Sunday, July 26, 2009

A New Direction

This is an older entry from the Other Other Blog. It's an apology to some, an explanation to others, and a warning for the rest.

A few months ago, I took a trip home because the stars aligned and a few family events were happening at the same time. My cousin's twins were having their 1st birthday, my aunt was celebrating her Golden Jubilee (50th anniversary of being a nun) and there was a big family reunion. And of course, I would get to see my little nephew, who as of this writing is nearly 9 months old.

The family reunion is the interesting one. It was a gathering of my mother's side of the family. About 150 people attended. I knew about 15 of them well, the people that I think of as "my family" at holidays and such. About 10 more I had met perhaps once or twice at some point in my life. The rest were complete strangers. I wasn't looking forward to it, but I thought, "well, I'm home anyway, it'll make my mom happy, and it's only 4 hours". My attitude was one of annoyance, not dread. But that all changed the second we walked in the door.

Now, those of you who know me well know that I am quite shy, and that at times it goes past merely shy and all the way to anxious and fearful. I can honestly say that this reunion provoked an anxiety in me that I have not felt in as long as I can remember, at least all the way back to high school. As soon as we walked in, we were greeted and given name tags to stick to our shirts. It started right then. I don't know why, but this overwhelming feeling of anxiety and dread took hold of me. The event was held in a church cafetorium, and our family group of about 15 staked out a table right in the middle of the room. We settled in, and then the others started to mingle and head for the bar. I sat and didn't move until we left. Four hours in a folding chair at that table and I did not so much as stand up. I was so afraid that I can't even describe it. I did not get in line for the bar and I did not get in line for food, because I was scared that someone would talk to me. My parents and others in my family kept asking me questions. "Why don't you get a drink?" "Aren't you going to eat something?" "Are you feeling all right?" I just said I was feeling sick because I couldn't possibly tell them what was really going on. Honestly, even if someone brought me food or drink I wouldn't have had any because my insides were so jumpy that I would have thrown it up.

The worst part was toward the end. The guy who had organized the reunion was giving away door prizes for things like "oldest person here", "longest married couple" and things like that. He announced one for "person who came the longest distance". I froze, as I knew that except for one person from San Diego, it was probably me. And I also knew that my mother would immediately jump up and point to me.

My mother is the most extroverted person I know, and she has never understood my shyness. Further, I really don't think that deep down she thinks it's even real. When I've displayed shyness before, whether it's been refusal to dance or reluctance to talk to people, she just accuses me of being surly, sullen and an "old fart". Like I'm just doing it to be a jerkoff. The thing about mothers is that they are certain that everything you do is done to them, for them, in response to them or as a representative of them.

As expected, my mother's hand shot up like a teacher's pet and she squealed "Los Angeles! Los Angeles!" while gesticulating wildly in my direction. I immediately wished the the floor would open and swallow me up. I was feeling the same as I would if I were standing on the table naked and doing an Irish jig. I turned around and shot my mother a look of absolute anger and violence. A look that said "If you don't shut your mouth right now I'll come over there and shut it for you". She noticeably recoiled and threw her hands up. To make things worse, no one immediately went up to claim the prize, and many people had heard "Los Angeles". A brittle woman whom I am apparently related to leaned over from another table to urge me to go up. I told her that someone else here was from San Diego, and silently prayed that Ms. San Diego would finish up in the bathroom and save me. This woman, rather than take the hint, proceeded to engage me in a geographical debate about which city was further from Philadelphia. I was flustered, so I don't remember exactly how that played out. But in the end, a shambling, mulleted Rhode Islander, a savior in striped Zubaz pants, staggered away from his pitchers of beer and up to the stage to claim the prize. Soon after, someone's child was urged/commanded to sing what turned out to be a quite lovely version of "Danny Boy", and the event was over. On the way out, Mrs. Rand McNally said goodbye and made a subtly snide comment that made me want to knock her out and that I wish I remembered.

On the way home, I apologized to my mother for snapping at her. She didn't ask what the hell was going on, and I didn't offer.

I don't know why this happened. Ostensibly, these people are family and should have nothing but kind things to say to me. And if this had never happened to me in a group of strangers, why should it happen now? The only thing I can think of is that since these people were family and this was a reunion, I was actually expected to talk to them. In a group of strangers nobody cares. I wish I weren't like this. "You just have to get out there and mingle, meet people!", I hear from well-meaning people. "Everyone is nervous around new people and if you don't start being more outgoing, you're going to wind up alone." Well, this is what I am. I can't change it. It's not a matter of just deciding to be more outgoing. You might as well tell a blind man that if he doesn't start opening his eyes, he's going to keep bumping into things. But they are partly right. I really do think that it's going to cause me to wind up alone. I'm not saying, "oh woe is me", because I've done just fine so far being alone. I just wish I were like everybody else.

