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Sunday, 11 November 2012

Please make it go away

I'm not sure when it happened, but there came a time in my life when I found that I could go days, weeks, even months, without any kind of major emotional meltdown or panic attack. I wasn't cured of my various neuroses and hang-ups; I doubt I ever will be, in truth; but I had, at least, managed to settle into a routine that meant I could avoid all those things that were wont to trigger them.

Unfortunately, no good thing lasts forever and last week I was brought crashing down to Earth when my cosy little bubble of trigger avoidance and a well honed fake personality was popped by unavoidable work related issues.

Exactly one week ago today I was scheduled on what's known as a 'refresher' course; something which you are required to undertake every 3 years or so, if you wish your license to operate a forklift truck (FLT) to remain valid. Since my employment pretty much hinges on my being able to drive a FLT, there was no way out of this.

Now, as anyone who regularly operates these miraculous machines will tell you, there is nothing simpler. Let's face it, a one man vehicle whose gears are no more complicated than Forward/Neutral/Reverse, has a top speed of about 15 miles an hour and is primarily (always, in my case) driven on private land with a minimum of traffic to worry about, is never going to require NASA levels of expertise to drive. So the problem wasn't so much proving that I was capable in order to get my renewal rubber stamped; it was the accompanying drama that was messing with my head. Allow me to take you through the many ways I hated last Monday.

Short Notice

The course was on Monday; I was informed about it on the previous Friday. Since I wasn't working on the intervening Saturday, that meant I had zero days to piss about on the trucks practicing all those little things that you do to pass the test, then never do again until you have another test. Don't be shaking your heads; I don't drive, but I bet there are plenty of examples of that kind of thing with you car lot.

As I say, the test isn't all that hard regardless, but someone with my anxiety levels need  all the help I can get to be prepared, and this wasn't. Help, that is.


As in, anywhere I haven't been before. Every previous time that I've done this, it's been at my home branch, with people I knew. What this means is that they're people I'm relatively comfortable faking a certain level of friendship with, or at the very least a kind of low level 'jokey' enmity.

This time though, thanks to branch closures, openings, redundancies and re-hirings and high staff turnovers, the staff at our branch no longer have synchronised licenses, and no-one else was due. So off I was shipped to another branch, to interact with strangers for a day. Helpful.

Everything about the day itself

On arriving at work I was immediately bundled into the managers car and whisked off on my way. Now, being stuck in a car with anyone gets me jittery after too long; I only have a limited supply of 'small talk' in me. And of course, this being early morning, and the branch we were headed to being in the middle of a busy retail area, the traffic was horrendous; you'd think people had jobs to get to or something; so that added a good while to the journey.

As people go, my current manager is less problematic to speak to than some, on account of how he started shortly after me when we were both essentially kids and I've known him all the way through his climb up the ranks, so he's kind of 'one of the lads'. If this had been any other manager I've ever worked for I'd have been clawing at the door to get out.

Even so, the bulk of our conversations; just like the bulk of my conversations with everyone; are very 'hit and run'; I like the freedom to leave a room when I'm out of material. And yes, I do practice off the cuff remarks ahead of time, and keep a store of them for future use. Being spontaneously witty doesn't just happen you know.

He steered the conversation to music, television, politics, sport... some of those things I know a little about, others I know nothing about, but none of them are things I'm willing to express an opinion on to someone without first knowing their opinion, so I can gauge what I think the level of... look, I can't explain this, but suffice to say I overthink everything and I wouldn't make a very good dinner party guest. Eventually I got the talk back onto work, which is pretty much the only thing I feel truly comfortable talking about, and since he; for reasons unknown, but it may be down to heavy drug use in his formative years; seems to actually respect my opinions and agree with my ideas when it comes to how to run a branch, I was on steady ground.

Until we arrived at the branch...

First impressions I had were that the staff were all numpties and the place was a shithole. Of course, even I am not so oblivious to social niceties as to think that those would be acceptable conversation starters, so I was knackered.

We (myself and the two people also doing the course) were locked in an office with the instructor, but not before he had found time to announce that this would be an all day thing, rather than half a day, which was what we had been told. What this meant was that my managers business in the area would be concluded and he would be leaving earlier than me. He said that he would come back for me at the end of the day, but then the instructor said that he lived...somewhere...I don't know, places I don't live in are all the same to me... but the gist was, he would bring me half way so my manager wouldn't have to brave the tea time rush hour.

