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The Art of Conversation - Part 1

By John McManamy

What is holding us back most in our recovery? Our illness or our lack of social skills? We are not talking about illness-induced behavior, such as dancing on tables during a job interview. We have medications to control that. But what if, while seated at your job interview - the key to getting you off of disability and into recovery - you fail to grasp the significance of your prospective employer glancing at his watch? There is no pill for that. Consider:

At a recent NAMI convention, I talked to an earnest young man who had participated in open mic night the evening before. Let’s call him Bob. Bob displayed considerable talent in performing a couple of his compositions on the keyboards. In the course of our conversation, he let it be known that he plays four saxophones.

For the uninitiated, if you play one sax you play them all, plus all manner of reed instruments. It’s the rare sax player who carries just one sax on stage. No one says, “I play four saxophones.” Okay, maybe Forest Gump.

Fortunately, this was a mental health convention. Bob was in a safe place. I replied by asking who his favorite sax players were.

Same convention, two nights later. A fifties-sixties cover band was setting up outside. I was talking to the sax player. The conversation flowed easily, thanks to the didgeridoo I'd been honking by the pool. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Bob with his parents.

Without warning, without waiting for a pause in our conversation, Bob broke formation, approached the sax player and, without introducing himself, blurted out:

“I play four saxophones.”

The sax player and I looked at each other. Oh, oh, I thought. This is the real world now. The sax player, of course, had nothing to say. It was as if Bob had demanded, “What is the co-efficient for the expansion of brass?”

Bob hovered expectedly, as if waiting for the sax player to embrace him like a brother. Then, a well-worn brain circuit must have kicked in, one of the few active ones in this particular circuit board, one attached to painful memories of past social failures. Whatever reaction Bob had been expecting or hoping for wasn't going to happen. Just like all those other times.

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