Yesterday I voluntarily subjected myself to sensory overload. Otherwise known as a night out pubbing and clubbing.
I have never learnt the appeal of this choice of enjoying oneself, but I occasionally go when invited, because I think it’s important to share in celebrations with friends and fellow students, to show myself friendly and happy for them. I know that probably sounds a bit stuffy or disparaging, because that’s the kind of language people use when making fun of certain activities, but making fun or being stuffy is not my intention. I’m struggling to find words to express why I choose to do something so unnatural to me. I care about the people around me and want to show this – and am aware that I can find it very hard to show this. It’s very easy for me to inadvertently seem distant and aloof, and I am not good at banter, which is the way that people often show affection for each other. So choosing to go along to a social event is a concrete way of showing myself wanting to be part of the group and caring.
First we went to a pub. I had decided in my mind beforehand that I would buy the first round of drinks – because I know buying rounds is what is done when groups of friends go to the pub, and sometimes I forget or get confused as to when to do it, and if you don’t buy a round that is considered rude and looks like you’re taking advantage of people, whereas buying a round of drinks shows you’re friendly and being part of the group. I decided I should do it first, to get it over with, so I wouldn’t be worrying all night about when to do it and whether I wouldn’t get chance. So it was all clear in my mind what I would do – we would get to the pub and I would ask everyone what they wanted. I know from observation that this is how poeple buy rounds – they don’t declare it, but just ask everyone what they want. So this is what I would do.
It was all clear in my mind until we got to the pub. And then I took in the crowds of people gathered around the bar, people standing, people moving around in all directions with no clear destination, people moving then stopping, people standing then moving, people talking, shouting, laughing, and my mind felt swept away by a sense of chaos. I forced my mind to focus and realised the first step was how to actually get to the bar through the people.
The music was loud and rhythmic. I didn’t dislike it, as such, but it seemed to be pervading my body, taking away my clear sense of myself as an individual, so the boundaries between me and the music were not clear. I tried to focus on the bar, and my companions, trying to see what they were doing and following their lead. I would sometimes feel someone touch my back, to move me aside as they walked by. Every time this made me jump and took a while to process – why was a total stranger touching me? I knew it wasn’t rude. When I was younger I thought people were being rude and intrusive and it made made me angry, but I have since learnt that this is simply what people do in pubs and bars, because of the crowds, and the reduced inhibition from alcohol. They do it to everyone. People brush past people, or touch them to move them slightly, and it’s seen as normal and people don’t mind. But for me, each time it happens, I jump or freeze, momentarily shocked and distracted, losing my focus on getting to the bar.
My awareness and sense of self and general meaning became more and more fragmented. I was no longer a distinct being in my own space, with my thoughts clear. I was somehow merged with crowds and noise – invaded, violated, confused. I knew this was a pub and that people were here to have a good time, but the overall meaning of it eluded me. I didn’t – and still don’t – understand the appeal. My thought process was as follows:
Must buy a round of drinks. Must buy a round of drinks. How does that work again? Must find out what everyone wants. Where are they? How many of them are there again? Are they all here? Can I distinguish them from the many other people? They are all merging in, rather than a separate group. Okay, let me count in my mind – oh! My arm – who touched my arm? Who is moving past so quickly? Was I in the way? Must I move? Where are my friends? One’s over there – talking to someone I don’t know. Let me count – yes, I see all of them. Must ask them what they want to drink. Who to ask first? How will I remember all those drinks in my mind? It’s too loud – can’t focus, can’t hear myself think, can’t keep drinks in my mind. What if I forget and turn round to ask them again and I can’t find them, or I can’t remember whose I’ve forgotten?
To my utter relief, one friend said ‘Shall we buy rounds or just buy our own individual drinks?’ and it was agreed to buy individual ones. I focused on reaching the bar, ordering a drink, and taking it to a table with my friends.
Sitting at a table is good. Once I have a seat, I have a spot, which is my space, and no longer being invaded by strangers. A wave of relief came over me as I sat down. I put my drink on the table and focused on my drink.
But then comes socialising. Socialising is hard anyway, but when your body and mind feel invaded by noise, and your ears are so full of noises of music and crowds that you can’t actually distinguish the separate noise of what your friends are saying, socialising reaches whole new levels of difficulty. My instinct is to zone out, because nothing makes sense, and the effort of making it make sense is exhausting, so it would be much easier to go with the flow and zone out. Then everything could just flow over me, as fragmented pieces of the world, making no sense, and not needing to make sense. But that would be rude – and defeat the whole purpose of going out with friends. So I make myself focus.
