I want to share something that I’ve only begun to understand about myself. This is important to me. I will not undermine it with the usual meta-criticisms of the idea of emoting publicly or pepper it with the usual blog bells and whistles (GIFs, tweet screen caps, etc.). I am going to be sincere, which is almost a subversive act in the age of irony and avatars. It won't be "funny," (let's be honest, isn't being funny kind of hack at this point?), but I will try my best to make it interesting and worth your time. Either way, I am happy to share this with you.
Social disconnect is a feeling with which I’m extremely familiar. I’ve felt it most of my life. I’ve grown accustomed to it. Learned to internalize it as normal. As a kid, I was extremely sensitive and caring. I was short. People made fun of me, I was “bullied,” called “faggot” (by a kid who ended up being gay), and the girls I liked never “liked me back."
On the flip side, I was extremely smart. Always in advanced programs at school, high level math classes, special art classes, etc. My test scores were always very high. All authority figures (parents, teachers) reinforced this idea that I was “gifted." I felt, too, that I had a lot to offer, although in a more fundamentally human sense of offering something beautiful rather than simply vocational aptitude. But I felt a canyon-sized gap between myself and actualizing that potential.
That feeling, that disconnect - from myself and from others, the world, etc. - continues up until the present. It is only now that I’m starting to realize and accept (not just intellectually, but emotionally) the primary factor in this feeling separateness: my hearing.
I have a relatively profound hearing loss. It's weird. It's not significant enough to be completely deaf, but it's also not mild enough to be easily dealt with. I’m fairly open about it. I’ve written about it, talked about it, and speak about it with anyone who wants to hear about it. However, I don’t think anyone truly understands the extent of what this has done to me. I am only beginning to understand it myself.
My hearing loss is something that has pervaded every single aspect of my life. Every minute, every thought, every interaction has been significantly influenced. It’s so difficult for people to understand because it’s not their reality. Even people who know about my situation do not (can not) fully understand.
As I mentioned in my earlier post about it, I didn’t start wearing hearing aids until I was 21. So, for the first 21 years of my life, I went au natural which, in this case, doesn’t don the same badge of bravery. It’s social suicide.
I couldn’t hear shit! Hahahahaha. I actually laugh at myself now. I would say I heard maybe 30% of what was being said, I could infer another 30% or so based on body language, how people responded, or by reading lips. The other 40% or so was a complete mystery. TV, movies, people far away, people with their backs to me, people with a menu in front of their face, people in a dark room, people late at night when they whisper, teachers facing the chalkboard, students more than one seat away from me. Often I would literally have no idea what was being said.
This has a multitude of effects, but the primary one is one of self-protection. When something like this would happen, I would instinctively regress into my own mind. (You can always hear your thoughts.) This was not deliberate. There was no “plan” about what to think about. However, I would just… think. About anything. Everything. I wonder what happens when you die. Oh god I’m going to die. I really like Becky. She’s pretty. I wonder what we would do together if we were in love. I’d probably tell her she is the reason I am able to live. Is that shitty? Should that line be better? More real? More beautiful? What makes something beautiful? Is there an objective standard of beauty or is it some relative perception we have as humans? I think a lot of things we assume are absolute are actually subjective and arbitrary. Maybe I don’t really like her, I just think I like her because she looks a certain way. But what does— this is interrupted by four people screaming, “DREW!” and an entire group of people staring directly at me. “We called your name like five times.” I didn’t hear it. “Oh, uh, yeah. Sorry, I was… hehe. What’s up?” ANXIETY. STRESS. LEAVE ME ALONE. I was twelve.
This is how life was for me. For two decades. Yes, there were moments I was not completely lost. At home sometimes. With friends in well-lit, small spaces where we were able to speak loudly enough. But even in those environments, there would be significant periods of time - if we watched a movie, if we were in a car - where I would be lost and then revert back to my only reliable friend: my brain.
Unfortunately for me, my brain was very “good” at computing academics. I always got “good grades” so there was never a reason to suspect anything was wrong. But this was only because, for example, I could do a practice math exam and instantly understand everything. I didn’t need to hear the teacher. Just look at examples, apply concepts, and take the test. Tests were easy. I almost wish they weren’t. People might have forced me to do change something. But as long as you are checking all the boxes society wants you to check, nobody thinks anything is wrong. This is a huge societal mistake.
The issue spawned a sort of vicious cycle. My inability to feel confident and comfortable in social situations (which sent me into spirals of internal reflection and analysis) made those situations insanely anxious and stressful, to the point where it was just easier to avoid them altogether, which further exacerbated the social solitude. There was, however, a certain comfort that came with being alone. While, yes, I was not connected to any other person, I was at least relaxed. Free to explore the world through my own mind without the added pressure of hearing other people and having to focus so hard on what everyone was saying and if you missed what one person said, having to focus three times as hard on what the next person said so you could then infer what the first person originally said, hoping that the conversation would never get to you before you were able to figure out what the hell people were saying. I was much happier (albeit not at all happy) playing video games, playing baseball (the most solitary of all team sports), watching TV (too loud), or reading.
