Everyone is laughing. I’m torn between relief and nervousness. I practiced that joke the whole drive here, praying for the opportunity to tell it and it went over amazingly.
Breathe. Deep breath.
Wanting the moment to last, I chuckle and repeat the punchline.
Oh, God. Was that too much? Keep laughing…
My own laugh sounds distorted and forced. The person next to me makes another joke. A joke about me, I think. There’s a buzzing in my ears and I can’t hear the rest.
Are they laughing at me? Don’t make eye contact.
The back of my neck starts to burn at the benign jest. The heat makes it to my face as everyone chuckles.
Don’t touch your face…. are you smiling?
Their laughter turns shrill and menacing and echoes in my head. Their well-intentioned, smiles have turned to sneers.
Take a breath. In…
I try to keep my smile plastered on my face, hoping no one noticed its momentary drop. Someone catches my eye and their smile falters.
As long as I can remember, I have had some form of social anxiety – a constant and overwhelming need for acceptance and inclusion, and relentless fear of rejection. During my primary school days, and for a large portion of secondary school, before I had a chance to pinpoint the exact problem, my anxiety escalated unchecked – I found every social situation, whether it was a sleepover, a birthday party, or even just lunchtime, stressful. I was continually bombarded with the intense desire to impress everyone around me and to just be liked and included, regardless of the method. So, I lied. In fact, I was compulsive liar. Not large, life altering lies, but small inconsequential lies that I thought made a world of difference. Little throwaway lies that no one even cared about, far less noticed. Lies that helped me fit in, lies that made me seem cooler, and lies that made me stand above the rest. I think I once lied about owning a bikini at 8 years old, when in reality my mother forbid it until I was 13. Or watching a TV show that I never even heard of, and nodding along enthusiastically at the latest plot points. I was a master of minor invention – believing I had shielded myself from the inevitable rejection by my peers by creating a fantasy version of myself. She was only subtly different to my “real” self, but those differences, I thought, were the ones that mattered.
My social anxiety has always been linked to my problems with self-esteem and worth. The lies I told forged that link and it has never really broken. This fantasy version of myself, while mildly different in reality, was infinitely better in my head. And so throughout the formative years of learning how to make friends, and how to be a better friend, I was creating relationships on a foundation of half-truths and exaggerations. An incessant line of questioning developed in my mind. “Do people like the real you? Do you even like yourself? Is the real you actually worth anything at all?” And these questions reverberated in my head, sometimes accompanied by a variety of others which shaped themselves relative to the current situation: “did you really just say that?” and “did anyone notice that?” and my personal favourite, “what were you thinking?” It became a constant exercise in self-analysis in which I always came up short. Any attempts at personal growth or confidence building were thwarted as I realized day after day that I had bought into this self-created illusion; I grew to love the fantasy and so, could not trust that the person I liked even existed.
Someone changes the topic of conversation. My entire body relaxes. Another night, another bar, another group of people. My best friend is at the centre. A beacon in the dark. A reminder of all that I’m not. The hardest thing is being close friends with someone so socially adept. She can’t seem to stay away from these large groups of people; large groups with whom you have only a passing acquaintance, with whom I am too terrified to try to get to know.
What are they even talking about now? Where did I read about that?
I try to ignore the residual heat in my face and forcefully banish its existence. I take another sip of my beer and attempt to find a space to contribute in this new exchange. I interject but no one seems to hear me. I shake a cigarette out of the pack in front of me and light it.
It’s okay. That was dumb anyway.
Oh, I have the perfect story!
Excited to contribute, I interrupt the person speaking. Everyone shifts focus, looking at me expectantly. I keep talking, pretending not to notice my volume and speed increase. No one reacts. I throw in what I hope are amusing hand gestures. My face starts burning again.
At 17, I was, as I liked to refer to it, painfully shy. Yes, I had friends, good friends. I was loud, brash and a little bitchy. But always entertaining. I had traded in the lies for a one-woman show. It was me, just a louder version, with a layer of faux-bravado as protection. But underneath all that big, loud talk, I was still terrified that people would not like who I was. That when they asked me to quiet down, they wouldn’t like what I had to say. That the small voiced, long winded me, would be dismissed without question. To make matters worse, at this point in my life, socializing had become unnecessarily complicated with a new dimension adding to the terror: boys. It was something I had tried to avoid for years, but with all the other girls dating, and dealing, and flinging, it was unavoidable. So, yes, I was painfully shy, most particularly around any member of the opposite sex. I was 17 and had never kissed a boy. In fact, I’m quite sure I had barely ever talked to a teenaged boy (that I was not related to) at that point. Skinny, small breasted, and with acne, my confidence was not at its peak. All I had to rely on was my sparkling wit and effusive personality, the existence of both still fairly dubious at this point.
It was about two weeks before my 18th birthday, and I had been invited to a birthday party at Zen nightclub. For those unaware, Zen, at the time, was the place to be. So snagging an invitation, was a virtual coup. I still remember the awful dress and ugly shoes I wore, my terrible attempt at makeup, my daddy telling me I looked “grown up”, and the battle between terror and excitement that waged in my head on the drive there. There’s not much else I remember about that night. There was self-conscious dancing with furtive glances at all the other moving bodies to make sure I was in fact moving right. There was gossip in the bathrooms, of who was dating who and all the other things teenaged girls talk about. And then there was the only other moment I remember. I guess the one that mattered the most – a shy glance, a tentative nod, a hand on my waist, hiding my shaking hands, and the soft lips of a virtual stranger welcoming me where so many other girls had already been.
