Adverse Childhood Experiences 8: Social cues

I am thinking about social cues for people with high Adverse Childhood Experience scores. With crisis brain wiring the response to social cues may be very different than what is considered the acceptable “norm”.

I always miss the cue when someone says “see you later”. I think “When?” Then I realize it’s a social comment and they do not in fact plan to see me later. I have a moment of disappointment. I do the same thing when someone says, “Let’s get together for dinner.” or “Let’s have coffee some time!” or “I will call you back!” or “Why don’t you come to our cabin some day?” Yes, I think, when?

And then I think “Liar.”

So I fail social cues….. or do I? Maybe I am not responding to the “correct” or “conventional” or “nice” social cues.

My father drank too much and especially while I was in high school and college. And my mother would enable and cover up and pretend nothing was happening. Children in this situation, which is way too common, develop special skills.

My sister was three years younger. As adults we discussed the stages of drinking and which one we hated most. We would both walk in the house from school with trepidation. In the door and almost feeling the air: what is happening? Am I safe? Do I need to hide? How dangerous is it? How much will it hurt?

I walked in once during high school and missed the cue. I was thinking about something. I thought my father was asleep in the kitchen. I went in to get something. I was very quiet so as not to wake him. I made a cup of tea.

He was not asleep, or else he woke up. And it was the worst stage, or the one I hated most.
Not physical violence. But he started talking. One of things he said was “You can tell me anything.” Now, he meant it. But he was crying by then and I knew I did not want to tell him anything and all I wanted was desperately to leave the room. And neither my sister or my mother was home. Finally I was crying too, because I said “I just want to go read my book.” and he was more crushed and maudlin and emotional and crying. And I tore out of the room and up to my room, as my mother walked in.

I did not cry much. Ever.

I refused to talk to my mother about it.

The next day she said to me, “Your father told me that you were talking about Lamont.” Lamont Cranston was a very beloved cat, The Shadow, who was missing now. Dead, we thought.

I said nothing. Because we had not talked about Lamont. So either my father was lying or else he’d had a blackout, didn’t remember and was making shit up. And if I told my mother the truth, she would back him and deny what I said or make it into a joke.

The stages my sister and I identified were:
1. sober
2. a little bit
3. goofy/silly/makes no sense
4. crying
5. asleep

We were ok with 2 and 5. I don’t think we saw 1 for years. We disliked 3 intensely, especially in public and especially when our mother was doing a cover up dance. And 4 we hated.
And yet I loved my parents and mostly miss them now that they are gone. Except when I remember things like this.

So, what is the point?

I miss “social cues” because that is NOT what the crisis brain, the ACE score brain, pays attention to. I am paying attention to far more intuitive things: body language. Whether what the person is saying matches what I know about them and what they have done in the past. I am looking for whether this person is telling me the truth.

I don’t trust instantly. Why would I?

I said to a counselor once that reading the “cloud” around the person was terribly useful in medicine but made me a social misfit. “I don’t know how to turn it off.” I said. She grimaced and said, “Why do you think I went into counseling?” She said, “I can’t turn it off either but I have learned to ignore it during social situations.” I was in my forties before I realized that there are people who don’t sense this cloud, who trust people until the person is dishonest, who understand that it is just fine to say “Let’s get together.” and not mean it.

Because actually, when someone says “I’ll see you later.” and they don’t mean it, they are saying an untruth. They are not planning to see me later. They don’t mean it. And my brain automatically files that under evidence that this person is not trustworthy. To them it is a social cue that is polite. To some of us, it is clearly something that is not actually true. I pick up on a cloud of social cues, but not the ones that are acceptable or conventional. And I am not the only one.

my sister on the left and me on the right, in the 1960s

4 thoughts on “Adverse Childhood Experiences 8: Social cues

  1. macmsue says:

    My view is that often people say, “I’ll see you later” because they don’t want to acknowledge they probably won’t see you for a long time though when shop assistants say it, it’s meaningless. Just a social convention. I’d think though if someone said, “Let’s get together” e conversation wold continue so some kind of agreement would be reached about when or at least a suggestion to email or phone would be made. A lot of social interactions though leave arrangements very fuzzy.

    • drkottaway says:

      I’m not saying my internal response is reasonable, I’m just trying to understand it…..

      • macmsue says:

        I think there are heaps of English expressions we use that seem to make no sense eg “How are you going?” when you want to know about someone’s health or “Catch you later” when you mean, “I’ll see you sometime”. This is also just my perception :-)

      • drkottaway says:

        see you later alligator, in a while crocodile….

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