I’m starting to realize now this arrangement re-wired me in a very thorough manner. This disconnected relationship with the outside world bred a sort of learned narcissism (bordering on autism) in me. It’s hard for me to think outside of what’s going on in my own mind. That doesn’t mean I don’t care. I care deeply for others. To an overwhelming degree. I want so badly to connect with people, but I never learned how. This is a large reason of what draws me to stand-up. It is a way to connect with others and to be understood without having to actually interact with them in a conventional manner. This is also why I hate hecklers. I am never at a loss for things to say. I am just constantly self conscious about my inability to hear what people are saying that when someone shouts something out and I can tell everyone else in the room heard it and I’m on stage, everyone looking at me waiting for me to reply, I want to die. Evaporate. But I can’t. So even for that, I’ve learned tricks. If, for example, what the heckler said got a laugh from the crowd, I can say something like, “You wanna come up here and do five minutes?” This gets a laugh even though I have no idea what was originally said. If I could, I would have someone tour with me who sits in the front row and repeats to me anything that was said from the back.
I wear hearing aids now (and have since 2007) but I still struggle. More importantly, I still have the same instincts and difficulties. So, there are times when I feel like I am missing what is being said and the regressive instinct kicks in. Ah, I don’t know what they’re saying, so let’s think about something weird and esoteric and totally unrelatable to further my submersion into my own solipsism! (I am much more self-aware and pretentious than I was when I was twelve.) It’s a struggle. I am getting better. But I still have so many social issues, most of which are caused - directly or indirectly - by this issue.
This is part of the reason I “rub people the wrong way.” I know this about myself. I know what I’m bringing to the table. It is not intentional. It’s also the reason I’m able to think about things from an unconventional viewpoint. I am equal parts grateful and angry about it.
I know it would help if people knew this about me, but I’ve found it so difficult to bring up. Not because I’m ashamed or uncomfortable talking about it, it just seems “out of place” in a superficial discussion. Also, my hearing aids are invisible, so it’s not like I hold an old-timey trumpet thing up to my ear when people talk. (Although that would have been better than what I chose to do, which was nothing.) People would never assume anything about my hearing. I’ve gotten good at “faking it.” I’ll end conversations abruptly, which probably comes off as curt or rude, but it’s really just me hitting the eject button on an extremely stressful situation. Either way, people probably process this as “what an asshole” as opposed to “what a very unfortunate social handicap."
Some of my closer friends who know the situation have been kind enough to point out specific things I do that get interpreted a certain way even though I don’t mean it that way. For example, I can appear to be dismissive. Someone might say something, I’ll ask, “what did you say?” They might repeat it and I’ll go, “Oh, okay.” Then go back to what I was doing. This could be interpreted as me not valuing what you said enough to continue. Chances are, I was just lost and wanted to hear what was being said.
I don’t like bars, parties, or any type of social interaction where there isn’t a focused, dedicated communication pattern. Those of you who know me will notice that even in these situations, I’ll find a way to engage in a (probably too intense) one-on-one with someone. This is in no way a condemnation of bars or parties, I just don’t feel comfortable in them. Again, I often avoid them, but that re-exacerbates the issue, as avoiding these things furthers the sense of isolation. So I’m left with no good option (like the election!): should I stay or should I go? (That song is about a guy with hearing loss trying to decide if he should go to a Comedy Central party.)
I am also extremely sensitive to exclusion. I have been biologically excluded for so long, and it was so painful, being excluded now triggers something volatile inside me. I have a lot of accrued anger and frustration. If I don’t get booked for something, or asked to be a part of something I know I could be good for, or rejected in some way by a girl, the sense of helplessness and feeling misunderstood hit the roof. It's like I’m being waterboarded with feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. I often lash out or express anger in an unhealthy way. I owe a lot of people apologies. This is something I’m aware of and working on. I am trying my best not to add any more additional difficulties which alienate me even further. But it’s helpful for me (and for people I know) to understand where that comes from.
As I get older, I find myself agreeing more and more with those who believed in me before I did. I know I have something beautiful to offer and all I want is to be able to share it. (Perhaps this is why I connected so strongly with this unlikely song.) I want to connect with this world and the people that are slowly destroying it. (Sorry, not all cynicism is irrational!) I’m aware that I am accountable for my behavior and I am doing everything I can to not let myself, my past, or my present circumstances get in the way of actualization. The process of growing and changing, communicating, learning and creating is so beautiful. It’s overwhelming to me when anyone is prevented from living happily. (Perhaps for another post, but actually so many of my “cynical” or “contrarian" social/political views are borne out of this feeling of extreme empathy.) I have just begun to fully understand who I am as a person and what my makeup and true potential is. I want to be a positive force in the world. Even if we accept nihilism, that still gives us a choice as to what we do while we are here. I want people to feel good. I want to inspire and to be inspired. I want to help people. But it's like the oxygen masks on the plane: you have to put yours on first before you can help others with theirs. As I said in my earlier post, I am grateful for the opportunity to be alive. We get to experience what happens next. I am doing everything I can to make it beautiful.