(Or: Some Things That Make Me Me)
Everyone’s different, in all kinds of weird and interesting ways. In recent years, I’ve been coming to better understand some of my own weirdnesses and how they impact on how I see the world, interact with others in it (and also how others differ from me). Here’s an incomplete list of things that shape who I am.
I’ve purposefully avoided using specific (e.g. neurotype) labels in this piece because I want people to see these things first and foremost as being a bunch of things that make up who *I* am, rather than focus first on any applicable labels.
For most of my life so far, I’ve thought of myself as being basically the same as everyone else – and furthermore that almost everyone is basically the same as each other.
Sure, I knew that there were some things that made me kind of different, like my very poor eyesight and somewhat unusual childhood…
But generally I lived by the idea that almost no one is ever THAT different from anyone else. I still think this is a reasonable starting point in trying to understand others, but now I also think that understanding that we’re ALL different and weird in different ways is also really important.
Another problem with believing that everyone is basically the same is that when difficulties did come up, like when I couldn’t and didn’t know how to fit in, I felt the only thing that could be different was that I must be doing it all wrong or not trying hard enough.
Knowing how we all experience the world differently, and trying to understand that difference is, I think, as important as finding the commonalities.
I’ve decided to list some of the differences that I’ve realised (or am realising) might make me different from the (non-existent) ‘average person’ – some are to do with my life experiences, and some to do with the way my brain works or the way my body works. Some may seem kind of negative but none are wholly so – there is usually always a flip side, and the negative often just comes from how they deviate from more usual experiences. They don’t make me special or unique by any means, but in combination they do make up the lens through which I see the world – maybe reading about them will give you a slight glimpse of what it’s like to be me.
Your lens will be different, at least in some ways…
What makes you weird?
I’ve mentioned I have bad eyesight – I’m around -9 or -10 (shortsighted), which means that without glasses everything’s a blur. BUT, my eyesight also works the other way, as in, if I hold things up close, I can see a level of microscopic detail most people can’t. It helps a lot with tiny details in my artwork and also with looking at small things like insects.
#2 TRAVELING TWO-CULTURE KID
Before I was a schoolkid at a comprehensive church school in London, I was a Young Pioneer of the Chinese Communist Party at a state school in Beijing. Roughly 2-3 years before that, I was back in London being a christmas fairy (or something that involved dressing in a white binbag) at nursery. I spent summers in Beijing with my Chinese grandparents, Winters in the UK with my UK grandparents, and vice versa at various points. I spoke fluent Chinese and English at one point, and I think growing up in two very different places made different cultures not seem so different to me, although it probably also made me less understanding of the experience of culture shock (at least until I visited America!). All the traveling also shaped me in many other ways, of course.
#3 SO VERY FACEBLIND
I used to teach English to large classes of students, and I used to really beat myself up about not recognising almost any of my students’ faces – even after a year of teaching them (you can imagine what problems this caused when I was a schoolkid too).
I thought all kinds of things:
Realising that face-blindness is a thing, and that it’s okay, allowed me to stop blaming myself and instead be more honest, and come up with workaround when I need them. It would be nice to be able to recognise faces better, but it’s also been helpful to understand that it’s something I genuinely struggle with, rather than something that’s just bad and wrong about me as a person.
#4 EYE-CONTACT CAN KIND OF BREAK ME?
Best explained with this comic (only slightly exaggerated):
I can totally do eye-contact sometimes… I think. I’ve no idea if I do it right and I often probably look somewhere else in the vicinity. On the plus side, actual purposeful eye-contact can be pretty insanely exciting – just not while trying to hold a proper conversation, or trying to do anything else really.
#5 AMBIENT NOISES
If you know me reasonably well one-to-one, you might know that I’m pretty into conversations. I generally love chatting with people about interesting topics, and I think most topics can be pretty interesting. The thing is that I can’t always hear what people are saying. For example in pubs or cafes with a lot of ambient noise, but where everyone else seems to hear fine, and in groups larger than two, I can find it really hard to pick out one string of dialogue from everything else. I got my hearing tested in school but they couldn’t find anything physically wrong – it’s the processing of loads of different sounds that I find trickier than probably the average person.
