Tracy Chabala / Originally published @ TracyChabala.com
It used to be called shyness, and no, it is not the same as introversion. Only recently have I realized how debilitating my social anxiety can be, how all-consuming, and I am keenly aware of the starring role it played in my former destructive drinking habits.
Those who know me well would be shocked to hear of my shyness. I love talking. I love listening and I love engaging. When I’m comfortable with someone, I’m a bright, silly, extremely gregarious person. Certain people do cut right through that social anxiety, people who are inquisitive, people who are genuine, people with strong conversational skills, and the on-and-on-and-on loquacious folks…those guys are my saviors if I’m at a party where I don’t know a soul.
For some reason, I find talking with the French and Spanish and Italian and Egyptian and South Americans and Mexicans and Africans and Indians and Central Americans totally painless. There’s something to be said about the American attitude, the posturing, the conceit, and the fear of vulnerability.
Or maybe it’s just LA. And making matters worse is that LA is my hometown.
It was all just fine when I drank. But today, I don’t have that luxury—it will send me back to the psych unit. Imagine having a thick streak of social anxiety without the security blanket of alcohol, or even cigarettes. It’s terrifying.
Last night I went to a get-together for a prominent LA publication. I only knew one gal there, but I arrived late and everyone was already crammed around a large table, and she was stuck between a bunch of other people. The only seat available was at the end of the table, right off the corner between two people I didn’t know. I sat down, and neither greeted me. I feigned interest in the menu. I sat there still as a log for about five minutes. They talked at each other while leaning over me, literally pretending I didn’t exist, and I was both baffled at their rudeness and sick with fear.
So I greeted them.
I put out my hand, introduced myself, and crossed my fingers that they might involve me in their conversation, lest I continue sitting their like a rotting log. Since I was isolated at the corner, there was no one across from me I could speak to. It was literally just those two. But even after I introduced myself they ignored me.
I’m old enough, and sober enough, to know this had nothing to do with me. They were just consumed with their own conversation, and, as it turns out, they both work in the same department—the marketing department of the publication.
I’ve now realized I have little in common with marketing folks.
I forced myself to make conversation after sitting there like a mute for five more agonizing minutes. They barely acknowledged me, but finally, after I continued to listen to them and tried to stay engaged, they did end up involving me in their conversation. But the lead up to that was incredibly uncomfortable. No, I wasn’t going to drink, but at one point, with beers all over the table in front of every guest, I did recognize that I certainly could use one.
It’s possible that these two have little in the way of social manners. But I don’t think it’s fair to judge people right off the bat. They, too, may feel awkward starting up conversations with someone they don’t know.
But after they started talking to me, I totally blew it. With nerves paralyzing my brain, my mind became a conversational wasteland. My normal quick-witted humor dried up, and I couldn’t keep up with their sarcasm. Truthfully, I do better with people who have more nerdy conversations, not bravado-ridden banters about strip clubs and porn, but these were the ad people at an alternative publication, and alternative publications stay in business from ad sales to strip clubs, sex shops, and pot dispensaries.
Thirty minutes into this awkward setting and I wanted to bail. I considered just getting up and leaving, despite the free food. The conversation veered to how we liked to jack off, and by that time my faith in humanity, or at least in people who live in Los Angeles, completely shattered. It’s not that I’m a prude, it’s that at 36 I find these discussions mundane, boring and empty, and a defense mechanism against actual human connection. Also, to bring this stuff up with people you don’t know, well, it just seems tacky. And I know I sound like a snob, and maybe it’s the Armenian-American in me, and when I was younger I didn’t think this way, but these days I’m astonished at how little people value class. You don’t have to veer toward Victorianism to sport a little decorum.
After sitting among those marketing folks at the end of that table wanting to die, seats finally opened up near my friend at the other end of the table, the section filled with other freelance writers. The moment I sat down, they all greeted me.
“What do you write about?”
And I asked them the same.
Night and day from the other end of the table. While those guys were talking about their favorite ways to jack off, these guys were talking about feminist indigenous muralists in Pacoima and the essence of the English language. They were talking about the plutocratic political scene in Los Angeles and how developers rule the city. They were talking about the activists who work for housing equity day-in and day-out.
I felt at home. And I ended up having a marvelous time.
I met the main investigative journalist for the publication, a man I’ve followed over the years, and we, too, had a fascinating conversation.
So at 36, with a bunch of sobriety tucked under my belt, with some measure of maturity, I was able to stick it out, to realize no one’s sitting there judging me or finding fault with me, but I had to suffer through 30 minutes of terrifying anxiety to get through to the other side.
When I was younger, I suffered from the delusion that I was ugly and uncool. So I tried to be pretty by putting a bunch of MAC sludge all over my face, dying my hair blonde, and wearing tight clothes. I tried to be cool by talking about sex toys and sexcapades and various ways of getting off in front of all the substance-less twenty-somethings I met my senior year of college or out in the club scene. This wasn’t me. I trashed that behavior when I turned 30 and got sober.
Now I sometimes suffer from the delusion that I’m stupid, especially if I’m surrounded by whip-smart journalists. But I did realize last night that any conversational idiocy that comes out of my mouth is simply the result of nerves. It’s like trying to sing when you have stage fright—you can’t. Your vocal chords tighten up, you can’t breathe, and you sound like a dying seal.
The same holds true for trying to have witty conversations when you’re sick with anxiety. You’re either a mute or you blurt out the stupidest nonsensities instead of contributing to the conversation. Then people stare at you like you’re weird, then you feel like an idiot, and you retreat further into yourself.
The good news is I also recognize that there are people out there, be they colleagues or potential lovers or potential friends, who immediately put me at ease with their warmth, their curiosity, their generosity and their courage to be themselves.
I hunt for them these days like I used to hunt for the next double vodka tonic.
About the Author
Tracy is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, and Salon and is a regular contributor to AfterParty Magazine. She holds a Masters in Professional Writing from USC and is working on a novel.
You can read more from Tracy on her blog at TracyChabala.com.