I am not a victim. I did this to myself, albeit under emotional duress.
In my twenties, I grew more and more withdrawn from others due to an intense shyness, shame over my shyness, my painful efforts to repress it, and the many social failures I believe it caused. Though I was normal looking on the outside, even somewhat attractive, my social awkwardness kept me all alone, and lonely – another reason to want to withdraw. It also made me depressed, which I was ashamed of, which added to the urge to withdraw. And so on.
Anyone who’s been through that kind of sh!t understands the gradual snowball effect these vicious cycles create. I developed an Avoidant Personality (though at the time I wasn’t aware there was such a disorder).
I altered and restricted my life in order to isolate myself. To have as little contact and interaction with others as I could get away with. I was still fairly young – thirtyish. But in order to survive, I had to work, so complete isolation wasn’t possible. Even so, on one job I got, I was able to carve out a semi-quiet, minimally social spot for myself. I managed to build little habits and defense mechanisms for avoiding too much (painful, almost always painful) interaction with others. It wasn’t perfect, but I had a bit of control over my environment.
Then, my complacent little world got shook up, and my defenses failed.
tl;dr Warning: long post from here on out.
A story device they like to use in novels, movies, and television series is the one in which a character goes through an event that pummels the hell out his status quo life. It reveals his character and shows whether he changes in response to it. How he responds provides the drama, the conflict, or even the humor.
I was sent halfway across the country on short notice for four days of confusing, half-assed training on an inventory database system that wasn’t well understood even by its creators. Annoying enough to anyone. But I was a perfectionist and unconsciously had always pressured myself not just to understand things but to understand everything, entirely, right away. Otherwise, I would get frustrated and an alarming sense of failure would begin pestering me.
Well, that’s what happened in Topeka that week, several years ago, in the class. I was placed in close quarters with a group of strangers – nice strangers, decent people, to be honest, but strangers nonetheless (everyone’s a stranger to an avoidant person: be wary!). And that, combined with increasing frustration over not understanding the new system, was wearing down my composure – the facade of calm normalcy that I had gotten so good at. That cool surface, concealing the self-inflicted storms within.
Behind the dam is my anxiety
Furthermore, I was working on earning a college degree via distance education. When this trip came up, I had term papers and tests that were due, so I brought my school work with me. I was trying to keep up with school while trying to learn the new info system, and I was angry that this was happening.
I kept near Matthew Mark Luke & John because I was too inhibited to try and socialize with the others. There were also three people there who actually worked for the same employer as me – the Minnesota team – one of whom (call him Jackson) knew my immediate supervisor, Neo, pretty well (golf buddies). It made more sense to hang around them, but shyness, lack of boundaries, yadda yadda yadda. . . .
At first I even kept eating meals with Matthew Mark Luke & John, staying close to what was at least partially familiar to me. (Avoidants fetishize the familiar.)
I went to lunch with Matthew Mark Luke & John the first two days. I embarrassed myself at Wendy’s by declaring (just to try and make conversation, because I’d been saying so little) before we ordered that I wasn’t all that hungry – and then Super Sizing my order because I change my mind a lot. Luke and John laughed their asses off.
(I suck at ordering quickly, from just about any menu. So many choices, so little time. Another blog post for another day.)
A few tables away I saw an attractive blonde girl eating with an older woman, probably her mother. I told myself she was beautiful and that I could live here, in Kansas, and meet a beautiful Midwestern girl like her. Avoidants, as well as love-shy guys, fantasize a lot.
On the second day a new woman, who had just been hired to work at this Topeka facility where our class was being held, began sitting in on the class. She was a programmer, mid thirties, about a 6 on the HB scale. John sat near her and kept trying to flirt with her. John talked a lot about women. I was jealous of him, of how easy it was for him to socialize. He was married.
Also that day, Jackson of the Minnesota team said to me, “You know, George, you don’t have to stay with them all the time,” referring to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
He and the other Minnesotans probably wondered why I, who worked for the same employer as them and did nearly the same job, was avoiding them. I think he also assumed I was hanging with Matthew Mark Luke & John because I had traveled with them from K.C. to Topeka and that I didn’t want to give offense by leaving them. Only partly correct. It was also because it gave me an excuse from being put in social situations with Jackson and the Minnesota team – not because of anything about them personally, but because I believed I wouldn’t have anything to say and would make them uncomfortable with a bunch of awkward silences. It has happened before, an example of what I called “social failures”.
More deeply, I was also avoiding them to prevent them finding out anything about me personally. Which is a big reason why I’d developed an avoidance of everyone in general. Refer to the AVPD criterion, “unwillingness to become involved with people unless certain of being liked.”
