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(Mal)Adaptive Behavior

Take a child.

Take a lonely child.

Take a lonely child with a sharp mind.

Take a lonely child with a sharp mind and perhaps a predisposition towards learning through imitation.

I pick up accents, speech habits, abbreviations, bodily postures, hand gestures and passions from the people around me. Lack of a center, maybe, but also a genuine interest in other people, how they work, how they think, how they express themselves. A genuine interest and a complete lack of native understanding. Not so much trying it on for size as adopting another lingo to see if it can help me be more understood. Maybe continual rejection that follows means I hit some kind of uncanny valley, I don’t know. I can’t help it. It’s not intentional. In Korea a few times I spoke to people on the phone, then startled the crap out of them by turning out to be a white American. When I made friends with several comedians, I spent months choosing to stay out late at comedy shows rather than go to work the next day well-rested, not so much because the comedy was great but because the community fascinated me in its interconnections, and I wanted to really understand what my friends found so compelling about the whole business. I have to try really hard to not say “boo” or “bae” when they’re leaking all over white colloquial American English, notice only after the fact that I’ve started using abbreviations like gpoy and smh in appropriate contexts without actually knowing what they stand for. I’m a quicker picker upper, and my brain is pretty sneaky and indiscriminate about it.

When the blow up comes, whatever shape it takes, it’s usually actually something of a relief. Whatever emotional turmoil, sorrow, and loss is involved (and they are inevitably involved), it puts the brakes on that absorption and gives me a chance to sort through what I’ve taken in already, to toss out the trash, set aside the things that aren’t for me, and arrange the things I want to keep in a deliberate and measured fashion. It’s just a fucking pity I need explosions to prompt me to do it, even now that I’m aware of this pattern.

Recently someone said to me “I’ve seen you take on activist as an identity,” and in context, it’s hard to interpret that as anything other than an accusation of being a poser, pretending to care for cool factor. (There’s nothing cool about foot blisters, and having insomnia because you can’t stop getting mad about injustice at bed time.) I get it though – before, I hadn’t really shown this person much of the activism I engage in. I adapt to people and their interests, and our mutual interests were some light scorning of the patriarchy and brunch, for a long while. Activism was something I did in other circles, and online where it was more invisible, less connected to our social network. When the opportunity came to surround myself with other people engaged in activism and to really get involved in an in-person movement about a cause that is very important to me, well…schwoop went the sponge and higglety-pigglety I had all these confusing speech patterns, actions, thoughts swirling around, and little enough time to even take them in, let alone sort them. Information overload + sleep deprivation + social overload = who the hell am I? Just someone who wants a fucking nap.

This latest kaboom, happening mainly only in my own heart as far as I can tell, has come with relief, but also with all the pain of wounds previous. For someone who just wants to be known, loved, and appreciated, my behavior certainly has a poor track record, but I keep running round and round that wheel. I guess growing up thinking that my parents and brothers would really see and appreciate me as a person if only I could figure out how to be perfect isn’t a sound method for producing emotionally healthy offspring.

School was easy! School had rubrics, school had rules, teachers were better or worse at stating their expectations clearly, and I did better or worse in response. One teacher had to cap my grade at 105% when I cared about the material, was provided with crystal clear rubrics, and wouldn’t stop doing the extra credit on top of that. Friends and parents and strangers all wanted me to do or be things that I didn’t understand and couldn’t intuit, so I tried to be perfect. When I failed I often went straight to perfectly awful – not maliciously, but out of panic.

I’m better now. So much better. But the thing about doing all of that particular kind of work is that there isn’t a whole lot of recognition in it, or reward. I’ve come so far, but not to the point where I don’t feel tragically lonely much of the time. Not to the point where I feel safe being myself. Not to the point where I feel understood enough that my brain doesn’t automatically try to camouflage me with the habits of the people around me.And look, I’m not asking for someone to pat me on the head the ritual three times a day and tell me I’m a good pup, or to excuse the occasional FEELINGSBOMB or shitty thing (yeah, I’m a human being, you may have noticed that we are all sometimes garbage) because look how much better I am than I was. I mean reward like “finally being able to keep friends for more than a year,” recognition like “I am going to tell you that made me feel shitty because I know you don’t want to make me feel shitty, please don’t do it again.” But apparently I’m still at the “let’s just erase them from our memory” level of being a fucked up human in ways that affect other people.

Most of the time I’m an unwitting patchwork person, so it’s hard to be genuine sometimes because even I get confused about what’s what. And usually just when I get to the point of “ack, maybe I can trust you with my real self, let me just dig it out of here, I know I left it somewhere” – that’s when the fuse lights and that person gets blown out of my life forever, usually by things that leave me reeling, whispering “I could never have predicted this ending,” to my stuffed Oogie Boogie. I don’t get it. Genuinely, I don’t. I wish I did, but it seems kind of rude to badger people who have chosen to excise you from their lives in order to solicit feedback about how exactly you pushed their buttons so hard that the nuclear option was the only one. I’m doing pretty well with the friends who live too far away to see me and the friends so busy we hang once in a blue moon though.

And maybe if we lived in a society that taught clear communication for feelings and boundaries, things would be better, easier, for me. Maybe if we lived in a world that valued trying new things and trying on new habits and identities to find who we all really are, then I wouldn’t seem so strange, get misinterpreted as fake so often. It hurts when people think I’m not being genuine because I’m really interested, and how I feel compelled to stay interested forever once I’m not anymore. How fucked up is that?! But I don’t live in that world. So I’m trying my damndest to get some flow valves installed on this brain of mine. In the mean time, don’t be afraid to get blunt with me. But it’d be great if you could also be kind.

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