance” wasn’t always perfect, and there were a lot of false moves over the years that got me in trouble with older kids and teachers and other authority figures, but you know what? By practicing and practicing and practicing some more… observing carefully when others did things that made them look good… by rehearsing the “role” I wanted to play in the world in the privacy of my own bedroom, out in the woods where I could have some alone-time… by constantly checking and re-checking the results of what I’d done, learning my lessons and “taking my lumps” as I went, I was able to build a really compelling and convincing repertoire of social graces that have stood me in good staid.
Okay, so my parents were probably pretty concerned throughout the course of my life, when I’d spend hours just talking to myself. And I’m sure they’ve often wondered about me walking around having animated, in-depth conversations about topics I’m passionate about… with no one in particular. To this day, I still have extended animated converstions with myself when I’m alone or in the car driving. I do it — and have always done it — to work on my vocal pacing, my delivery, my presentation. I have a role to play in the world, and I know well enough (inside my own woolly head) how hard it can be for me to keep my act together. I get lost all too quickly, so I need to keep my composure skills up, and “running the lines” my life does it for me. This “regular life” stuff doesn’t come easily to me, so I have to work at it, work at it, work at it some more. All the time, whenever I get a chance.
Fortunately, I enjoy it, and when I’m having intense, protracted discussions with myself, pretending to talk to another person — breaking now and then to let “them” get a word in — I’m usually going on about something that captures and holds my interest. So it’s not work as much as it is effortful play. And it pays off.
In countless ways. Can I just tell you, the best validation of my efforts has been all these people telling me, over the course of the past year or so, that they never would have guessed I had a head injury, let alone half a dozen. It never would have occurred to them that I was anything less than perfectly normal. On the outside, then, my presentation is intact. And all my hard work has paid off. The countless hours I’ve spent analyzing my interactions with the world, checking and double-checking the results of my relating to others… the untold time I’ve spent carefully tweaking my demeanor during the course of converstaions… the tricks I’ve picked up about how to interact effectively with others… it’s all paid off. Big time.
Now there are some days, of course, when I feel a lot more like a fraud than I feel functional. I feel like I’m just walking through my days playing a role that has nothing to do with me. I’m sure a lot of people feel that way — especially as they age and start to examine their lives. But with me, it’s especially pronounced, because there are many, many times I say and do things without even thinking about them which don’t sound anything like me, or what interests me, or what I care about. There are times when I’ll get to the end of a conversation or a complex interaction with someone and realize that I have no idea what just happened — I wasn’t even personally involved in the interaction. I didn’t even say what I meant or thought or felt. I just mirrored that other person, without even knowing what I was mirroring. They thought for sure that I agreed with them wholeheartedly and was validating their point of view by repeating it back to them, but I was really just saying and doing the bare minimum to get in and out of the conversation without getting too turned around.
Indeed, this is the great pitfall of this approach, socially successful as it may be: that I can get swept up in a chain of events that I don’t agree with, don’t care about, don’t even want to participate in… because the action is moving a lot faster than my little brain is, and I’ve unconsciously mirrored everyone so well, that they enlisted my help and swept me into their grand designs without my ever consciously assenting to it. And they think that because I’m able to mirror them so well, I’ve consciously chosen the path they’re taking because I’m as totally into it as they are… But I haven’t deliberately chosen. And I’m not totally into it. I’m totally into nothing more than just participating and navigating the situation successfully enough to not be found out as a head-injured dimwit.
It can be a problem. Especially when I try to slow down the action long enough to say, “Hey – I need a while to think this through before I get involved.” Slowing things down is terribly difficult for me, in the first place, because I tend to be highly impulsive and get swept up into the energy of things. I also hate feeling as slow as I am, and I hate feeling so friggin’ retarded — as in the literal meaning “to be delayed”, which is exactly what I am at times. I have developed an elaborate and effective cover/compensatory strategy for my limitations, and I like how I feel when I’m “under cover”. I like feeling whole and hale and hearty and fast and smooth and with it. I like feeling complete and well-integrated. But when I “buy my cover” and forget that it’s just that — well, things can break down pretty quickly.