(Yes, yes , logically I know this is a lot of crap to have been imposing on myself. It happened anyway. Welcome to my world.)
Jackson invited me to have dinner with him and the other Minnesotans, and believe or not I said yes. I didn’t want them thinking I was stuck up and didn’t like them. We had authentic Kansas BBQ at Boss Hawg’s.
I intended to order as simply as possible, straight off the most popular items on the menu, no frills or odd requests to risk looking foolish. Our waitress reminded me of a girl I used to like. I stared at her a bit too long and I think she noticed and felt self-conscious, and that made me self-conscious too. I did my best to make conversation with the Minnesotans but it was awkward and I was relieved when I got back to my hotel room.
It seems silly, but after two and a half days of stressful, self-defeating interaction that I wasn’t able to avoid, I’d built up too much pressure behind the wall.
By the third day, the pressure was starting to breach my defenses.
In class, I was asking too many increasingly irritable questions of our instructor, then frowning and complaining that it didn’t make sense. At one point Jackson interjected and said to me from across the room, “George, it’s going to work out, okay. The _____ goes into the _____ list before you click the ______ button.” I’m paraphrasing and can’t convey his exact tone of voice, but the point is that he must’ve felt the need to gently but firmly tell me to chill out, like when a character in a movie has to grab panicky person by the shoulders and shake them.
Jackson was a friendly guy, but he must’ve seen my stress, my taking things too seriously, and he reacted. A sense of failure overcame me. I felt like I was failing in front of everyone; they all seemed so relaxed and so smart. My Gatekeeper convinced me I was f*cked.
I clammed up and began ruminating. I wasn’t going to get along with anyone, wasn’t going to understand any of this class material, too much was (genuinely) over my head. I envisioned Jackson telling my supervisor Neo about my strange behavior.
I didn’t go to lunch with anyone any more. I ate from the facility’s vending machines at my seat in the classroom, while pretending to study but really just killing time, and I spent an inordinate amount of time in the men’s room. (Toilet stalls in public men’s rooms are a favorite hiding place for avoidants. I became familiar with the graffiti and fantasized about writing a sociological book about it). I ate dinner by myself in the hotel room and went to bed early, depressed.
The dam, breached [Wikipedia]
The next day, everyone was impatient to finish up and leave early. It was only Thursday and we’d been scheduled to leave on Friday, but everyone agreed that if we hurried up and finished class by lunch, we could get to Kansas City by mid-afternoon and take fly out a day early, yay. I was frustrated because I thought I needed another day to try and learn the new system. But I was outnumbered, so I didn’t object. The instructor skipped over a bunch of stuff. They all were in a hurry, hurry, hurry, and that put me in a hurry too. Hurrying makes me feel like I’m not in control of anything.
Though I’d ridden with Matthew Mark Luke & John on the drive from K.C. to Topeka on the way in, I rode back to K.C. with the Minnesota team. I was very quiet and sullen during the drive, watching the green hills of eastern Kansas pass by in the autumn sun. I listened to the Minnesota team talk about work-related issues back at their plant and personal issues at home. Normal people talk. I’m not normal.
We got to Kansas City International and parted ways, said so long, it was nice meeting you, say hi to everyone back in Seattle, etc.
I wondered how to go about changing my flight reservations to Stand-By, to get on to an earlier flight. I’d never done that before and didn’t know how to do it and I was worried I’d screw it up. I thought maybe it would be simpler if I just hung out at KCI all night and then caught my already-reserved flight back to SeaTac on Friday. No, that might be embarrassing. So, I got in line at the United ticket counter. With each person who finished their business at the counter, I moved closer. I got more worried about how I didn’t know how this Stand-By thing worked. Really. I mentally rehearsed what to try and say to the United clerk, how to ask to go on Stand-By and pretend I knew what I was talking about. Well, that wasn’t going to work. By the time I was next in line, I’d given up trying to save face.
That giving-up was more significant than I can perhaps describe. I almost never give up and reveal to others that I don’t know something, that I feel helpless. So, it was an almost physical sensation release as I was forced to accept that I really did not know what I was doing, and to pretend otherwise wasn’t the way to go. And so, seconds before I was going to be talking with the United clerk, an idea occurred to me: I was going to tell him the truth. I handed over my ticket and spoke.
“I had reservations to depart tomorrow, but I’m leaving early and I don’t know how to fly Stand-By because I’ve never done it before. Can you help me do I need to do?”
Dropping my defenses. What a concept.