01/14/10

Eye looking and my reluctance to do so: a ranting meditation

I have all sorts of self-diagnosed medical problems that I believe in with varying degrees of earnestness. The restless leg syndrome, for example, is probably something of a hoax, but the deep sleep phase syndrome that people so often mock me for is, I believe, a completely real condition. Then there are the things that medical professionals will concur that I suffer from, including but not limited to: interstitial cystitis, astigmatism, gingivitis, and dysthymic disorder. It sounds bad, but generally I am healthy as a horse and take great pride in my various conditions with their important sounding names.

There is another condition I suffer from – something more pervasive and socially crippling than all these other piddly conditions combined, and yet it goes mostly unacknowledged, perhaps because there’s no name for it and no medication available to advertise and thus inform the people. I hereby call it “not looking people in the eye when talking to them” syndrome. That’s it. I admit it. I don’t look people in the eye when I talk to them. If you suffer from the same thing I would never ever know it, because I’m not looking at you.

People have mentioned it to me before, or worse, after meeting me, mentioned it to other people, and sighted it as irrefutable evidence that I was either
a) socially retarded
b) horribly insecure
c) autistic
d) rude, not nice, mean, etc.
All of them are probably true to various degrees but it’s the last that really bothers me, the only thing that compels me to change a life long habit that I would be otherwise perfectly content with maintaining. I don’t think it’s true or fair. I’m not rude, not nice, or mean. On the contrary, I feel like I would die for you. I would take my hand and crudely try to rip my heart out of my chest and hand it to you if I thought it was necessary. I feel misunderstood. And so, this new years, in the great spirit of change that so sweeps everyone in the otherwise gloomy days of January, I’m going to attempt to do this thing society asks of me.

I don’t think people understand. Let me explain to you how I feel and then I’ll examine your side of the argument. First of all, I just think it’s creepy. I don’t understand it. When animals look each other in the eye, it’s an act of aggression. It seems to me to be a learned behavior, except somewhere along the line something got fucked up and I never learned it. So, even if I decide to go ahead and believe you that this is a vital aspect of human interaction, there remains the fact that I simply don’t feel confident that I even know how to do it correctly. For example, where is the line between looking casually at someone and staring them down psychotically? (As far as I’m concerned there is no line and all eye contact is psychotic, but again, I’m willing to forego my animal instincts and play your silly little game.) So there’s that.

The truth is, and forgive me for allowing myself a little vulnerability here, I find it frightening and uncomfortable. If I’m looking at someone, then I have proof positive that they too are looking at me, and I just plain don’t like people looking at me. I vaguely understand that they are, all the time, perpetually, day in and day out, but if I don’t look back, I don’t ever have to fully acknowledge it. I’m sorry. I think I’m the ugliest person in the world and I don’t want people looking at me. (Add body dysmorphic disorder to the list of possible ailments.) I think I’ve largely outgrown my ugly duckling stage (crippling acne, glasses, braces, a double chin: mostly gone today) but the psyche doesn’t forget.

So what do I do instead? I look straight ahead, or I look down. I imagine that to eye lookers (let’s call them “normies”) talking to me is rather like talking to someone who’s driving a car – surely you normies forgive the driver for not staring intently at your face? When drivers look over at me repeatedly I want to scream at them to look back at the road, for Christ sake, can we forego these silly social customs for once? I digress.

So I’m going to try. If you’re reading and I’ve offended you in the past – well, I was just going to say that I’m sorry, but the truth is, I’m not sorry. The truth is, I feel like the world should be apologizing to me.

No. Okay, I probably am guilty, but I think I’d like to lesson my sentence. I am not rude. (Certainly I’m capable of cruelty, but these are isolated, on purpose acts towards people I consider deserving of cruel treatment and one day I’ll be judged for these acts accordingly.) If I’ve not looked you in the eye in the past, and you were horribly offended, all I can say is that I was being “inconsiderate.” I did not consider your feelings on the matter but my own, and my feelings were that looking someone in the eye is painful and difficult and I would rather avoid pain.

So I’m going to try to change. I don’t want to and I don’t think I should have to, but the truth is, I love you more than I love my pride, and confronting fear is a brave act and I want to be brave. Do you understand at all?