Monday, February 27, 2006
I was flipping through a magazine a few years ago and came across one of those ads for an antidepressant, I think Zoloft, with the sad little cartoon rock/circle/whatever. The art depicted the sad rock under a spotlight, with horizontal lines drawn on its cheeks to indicate embarrassment, while behind it was a vast crowd of other rocks, all with friendly smiles on their little circular faces. The text read something like "You often get very nervous around other people, it feels like everyone is watching and judging you. You're afraid of making a mistake or looking like a fool".
I remember looking at that ad for a very long time. That's me, I thought. I am that sad rock, or circle, or intentionally vague depiction of a human that could be either male or female! Maybe I need Zoloft!
A short amount of time later I came across another Zoloft ad; same sad rock, this time with crinkles above its eyes, and copy that started out "Do you find yourself worrying or feeling anxious?" YES, I thought, ...sometimes! It then occurred to me that the smart folks at Pfizer could print a million scattershot, widest-possible-net ads (Frightened of spiders? Yes! Cannot deal with having unpainted toenails? Yes! Double over with helpless laughter every time you walk past the refrigerated pudding aisle? Yes, yes, oh god YES!) and I would identify with them all.
I don't know when an everyday sort of idiosyncrasy turns into an actual disorder, maybe when you wall yourself inside your house and live in your fort made of human feces because now you're safe, yes now you're safe, oh HO, they can't get you now, but I do think I've become more and more socially dorktastic over the years. You'd think that with age would come wisdom, because, you know, when 32 years you have, care what other people think you will not. Because fear! Is the path to the dark side.
(See? DORK. Yoda-fucking-quoting-dork.)
Instead, I've noticed some disturbing new manifestations of my sad-rock social anxiety, especially around people I don't know very well. My throat gets dry and scratchy, my voice develops an odd billy-goat shake, my face becomes a flaming tomato. And this is just when I'm talking to people who are being nice to me.
Worst of all, I can't make eye contact for shit. I literally cannot look a stranger in the eye for more than a few seconds without internally freaking out, my brain experiences some kind of electrical short and I become overwhelmingly uncomfortable and increasingly convinced that I need to get up NOW RIGHT NOW and run out of the room screaming.
I remember a job interview I had about 5 years ago where the hiring VP said, "That's an interesting technique you have." I had no idea what she was talking about, and she explained that as I answered my interview questions, I would start out looking at her but then cut away my gaze. "It's supposed to send a message that you're really thinking about your answers," she said. "I just wanted to let you know I was aware of it." She stated this in a manner that implied she was on to my little pop-psy game and that I could give it up. I couldn't think of a positive spin to put on the fact that I wasn't doing it on purpose, that I absolutely had to break eye contact or I would explode into a fiery molten mass of hot death, ha ha ha, and did I mention my strong communication skills?
(Unbelievably, I was hired; perhaps less surprisingly, the VP ended up being a semi-nightmare to work for.)
Anyway, I was thinking about all this lately, mostly because of an incident that happened at the grocery store over the weekend. I was at our neighborhood QFC waiting in line, and one of the friendly checkout clerks waved me to her 15 items or less station, which was empty. Almost immediately after I did so, about eleven people got in line behind me, each one emanating palpable waves of impatience as I unloaded my cart, which clearly contained far more than 15 items. I tried to hurry, whisking jar after jar of baby food up the belt, and when I finally had everything out and was rooting for my debit card, that's when the bag girl peered over Riley's carseat to coo and tell him how cute he was.
I don't know if she also slipped a thumbtack into his scalp, or if he was startled by the disembodied voice floating over his head, or if he suddenly realized that the lyrics to "Rock-a-bye baby" definitely imply a death-by-falling-cradle outcome, but he opened his mouth and the most horrific noise mankind has ever known came spiraling out in one endless, crystal-shattering shriek.
Every single person in the store craned their head to see who had the obnoxious crying baby as I tried to soothe him with one hand and swipe my card with the other. Riley decided that the first scream was pretty loud but he could probably do better, and the people in line behind me, who were already perfecting their gusty sighs and pointed glances at their watches, began to shift from one foot to the other and stare at the ceiling. I dropped my card and had to briefly scramble on the floor, and just when I thought it couldn't get worse the bag girl held up a container of ibuprofen. "This was left in your cart," she said. "Did you want to buy it?"
So the checkout clerk rang up the additional purchase while Riley howled at the top of his lungs, a line of people plotted my death, and my entire body turned bright red.
While I hope to not experience that exact scenario again any time soon, what I'm realizing is that being in public with a baby is sort of like immersion therapy for social anxiety. People naturally look at babies, they come up and ask questions. Babies are noticeable, after all, not only because they're usually cute, but because they are loud - they pass gas, hiccup, say "BA BA BA BA BAAAAAA", blow wet gooey raspberries, have sonorous bowel movements complete with red-faced grunting, and they cry. Walking with a baby is like carrying a large blinking neon arrow pointing in your general direction. HELLO, it says, HOW'S MY DRIVING.
I've wasted so much energy worrying about how to act when the focus is on me, and that was when I didn't have a fifty-decibel child in tow. It's true that I am afraid of making mistakes, of looking like a fool, but maybe I'm also learning that, you know, shit happens. The vast majority of people understand. We've all been a sad rock at one time or another.
The demolition work on the house started today. It is not just horrifying, but also terrifying. Here is how the east section of the house currently looks:
Do you know how many great photos I have of JB and Riley?
Like, a ton.
And how many of myself with Riley?
Right. Note to self, hand over camera more often. When am not balancing stuffed pig on the boy's head. And when hair has not air-dried. Also, stand in front of less ugly wall. And try opening eyes.