Tuesday, May 3, 2016

A Lifetime of...Supressing Laughter

Let me introduce myself and how I relate to laughter.  Not now, but maybe 25-30 years ago.  I thought the world was a hilarious place.  I laughed at tangential word associations, at slightly odd muscle movements made by my older sister when she chewed, at the slightly amusing faces made at my by strangers at church.  I laughed uncontrollably a lot of the time.  When I was very small I was almost never taken out of church for crying, but I was taken out of church routinely for laughing.  Even as I got older my sister had to not sit across from me at the table often because I found her chewing motions to be hilarious.  I was commonly sent away from the dinner table for excessive laughing since the only way I could possibly finish my meal was to be socially isolated from other people so that nobody would unintentionally make me laugh.  The world was simply hilarious.

As I got older I discovered more problems with this.  Randomly breaking into laughter around other people starts making them worry that you are making fun of them.  Most social occasions don't accept much laughter.  My parents greatly prioritized dinner conversations that were formal and structured in nature and for a time I was relentlessly criticized for being too silly during family dinners.  A lot of my laughter became tightly controlled.  Often instead of breaking into uncontrollable laughter I gave simple bursts of "HA!" that could be cut short as soon as they began.

The last time in my life where I felt secure enough to laugh like was natural to me was when I went on a canoeing trip with the boy scouts up in Minnesota and Canada.  Being with the same group of people in an nonjudgmental setting for so long stripped away a lot of the varnish shall we say.  I regained the ability to laugh uncontrollably.  The other boys might say "There he goes again" while I would burst into unstoppable laughter for minutes at a time if the slightest thing struck me as hilarious.  This once happened while I was eating the remains of a jar of peanut butter.  I laughed so hard the other boys swore I spewed chunky peanut butter out my nose.

Later on I found myself trying to prove to a religious leader that I was "normal" enough or could at least mask having Asperger Syndrome enough to be allowed to volunteer for missionary service.  It was open season for every little odd thing about me to be criticized to give me feedback and allow me to pursue my spiritual duty to be as normal as possible and someone who medically I was not.  During this time my father, searching for a morally applicable way of thinking about my abnormalities, speculated that our shared way of making puns was possibly a prideful ecocentric display of cleverness that should be suppressed.  One of things my religious leader didn't like about me, along with my stimming behaviors, was he found my short bursts of "HA!" annoying.  Stimming I couldn't really stop, but laughing was much easier to manage.  I don't laugh that way anymore.

My father's speculation about puns couldn't really stop me because one I didn't like his analysis and two, my brain processes language in a way that makes the most absurd puns as easy to come up with as listening.  When people say words, my brain often hears multiple possible meanings at once and has to sort them out.  Sometimes my brain is sorting out alternate definitions, alternate groupings of syllables, or sound alike words.  The longer I am in a situation the less often these language rearrangements occur to me since I become accustomed to the phrases and meanings of the situation.  But when I am in a new situation these alternate possibilities sparkle into existence like stars coming out at dusk.  The contradiction of meaning are sometimes enormous in the simplest of situations.  Just earlier today I heard someone talk about how they had a live feed from a camera, and my brain immediately thought how this was better than a dead zombie feeding.  Occasionally this bizzarity of my language processing is more inconvenient especially if it results in a misunderstanding regarding job performance or medical information, but mostly I just enjoy the self renewing supply of absurdities to both share and laugh at.

However, that is not to say they are not greatly suppressed.  The problem with suppressing laughter is that if you keep it up long enough things stop being funny.  As a result I have trouble perceiving my humor as having independent value that I can actually laugh at unless I can share it in a socially appropriate way.  Instead of just laughing because something is funny like I imagine most people do, I might at most creak the barest wrinkle of a smile while taking time to analyze whether the people around me are people I know and trust, whether it is a socially appropriate time to laugh?  Is the pun one likely to be socially acceptable to those around me?  Is it a subject matter upon which I can speak without immediately being considered too much of an outsider to have dared raise an opinion?  Would the pun detract from something important someone is saying that will leave them feeling devalued because I changed the subject to an irrelevancy?  I don't answer these questions by a gestalt of the situation, but by careful examination.  If the answer to any of the above is no, then probably I'll never get to laugh at all.  I once had a boss tell me that they always liked seeing me make jokes because they could use it to tell whether I was relaxed and comfortable.  If I am dealing with new people who don't know me I have to be careful introducing them to my humor because many people find it unsettlingly odd and require a break in period before they will accept it or me without judgement and criticism.  Which is unfortunate since as I said earlier, jokes are often the easiest form of communication for me to achieve.

I know some of the changes I've experienced are simply the result of a maturing social awareness.  Others I am sure are only because I chronically experienced very judgemental people and situations.  I wish I knew how much was which and could magically fix it so that I could laugh again like I used to.