It was just an innocent, surely joking, possibly even well-meaning comment left on a photo I'd posted on Facebook of myself wearing a pair of horns and a strapless black Madame X-ish dress. If anything, I think the person who posted it was saying that I'm not actually evil, not actually devilish or... be-horned, literally or figuratively. But something about the statement spooked me; it touched on a deep fear that I have, that maybe a lot of us have.
"You're not fooling anyone."
It had this ring of penetrating truth to it, like the the prophecies quietly muttered by schizophrenic street people.
I think part of why a disproportionate number of my close friends are people who have been diagnosed with Asperger's is that I feel a distant kinship to them. The way they relate to people is frequently "off." They sometimes seem to go through life more imitating emotions than having them (although I know this isn't true; I've been quasi-romantically involved with two of them). They can talk like aliens trying to masquerade as human.
The first story I shared with my new writing group ended with a bunch of children thinking this about the protagonist: "Impostor."
I've often described my inability to make easy conversation with people as feeling like I'm behind a clear-plastic barrier -- the other person and I can see each other, but the sound is muffled, and we can't make contact.
This week I've been leading training sessions at work, teaching co-workers how to post and manage content in their departments' sections of the organization's Intranet. These are pretty major presentations I'm doing -- three hours (we even ran over twenty minutes the first time, because lots of people had questions) of me, just me, little old shy me, standing in front of a room full of heretofore strangers, all of them staring at me over their on-loan "student laptops" while I teach them stuff using a SMART Board. Not only that, but there were a few HR people and my supervisors sitting around to "observe," watching and grading me. There were rating and feedback forms to be filled out by all who attended. In other words, for someone as shy as I am, it was your classic nightmare scenario.
It wasn't totally bad, at least in a sense. My boyfriend and housemate have both been at war in Iraq (my housemate's been deployed to Afghanistan, too), and they have this way of making every "traumatic" thing I go through seem laughable in comparison. (They don't mean to do that, of course; it just "is what it is" as one of my former bosses used to say about three times every workday.) They were talking the other night about how humans simply can't sustain a heightened sense of fear for all that long before they just get numb to it, or tired of it, or it just starts to feel like a new sort of normal. Or at least, that's what happens at the time, as a coping thing. Uh, not to compare public speaking to war, but that's how I felt by about Hour Two of the first day of training. I just didn't care. It started to feel natural. I wasn't good at it, but it had ceased to have an effect on me. Or so I thought. I'm sure I still seemed nervous, because I never don't seem nervous. Unless I'm really drunk.
But the whole time I was up there, in front of those faces, in front of those eyes, it felt a little like having my worst fears about myself confirmed. I looked out there, and I saw boredom, irritation, disappointment, disillusionment, even a restrained hostility in some of them. (Well, one of them looked sort of pissed off about having to be there -- this sort of douchey sales guy.)
I know; I'm not supposed to say that, right? I'm supposed to spin this like some inspirational thing: The painfully shy girl works up the gumption to volunteer to lead the training, to have her name appear in front of "Instructor" on the printed-out agenda, to stand up there for hours talking about something complicated until she's hoarse. And it was gutsy of me. I mean, until I actually did it, I didn't know if I could or would go through with it. Especially after bailing out on the "trial run" scheduled for the workday before -- instead of doing that with some co-workers who'd volunteered to be pretend students, I was lying on a cot in the employee "sick room" in the dark, listening to the office printers drone.
But nope, I did it. And I was bad at it. And I am not too proud or delusional to admit that.
On the Metro ride home -- a time of day that, I'm finding, is rife with introspection for me -- I wondered how to feel about the day. I was relieved to have the first session over with. I mean, I say that like there's going to be twenty of them or something; there's only one more, tomorrow. But I have no fear of the next one. I'm even sort of looking forward to it. I'm a bit odd for a shy person, because at heart I'm quite friendly, and I have an exhibitionistic streak running through me like a thin vein of gold in some chunk of Old West rock.
Some small, perfunctory part of me felt the way I would have if my life were a teen movie or an after-school special: "Yay, you were scared but you did it! All right!" And then I high-five my friends, all of us wearing backpacks, and we go out for a celebratory sundae together.
But I couldn't get my mind off those faces, those blank and unimpressed faces. Probably some of them were just bored and thinking about other things, or apprehensive (like I was) about whether they would ever "get" this webmasterin' stuff. Here's a snippet from the first blog post I wrote upon glimpsing the inner workings of this particular, less popular and less-user-friendly-than-WordPress CMS:
CMS they're using -- I think they might have developed it themselves,
or at least customized it; they have this closet full of web dudes -- is
kind of dreary-looking and not the most user-friendly, and the process
for posting or editing content is about the most bureaucratic thing I've
ever seen (an action has to move through something like five steps of
reviews and approvals before you can so much as remove a comma or add a
period, with e-mails sent to all involved along the way). I shall miss
my beloved WordPress, and the mad-with-power editing privileges I've had
at other jobs, so very much."
...You know, I don't know why I always switch to that typed-on-a-vintage-typewriter font (Courier) whenever I quote anything, even myself, as if I'm sharing with you some precious relic. It's just a thing I do, I guess.
What I'm saying is that I saw on their faces the confirmation of all my fears about people not liking me, people thinking I'm boring, people thinking I'm stupid, people thinking I'm somehow defective as a human being. Even when I'm trying to fake like I'm outgoing, like I'm smart, like I'm fun, like I'm competent. Like I'm a perfectly normal person.
"You're not fooling anyone."
And then I went home, and life went on.