Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Afflictions of the Non-Physical Type

I am what you might charitably call socially retarded. Once I get to know you, I am witty and fun and sometimes downright bubbly, but meeting new people sends me into a social paralysis that is almost impressive in its patheticness. My face turns red, I freeze, I stammer, I radiate discomfort, and if I'm forced to make clumsy attempts at small talk, I wind up spending most of the conversation in awkward silence while my victim attempts to come up with leading questions to ask me. This, of course, usually leads to my talking about myself while my mind races, oh my god am I talking too much about myself? I hate when people do that! I should ask something. Anything. I look so stupid right now. I bet this person wishes he were talking to anybody else here. Why did I even come here? I knew I wouldn't have fun and now this guy hates me. This is so stupid. I am such an idiot. Am I still talking about myself?

After witnessing my nervous flailing several times, Mark finally said to me, "I don't understand why you do that. That's not you. That's not how you are. Why do you get so quiet?"

Well, the honest answer is: I don't know. I've always been this way. I lost my shit when my mom left me with a babysitter for a few hours, I lost my shit every day of the whole goddamned school year when she took me to kindergarten and then for the first few weeks of each new grade, and, hell, I'm losing my shit right now thinking about the fact that I will be taking a class on campus in two months that will require me to do such painful things as acquire a lab partner and actually talk to people around me. I don't know why I'm like this. I know that I am smart, funny, reasonably attractive and generally pretty presentable, but put me in a new situation and I will convince myself that not only am I the stupidest and ugliest person in the room, I also have nothing interesting to say and thus render myself incapable of forming an intelligible sentence relating to anything more thought-provoking than the weather.

Last year, at the big fourth of July bash to which I was looking forward this year but wound up skipping, I had to be introduced to a lot of new people in an unfamiliar environment. I was sweating bullets and having small heart attacks every few minutes as I tried to force myself to make eye contact and then immediately began wondering if I was making too much eye contact and making myself look creepy. After a few beers, Mark decided (without telling me, of course) it would be "good for me" to be left to make conversation on my own with some strangers, so after introducing me to an older family friend and making small talk for a few minutes in that easy way of his, he excused himself by noting he needed a new beer. And never came back. I tried valiantly for a few minutes to make conversation with this very friendly older man, who asked me several questions about myself and then finally started talking about his daughter, much to my relief. He was telling me about how she was a lawyer or an accountant (the details are hazy due to the bath of stress hormone in which my brain was swimming at the time), and I kept making inane remarks like, "Oh, that's wonderful!" and then wondering if I sounded as retarded to him as I did to myself. As our conversation faltered, I looked around for Mark, hoping he would come save me, and spotted him across the yard, talking with someone else. I waved frantically for him to come over, but he pretended to think I was just waving; he returned the "wave" and then went back to his conversation. I imagined he was smirking at my discomfort.

And then: the rage. Oh, Lord, the fury! How it filled me! (And the REAL anger wouldn't even come until later, when he gleefully informed me of his nefarious plans to force me into a conversation that would be "good for me!") How could he do this to me, knowing how awkward I felt around new people? How could he leave me here with this very nice older man knowing the terrible impression I would inevitably make?

Later, after I learned that the awkward exchange had taken place by Mark's design and subsequently overreacted rather spectacularly, he couldn't understand why I was so angry. "It's good for you to talk to new people," did more to fan the flames of my fury than to douse them, and he was at a loss to explain why I was reacting so fiercely.

The notion that my shyness and anxiety are things that I can "train" out of myself is one that has plagued me my entire life. My mom put me in daycare to try to cure me. Then gymnastics, dance classes, Campfire Girls, and anything else she could come up with that might force me to interact with other people. When I got older and recognized my own problems, I met them head-on like any other overachiever and joined both the speech team and the drama club. I was an abysmal speaker but excelled in acting and eventually became a member of the mostly-seniors drama class "the Bearfoot Players" (our high school mascot was a bear, har har). I was still shy. I worked a summer job at Schlotzsky's Deli between my junior and senior years, and greeting customers never got any easier even as the months went on and I came to know my job inside-out. After I graduated high school, I got a job in an office where small talk was the only language anyone spoke, so although I became good at being an "active listener," I was still battling my social anxiety. My heart raced every time I answered the phone, and I dreaded making calls out or speaking to my coworkers. Eventually I realized that this particular flaw is not one I am going to be able to get rid of.

People who have not experienced the anxiety cannot hope to understand it, because it is not a rational thing. "Believe it or not, I get nervous meeting new people too," Mark once told me, and I couldn't decide whether to laugh or punch him in the face. He is one of those blessed social animals who can walk into a room filled with strangers and walk out with ten new friends in an hour's time; he has such enormous presence that people just know when he walks in because his charisma changes the atmosphere. He will crack jokes or start conversations with complete strangers like it's nothing, and my envy knows no bounds. If he gets nervous, it certainly doesn't show. I, on the other hand, show my enthusiasm for social contact by sweating profusely and developing a stutter. It doesn't work out so well for first impressions. (I also sometimes do this thing where my tongue feels like it won't work properly and gets stuck to the roof of my mouth, so my words come out all gummy and soft, turning my J's into D's and tacking a big fat G sound in front of any hard N's. It makes me sound partially deaf. Once when I met the attractive son of a supervisor at work, I wished him a "Gnice day" in parting and wanted to DIE of the embarrassment.)

So my social life consists of a lot of "doing it anyway," by which I mean I get invited to do something which I know I would enjoy, I feel a tremendous sense of dread at the thought of socializing, and then I force myself to do it anyway. It's not as bad as it sounds, really. I usually wind up having a good time in spite of my initial unnecessary palpitations, it's just getting past those palpitations that's the trick. Also, it can be tricky convincing Mark that yes, even though I've broken out in a cold sweat and cursed whoever came up with the idea of "parties" and am currently entertaining fantasies regarding the various ways in which I could inadvertently offend someone and get myself ejected from the gathering, I do want to do go this thing with you. I know it's irritating, but this is the best way I've come up with in 25 years of coping with my social disability; give me another 25 and maybe I'll be able to figure out a way to actually make myself look like I don't want to crawl under a table and hide for the first half hour of arriving someplace.


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