Friday, May 21, 2010

Table For One

"They're calling all the shots
They'll call and say they phoned
They'll call us lonely when we're really just alone..."
- "Oblivious" by Aztec Camera

Twitter exchange recently between @blurdmuliebrity and myself:

@blurdmuliebrity: Seeing people eating alone in a restaurant makes my heart hurt.

@berutt: Why? I do it all the time.

@blurdmuliebrity: You can always tell the lonely ones from the nonlonely ones and it's sad.

That got me thinking: which category do I fall into? I don't think of myself as "lonely," but am I? I don't feel lonely, at least no more so than I imagine everyone does at some point or another, but then again...

"Marriage is a Wonderful Institution,
but Who Wants to Live in an Institution?"
- Groucho Marx

Being a 43-year-old, reasonably healthy, heterosexual male who has never been married puts me in a minority, sociologically speaking. Of course, good-intentioned people who believe that no one else could possibly be happy or content with their lives unless they are lived by a certain prescribed set of standards are always quick to ask, "Well, what's wrong with ya?"

The answer: "Nothing."

"Uh-huh," they nod, looking perplexed as they give me the once-over in search of glaring flaws.

It's just that I have no pressing drive to get married just for the sake of being married. Not that I haven't had the opportunities. In fact, there have been points in my life where I thought I found her, but history has shown that had I taken that plunge then, I would likely be just another divorce statistic now. That's not what I want. When and if the right woman comes along, yes, I'd like to marry. To this point in my life, I haven't found her.

Drive, She Said

That I have not yet settled down in some ways parallels another societal anomaly about me: I have never learned to drive. Again, the questions have become routine: "You got some kinda disability? You get into legal trouble that says you can't drive? Wait, you mean you've never had a license?"

Nope, nope, yep.

You think they looked perplexed about the still being single thing? This one really blows people's minds! I have a harder time rationalizing this one, though. Literally, the only thing that keeps from having a driver's license is that in 43 years, I've never gone through the process.

I walk a lot, I arrange for rides with friends or family, I use public transportation. I don't "miss" driving because I've never driven. I save a lot of money that would otherwise go to auto insurance, gas, repairs, upkeep. I've gone this far without driving, what would I need with it now?

It Came in the Mail

Sitting on the far corner of my desk is the invitation to my 25th high school reunion, which will happen this summer. A quarter century. Seems like forever ago, but it also seems like yesterday.

I have not gone to any of the previous reunions, and my rationale has always been the same: "Those who were my friends are still my friends; those who were marginal I could find if I needed to; the rest I didn't like back then and they didn't like me, so why would I want to see them?"

This reunion is a bit different. This reunion is occurring in a post-Facebook world.

When I joined Facebook over a year ago, I was stunned to find the first people reaching out to me were high school classmates - literally, people who I had probably not thought of very much at all since grabbing my diploma and heading off to college. Even more stunning, they were folks who, if they remembered me at all, I would not think would have remembered me fondly.

Almost two-thirds of our graduating class is on Facebook now, and I have connected with many of them. What has amazed me is that some of my classmates who, back then, would scarcely acknowledge I existed, are now among the people I most look forward to interacting with online. I've had to reassess my own judgments and perhaps let go of a grudge or two, and as a result I've found that more than a few of those who I would have put in the "why would I want to see them?" category before have turned into really neat folks.

Of course, not all of them have. It seems every high school class has those who are still living their lives as though we were all still back in school. They never left their cliques, they never expanded their world, they never opened their minds. Their lives apparently peaked when they were 18, and that's the world they want to hold onto. They were snobs, bullies, jerks then, and they remain unchanged.

So, when the question has invariably come up, "You going to the reunion?," I find myself unable to rely on my pat answer. Now there are a group of folks who I would like to see again - those who I have reconnected with online and found common ground today that didn't exist back then. But is my wish to see these folks in person stronger than my distaste for seeing those who judged and tormented me 25 years ago, and are likely to judge and torment me now?

The Demons Inside

Over the years, I have done that same cost-benefit analysis in my mind many times. It certainly is not the reunion which is bringing that out of me. No, this is a battle that wages constantly inside those of us who deal with social anxieties.

