Every time I am at a party, I like to play a game called, “How Long Will You Politely Stand Next to Me Until You Figure Out I’m Not Going To Keep Talking To You?” It’s never a game I intend to play. I don’t get all hyped up on the car ride over saying to myself, “Aw yeah! I can’t wait to be a dick to some nice person I’ve never met!” I never want to be some morose buzz-kill. I’m just terrible at concealing how uncomfortable parties and gatherings of any kind make me.
I’m not good at socializing. I like to say that I have a three person max when it comes to social interactions. And that’s with my friends. With strangers it’s like a negative one person max. The simple thought of talking to someone I don’t know in a casual setting fills me with terror.
I stutter and stammer and sweat. My mind is constantly racing and bumbling over each new thought whenever I’m stuck in situations where I have to interact with others. At parties, I tend to latch onto the one person I know and follow them around with my head bowed like some kind of scared puppy. I avoid eye contact and speak in disjointed whispers. Too uncomfortable to relax even with my friend. Always making sure I’m not drawing attention to myself and our conversation.
But if something happens and the people I know are somehow occupied, well that becomes so much worse. I tend to stiffen up. I prefer to stand somewhere, my belly is less likely to do embarrassing bunching things when I’m standing. I keep my arms crossed in front of me or buried in my pockets. Something that shows how inconvenient it would be for me to shake hands or wave. I survey the room constantly with erratic unblinking eyes. A terrifying sentry keeping watch from some quiet corner.
My dad’s always telling me to smile. Growing up it was always, “Pretend like you’re having fun. Smile.” But I’ve never been able to take that advice. When I’m in these situations, I get very tight lipped, like I spent sometime in my car before exiting gluing my mouth shut. A long-time fan of heavy mouth breathing, when I’m at a party I tend to forget that you can receive oxygen from your mouth. Instead my nostrils flare desperately, trying to catch as much air as it can to fill my lungs with each quick, shallow breath.
I always look like I’m either itching to pick a fight or on the verge of tears. It really depends on the scenario. If I don’t want to be there out of some spite or dislike of the situation, I default to murder face. A stern, unblinking mask of displeasure. My jaw is probably clenched and I’m probably flexing as I hold my arms tight across my chest. I sit there and curse the insensitivity of whoever it was who dragged me to such an occasion. I mean, don’t they know that I don’t like social events. Don’t that know how uncomfortable it makes me. I sit there with this self-righteous mantra in my head. How people don’t understand what its like to feel like this. And I brood and scowl at anyone who dares glance at me until I can leave and breathe once again in my car as I drive home and cry a little.
But that’s the easy one to deal with. I mean, no one ever wants to be mad and uncomfortable, but that’s sort of me throwing in the towel early. Shutting down as a form of self preservation. What’s harder is when I get all cry-face. I get all jittery and restless, my jaw trembles and it always looks like I’m on the verge of tears. That usually happens when I’m actually trying. My breath quickens and I nervously hover somewhere, desperately trying to find the courage to say hi to someone. Some nice girl or a group of people that look like they’re having fun. My brain just gets stuck on this vicious loop of critical self-analysis and inability to form words. This constant back and forth of ambitious courage followed by crushing defeat when I eventually convince myself that whatever thought I had was stupid.
I wander around the outside of the party. Hoping to catch someone alone. To peak someone’s interest to engage with me. “Ooo who is this brooding hunk of handsome? That’s totally cool still, right? He’s probably some tortured artist and will totally be interesting to talk to.” That rarely happens. No one’s like “Hell yeah, party time! I’m gonna get totally wasted and talk to the sad man!”
But every once in a while someone does try and we enter the game. I’m not a small talk guy. I’m terrible at small talk with my own friends. I need to create some overblown narrative to every little thing or I feel like I can’t function properly. “Oh what band is that on your shirt?” “Oh its Iron and Wine. Let me tell you about my entire history with listening to this band starting with the first time I watched Garden State in eighth grade.” It’s a bit daunting to say the least. But I’m not that open with the casual party-goer and so I find myself in the awkward stand off of wanting their company but not knowing how to actually make us of it.
I’m very good at answering questions from strangers. You come over and say “So what do you do?” I can tell you about my job. I can tell you some peripheral stuff about my writing. Ask me where I’m from and I can tell you the abridged story of how I moved around a lot growing up. But I’m not good at asking questions. I may be interested in getting to know you, but if I can’t follow up my answer with a simple, “What about you?” forget about it. For some reason, I get stuck in that vicious loop of “This is a good question. No its a stupid question. You should ask this. No you shouldn’t. Wait for them to say something else. Oh they’re not saying anything. Look off into the distance until they walk away.”
It’s not pleasant at all. To sit there and struggle to just reach out in any basic human way. I mean, with creepy people, its fine. “Yes go, I did not want to talk to you.” But more times than not, I genuinely want to interact with you but I can’t break free from this cycle of constant self-critique to function. Always too scared of saying the wrong thing. Always too scared of coming on too strong or too soft. I tend to just remain neutral and noncommittal. More like a hat rack than a party guest.
I always say, “Give me three meetings and I’ll finally get comfortable enough to talk to you.” I may interact with you before that but I rarely show my true face (whatever the hell that is) before that. For most people, I don’t get three chances. I get maybe half of one.
But I like to think that for those who are patient, it’s a good payoff. That at some point I become engaging and funny and nice. I say that hopefully because I’m still skeptical that I do have those good qualities. Even with friends I’ve had for months now or even years, I constantly play that game in my head. That vicious self-critique that won’t shut up. “Oh you’re too loud, Chase. Reel it in.” “Oh that was rude. Apologize.” “That was weird. Apologize.” “They’re not laughing. Apologize.” I’m stuck in trying to always say the right thing. Never really relaxed enough to have a good time.
I’m trying. I’m going out more and trying to break free of my comfort zone. A lot of times though, I wonder if I had a comfort zone to begin with. There’s no happy ending to wrap into a bow here because the story continues to rage on. I feel like I’ll always fight this fight with myself. Maybe one day I’ll relax, but probably not. Just know that I do care. That I’m not unhappy, that I’m genuinely trying. It’s hard sometimes but I am grateful for those who stuck it out. Those who I call my friends. They make me fight that much harder.