Do you recall a time when someone laughed inappropriately? I know there are dozens of times (at least) that I’ve done it, and those are only the ones that I have some vague memory of. Most of them involved misunderstanding what the other person said or missing the context for it. Sometimes the end result is hilarious.
Sometimes less so.
Like when an athletic friend was describing how he tripped over his own feet and I laughed only to find out in the next moment that he was describing the first symptoms of a stroke he’d had. My stomach had bottomed out and I’d been so mortified, felt so horrible for my mistake that I literally couldn’t even speak. I agonized over it for weeks, and even now, more than a year later, I still feel that I need to apologize to him one day, but I always clam up with shame when I have an opportunity.
But I’m talking about a different kind of inappropriate. I’m talking about laughing at something that you understood fully, both the words and the context. When the other person was completely serious and you burst into peals of laughter.
It was a hot late-summer’s night about 13 years ago…
I was sitting on the front porch after dark and though the porch lights were on, the bulbs were low-wattage and the globes were clouded with age, so visibility was minimal. The crickets and cicadas were loud, as they always are in rural Virginia at that time of year. I had yet to win my battle against nicotine and the smoke from my cigarette rose lazily through the humidity as I watched the red tip glow brighter when I took a hard pull.
I had my left leg crossed over my right as I sat perched on the edge of the hard wooden bench, the sole seating option adorning the small brick area, and my right foot moved ceaselessly up and down too rapidly for me to even count, though that was something I often did when my mind started spinning. My thoughts were bouncing back and forth at alarming speed between reviewing every morsel of food that had crossed my lips that day and trying to figure out what to do with myself for the next few hours.
You see, my husband and I had invited a friend, Derek, and his girlfriend, Ellie, over to have some drinks and play poker. Ellie happened to be a former classmate from my grade school days and we’d always been friendly enough, so I was shocked when my husband told me that Derek said he may have to cancel because Ellie didn’t want to be around me.
“Why?” I’d asked, a pit already forming in my stomach.
My husband had shrugged dismissively. “I don’t know. Who cares?”
I began frantically racking my brain for any situation in which I could have offended her and came up empty. I had no idea what I’d done. But I didn’t want to ruin everyone’s good time, so I insisted that my husband tell Derek that he and Ellie could come over and I’d find somewhere to go for the evening. Except I didn’t have anywhere to go; I didn’t really have any real friends I could rely on in that kind of a situation and the thought of going out somewhere alone filled me with nauseating dread.
But I’d figure something out, I assured them.
Derek had been embarrassed and insisted I stay, that they would come over anyway. But how could I go along with such a scenario? I couldn’t abide by the idea of bothering someone, even if I didn’t understand the reason for it.
I felt guilty that someone disliked me and also felt responsible for removing my offensive presence, even from my own home, so that person could enjoy themselves. My husband disagreed and we argued, ending with me going outside to have a cigarette.
I didn’t end up having a chance to figure something out or remove myself; Derek and Ellie arrived before I’d finished my smoke. Derek said hi in his typical terse fashion and immediately went inside. Ellie, thus far silent, sat down on the opposite end of the bench. I felt an overwhelming urge to apologize to her, but sat frozen, unable to find words.
How do you apologize just for being?
I glanced down and squeezed my crossed legs together harder, trying to make them look smaller; as I gazed at them, they appeared to be growing in size, as if each breath was inflating them back to a size I’d sworn off forever.
“It’s not that I don’t like you,” Ellie said abruptly. “It’s just that you intimidate me.”
My first bark of laughter escaped as my heart raced. Me? Intimidating?
“You just lost all that weight so quickly like it was so easy and I’ve been trying to lose weight for years. And in high school, you had such good grades and everything came so easily to you – you didn’t even have to try! And you’ve always been so confident.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is when I broke out into side-splitting laughter. I couldn’t help myself. And no, it wasn’t because I thought anything about the situation was funny. It was quite the opposite, in fact.
It may be cliché, but it’s true: you can’t judge a book by its cover.
I’d lost 70 pounds in the previous 6 months by allowing myself a maximum of 300 calories per day and a carb count that couldn’t exceed 3 grams. I exercised for hours every day and used Miralax religiously to purge if I had even a single bite exceeding the limits I’d set. And my smoking habit had blossomed into a pack of cigarettes (or more) per day to help curb hunger.
But everyone said I looked good, that I looked the best I ever had. I was encouraged to keep up with whatever I was doing because it was “working” for me.
I had good grades in high school because I didn’t know how not to; I did every bit of homework, and then extra work to make sure I mastered the topic. I studied and studied and studied and studied some more, even once I knew everything there was to know, because getting a good education was the only way I could escape becoming my biological parents. I even upset my foster mom when she took me on a trip to Austria during the school year because I skipped out on sightseeing to do calculus homework in the hotel.
But everyone said I was just so smart, that everything came easily, and that nothing should be a challenge for me. And if I got a 98% on an exam, instead of congratulations, I received the question, “What happened?”
I smiled and went along with whatever was expected of me; I’d learned at a very tender age that it was necessary in order to survive. I was supposed to be resilient and confident, so that’s what I was.
On the outside.
Inside, I cried most nights, I wrote poetry about loneliness, I contemplated suicide, and I self-destructed. In grade school, that self-destruction took the form of cutting and burning myself, starting to smoke, and seeking the company of people like my biological parents.
As a young adult, it was isolating myself from almost any meaningful relationships, smoking even more heavily, and drinking to excess on a daily basis.
The thought of me being intimidating, let alone for those reasons, was so outrageously absurd to me that all I could do was laugh. I couldn’t explain why; I wasn’t in a place emotionally where I could understand, let alone articulate the extent of everything driving my laughter. I’d simply apologized for it once I’d caught my breath and, deep chuckles still escaping, assured her there was no reason to be intimidated by me.
And then I chainsmoked and started compulsively downing the vodka and diet tonics with a slice of lime that had become my drink of choice, each drink taking the edge off that intense feeling of discomfort and guilt about who I was.
That was the last time I ever saw Ellie, though she and Derek dated for another few months. And though it’s been more than a decade, I’m finally letting go of that deep sense of shame I have always had when I think of that night.
My laughter was inappropriate, but it wasn’t malignant. It was more akin to a coping mechanism, though I didn’t understand that at the time. Then, it was just another reason I felt like there was something horribly wrong with me.
And I’m sure it made me seem like a callous, egotistical asshole, though that was the opposite of what was actually happening.
Everyone has a story.
I guarantee it. What we see on the surface is just that – on the surface. And just like an iceberg, most of what’s there is below; you can’t see it until you’re up close and personal with it.
So be kind.
And forgive that person who laughs inappropriately.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
Are you struggling with an eating disorder or substance abuse or know someone who is? The resources below are a good starting point for getting help.
Katherine Turner is an award-winning author, editor, and a life-long reader and writer. She grew up in foster care from the age of eight and is passionate about improving the world through literature, empathy, and understanding. In addition to writing books, Katherine blogs about mental health, trauma, and ways we can be more compassionate as a society on her website www.kturnerwrites.com. Sign up for her newsletter to stay up to date and get a free copy of her book moments of extraordinary courage.