Social anxiety can range from mildly annoying to fully debilitating, and while mine fortunately falls toward the less severe end of the spectrum, it's still a formidable demon to fight. People who have never dealt with anyone who battles social anxiety, and who don't deal with it themselves, have no concept of what it does to a person. It is not simple shyness or introversion. It is a real fear, a gripping fear, that stops you from being in even those social situations that you want to take part in.

Some friends invite me out for dinner and drinks, or a group is getting together to go to a concert or to a ballgame. Maybe some friends are having a party and would like me to be there. Whatever the situation, I go through the same process: I happily say yes, I'd love to join in. Then, little by little, the fear starts creeping in. What if I do or say something embarrassing? What if they all laugh at me? What if there are people there I don't know, and they think poorly of me? What if this is all a set up to trap me into some sort of public humiliation? The anxious thoughts spiral out of control like that, each leading to the next more irrational, more frightening thought.

This is where my friend OCD kicks in. I was diagnosed with mild OCD several years back. Again, I'm fortunate that it falls to least severe end of the possible spectrum, but it's there nonetheless. In my case, OCD manifests more in obsession than in compulsion: the racing thoughts with no basis in reality - thoughts that do not bear even the most casual scrutiny, but thoughts that I can't always stop. OCD and social anxiety often go hand-in-hand, with one feeding the other. The physiological response is an adrenaline rush, and that "oh my God" feeling in the pit of the stomach. As I said, it's a very real, gripping fear.

And so, I begin to desperately look for a way to bow out of the invitation. I find myself hoping something comes up - bad weather, illness, whatever - that is just cause for either the event to be canceled or for me to easily say "sorry, can't make it." What is strange about this process is that while I am going through it, it's as if the rational, clear-thinking part of me is watching it happen, fully aware that it is irrational, fully aware that it is an anxiety/OCD response, and yet unable to shut it off.

Sometimes the rational side wins. I literally force myself out the door to whatever the event is. And you know what? Invariably, once I'm there, I find myself having a great time. And why not? I'm with friends taking part in enjoyable activities! If there are new people there, I tend to make new friends. I'm a surprisingly charming person. If they don't like me, that's OK too - their loss. Invariably, when it's over, I can't believe that I ever had an ounce of anxiety going in.

When the anxiety wins, I spend days kicking myself. Why the hell didn't I go? Why did I let that irrational fear paralyze me? Why do I stop myself from being around people?

It Wasn't Always Thus

Those who have known me for a long time know that I did not always suffer these anxieties. Through high school, college, and throughout my twenties, I was an extremely social person. The tiny fourth floor apartment I lived in with a woman I at one point thought I was going to marry was a gathering place, and when the party wasn't there you could bet that I'd be wherever the party was.

I can't tell you exactly how or when it all changed. That's the thing about anxieties - they creep up on you; they build slowly over time. I know that it did change, however, because at some point in my mid-thirties I looked around and said, "Where is everyone?" I had slowly turned myself into a hermit, steadily letting friendships atrophy. (You know, if you turn down or cancel enough invitations, people tend to stop inviting you to hang out with them.) Dating came to a near standstill: it's hard to take a woman out when you yourself are not comfortable going out among people in the first place.

I had become one of those folks who, if I did go out, would be eating dinner alone.

The demon that is anxiety and OCD is a cunning foe, constantly whispering in your ear, forever rationalizing it's existence. It's a siren song that requires constant vigilance to resist. Have you noticed a pattern in the items I've discussed in this piece? My still being a bachelor at age 43? My having never learned to drive? My having never attended one of my high school reunions?

In each case, I have at my disposal a seemingly perfectly plausible rationalization; a ready answer for all the questions that are regularly thrown at me. And, in each case, those "rationalizations" fold under the most casual scrutiny.

The Therapist Behind the Bar

Because the most casual scrutiny reveals the flimsiness of my rationales, I tend not to scrutinize them. When @blurdmuliebrity made her comment, especially about being able to tell the lonely from the nonlonely among those who dine alone, I immediately wondered if she would be able to tell which category I fell into. Then the thought: Do I know which category I fall into?

Naturally, anyone would rather be among those who are alone, which suggests a choice in the matter, than among those who are lonely, which suggests a far worse lot in life. Surely, I'm among the alone, right? I suddenly found in my mind that those rationales were not only subject to casual scrutiny, but that I had put them under a microscope. Flimsy? Hell they're weak as water.

