It was the early two thousands, maybe 2003. I was still booking things, still agreeing to things, but in recent years had gradually begun to back out of more and more plans, and increasingly clocked up more no shows; strangely grateful for a child’s sniffle or a phone call to say things had been cancelled, and yet still in denial, still making excuses, still convinced I could do everything that I wanted to do. And still convinced going out and socialising was fun, was what I wanted. The tiredness or hormones of motherhood were making me enjoy home more perhaps? Being so busy in daily life meant I’d run out of time to get ready or the energy to stay out at night, right? There were well-argued reasons for every time I chose to stay at home. I would often truly feel ill when an event was upon us and I had genuine headaches, genuine stomachs problems. It all felt like real reasons and not excuses, and so the times staying at home built up and up and up like a brick wall. And it happened so slowly and I was so good at convincing myself that it was just this once we’d cancel, just this time we’d stay home because… because… Because, after all, going out is fun. Everyone likes it. Everyone. If you don’t there’s something wrong with you. Humans are social creatures. Fun, fun, fun times…
My grandmother had suggested I was depressed when she noted my increasing insistence for staying in, staying home but I looked at what I had and I was happy with my lot. And I could always always reason my actions. Until that day, one Christmas holidays, I was sure I was making my own choices and was in complete control.
It was the Christmas period. I’d booked pantomime tickets for what was then the four of us plus my parents. Getting ready for Christmas as a whole was difficult for me, it left me in a constant state of list-making, obsessing over minutiae, sleepless nights and panic, and the extra socialising completely drained me. I had to drink a lot to cope with anything social. I thought it was the same for everyone but I was chaotic for weeks, and every moment was taken with pinning down my panic and attempting to appear organised. I did appear organised but appearing organised was actually all I managed. It was a performance so convincing I managed to carry it off for years. I once admitted to being shy to a friend and she laughed and said “You’re not shy!” I really had pulled it off! So I just kept turning up for things and drinking and talking crap. I remember telling one of my Open University tutors that I got through Christmas on mascara and alcohol, and she told me I should write a book called Mascara and Alcohol. Maybe I will.
As our children were still young, I’d booked matinee tickets for the panto. Already in a flappy state (I didn’t know I had anxiety. I wasn’t even kind enough to give myself the gift of a label those days. All I knew was that things made me flap, made me worry, made me stressful. I got stressed. I stressed out), I found myself getting hotter, trembling, focussing on negatives about my appearance, obsessing about a pimple, unable to draw that line that said “finished getting ready” and walk out of the bedroom, downstairs, to the front door. I’d got the children ready, given my parents a picking up time, my husband was downstairs ready and waiting to start the car. I’d organised every thing and every one but I was Not Ready. I would never be ready. I couldn’t complete getting ready because that would mean leaving the house and I was trapped inside a forcefield that was insisting I stay home.
I’d met that forcefield before. Once as a teenager when cycling to a holiday job I cycled into the forcefield and it span me around and I found myself heading home again. At the age of five I refused to leave the house and go to ballet lessons because I knew I simply couldn’t go. I loved ballet but I never went again. I danced alone at home instead. Forcefields existed around doors and I couldn’t walk into certain rooms or areas at school.
But all these years later I still wasn’t joining the dots and putting together the picture of someone who physically and mentally couldn’t socialise regularly.
Upset, my family went to the Panto without me. Upset, I stayed home alone. I was relieved and comforted by the escape but incredibly upset.
What had gone wrong?
I’d done what I always do when going anywhere: I’d been in control of planning everything, I’d chosen in advance what I would wear, I’d pictured us there, I’d placed myself in amongst many people, imagined the claustrophobic crush in the entrance, pictured sitting under pre-performance lights, pictured people sitting all around us, imagined being spotted by people we knew, people we half-knew, people I couldn’t remember because (as I now know) I have a degree of face-blindness, imagined what I would say to people, realised I didn’t know what I would say, and knew deep down that I wasn’t going to cope – some other time, yes but not this time. But it was deep, deep down and I wasn’t really sure what was controlling my actions. My subliminal knowledge that I’m not coping or that I won’t cope often simmers away in the background until I meet that damned forcefield, and WHAM! – can’t do this. This one event in itself was not a big thing but everything else had circled around and around until I felt that just doing this one thing was like entering a black hole.
That day was a biggie for me. I’d let a lot of people down. And I haven’t been able to trust myself since. Other people in my life no longer want to take the risk with me either and I’m rarely invited to anything. I’m not entirely sure what I want to risk committing myself to anyway. My husband will never plan surprises for me because he too doesn’t trust me. This is not necessarily a bad thing because he’s not a fan of too much socialising anyway, and I think his habit of being a grumpy, unsociable git at times is what attracted me to him!
So these days what I want to do and what I’m able to do sometimes overlap beautifully like a Venn diagram, and sometimes they stay firmly separated in their big old lonely circles. Often I will put myself through what is uncomfortable because it’s probably what’s best, other times I will actively seek out peace. Lying awake at night after an event (sometimes for weeks or years afterwards) and remembering how you cocked everything up is no reward for pushing yourself through something. It’s hell and it’s not worth the pain of clocking up yet another bad experience, yet another disaster. So instead it’s a lifelong project of daily self-assessments now. This self-awareness has given me a more joined-up picture of someone who has to carefully measure and weigh up what’s going on, what’s necessary and what’s doable on a daily – sometimes hourly basis. I have to give myself permission to make plans for fun things but I also have to be able to admit that not doing something is also okay and sometimes crucial. And I have found comfort and beauty in just being and not always seeking outside experiences. I do like time at home. I like it a lot. It’s not just something that I have had to force upon myself. It’s often something I have to fight for.
At a wedding a few years ago, I was struggling to cope and someone next to me was involving me in conversation. After a while of getting limited response from me she turned to her companion and muttered something about “…so rude…”. I’m not rude. I spend my whole life adjusting myself to people and situations in order to not be rude. It’s exhausting. Why push yourself through things if you’re so overwhelmed you’re just going to appear rude? Humans are complex beings (no shit) and we can respond very differently to different situations, and there’s nothing quite like feeling trapped in situations that other people clearly find fun and enjoyable.
There’s something about socialising less that makes you look like you’re coping less. But I’m not coping less these days; I’m just coping differently.