Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Communication Breakdown

I took a speech class in college and, as you would expect, we would often discuss the nature of communication. Different communication styles, how to communicate better, tips and tricks for communicating in different situations, things of that nature. The assignment I remember most vividly was, “What did you learn about communication growing up?” That one went over like a lead balloon. It’s safe to say that, at the time I was taking this class, I had yet to learn much of anything about communication that could be expressed in a classroom setting, or at least I had not learned how to communicate anything I had learned about communication. It was a little bit Inception, but it was a whole lot uncomfortable.

I’ve always had a hit-and-miss relationship with speech classes. Two of the teachers in my life of whom I have truly positive memories were speech teachers, and a third was a theater teacher, which is certainly related. (The other two were both English teachers, and yes, that is the sum total, so you can see why it’s easy to remember.) These were the teachers who went above and beyond, who made a special effort to connect, and tried to build a bridge to an awkward kid who knew nothing about building bridges. Of course, that means there was a need for that connection, that I was in a place that required a special effort and couldn’t be reached with ease. The first speech class was just after my grandfather has passed away, and I was devastated. The second speech class …

The second speech class was never finished, for one thing. The timeline gets very muddy in my head for that period, but it was sometime around then that my breakdown happened. Whether it was during that semester or after, I’m not certain, but I wasn’t able to complete the semester and dropped out. I made it to, “What did you learn about communication growing up?” though. Did I mention that assignment, itself, was a speech that we had to deliver in front of the class. We did it over a series of days, and I had been postponing like mad, but the teacher told me at the end of one class that I would be delivering mine the next session. There was a girl in class who usually had a tape recorder, so I asked her to make sure she had a blank tape ready for that speech. I was going to need it.

I never wrote that speech. In fact, I don’t think I ever got around to getting the tape to write it down afterward, which is what I had intended to do. I delivered the speech off the top of my head, made up on the spot, and I’m told it was one of the better speeches given during that class, but I don’t remember it. The only thing I remember was that I opened with, “I haven’t spoken to my family in going on three years, and they live across town,” and had everyone’s undivided attention. This was during the estranged period that I’ve mentioned before and was part, though certainly not all, of what led to the fall and subsequent wake up call. I don’t think I ever went back to that class. I know it was not long after that I dropped out.

Don’t get the wrong idea here. I’m not blaming anyone or casting stones of any kind. Everyone involved could have done something differently during that time, and that absolutely includes me. As I said, the breakdown was a wakeup call about changes I needed to make more than anything else. My primary method of communication up to that point was tall walls and locked doors. If something bothered me, it got locked away and hidden from everyone. I acted out, I disrupted class, I cut, I scarred, sometimes I yelled, but I didn’t talk. If there was a destructive behavior one could indulge in to get away from problems, I probably tried it, usually while hiding behind a sarcastic comment or a fake laugh. I did things to get attention so that no one would pay attention to what I didn’t want them to see. It worked like a charm, until it didn’t. When it stopped working, pretty much everything stopped working.

I’m not a master communicator today. I still bottle things up too often, or hide behind a joke to avoid getting embarrassed. Tattoos have replaced cutting and scarring, but the impulse is remarkably similar. I would prefer to avoid confrontation and sometimes let things go on longer than I should just so that I don’t have to say anything. On the other hand, I know these things now, when I was completely blind to them then. I understand the pressure points, and I take steps to address them before they get out of hand. I do talk, probably not as much as I should, but far more than that angry, scared, bewildered child ever thought possible. I have a loving family and I am so very appreciative. Plus, I have these pages, where I encourage myself to open up and not shove things down into that bottomless pit that - Surprise! - turns out to not be quite so bottomless. In short, I have outlets that are far more healthy. I have bad days - Who doesn’t? - but I’m unlikely to ever let things reach a breakdown point again.

Wish I could say the same about the world around me. Communication is critical, not just for the good health of the individual but also for the good health of the whole. Without communication, things breakdown. We move into the social versions of cutting and scarring, drinking and screaming, breaking and burning. Unfortunately, the social versions of breaking and burning are usually breaking and burning, but on a larger scale. If we don’t talk, we tend to destroy. Sometimes we can’t talk, it’s true. Sometimes you have to destroy to build, but more often you have to build to build, and that requires communication.

Sometimes we need a wakeup call to see the direction we’re heading. I know I did, but wakeup calls are not fun. Someone who can wake up to the soothing sounds of running water probably doesn’t need the wakeup call in the first place. The person who really needs a wakeup call often needs a five-piece band, sirens, and a good swift kick, all at the same time. Talking is easier. Trust me. Scary as it can be, talking really is easier.

I learned some valuable lessons from those speech teachers, even if I never got around to thanking them. I guess maybe this is my way of thanking them now. Thank you. You gave me some valuable lessons that served as a solid foundation. It took me a while to start building, but I think we’re on the right track now. Live and learn, and keep learning. Ultimately, I think that’s the point. There’s always a chance to keep learning.

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