19 metawords:

Mr London Street said...

Believe it or not, you are more like everybody else than you think. That's a good and comforting thing. But reading this post I for one am half that you're not 'just like everybody else'. If you were you probably wouldn't have written this. If you were you probably wouldn't write at all.

Girl Interrupted said...

I want to give you such a big hug right now.

And I think the majority of people would have felt uncomfortable too in the same situation, it's just that some people can manage to put on a front, others freeze like you did, some people wouldn't even have the courage to go in the first place.

I don't think people really understand how crippling shyness can be unless they're shy themselves. Or how miserable it can make you feel about every aspect of your life.

Sometimes confidence can come with age, but even if it doesn't, it shouldn't matter, not to the people who really know and care about you.

I'm sorry you had such a bad time ... but I did love this post, this is you at your best x

the girl with the pink teacup said...

I'm with Girl Interrupted. I so wish I could give you a great big hug.

More people feel this way a lot of the time than you may realise, and it's a horrible thing to experience. While it's not something I live with on a day-to-day basis, attacks of acute shyness and social anxiety do strike me more often than I care to think about. When it happens, I put on a brave face, but on the inside, all really I want to do is hide. You're absolutely not alone in this, words.

I am so very sorry you had to sit through such an ordeal, and I take my hat off to you for how well you handled yourself in such tough circumstances. Having all that unwanted attention on you when you were already feeling way out of your comfort zone would be enough to send even the most level-headed, zen-like person off the edge. You coped so admirably with all that stress, and you should feel proud of yourself that you were able to get through it despite how horrible you felt. You are truly amazing, my friend.

The thing that makes me saddest about this, though, is that your family doesn't seem to understand that shyness is a part of your nature, and that it's a completely normal and rather special thing in many ways. While I'm sure that they've thinking only of your "best interests", it must take a lot of patience on your part to cope with their somewhat unfair expectations of you in these very high-pressure social situations. I really hope their perspectives change for the better in time so you won't have to go through something like this again.

Anyway, to close this stupidly rambling comment: you're a remarkable man, of remarkable talent. Thank you so much for sharing something so personal like this. It took a lot of courage.

Thinking of you, dear man.

Soda and Candy said...

Okay I am joining the group hug with the Girls... I don't have anything clever to say but I loved this peek-inside-your-heart post.

Trinity said...

I don't really want to give you a hug but I feel for you. And being like everyone else is not worth the trouble. Being yourself might sometimes feel sucky but in the end it is worth all the trouble.

God said...

Ah, I hear you, bro. I'm aperger-y although not shy, and don't enjoy being around people, especially extended family.

Not that I don't like them, just the sense of joy that everyone seems to feel in the company of others is lost on me, and in it's stead I feel frustration and anxiety. Whenever these things are over, I resent the people whose feelings I'd have hurt had I not attended. It's a stupid cycle, and these years I've given up trying to please people because I've exhausted myself and am bitter feeling at everyone because they don't get it.

I'm tired of trying to find excuses to avoid gatherings, I don't want to change and I like the way I am, I just want people to stop thinking everyone wants to be sociable and you're a freak if you don't think the same way. Why is that so hard to comprehend?

180|360 said...

I was originally going to start my comment with something that your mother might say, so..... delete. delete. delete. WHAT? You should not be shy! You're awesome. delete delete :)

Okay... I'm not shy. In fact, I'm kind of on the other end of the spectrum in most regards. But, I still agree with the others in that you should never wish to be like someone else. Embrace your inner "Words" and go with it. I think we are all shy and anxietal in different ways. I know I am.

And honestly all I want to say to you is: I really like you. You don't come off shy in your writing. I'd totally hang with you - esp. if I weren't a married-with-kids broad. I think you're fucking cool, funny and very clever. If you can find some of your confidence, it will probably serve you well, but if you don't - you seem to be doing just fine to me. We all like you.

Does that make sense?

Anonymous said...

Yeah man, what every one else said. You're not as unusual as you think in such situations. I would have acted exactly the same way you did. I'm pretty shy and I don't appreciate the attention being focused on me without my consent either.

You know I think the blogosphere is full of people who don't like the social extrovert thing or find it hard or uncomfortable or just plain awkward, so it's great they can happily hang out online because it doesn't involve all that anxiety you get in real life situations.