I suppose it’s all a balancing act. There’s no way I’m going to just dispense with my compensatory behaviors — why should I? Everyone needs a little cover, now and then, and plenty of people say “yes-yes-yes” while they’re trying to buy time to think things through on their own, in the privacy of their own heads. But I don’t want to fool myself into thinking that everything is perfectly alright, since I can present well, articulate, keep my act together in very controlled circumstances. I don’t want to fall into the habit of thinking that because I can function very well in a highly structured environment where I’m literally just mimicking people around me and able to perform well as a result, than I can duplicate that same level of effectiveness out on my own.
I’ve tried it, and it doesn’t work. I once thought that my on-the-job skills at my highly routinized, heavily project-managed 9-to-5 position at an established corporation would translate into the same level of effectiveness and success when I started my own company. But I was wrong, and that experiment ended very, very badly. I’m still picking up the pieces.
I once thought that because I saw other people conducting workshops and I understood the form and structure of them, that I could duplicate their efforts and do just as well. What happened was, I got 10 minutes into the workshop and lost control of the “flow” and ended up riding a wild bucking bronco of a workshop where everyone talked out of turn and wouldn’t stay on-topic — very similar to what happens inside my head when I’m tired and overwhelmed.
I once thought that because I had worked in financial services for many years, and I had a burning interest in financial planning, that I could and should become a financial planner. But I ended up enrolling in a program for a bunch of money and then was unable to even finish two of the six courses. I was also unable to get more than a C grade in the two tests I took. And I had no idea why! As so many times in my past, I actually forgot about the program for a while and wandered off to do other things… and it didn’t fully sink in that I was supposed to be working on it until I got a notice that I had all of six… then three months left to complete the 18-month course. It slipped my mind, for the most part… and I couldn’t finish the program. What could — and should — have been a simple matter for me turned out to be a whole lot more complicated than I thought it would be. And I was a whole lot less up to the task, than I had assumed.
I once thought that because I had worked with many different kinds of lawyers for many years, that I could read and analyze and understand important legal documents for my family, but I ended up really turned around and confused, and if it weren’t for the fact that I had a good lawyer waiting in the wings, I could have really screwed things up.
The wild thing was — I had gotten myself into all these messes at the urging of others around me. Others who were so very, very sure that I could handle myself perfectly well, that I was perfectly capable, that I was perfectly equipped to deal with all of this… who had no idea at the time (as I) that there were some serious neurological impairments holding me back. There weren’t a lot, but there were enough.
And as a result, I have danced on the edge of disaster repeatedly throughout the course of my adulthood — and I’m still running into instances where I overestimate my capabilities. They’re less and less pronounced, and I’m getting more acclimated to “quality controlling” my assumptions, but the risk still exists that I might overreach and not realize I need to take special care to compensate for my limits.
I suspect that these may be good examples of anosognosic hazard — having lacking self-awareness get in the way of living your life. I know that they’re good examples of how buying my own cover can get me into trouble.
The thing is, I don’t feel like being disabled, I don’t feel like being head-injured, I don’t feel like making special exceptions for myself. But when I don’t at least consider that my broken brain may be complicating my life needlessly… getting me into trouble, yet again… well, the feeling of being in hot water is far worse than the feeling of tending to my relatively few special needs.
I really, really hate having to consider how difficult some things are for me. I detest having to bumble and fumble and stumble my way through situations until I figure out how to handle them. I cannot stand having trouble with sequential steps and not being able to remember stuff that “should” come easily to me. Most of all, I hate the idea of revealing to others how hard I have to work to do the most basic of things, like getting up and going through my routine each morning, and actually getting to work on time. It’s embarrassing, it’s disconcerting, it’s a total downer. But that’s how it is.
And even if I don’t show it to everyone else, it’s important that I not lose sight of it inside my own head.
‘Cause you can’t fix something, if you don’t know it’s broken.