An office. Two chairs facing one another; a desk off to the side.
I glance at the clock…we’re only half way through the session. I breathe out, rub my face.
The psychologist says, “What happened is that, as a child, you were not developing non-verbal communication. And there was no diagnosis at that time. There were no services available. As the kids around you began to socially develop, you struggled to keep up. Lack of body language…lack of non-verbal cues…this made social interactions confusing. And that was happening because you didn’t know. Okay?”
I don’t say anything. It’s quiet for awhile.
She continues: “Now you know. Now you can begin to make sense of some things. And we can begin to talk about what to do next.”
I tell her, “I taught myself body language when I was in high school. I learned a lot of tricks. And it’s pointless. You’re just going to teach me stuff I already know…stuff that doesn’t work.”
Calmly, slowly, she says, “No. I’m not. I promise. Because what you’re referring to is mimicry. And I won’t teach you anything that conceals who you are.”
She waits for me to respond. I rub my eyes, too upset to respond.
In a quiet voice she says, “I won’t help you hide.”
I saw this one day, while sitting on a park bench:
The shadow of a tree swaying in the grass. In the tangle of dark limbs, there were shapes: faces, objects, animals, more faces.
It was a beautiful display. I felt lucky to see it.
But I felt something else as well.
The way that it could make so many shapes, so effortlessly…
I felt a little hurt, a little angry.
I started making my own shapes when I was around 15 or so. Practicing postures, gestures. Staring in the mirror, trying on faces. I was terribly alone, suddenly aware of my blank body language. I wanted friends, connections, people. So I began to experiment with the way I moved.
One of the exercises I utilized: I would look in the mirror and make a face. Then I would look away for a few minutes, walk around. Then I would look back at the mirror, see if the expression was still in place. It was a problem, back then, keeping a facial expression in effect for any length of time. This was the duration exercise I came up with.
I practiced walks, stances, eye-contact. Slowly, I pieced together a marionette. The hope was that I could learn to puppet myself through a social world that I found to be incomprehensible.
It was practice…preparation.
It was me: a shadow on the grass, lost in the play of shapes.
The goal of the marionette was to connect with people. Instead, I found myself feeling more alienated and detached than ever.
Instead of expressing my self, the body language routines expressed pure mimicry. I was moving, interacting, but not really there.
I didn’t understand that by trying so hard to seem normal, I was achieving the opposite of the connection I sought.
Eventually, after college, I stopped trying. I began to cut ties with people…to isolate, socially. I began to work a graveyard shift, to sleep during the day.
I began to hide from the world.
Years later…the age of 30…in the same session I referenced above: the psychologist says, “If you taught yourself body language, it means you can learn other coping strategies as well. Ones that will help. You won’t believe this yet…but things can improve.”
I seethe…pull my hair.
She says, “I know that’s difficult to accept. But as long as you’re here…I’m going to help. We can do this.”
“No,” I reply. “It’s not difficult. It’s impossible. It’s just easy for you to say these things because they’re words. You’re nice, but words don’t mean anything. They’re just…noise. They’re empty.”
She nods, says, “That can be true. That’s why I’m not just offering words. I’m offering ideas…actions…outcomes.”
She pauses, waits for me to reply. I don’t say anything.
She continues. “You’ve been socially isolated for a long time now. Depressed. You’re not buying that solutions are possible. I get that. All I need is for you to be here. To talk. To give me time.”
I bristle, agitated. I pull my hair again, stare off to the side.
Normally, she is reserved, respectful of my silences. She generally sits back, waits them out. But today she says, “Can we make eye contact?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I tell her, still looking off to the side. “Your choice.”
She leans over sideways…puts her eyes in my line of sight.
She says, “We will figure this out.”