I’ve been having a thought provoking back and forth with a pen pal about social anxiety. I have always been uncomfortable in social situations. I don’t like small talk. I’m not really all that patient with meeting new people- I kind of just know if you are my sort of person. As I’ve grown older I have stopped trying to be friends with everyone and just tried to be friends with people who feel like part of my tribe. You know the feeling- you just click with some folk. You recognize them. This can take time, and now that’s OK- you know how when you’re hammered you are immediate BFFs but without the booze you actually have to take the time to get to know people?
For a long long time the only people I recognized were the people who could drink as much as I could. It was my main requirement for a friend. I discovered that reality a few months in to being sober when I was friendless, and so it stands to reason that my close friends now are people I haven’t had a drinking relationship with because they are people I chose with my heart and not my tolerance.
So, say, ten years ago, I was in a social situation. I would beeline for the drinks. I would have had a few at home to loosen up- you know, because I am pretty socially awkward and booze made it easier to talk to people. I was more charming, funnier. I was a sparkling conversationalist. Because I am more at ease in small intimate groups the booze made bigger social occasions more fun. Wrong. Totally wrong.
It made it so much worse.
Thinking back on it I realize that drinking made me extra incompetent at handling gatherings- public or private. I would worry always about several things- would there be enough to drink? How much could I drink and not black out? Would anyone notice I was drunk? Would I do or say something embarrassing? Would I remember enough of the details of the evening so I could do damage control the next day? While I was paying attention to all that stuff I was never really paying attention to where I actually was. I was in my own obsessive drinky la la land. No wonder it was never any fun and made me nervous- I never was actually at the place where I was. Plus the people I thought were my friends we people I never really connected with- they were drinking buddies. The way I drank didn’t allow for genuine close relationships to develop. I was never comfortable enough being myself.
I think about the lot of us that started drinking to ease the discomfort of social situations in the first place. What a mistake that was! In my entire drinking career it never got easier to be at a bar or a party. That solution never worked. I think about the group mentality that (here in America for sure) the best and brightest are the ones who love to be social and a popular in their peer group. I think about people like me who don’t like parties or big to do’s. How would things be different if I’d known at fourteen that having one or two close friends was the right thing for me? That my weirdness was OK, and that not every single everybody wanted to be a Guess jeans wearing adorably dumb in class cheerleader? How would have been to know that at twenty-four? At thirty-four?
Drinking made me even MORE socially awkward. It didn’t make me more of myself- it made me even less of myself. It works for some people- but it didn’t work for me. I suspect, if you’re reading this, that it didn’t work for you either. Now that I’m sober I can be in a group of people and just be quiet. I can not have to talk at all. All the mental chatter about my drinking and how much people are liking me is quiet too because I can sense how I’m feeling. If I need to leave early I leave. If I need an excuse to walk away I just head for the bathroom or just say excuse me. (wow!)
I’m not a big fan of the label “social anxiety’ because I think it lumps us all into a ball and it sounds pretty negative. I am a big fan of labels like “introvert” and “extrovert” because I think it helps us to understand the sort of people we are. Of course we all feel totally weird and uncomfortable when we’re freshly sober. It takes practice to get that ease. Of course some of us love parties and loads of people and some of us want things to be more low key and small. Of course meeting new people is hard and a little scary. So some anxiety is totally normal.
So much of what we feel seems so permanent at the time. It seems like things will always forever ever forever always be just like this and never be different. But it will be different. With practice anxious becomes uncomfortable. With more practice uncomfortable becomes knowing. And with knowing comes ease.