I know it’s important to make it look like I’m having a good time, to make people feel comfortable around me, and free to enjoy themselves without worrying about me, so I try to arrange my face in a sort-of smile. Not a huge smile, because to fix one’s face in a huge smile would look unnatural and creepy. So just a general happy sort of look. Even then, I’m aware of its fixed-ness, and try to alter it a bit, so it looks like I’m reacting to what people are saying. When others laugh, I laugh. I focus hard on their lips and try to lip-read. When people look at me to address me specifically, I concentrate extra hard and often say ‘pardon?’ because I didn’t understand.
I remember eye-contact. My eyes more naturally look down lower than the face – there’s too much information in the face, so when someone is not specifically talking, it’s easier to look at their clothes, which are neutral. But eye contact is important, so I make myself look at the faces, and in the eyes. As I am easily zoning out, I must avoid just staring at the eyes – must look at eyes for a few moments, then look away, then look back at eyes, then at forehead. Am I doing it right? How are people mentally responding to my eye contact attempts? I have no idea. I am sometimes aware of eyes fixating for too long, and make myself switch.
Some guy I don’t know comes to stand next to where I’m sitting, to the left of me, and talks to the girl next to me. She chats to him and they banter, not knowing each other, but able to banter. He is young and enthusiastic and fun, and she makes her eyes go big and look up at him. I try to analyse it, to make sense of it. It’s sort of a mating game, these whole bar interactions, where men come over and talk to women, and banter. Some kind of sexual thing – but yet not quite the mating game, because no one seems to be looking for a long-term mate. Just a sort of taste of it – maybe practice for future, or maybe to make them feel attractive and sexy.
My thoughts are brought short by sudden cold wetness! What happened? Everyone is shrieking with laughter. A drink has fallen over, and liquid is all over the table and all over my lap. The bantering man is apologising to the girl next to me, promising to buy her another one, while she’s saying that it’s fine. The drink is dripping from the table. I move my chair away, so the drips don’t go onto me. Everyone is still laughing and chatting about it. I remember that this drink was Southern Comfort and lemonade, and there is some satisfaction – some sense of order in chaos – identifying the exact type of liquid that is on my leggings and my legs.
A little later the friend to the right of me says that she’s getting wet. The drink has spread over the whole table and is now dripping onto her legs. The guy who spilt the drink didn’t think to wipe it up when getting a replacement drink. I don’t like uncontrollable liquid all over the table randomly dripping on different people, so I declare I will go get a cloth. I go to the bar and tell the barman that a drink has been spilt and ask for a cloth. He grabs a blue j-cloth and comes and wipes it himself. I watch the liquid get seeped up by the cloth, and also watch him miss bits. As he goes back to the bar, I see the table is no longer overflowing with liquid, but there are random islands of liquid on the table – little rings of liquid, merging together. I watch them, waiting for them to evaporate. They sort of evaporate, but sticky marks are left on the table The barman can’t have used soap. My mind focuses on the circles of stickiness – they are a good focus. Nice orderly geometrical shapes.
The pub closed at midnight, and then we went to clubs. But the description I’ve just given doesn’t really change a great deal for different settings. I had a couple of drinks, but was very careful to control alcohol intake so that I didn’t become dizzy. If I drink too much (and the threshold is pretty low for me!) then sensory overload is even harder to control, and zoning out harder to stop. My friends, however, drank quite a lot, and remained alert and cheerful and able to banter and know what was going on.
Several times I thought about the fact that my friends saw this night as a good, fun, relaxing time after the hard struggle of an exam they’d just had, and I realised that in terms of difficulty – concentration-wise, focus-wise, effort-wise – I would probably find the exam easier. I was amused by the irony of this. And yet I wasn’t unhappy – the people I was with were nice, easy-going people whom I like. Sometimes I’ve been out with people who seem to look down on me a little and can make snide comments, and this creates emotional discomfort as well as sensory discomfort. But this wasn’t the case here. There was friendliness and goodwill. Furthermore, I had made the choice to be there, and I was glad to be there, because I wanted to be with these people, and I was happy for them that they were so happy – and there was no doubt that they were totally enjoying the night out. And I wanted to be part of that – to share that with them, by being there.
I was also aware that, sensory-wise, the pubs and clubs we went to were not the loudest, and they didn’t have the intense flashing lights that make me automatically zone out. I’ve been to clubs that are so loud, with such intense flashing lights, that I’m actually unable to make myself focus, and zoning out no longer becomes an option that I can prevent by concentrating. So it was nice to have a night out where, although there was sensory overload, I was able to keep hold of some kind of focus.
And yet there remains in my mind a complete lack of understanding of the appeal of this sort of night out. Why do people choose this sort of experience as pleasure? And how does it function as a sort of relief from the stress of exams and a way of celebrating? I don’t get it at all. All I do is observe that it clearly does function in this way, and thus I speculate that the actual experience others get from this setting is totally different from the experience I get.