I never liked eye contact.
I used to sit next to people and talk to them facing straight forward. I didn’t notice that I was doing it or understand why I was doing it. I knew that looking to the side for a conversation’s length made my neck hurt and turning my whole body was a bit crowded in those closely-spaced chairs, but it was an effort didn’t even begin to start making until sometime in high school. People noticed, people commented, I blamed it on my neck (which was not a lie), it kept going.
I used to practice eye contact, picking people at random in crowded classrooms and just…making eye contact. The majority of those times ended less than five seconds later with a “What the fuck are you looking at?” glare. This was not encouraging. Across the room it was bearable, but not for the other person, it seemed. Up close, eye contact was overwhelming. I remember an elementary-school dance in which making eye contact with my dance partner was so intense that I could not endure it for more than an instant and spent the whole time staring at her collarbone, the ruffles on her dress, my shoes, anything but her eyes. And they were very pretty eyes. Other times eye contact with someone I needed to talk to would transfix me, keeping my eyes trapped as a sense of alarm and discomfort slowly swelled in the background.
I got adept at looking at people’s cheeks, foreheads, the space just to the right or left of their heads, some other object of interest in the room, anywhere but the eyes. Even when I made a point to look someone in the eyes at the beginning of a conversation, I would end up in all of these other places without a concerted effort as soon as I shifted focus from that specific task.
I can look at eyes. I like looking at eyes. Eyes are beautiful and warm and inviting and swathed in a dense web of intimacy and connection even when I’ve never seen them before. Eyes are so much that they are too much for me when they are looking back.
I mouth my knuckles.
My elementary-school teachers noticed and told me not to. My parents noticed and told me not to. I tried not to. I “ruined” classroom pictures by having my hand in front of my face, knuckles between my lips, feeling the pleasant softness of skin on skin. I never stopped. I developed some subsidiary quirks to make it look like I was doing something else—putting my hand against my chin in thought, cleaning my lips after eating, covering a yawn—but I never stopped. My knuckles are now unnaturally soft.
I talk to myself with my hands.
I got older and more awkward and accumulated a pile of mistakes and missteps I did not want to obsessively rehash. I could keep them at bay with a hand motion, a tense muscle, a gesture that might not be out of place in a meditative circle. I never did it where other people could see. I put all of my focus in that one stiff motion and there would be none left for reliving awkward come-ons and conversations that should have ended differently. My hands tell me, you do not need to pummel yourself with your failings. That’s life’s job, and life is not going to stop just because you start. Live, learn, and lift off.
I can’t deal with loud noises.
My family always felt the need to push me to accept louder environments, a quest I unpleasantly took up as my own. My brother in particular spared no opportunity to poke at this “weakness.” The practice got me the fortitude to survive various parties long enough to get some well-loved memories, but the sound is not part of those memories. Car radios are always too loud. I attend outdoor concerts and hang out on the big hill next to the venue because it’s no longer fun any closer. I plug my ears when I walk past construction equipment, loud animals, shrieking children. My ears are one of the first things to go when my endurance for parties or nightclubs falters. Even when I am in the right mood and the pulsing bass unites with my heartbeat and I am suffused with its power, the pounding in my brain lets me know that I will not endure that possession for long. Sometimes I wear earplugs just to enjoy, however briefly, a world at the right volume.
I rub things when I’m nervous.
I make circles on Ania’s back when people talk to me and she’s around. I roll a polished rock in my hands when my supervisor talks to me at my desk. I fold and wring and sit on my hands when the polished rock isn’t around. I reflexively look for a wall or table or other furniture when people talk to me in open spaces, so I can lean on and handle it. I feel banisters and walls and railings so I can feel connected to a place instead of wafting through it like a ghostly breeze.
I have deep, specific, and intense interests.
I used to read encyclopedias and dictionaries. Just, read them, beginning to end. My favorite was the encyclopedia set about animals that my dad left in my room. It was even then extremely out of date, but it was mine. I used to collect animal-taxonomy information from multiple entries and combine it to create tables and lists that had, as far as I could tell, been left out of the original. There were times when I looked at some of the things I created and wondered why, but the reality was, I could not stop myself. I organized my shell collection taxonomically for a school project about collections. I included multiple proposed taxonomies in school projects about lizards and dragonflies. I memorized torrents of information I would then insist that people around me get right as part of elaborate imagination games no one but me wanted to play. I would get annoyed and stampy when they taunted me with their refusal to say “heat-resistant” instead of “lava-proof.” I wrote and re-wrote lists of countries and tried to process discrepancies that I eventually learned were because some of my maps were pre-1991 and others were post. I resented keenly how Australia was the only continent divided into states rather than countries and how some countries straddled multiple continents because it upended the tidy order of my literal and figurative world. My parents would worry and forcibly divert me from my obsessions, insisting I watch (actually rather nice) TV with them instead, something I fairly resented even as it expanded my horizons.
The chance to share any of that turned a quiet and introverted child into a dynamo of enthusiasm that whirled far faster than any locals’ ability to follow a narration of lizard taxonomy that would have surprised many Ph.D.s. That whirl came either with frantic gesticulations or a headmaster’s sternness, depending on the barometric pressure and apparent interest of whoever was nearby. Learning that this interest was often accidental, misread, or insincere would send me into a fit of withdrawal that, to some degree, I don’t know that I ever actually left.
I brim with enthusiasm I don’t know how to share.
I was an exuberant and cheerful proselyte for the joy of everything I touched: unusual board games, new reading material, the last set of facts I learned, a new restaurant I discovered. People say things that get me excited and I rap my second knuckles together and rock back and forth. I was so excited about a trip to the Flagler Flea Market to buy some baby turtles sometime in high school that my grandmother wondered if I had some sort of maturity problem. I spent most of my adolescence and early adulthood playing this verve down because enthusiasm is a weapon other people wield against people like me, because people hold that it’s your fault if something you enthusiastically recommend doesn’t impress them, because people look at you like you’re some kind of mutant if you’re enthusiastic about something they don’t understand, because no one ever wants to see what I fucking want to see on vacations and they get annoyed when I wander off on my own.
So much of all of that is things that teachers and family members and friends have tried to train and demand and ridicule and insist out of me.
So much of that is things they should have known I could never shed or suppress or unlearn forever.
So much of that is flagpoles demarcating the childhood and adolescence I might have had if the peculiar creature I am had had the name and face that a just world would have provided.
I do not know how they could not tell.
I do know that I have always been so, and that knowing that makes so, so much sensible and bearable and not the confusing terror-scape I spent so much of my growing years trying to navigate.
I Have Always Been So, and I shall Always Be So.
I Have Always Been So, and I am going to make sure that the next one who reads in perfect silence because going downstairs to say hello is a psychological burden they’d rather not bear knows that they are not alone.
This was amazing, intense, and lovely. Thank you for sharing your experience.
Thank you! I must share this!
I appreciate that 🙂
Thank you for sharing so openly. Every voice matters & yours is helping me with insights for my son.
I do what I can 🙂