I'm at the pub for a meeting, but there's a minor commotion from next door; I hear a glass smash and some amused voices. A regular, a well-known local in his nineties, has had too much to drink. A party is organised to walk him to his nearby home; everyone responds with good-natured smiles. "Aw, bless him."
But I am transfixed with vicarious shame. I feel horribly embarrassed for him, and my stomach churns with stress about it. I find everyone else's reactions jarring; they seem mildly jealous of him if anything, while I find his situation absolutely humiliating. If something like that happened to me - no, let me be clear: if I did that to myself and people saw - I would not be able to look those people in the eye ever again. I don't know if I'd be able to leave my house.
I have a mental model of the world, which gives me expectations about what counts as "normal" behaviour for the people and other objects in the world. When I see things happen that are consistent with my model (objects fall to the floor when released, people are happy with they are given cake, that sort of thing) it is unremarkable; things that are inconsistent attract my attention, as they indicate either that I have incomplete knowledge of the situation or a problem in my mental model. As I've built this mental model over the decades of my existence, I've checked every new thing I incorporate into it for logical inconsistency with something else, so I'm reasonably confident that it's consistent and a correct approximation to some kind of objective reality.
The majority attitude towards inebriation contradicts my mental model, but I can't just incorporate it, because it's inconsistent with other things in my model.
For instance, people are critical of flaws in others. As a child, if I made a mistake, I'd invoke the wrath of my mother. At school, if I made a slip and broke the myriad and shifting social contracts, I'd attract the attention of the bullies. In my career, if I make a mistake it will have consequences for my colleagues, the company I work for, and the users of the products I work on. If I make a mistake in my domestic duties at home, my children won't get to school / their clubs / parties they're invited to, or we won't have food for dinner; and they will be angry with me. If I make a mistake while driving, I will injure or kill myself or others. I often hear people complaining about other people who have made mistakes, even if those mistakes had no actual negative consequences; they are criticised for making mistakes as a matter of principal.
Mistakes are very easy to make; a moment's inattention can result in something important being forgotten. Slip-ups attract ridicule and disapproval.
But the way people react when somebody has deliberately made themselves into an idiot through inebriation starkly contradicts that general trend. Why is there an exemption made for this case?
I had a dream, when I was aged somewhere between eight and ten or so years old. In this dream, I'm on a huge futuristic spacecraft, of a similar scale to a cruise ship, full of passengers, watched over by a team of sinister police robots. I'm in a fancily-decorated room with little tables dotted around, with passengers sitting at them and chatting. In this room, little drinks are available, in tiny glasses the size of my little fingertip; barely a cubic centimetre each. There is something seedy about this; the drinks are handed out covertly, with much glancing around, out of sight of the police robots. I decide to try one, and the effect is instant; my point of view moves backwards slightly, and I become a third-party observer of my own actions, a passive rider in my own body as I circulate in the room and chatter with people, with this big idiot grin on my face. But the idiot grin attracts the attention of the police robots; scowling and disapproving, the corner me and shoot me with a dart gun which dispenses an antidote, meaning I am instantly myself again. But I feign innocence; I claim I was grinning because I was happy, and that their accusation that I had consumed one of the tiny glasses was unfounded, and act all offended. Even remembering that dream now, thirty years later, causes my face to flush with shame. It's taken quite a lot of bravery to publish it here. I had to build up to it in stages. What I'm ashamed of is that I had a dream in which I was affected by some kind of drug, because it acknowledges the concept of me being so affected even exists.
But far worse than my shame-by-proxy is the sense of alienation, because I'm having this strong emotional reaction that's completely absent in the people around me. It's like everyone around me is laughing and cracking jokes while eating babies. I feel like there's something terribly wrong with everyone around me (which is scary), while logic tells me that the problem is clearly with me. Which is even scarier.
I try and avoid situations where I might be reminded of this. Pubs are risky places to go, but only mildly so; there isn't a strong culture of inebriation in most of them, so I just avoid places like student bars. House parties are far riskier, and I dread being invited to them; accepting the invite may lead to pain, but refusing it means sitting at home on my own knowing what's happening anyway (well, not really knowing; my imagination instead provides a stream of worst-case scenaries), and being on my own while everyone else is having fun (in a way I find inexplicable and distressing) hardly makes a sense of alienation any better. It's worse when the party is at my house (I never hold parties, but people I live with do), because it's harder to hide from a party in my house, people will ask awkward questions if I leave, and I have this feeling like my "safe place" is being invaded; I make my way through life by, where possible, shutting all this stuff away, and it being in my own home makes that harder.
But avoiding situations where people might drink alcohol isn't enough, anyway, even if I could do it perfectly. People still talk about it around me, and thus, I am forced to confront the concept. I can think of no way to avoid it without isolating myself from all people and all mass media.
To be honest, I feel pretty angry about it all. Why do I have to hide, and be an outsider, flinching away from this concept? People around me can, just through saying a few words, hurt me. When a group of friends or colleagues organise a group social activity, I have to choose whether I'll suffer for going or suffer for not going. What's more, I've been told that if I don't go to an event I've been invited to, I'll offend the person who invited me. Apparently this is more important than the pain I'll suffer.
My attempts to tell other people how I feel have often ended badly. Responses tend to be either:
"You're weird, that freaks me out, go away"
"Whoa! That's weird. So does related concept X upset you? How about Y? Really? Hahahah! X! Y! That actually makes you feel ill from me just saying those words? X! Y! Z! This is fun!"
