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A Note on Being Socially Awkward

“Oh, excuse me,” I say to the person I’ve accidentally cut off in the hall leading to the ladies’ room.

“Haha, no problem. The squash at the mall is rough!” I think I hear.

Not wanting to make this crazy talker feel bad, I say, “Well, they can’t all be gems, can they? Haha!” and push past her and her disappeared smile and confused, slightly concerned eyes, and let myself into the bathroom ahead of her.

While I’m in the stall, I realize that she must have said, “Well, this hall is small enough!” and not whatever I thought she said about squash. My response made less sense to her than the squash mall made to me. Another missed connection.

I don’t hear very well, so add that to my momentary panic whenever someone tries to make small talk with me, my mind reeling, trying to force words out so I don’t completely mangle the transaction, and it’s a disaster. I’m starting to accept that I’m going to mangle it anyway, so I try to keep my tone light and hope for the best. I used OKCupid to date people after my divorce, and under What I’m Best At in my profile I said “Making it weird.” And I meant it with all my heart.

I have a lot of wonderful friends who love me very much, but even with them I’m socially awkward enough to make it weird on a daily basis. And it’s not just my hearing loss or loathing of small talk either. At first I didn’t think mental illness played into it at all, but now I’m not so sure. When I’m doing everything I can just to stay alive with the minimum amount of functioning, not to mention summon the courage to be around other humans when I feel like that, polite conversation is the last of my energy priorities.

I might be at a store in the checkout line and the friendly cashier will say something like, “Any big plans for the weekend?”

Dear god, that question. I hate that question.

My first instinct is to lie, desiring to be someone who does things on a weekend like normal people. It sounds something like this: “Oh yeah! We’re going paddle boarding at the lake. Standing paddle boarding. With Martha Stewart. She’s buying us beer. Then we’re all going off roading in her Jeep. In the mud. I’m very excited.”

My next instinct is the honest one. Let’s not waste time being polite, let’s just tell it like it is. It sounds like this: “Yeah. Big plans to not put pants on or shower or brush my teeth for two days. Just kidding it’s already been a month. I’ll probably lie in my bed sideways and watch The Office reruns for thirty hours while eating these four bags of dill pickle chips and wiping my hands on the dog. What will you be up to?”

There’s the third response and it’s one I call The Best I Can Do. It goes like this: “Is it the weekend? What day is it? Can you just… I’ve got to get home. Because…I have to.” and then I start to cry as I avoid eye contact while o wait for the cashier to finish scanning my items, imagining them judging me for buying dill pickle chips in bulk along with tampons and one single celery stalk.

No matter which choice I go with, I make it weird. The cashier, or whomever I’m talking to will give me a blank, confused, or pitying look. And that’s just the way it is. At one point in my life while working customer service, I learned to have a separate customer service personality. I was charming, helpful, funny, cheerful, and I could do it as long as I was getting paid for it. Afterward I didn’t want to talk at all. To anyone. About anything.

This feeling is the inspiration for my “today is a no talking day” sticker. I feel like that so many times when I am too busy fighting my own brain to have energy for conversation or even responses to simple questions. It costs me a lot of myself to survive depression, anxiety, bipolar, and type 1 diabetes. It would be nice to be able to enjoy being social instead of feeling like it’s an obstacle or a puzzle that’s too difficult for me to figure out most of the time. At least I also don’t have enough energy to care what these strangers think of me and my awkwardness. That’s an asset, especially when I know I’m doing the best I can. It’s an asset too when I’m writing a blog that talks about things that no one wants to talk about. I don’t care what you think of me because I know that there’s someone out there who will read this and not feel so alone anymore.

Weirdos, unite.

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To Shamelessly Adult

I’ve known how shameless of a person I am for a long time. I spent formative years, from age four on, fighting type 1 diabetes and realizing that if you make a mistake (and kids never make mistakes, right?) with my medical care I could die. Not only that, but it will never go away and will probably get worse. Kids shouldn’t ever have to learn to face their own mortality, and yet… Then add to that bipolar with severe depression in my early adult years, also something that doesn’t go away, and a messy divorce, and a parent illness, and losing my job and then my career…dealing with all that on a daily basis, when the hell am I supposed to have the energy to give a shit about being polite? About feeling shame for the ways I have learned to cope with my life and be productive and successful despite its best efforts to keep me down?

The older I get, the less I care about being shy, and being afraid to speak up for myself, and the less I care about changing my personality to match whatever group I’m in. In addition to the human experience of aging and developing a sense of self, my multiple and repeated brushes with death have accelerated this shamelessness I have. Yes, I have a much stronger sense of myself at 37 than I did at, say 20, but even at 20 I had faced death multiple times with diabetes complication hospitalizations and one suicide attempt that no one but my best friend knew about (more on all of this later).

When I realized that everything I know could end in the matter of a second, it gave me a new perspective. I’m alive. I’m alive because I work my ass off to stay alive, and things could be very very different. So changing who I am to fit in? Not saying something I want to say because it’s different from what other people are saying? Needing validation from people around me to feel better about myself? Ok, I still need that one, but the others are things I just don’t have energy for. They are not important in the big picture of life, and I’ve been forced to understand the big picture, over and over again).

This most recent time I was in the psychiatric hospital I saw this shamelessness with new eyes. In an environment like a hospital you have a lot of down time. Even with all the structured activities, group therapy, psychiatrist meetings, yoga and stress relief classes, art classes, exercise classes, you have a lot of time to interact with your fellow inpatients. You get to know each other very well, you get to make friends.

It’s a unique relationship because you’re all hospitalized for serious reasons and you find you learn people’s deepest secrets. You can help them through their darkest moments while they help you through yours. You find people you have things in common with and you make friends. There’s also a tendency of people in groups like this to form cliques and create their own drama. I’ve never been a fan of interpersonal drama, and I’m even less a fan of self-created drama. But I understand its function, especially in groups. It can be intimidating to join a group of people you don’t know and just be left to you own devices to find your way. Cliques can provide comfort.

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