Disengagement

For the last couple of days, I was at an offsite session with work. It was a very instructive period.

On both days, I got there about mid-morning as I was coming from my hyperbaric treatment. It was held at a plush venue in one of the office towers in the city. The last time we did this was about March in 2019, and then Covid struck.

It was the usual mix of activities – strategy sessions, games, presentations, guest speakers, team exercises, and reviews. Back when we had it last time, it made for a change from the daily humdrum, but these days it’s quite novel. We hardly see each other anymore, and any gathering is unusual. On top of that, so much has changed, the department has grown, and there are many new faces.

Typically, these events are upbeat and self-congratulatory, and even a tad gung-ho. I’ve never been a great fit for this kind of event because I’m of a different nature. Bear in mind I’m an IT person working in Marketing, and we’re pretty much oil and water. I can tolerate the happy-clapping, but I will never be passionate about making money for other people. That’s the subversive in me coming out.

That was true again this time, though more pronounced than previously because of my recent experiences. Where before, I might have shrugged my shoulders at it, I saw it more cynically yesterday. I was there, slightly damaged, feeling a bit of an outsider, looking at it all as if through a pane of glass.

I actually do well at some of the activities because, by nature, I’m more direct. I feel too cool for school sometimes, but then I get impatient and intervene. Sometimes – previously – I’m coercive, working with people to draw out the essence of their idea and gently coordinating until a solution is achieved. Yesterday, I was more strident.

Later I wondered if my cynicism was unfair. People take meaning from their work, and they’re lucky. It’s not for me to judge that. I may have loftier notions, but who am I kidding? To each their own. I was always out of step – happily so – but I feel foreign to it now. My own is different.

This was only the second time I’ve been with the extended team since I got sick. I’m healthier than before and, in many ways, seem roughly normal. I don’t think about it a lot, but it becomes awkward at times.

To start with, I don’t know what people know of my recent trials. When they ask how I’ve been, what do I say? It’s a real downer to tell them I’m recovering from cancer, but I don’t want to lie either, and if they know and I say nothing, aren’t I being disingenuous?

It pisses me off there was no official notification back when it all started. They said they would but never did. Had they done so, the sting would have gone out of the tail long before. People would be curious, but they may just as likely be happy to see me up and about.

I have no problem with people knowing. It’s the truth, after all, and I’m alive still, so it’s a better story than it might have been (I wonder sometimes what story work would have come up with if I had perished from this?). And, I’d rather be open about it than hiding it away. It actually does me some good to talk about it.

It turns out that some people knew, and others had no clue. Many had noticed my absence and thought something was amiss but didn’t know what. For me, nothing could be worse than rumours and innuendo, but in the absence of hard information, that’s what happens. I can’t tell you how pissed off I am about how it was handled. All the pressure was put onto me.

And so, it came up yesterday, and I faced the dilemma several times, not knowing exactly how to respond. In every instance, I was honest – but you don’t know how much to say, and you’re conscious of what the other person is feeling and how awkward it is for them to respond, which becomes difficult.

What’s ironic is that we had sessions about exclusivity and accessibility on Thursday, some of which felt personally relevant and was a reminder of how none of that happened with me.

We had drinks last night, and it was another interesting and instructive experience. I found it hard because with my diminished hearing, I had to lean in hard to make out what people were saying amid the background noise.

The other side of that is that I found myself having to try extra hard to make myself understood. One guy had earlier told me how much my speech had improved since the last time he spoke to me a few months ago, which was gratifying. I’m probably overly self-conscious about my ability to speak clearly, but in the noisy environs of a busy bar that becomes very relevant. I could see people struggling to understand what I was saying, and a little bit of me died each time.

What happens? You begin to disengage. You don’t put yourself in that position of embarrassment. It runs counter to the articulate and social person I’ve always been. I feel diminished.

Shortly before I left, I got talking to one of the women there, someone I’ve always liked, a thoughtful, sensitive person with great depths. She knew I’d been away, but not why. I told her. The bar had emptied a little by then so I didn’t have to strain so hard. I sensed that she wanted to talk to me, but in the end, I walked away.

As I walked to the train afterwards, I regretted that. You know how sometimes you think of things you should have said after the moment has passed? Generally, I say those things at the time, but they’re in the way of wit. Last night I regretted not being more open with her.

I have this great idea of being more transparent and authentic with others. It appears one of the great lessons from this experience – and yet, with a sympathetic audience, I failed.

At the time, you feel awkward. I’ve experienced the hardship, but I don’t want to make it about me. I know how tricky it is to respond to something like that, and I don’t want to burden others with my story. Yet, I feel there are some people happy to learn.

I had the chance to be quite honest last night with someone I respect and who has the sensitivity to accept and understand, and I walked away. When it comes down to it, I feel embarrassed, which is not something I deserve.

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