Of course I want a wife! Of course I want someone to share my dinner (and my thoughts and my world) with! You know what stops me from going out and finding her? That damn irrational fear. That fear of being judged, of being set up, of being mocked and embarrassed. Of not being good enough.

Of course I should learn to drive! That in itself would open so many more restaurants to go to where I could share my meal with someone. You know what stops me from doing it? That damn irrational fear. That fear of failing and in turn being judged, mocked and embarrassed. Of not being good enough.

Of course I want to go to my 25th high school reunion! There are people I really want to see again, and to hell with those with whom I will never get along. You know what stops me from going? That damn irrational fear. That fear of being judged, of being set up, of being mocked and embarrassed. Of not being good enough.

I don't think I mentioned yet that @blurdmuliebrity happens to be a bartender, and in that role I have no doubt she's seen her share of the alone - and the lonely - patronizing the establishment where she works. Good bartenders have a sense of their clientele. Good bartenders also happen to be fairly insightful amateur therapists.

A woman I knew several years back and was very fond of was an artist. She made a piece for me that I treasure greatly. It's a simple chunk of rock into which is inscribed the following:

"Man, like every other animal, tends to be passive. Unless goaded by circumstance, scarcely does he take the trouble to reflect upon his condition."

That Twitter exchange from the other night has goaded me into some self-reflection, the way a good therapist would. The writer in me demands that I express that self-reflection in words, and the blogger in me says "Share it!"

So there it is. Now, I have two choices: change, or continue. I don't know yet which path I'm going to take. Change at 43 is tough, but certainly not impossible. Either path I follow, I will continue to fight the demons of anxiety and OCD, so neither will be a cakewalk. Decisions, decisions. I need my strength - maybe a good meal.

Table for one, please.

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  1. Bravo, well written. I too have some odd social anxieties. I do not like to eat alone. And not just in public but at home to. It is not unusual for me to go most of the day without eating. I wont even feel hungry, but as soon as a friend comes over or meet up with people it hits me hard. This also has kept me from eating alone at restaurants. It wasn't until two years ago when I had to get used to eating at restaurants alone because of traveling for work on a regular basis.

    Another weird thing is I wont watch movies alone. Doesn't matter if it's at home or the theater. I have tons of movies, that I love, on DVD that I haven't watched because no one wants to watch them with me. But I will watch TV on DVD.

    I'm growing and starting to overcome some of this, but as I'm sure you know it's not a simple task.

    I will cross post this on my Facebook page. Great job Bryan!

  3. @D. Moulton - Thank you, sir. I think we each have our individual "oddities," for lack of a better word. Sometimes, I think we forget just how much those quirks of our character determine how we perceive and interact with the world around us. If my post helps goad a few readers into the same sort of self-reflection I had to do, I think it will have served it's purpose.

    @anonymous - Glad you liked. I mentioned on my FB page that I strongly considered some serious editing, for fear that the post was too long, but in the end there really was nothing I could cut. I so pleased at the response it has generated!

  4. This is an absolutely beautiful post, Bryan. I understand your fears, because I've spent most of my life dealing with my own anxiety disorder and fears. My fear isn't so much what will other people think of me, but a feeling of dread, like something will happen that I can't control. I've been able to control it, luckily, but sometimes it's still there, lingering...When you described being so excited to go out and then having second thoughts? I understand that, I understand that completely.

    I think the thing is...we all have our own lives, and we live those lives according to who we are, to our experiences, and to who we want to become. It's not up to anyone else to tell us what's right for us. And it's not up to anyone to tell us that we have to do a certain thing by a certain age. I commend you, Bryan. What I see is someone who knows himself, who has taken each day as it is, and who has changed and will continue to change in ways that will surprise him.

    Great post, great writing, and thank you for sharing and being so honest.

  5. Oh, believe me, Susan, I know that feeling of being in a situation beyond your control, too. Dread is a good word for it.

    You know, the thing that works best for me is very spur-of-the-moment activity. Not an invitation for a week from now, but someone calling me up and saying, "We're going out and you're coming along, we'll be picking you up in five minutes!" That way, the process doesn't have time to occur. That's its weakness: it needs an incubation period!

    Of course, that flies directly in the face of my OCD personality, which wants everything planned down to the second and doesn't abide spontaneity...Damn this vicious circle!