Unbelievable. So I now had that to look forward to.

The session began and I thought I would be safe for a while; these things usually consist of a bit of a lecture and some safety videos made in 1972 in which a bunch of stuntmen die horribly. No call for small talk there. Unfortunately, our instructor had other ideas; we were going to listen to his stories about meeting famous footballers (number I'd heard of: 0), look at pictures of his grandson (how many times can you say 'yeah, cute' and seem genuine?), hear stories about all the many businesses he'd owned/co-owned/founded as a favour to a friend (quantity of bullshit detected in said stories: a hell of a fucking lot), and so on and so forth. The others, both fully rounded individuals capable of holding down a conversation without gagging on their words, were fine. Myself, not so much.

At one point, and I can't believe I did it, I joined in the conversation. It had turned toward fireworks, and they were all agreeing with each other about how much they hated them and I thought, hang on, I have something I could say here that is actually relevant! So I told the tale of someone I know having been scared by a dud firework hitting her window. On topic, and vaguely interesting, I thought.

Maybe it was just my paranoia; it was almost certainly my paranoia; but they seemed to listen politely enough then get back to their own chatter as soon as politeness allowed. I spent the next hour sitting there, stewing over my words and trying to figure out what I'd said wrong, counting how many different ways I'd embarrassed myself, and working out how much longer this hell could go on for. They, for their part, went back to talking about football.

Lunchtime arrived and after I inquired as to the nearest shop that I could get some food from, since I hadn't brought any, since we had been told this would be OVER BY FUCKING LUNCHTIME, I set off. Only to be stopped by instructor man, who offered me as lift. LEAVE ME ALONE!! I wanted to scream at him, but of course I didn't. I'm too afraid of confrontation for that. So my blessed relief; my little bit of alone time that was going to be my walk out to the shop; was taken from me.

What is the 'done thing' when someone you don't know gives you a lift to the shop and then needs to use the cashpoint? Do you stand and wait with him? Or do you head in ahead of him? If you stand and wait, are you being too clingy? Are you saying that you can't go to the shop by yourself? If you do stand and wait, you have to then walk round the shop with them, making smalltalk, feeling self conscious if it takes you longer to find something than them. But if you go in alone, are you being rude? Are you saying you don't want to be seen with them?

Welcome to my head. In the end, not knowing which was the 'correct' response, I went with the one that required me to speak the least, and headed straight in alone.

After lunch was a load more waffle about getting shirts signed by football players etc... before we finally, well after 2pm, went out to the trucks. Then we spent another hour standing in the cold while he made various phone calls.

Someone: It's a bit chilly eh?
Me: Just a bit, aye.
(Repeat) (Repeat Again) (And Again) (And Again...)

That was the conversation for the afternoon. Riveting stuff.

When we finally rated his attention again, he told us a tale about a man 'in his fucking 30's, a fucking grown man' who upon making the same simple mistake several times, was chastised by the instructor. 'In the end I grabbed his fucking leg and dragged it off the pedal. Then he burst into tears, I couldn't believe it!!!'

Here's the thing, if you'd pulled me up for making the same mistake over and over again, and then grabbed my leg, I wouldn't have started crying; I'd have told you to fuck off; but only because I'm a better actor than that other guy. You can bet the house I'd have been close to tears.

The practical tests themselves were over in about 5 minutes once they actually started. Then it was back indoors for a written test based on information we should have covered on the morning but didn't because he was too busy name dropping and then home. With him. In his car. I was genuinely terrified. I have this knee twitching thing that happens when I'm uncomfortable and it was going a mile a fucking minute the whole way home. He kept talking about stuff, and I kept ignoring him; literally, I was beyond the point of caring what he thought anymore. I practically jumped out of his car when he got me where we were going.

And do you know what? When I got in my manager's car for the second leg of the journey, my mood being immediately apparent to him, he asked how the day had gone and I told him. He found my torture, and it was torture for me, every second of it, funny. Not because he's an unpleasant person; he isn't. But because we come from a background, and work in an industry, that simply doesn't take that kind of thing seriously.

Which is why, after a few minutes, I switched on fake me and laughed along. I should have known better than to do anything else.

It's been a long one this week, even by my standards; I apologise. I'm not sure I've fully gotten across how upsetting the day was, either; I read it back and everything seems so petty. Either way, I've gotten it off my chest and I can go back into my bubble, until the next time.

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