Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Involuntary External Expression Disorder: A Story of a Girl Who Just Can't Help It

I deeply envy people who can gracefully and empathetically tear up when listening to someone's bad news or woes.  Or, any sentence containing the word "diagnosis."  When I hear things like "my 93-year-old grandma has pancreatitis" or "my uncle's vertebrae was crushed under a 2-ton truck,"  I got nothin' but empathetically raised eyebrows combined with a 10 degree sideways head tilt.  In fact, I can't cry when everyone else is crying unless I vividly imagine my husband, Alan, walking out on me after cruelly wringing the necks of six cute puppies.  I save my tears for random times and places like 3PM in Hobby Lobby when I hear a song that reminds me of something sad.  Then, they flow.  Oh, how they flow.

I have is a condition that I refer to as Awkward Inappropriate Laughter Syndrome (AILS).  I laugh when all the world is silently weeping during solemn occasions and major accidents.  When I feel a spell coming on, I try to duck my head and put my hands over my face to make it look like I'm racked with sobs.  The tears that flow are generally belied by the guffaws that gurgle up from the pit of my belly.  I must admit that right now I'm braying like a donkey just thinking about my malady.  Pardon me while I reach for a box of Puffs Plus.

There now.  All better.

One of the first episodes of AILS that comes to mind occurred when my dear friend, Kristi Hook, almost drowned in the Carthage public pool.  We were probably about 10 years old at the time.  Kristi, Penny (her cousin) and I spent hours at the pool performing water ballets and synchronized swimming numbers.  We scored each other's dives on a scale of 1 to 10.  Pointed toes were considered essential elements of executing the perfect swan dive from the low board.  Which brings me to "the incident."  We were practicing our running dives on the low board.  This feat began at the back of the board with a dramatic swoop of the arms and ended in the water with a dainty splash.  Kristi mounted the board, narrowed her eyes in concentration, and took a deep breath before the swooping of her arms.  Then, she took off trotting down the board.  Somewhere along the path, one of her feet missed the sandpaper no-slip surface and skimmed along the smooth 2" outer portion of the board.  What happened next...well, let's just say that it happened in slow motion and the arm swooping was unbecoming to say the least.  Trying to regain her balance, she resembled a cartoon character whose body was twitching and turning inside out after accidentally swallowing Tabasco from a bottle marked "Tonic."  All I could hear were the sound effects, "DINK-donk-dunk...DONK-dunk...DINK-donk-dunk...DONK-dunk!"  As she crawled out of the pool crying with her hair streaming down over her face, my spasms began.  Try as I might, I couldn't help myself.  I began to laugh so hard that I had to cross my legs tightly to maintain any kind of continence.  On the bike ride home, Kristi and Penny gave me the silent treatment as I peddled alongside them on my banana bike snorting with laughter.

Oh, this one is bad.  I'm ashamed to recount the story, but for the sake of getting the word out about AILS, I will bare my soul.  This one happened a funeral.  (You  just cringed, didn't you?  Yes.  You did.)  It was the funeral of a high school classmate.  Losing her was sad beyond words.  She and I had been good friends for several years.  We called each other by our backwards names.  I was "Nylorac."  She was "Aseret."  It was the first time I had lost a friend.  I was very inexperienced when it came to funeral etiquette.  Finding strength in numbers, two friends rode with me to the funeral.  The parking lot was full when we arrived, so we were breathless as we trotted from our remote parking spot up to the funeral home entrance.  A small group of people was being ushered through a small door.  As we approached, we were directed by the funeral director's benign hand gestures to follow the others through the door.  It was a tight squeeze, but we ended up on one of the back pews in a tiny room.  I remember thinking, "I can't believe that this chapel is so, so small."  

Craning my neck, I could see another adjoining room set at a right angle to where we were sitting.  The pews were much longer than the ones in the room in which we were sardined.  Then, I saw the casket.  It was obvious that we were in some sort of "overflow" room because the open casket was facing the room with the larger pews.  Gazing over the people directly in front of me, I saw her.  Aseret's sweet mother.  I thought, "They put her MOTHER in the overflow room?!"  Anger welled up inside my chest.  Then, it hit me.  We had wandered into the family seating area and plopped ourselves onto pews alongside the very people who had known and loved our friend, Aseret, since the very day she was born.  My eyes went wide when I realized the magnitude of the disrespect that we had inadvertently heaped upon their heads.  I leaned over to whisper the news to my friend.  "We're in the family section!  We're supposed to be IN THERE!"  I gestured with a slight nod of the head towards the other room.  "What?" she tearfully whispered in reply.  Enunciating slowly and carefully, I hissed.  "THIS IS THE FAMILY SECTION!  WE'RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE!!!"  The shocked look on her woeful face triggered that old familiar feeling.  Giggles were bubbling up as I tried to squeeze them away with my stomach muscles.  Oh, the horror and shame of AILS!  She replied, "Well then, what are we doing HERE?!"  Oops, that ripped it.  I began to make little asthmatic whistling sounds as I squelched back the guffaws.  She turned to the friend beside her and gave her the bad news.  The pew was beginning to shake with my "sobs."  After a few hand gestures and nods of understanding, we made a break for it out the small door from whence we came back into the parking lot where we melted into fits of laughter.

I could go on and on.  I could tell you in detail the pain I felt holding back chuckles while I was having a conversation with a very important man who kept twitching his nose like a rabbit.  Or, the time I was at yet another funeral visiting with an elderly woman who was close to the deceased.  Imagine how hard I bit my lip when I noticed that she had accidentally painted on her eyebrows with her teal eyeliner and lined her eyes with her brown eyebrow pencil.  I think my lip actually bled a little.  One episode almost cost me my marriage.  We were skiing in Santa Fe.  Alan came to my rescue when I accidentally skied into a little copse of aspens.  As he gallantly extracted me from the deep snow, the ski pole I was using for leverage "came in contact with" his mouth chipping one of his front teeth.  To this day, he glares at me when the story is retold.  The glare is not about the tooth.  It is about the fits of laughter that followed the incident.

I'm pretty sure that there is a genetic piece to this puzzle.  Handed down through Williams family lore are tales that ring familiar.  There was the time that my mother attended Aunt Florence's funeral with Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Ruby.  They were all three stricken with a nasty bout of AILS when Uncle Jimmy absently told one of the ushers that they would like to sit on "the bride's side."  Aunt Wanda confessed to once faking sobs of heartache at the funeral of an ancient relative years ago.  If only her dad hadn't stuck out his false teeth right in the big fat middle of the service.  The people sitting behind her didn't help the situation at all by patting her shoulders with sympathy and concern. 

I actually did a bit of research on AILS.  Well, "research" would be a stretch.  I googled it.  What I found was quite interesting.  Apparently, my disorder has a name, "Involuntary Emotional Expression Disorder."  I need to carry a card that I can present during embarrassing outbreaks to incredulous onlookers explaining my illness.  Perhaps, then, people would look upon me with empathetic, tearful eyes instead of with shock and horror.

Here it is in black and white.

"Our outer emotional expressions should be directly related to our inner mood and/or our thoughts.  If we talk about something funny, we should be smiling and even laughing.  If we talk about something sad, our facial expression should be sad.  When we have emotional expressions that are unrelated to the situation, conversation, or mood at the time, our emotions are poorly regulated and controlled.  Mental Health professionals have proposed a diagnosis of "Involuntary External Expression Disorder" (IEED).
-Dr. Joseph M. Carter, PhD

If you, too suffer from IEED (or AILS), please share your story.  It's time we shed some light on this contemptible, socially unaccepted syndrome.

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