"How dare you criticize my actions! It's my choice what I do with my body, and your choice whether you put up with it or go elsewhere."
Most people just seem confused by it, and then seemingly forget I ever mentioned it. A few people have actually tried to avoid saying things that will upset my in my presence, which is heartwarming, but the concepts are deeply embedded in our culture and are impossible to avoid: attempting to avoid them just leaves awkward gaps, and I know what would fill those gaps. The best that can be done, I suppose, is to say what needs to be said, but without the assumption that everyone feels as the majority does, so I don't feel neglected. But that's not an easy thing to ask.
I don't want to be like this. I can't change the world, so I need to
change myself, but how do I do that? It's hard to think about the
underlying sense of shame, because the feeling of alienation is too
painful; and it's hard to think about the feeling of alienation
because the anger clouds it, and anger is such a destructive
all-consuming emotion. Indeed, it's taken me years of careful reflection to even isolate the other feelings. My emotional response to exposure to inebriation was basically "Confused burst of painful negative emotions then ANGER". Pulling apart that little burst of emotions before the anger wins out has taken a lot of careful detective work, feeling a bit like a physicist deducing the presence of the Higgs Boson by looking at the trajectories of particles streaming out of a hadron collision. But now I'm aware of the shame at the root of it all, I can feel it. I just can't stop the anger coming in and clouding it.
So perhaps I can address the problem indirectly. What else gives me
similar feelings of irrational shame, but without the complexities of
alienation and anger on top?
One answer comes to mind: Dancing. I'm usually one of those people who
professes he can't dance, and only tries to when under duress; at
which point I just find an action and repeat it until whoever's
forcing me to dance lets me stop. I have no enthusiasm for it, and
struggle to understand why people do it.
But occasionlly, if I'm in a really good mood, listening to dancy
music that I have happy associations with, I feel a faint glimmer of a
strange pulse-quickening excitement that it might be nice to dance to
it. The thing is, if I hold that thought, a flash of embarrassment
comes and destroys it, so I need to keep it just out of mental
reach. Perhaps if I could overcome that, lesser, shame, I would weaken
the greater one. The problem is, I don't know how to. It's not like
I'm standing there thinking "I want to dance, but don't know how to";
I mean, I want to dance in the sense that I usually feel very lonely
and left out and forgotten when everyone is dancing apart from me, but
my problem is that I want to want to dance, and I don't know how to
What else is there that's similar? Oddly, there's something I have the
anger about without the shame or alienation: and that's coffee. Around
the time when Starbucks was really invading the UK I had a girlfriend
who thought Starbucks was great, so I was always being dragged into
them. The thing is, I don't like hot drinks at all, and I find the
taste of coffee absolutely disgusting. At most, Starbucks could offer
me over-priced orange juice, and I got sick of that pretty
quickly. This touched a bit of a raw nerve: coffee wasn't being
presented as something some people like, as an option; the
ubiquitous Starbucks (and their competitors), the attitude of people
towards them ("Let's meet in Starbucks", "Fill in this quiz and be
rewarded with a Starbucks voucher"), and the decor and advertising all
seemed to draw on an assumption that everyone liked the foul stuff,
while I didn't.
And, of course, I have a massive chip on my shoulder about that from
the alcohol thing. So being offered coffee, or having to go to coffee
places and get coffee, gives me this little jolt of irritation. I used
to just bite my tongue and repress this, but over the past few years
I've decided it's probably healthier for me to let a little bit of
snark loose. As a Repressed Minority Coffee Disliker, I probably
shouldn't feel I have to put up with everyone assuming I don't exist;
so I'm trying to actually say that I think coffee tastes awful and
that I hate coffee shops when it comes up. It's cathartic, but there's
a lot of pent-up bile left; this will take a while to finish... And I
don't think that fixing that will do all that much to fix my anger
There's one more thing that I think might be related. I really like
funny things; as a kid, I really liked surreal comedy, and could
easily end up laughing so hard I could barely breathe. These days,
I've lost that; I feel too much shame about the thought of somebody
seeing me laughing like that. I've come close, but then I feel a
sudden chilling fear that I'm going to irritate people or that they'll
think I'm an idiot. But the difference here is that I can remember not
having that fear.
If you'll permit me an aside, I've been teaching my daughter how to
ride a bike. I did this by holding her upright and pushing her forward
as she starts to pedal, so that she can get going on the bike and
learn to balance, because she was struggling with getting started at
all. I decided to hold her up and skip the getting started part,
because learning to keep balancing while the bike's moving and you're
already pedalling is a lot easier - but once you've got the feel for
that, you know what riding a bike is supposed to feel like. So then
you can learn to start, because you know what state you're aiming for
when you push off. Trying to ride a bike from nothing is a lot harder,
because you push on the pedal and wobble and fall over, because even
if you push off right you don't know how to ride a bike so you'll fall
over - so you can't tell if you're learning to push off right or not.
So while I can't imagine dancing in front of people (as opposed to
going through the motions of pretending to dance, which is different),
or even doing that unspeakable thing with alcohol that could never be
in any way associated with me, I can actually imagine myself having a really
good laugh about something hilarious. And, just like how knowing what riding a bike should feel like helped my daughter to quickly learn how to start from standing, I think that means I have a
chance of being able to overcome the shame and recover that ability.
And maybe learning to deal with that shame will be transferrable, and I'll be better able to
deal with other kinds of shame.
So, who is willing to help me overcome a crippling phobea that's
causing me untold misery, by coming around to my place and watching
Monty Python DVDs? Soft drinks only, I'm afraid.