Again, I used to think I simply wasn’t trying hard enough, that maybe I didn’t pay enough attention (because I’m bad and wrong, etc). It sounds obvious now, but feeling able to admit that I just can’t hear and choosing the places I go to socialise and how I interact with people in them makes a huge difference. It also definitely beats pretending to hear while not having a clue.
On a related theme, I also really can’t figure out how to join in on conversations – more on that in the next point.
That’s what I used to call it quite a lot in my late teens/early twenties – that most people seem to communicate on a different wavelength I’m not properly tuned in to. For example in conversations (of more than two people), I find it really hard to interject, and often seem to be doing it at the wrong time.
It happens so often in fact that when I do finally get the ‘floor’, I’m so surprised that I sometimes forget everything I was about to say.
I suspected fairly early on that people are communicating more things through body language or eye-contact or something, that I was missing, so once, in my teens, I took a book out from the school library about non-verbal communication. Mostly though it just made me more confused.
This means that I’m often also quite uncertain about other people’s emotions, although I think it can be quite good (for everyone) to check anyway, rather than go by assumptions.
I think the conversation thing also makes me more aware of others when they struggle to get a word in, and also makes me REALLY appreciate people who do this:
#7 I PROBABLY LOVE THESE MORE THAN YOU
I really really really love insects. No you don’t get how much I love insects.
Also Lego. OMG how I love Lego.
Definitely love both of these things more than the average person’s love of insects or Lego. If you disagree I will fight you. If they ever make decent insect Lego my bank account will be doomed (hell they’re already making Adventure Time Lego; it’s already doomed).
#8 SCARY STUFF
This is kind of dark, and only something I recently started to realise is probably not a universal experience. So, scary stuff in films or on tv (or in real life obviously) really mess me up. I don’t mean they just scare me, but my brain is a bit of a dick about it and it will literally randomly play me the most scary segments from anything I’ve seen, FOR DECADES, horrific flashback style, whenever it feels slightly relevant somehow (I don’t know yet if any of it ever goes away – it’s not knowingly happened yet). The stupid thing is that I actually really WANT to watch some scary films, even horror films, but I really don’t think I need more indelible monsters in my brain-closet. Mostly for kicks I just read the online plot synopses instead. I also really wish I hadn’t accidentally watched Village of the Damned as a tiny kid.
On the plus side I do seem to also have a pretty good visual-based memory (except for faces), a fairly good skill for weird lateral thinking, and plenty of material if I ever wanted to make a very derivative horror film.
#9 HYPER WARP
I don’t actually know how unusual this is, but people have often commented on this about me – that I am capable of crazy-super-focus. If I’m into a thing, I can plan it down to the tiniest detail in my head, and then work on it nonstop til it’s done. This means that I can get huge amounts done and thoroughly plan something even when I’m in bed or on a bus (though I might miss my stop). The only thing is that I don’t seem to have much control over when this hyper warp bonus thing is available – my brain might decide that TODAY IS THE DAY TO ONLY STUDY BIRD SKELETONS – good luck focusing on anything else that day! (I am actually having this problem right now – I have more work to do than I have time and instead I’m stuck on making this…) It’s still one of my most valuable creative skills though, even if it can be exhausting and won’t let me go to sleep at night.
The excitement and rush of needing to get a new ideas OUT THERE feels amazing.
#10 HULK MODE
I’m not proud to admit this, but I still basically tantrum like a three year old*. Especially when I’m in the middle of doing something I’m really into, and it goes wrong, like if I lose an important thing, or some stuff gets moved around, I explode like a fucking volcano.