I'd rather pull my fingernails out with pliers than walk into a room full of strangers looking at me. And a family reunion? You can bet your ass I'd need a few stiff ones before attending that and even then I'd keep my head down and hope it was over fast.

It's beyond annoying when you feel a certain way and other people just don't understand. Everyone's different.

All us shy people should hang out and listen to Morrissey or something. :) Not in the same room though! We'd all have panic attacks.

Anonymous said...

First, being like everyone else is boring. You're far from boring, you're one on my short list of bloggers I actually look forward to reading.

My dad is that way, too. He never showed up to my HS graduation, or my wedding, or anything significant for that matter. No one really knows why, and he doesnt talk about it - and we don't bring it up because he will get snippy too.

I've always been really disappointed by his actions. But after reading your take, it puts it into perspective for me.

Thanks for sharing that. It allowed me to understand how he must be feeling.

words...words...words... said...

Thanks for all your kind words. This isn't the sort of post I usually make, but I've come to think that you can't be truly funny without investing yourself into the mix. So I jumped in.

As for specific comments, a few of you mentioned confidence. It has never felt to me like confidence is really a factor in this, but I suppose I can see how from an outside perspective that might be a natural assumption. When it's bad, it feels more like I'm in a room full of people who speak a foreign language. I don't really know how to talk to them, and I can't grasp their social rituals. So when they speak to me, I honestly have no idea what to say. Even "Hello, how are you?" feels like a minefield.

It's kind of lessened if I feel like a person knows me beforehand though, which is why some of my smoother and easier interactions have come with people I've met online first. A couple of them would probably say I'm not that awkward. Maybe it's like how you get into a cold swimming pool gradually.

I know know. But thanks :)

jenocyde said...

I think that this sort of thing is paralyzing and I sympathize with you. You obviously know that, logically, nothing bad will happen to you. But fear stems from somewhere illogical. Have you tried to work this out, through therapy or other means ? Or do you just want to accept this part of yourself? People's response to your response to yourself will be what determines whether you end up alone or not. You have to shape your own future. I'm not sure if you expect us (me) to feel sorry for you and to help you push through, or if you expect us (me) to walk away in silent understanding... but an action will be taken. Pick one.

(but thanks for sharing. I know how difficult it is to put yourself out there...)

Prunella Jones said...

It's most likely a brain chemical thing. Maybe try some Valium or some other light trank before your next gathering to cut down on the panic?

I like the shy types, myself. They are usually highly intelligent people and frequently witty when you get them going. Which makes me wonder if there is some connection between IQ and shyness. It kinda makes sense, doesn't it? Too much over thinking about the way you are perceived?

No wonder I'm such an attention whore. I'm dumb!

Anonymous said...

Words, words, words. You are an amazing writer... you almost made me cry. And no that's not sarcasm. I think you're great the way you are, and nobody should try and change you. Just because you're shy does not mean you'll always be alone.

The Diva on a Diet said...

Like many others, I find myself wanting to hug you. So, consider yourself virtually hugged. And not because I think you need it, its because I want to ... ya know, that Diva thing, its all about me. ;) (kidding!)

If you were like everybody else, likely we wouldn't be here reading you and you wouldn't be as brilliant and funny as you are.

There's much to be said for "jumping in" as you have ... at a minimum you've offered a kind of intimacy that even some extroverts can't quite manage. I'm glad you did.

King of New York Hacks said...

No worries bro, you're cool who you enough to share with us , and thats something to be real proud of...sending you honks from Times Square my ever in The Big Apple , just give the King a ring, and you got a free ride brother !!

Cora said...

Been there, Words. Been there many a time.

When I was a kid I wanted to dye my hair brown so I could blend into the crowd flawlessly. I was convinced it was my flaming red hair that drew all this unwanted attention, like a spotlight over my head 24/7.

Falwless said...

Hahahahahaha you're such a pussy!

Falwless said...

Jusss keeeding. ;)

After all the terribly sympathetic and beautiful responses I figured I'd throw out an asshole one just to mix things up.

I remember reading this on your other blog. I still try to wrap my head around you being shy because I just don't picture you like that at all in my mind's eye. Plus I'm the total opposite, as you know, so it's tough to understand where you're coming from.

But you know I love you just the way you are.

Okay, fine, I tolerate you.

Okay, okay, I barely tolerate you.

Listen, I think this comment needs to come to an end, don't you?


words...words...words... said...

YOU are such a pussy for not letting your first comment stand alone! :)