I’m still trying to figure out how to handle going into ‘hulk mode’ (I felt like that Hulk film (the good one with the actor whose face I obviously don’t recognise) described the feeling pretty well). I have broken things and hurt myself, but I’m at least confident that I still have some degree of control, and that I’d never hurt another person. The feelings are INSIDE ME – not external. I want to scream/bash/kick them out of me, but never anyone else. It’s kind of like being filled with furious tigers and is probably the worse feeling I know.
*It’s possible that EVERYONE often tantrums like three-year-olds at home? Maybe it’s just some secret about being an adult that no one talks about?
On the plus side, and I think this is directly related, I reckon I feel a lot of emotions fairly unusually strongly – like someone turned my emotion knob up to 11 or something. This means that joy and love and excitement can be pretty insanely awesome, if sometimes a bit overwhelming for all involved.
#11 DEFINITELY NOT LADYLIKE
If I’d been given the chance to be a boy as a kid, I think I’d probably have taken it. I hated being a girl, refused to wear dresses or anything ‘girly’, liked toys usually marketed at boys, and dreaded the thought of my body changing to become more woman-like (I was very relieved when it didn’t too much).
But as I got older, I came to realise that I don’t like a lot of society’s expectations of masculinity either, and also grew to appreciate being able to wear some skirts/dresses on occasion without worrying about people staring.
These days I don’t mind what gender people think I am, as long as they don’t have any gender-specific expectations of me (some haircuts I’ve had have confused people quite a lot, and I mostly liked those the best). I don’t identify with our cultural ideas of male or female, or fit either very well, so I guess if I could sign up to be ‘officially’ non-binary I probably would. I’m overall very happy to be quite androgynous.
#12 LOAD CAPACITY EXCEEDED
I’m finding this one trickiest to explain, but related to the reason I can’t hear in social situations is, maybe ironically, that I hear *everything*, more so the more tired I get. I hear the conversations at my table, the next table, the one over there, the one on the other side of the pub, the barman barpersonning, people moving, cars outside, doors opening and closing, drinks clinking, all in an increasingly queasy-making jumble that my brain flits between like an agitated puppy. The more I try to pick them apart, the more exhausting it gets, and the more likely I’ll start to feel panicky and need to leave or go and sit in a nice quiet loo for a bit.
This isn’t just restricted to noisy environments, or to sounds specifically, though they definitely feature prominently. I used to work as a graphic designer in a small, open-plan office that included a 4-person call centre. The work was fine, and folks were friendly, but as each day wore on and I got more tired, the everyday office noises would start to worm their way increasingly into my consiousness. I used to listen to They Might Be Giants tracks on loop through earphones to drown it out, but eventually, especially torwards the end of the week or during a stressful day, I’d even start to hear everything through the music turned all the way up. The worst sound of all was acrylic nails typing (ugh, I feel uncomfortable just thinking about it!), which over time felt like it was tapping into my brain and made me want to chew my ears off, crawl under my desk in a ball and scream. I’d also get increasingly startled by any intermittent sound, like a phone ringing or the kettle clicking off – the pic on the next page probably describes it best.
Weirdly, I’ve always really liked working in cafes that have a little background noise, although I suspect being able to leave when it stopped being a pleasant place to work makes a big difference.
I’ve mostly talked about sound, but lights, patterns or sensations can all get too much sometimes, especially when I’m already stressed. As I mentioned in the bit about strong emotions though, up until the point of being overwhelming, some situations can feel outrageously beautiful and rich and exciting. I make my own highs!
The experience of being overloaded has definitely shaped my approach to work and socialising, but also added richness and feeling, I hope, to my artwork. When I draw I try to “feel” the sounds and feelings, maybe like method-acting on paper.
So these are some of the things that I think play a big part in shaping how I see and live in the world. Even though many of these points may deviate from the ‘norm’, I am confident that they’re far from unusual. My hope is that the world will get increasingly better at recognising and embracing the diversity of human experience, rather than operating largely with the assumption that everyone sees and hears and feels in the same way – all of us are weird in some way or other, after all.
Sonya Hallett Illustration
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