My first kiss. From everything I’ve read, and seen on TV and in the movies, this is supposed to be a special if not life changing moment in a girl’s life. It should matter or mean something. It struck me on the way home, lips still tingling, my face on fire, my head spinning, I didn’t quite know what it meant. I found myself less concerned about the kiss, and the now faceless, nameless boy, and more about the remaining party guests. Had anyone seen me? What had they thought? Would they be impressed? Would they be disgusted? Should I be disgusted? Ashamed even?
The next day at school was more revelatory than the actual kiss. For the first time, for something I did completely by accident, I felt interesting. I realized that frank discussion and a flippant attitude were the key ingredients to this. People seemed to love that I told them everything; tiny details that should have been private and treasured were now up for public consumption. It was when I learnt to give people more, when I stopped exaggerating and mugging and told the painfully detailed truths, (when I stopped writing fiction), and ushered in that period of my life when nothing stayed a secret.
Looking back on that night, and the days that followed, it’s easy to see how much it shaped my eventual awakening and the way I went about experiencing my life – through the intervention of strangers and with an audience of many.
My story escalates as I search for a positive reaction. Unnecessary, personal details cascade out of my mouth with an air of indifference that I certainly don’t feel.
I take a drag off my cigarette, glance around at their faces. Everyone seems engaged. I labour on, all the while hearing the story build as details and intimacies pile on top of exaggerations.
What are you doing? Just stop.
There’s a hint of judgment seeping into the stares of a couple people. A little whiff of skepticism. I stare back, defiantly, but certain my eyes give away the real story. I press the lit end of my cigarette into a corner of the ash tray, obsessively pushing down on every stray ember. I chuckle and rise, making an excuse and seeking respite in a bathroom stall.
At 18, I left behind Trinidad for college in New York City. For four years, I travelled back and forth between NYC and Trinidad, earned a degree, moved through three boroughs, tried to make a home for myself in one, made some amazing friends, and met a soul mate. The most important part of those four years though, was that I met and fell in love with me.
It’s something out of a sci-fi novel, meeting yourself for the first time. There’s a transformation, a mutation, happening to the protagonist, so slowly that they’re totally unaware. But the details of the change are documented and unravel right before the reader’s eyes so that when the protagonist finally looks in the mirror and is assaulted by the sight of his reflection the reader, while not surprised, is still deeply affected by what is reflected there. When you live your life in your head, constantly examining every situation and moment, you find yourself filling the roles of protagonist and reader. Your life continues to unfold, but somewhere in your mind, you observe the happenings, taking copious notes, as only the most critical audience can.
There were the expected delays. My first true sexual experience went the way of my first kiss – unplanned, unknown and with an audience waiting behind a locked dorm room door. And I was left with the same conflicting emotions as that first kiss, weighing the importance of another major “life event” and the perception of the people around me. My own judgment didn’t matter as much as theirs, at least not then. I continued to be unabashedly open about my life (and most times with complete strangers) and in a new development, unconventionally free-spirited with my body. With those moments always came the high anxiety, panic attacks and sheer breathlessness. I closed myself off to new people, leaned too heavily on the friends I had already made, isolating myself from new experiences, jealous of the acquaintances and friends of those closest to me, and started what would be a string of short and shallow romantic connections.
It took a long time for me to learn the difference between opening up and oversharing; between who I could trust and love, and who I could not; and that the people who did love me, completely, unconditionally, were not going to abandon me for other friends or cut me out of their lives for some perceived infraction. When I did eventually see my reflection in that mirror, I was surprised and enamored by what I found. It turns out that I was loud, brash and little bitchy. I was also goofy, sang too loudly and way off key, and open to love in such a big way that it scared me. Those four years taught me how to trust, and who to trust, and how to love myself enough that the fear of rejection couldn’t paralyse me.
There are still difficult times. Strangers are still hard, and I have to make conscious efforts to curb my nervous, rambling chatter, to catch those little lies before they escape. There are the moments of doubt, when I second guess myself, when I cringe at the sound of my own voice, of my laugh, when my face feels hot enough that the people around me must see the steam rising off. There was the time a close friend offhandedly remarked on my admittedly awful singing. I laughed and brushed it off at the time but spent the next day crying and replaying the undoubtedly embarrassing moments of me singing in the past. As silly as it seems, I stopped singing in front of people for at least a year after that. There was the last time I had my heart broken and dissolved into a pile of self-loathing as if my whole journey to this good place in my life had been scrapped and restarted. There is nothing that affects you more than that person in your inner circle, be it a friend, or someone you’ve fallen in unconditional and consuming love with, judging, criticising or laughing at you. These are the times, you will need that self-worth, when more than support, you need the knowledge of your greatness. Because it takes an enormous amount of self-love in these situations to make you see rationality, to calm down enough and weed out those destructive thoughts. These moments never fail to feel like the ultimate rejection and although it will always be a struggle, the love you have for yourself has to win out in the end. Because, you know what? At the end of the day, you are a bad singer. And not everyone is obligated to love you back. And those two facts did not and will not result in your destruction. So you might as well have the cry you need and sing your off-key heart out before starting over.
I soak a napkin in water and scrutinize my reflection in the bathroom mirror.
You’re okay. Just pull it together.
Laying the cold, wet napkin along the nape of my neck, I roll my shoulders.
I conjure a picture in my head, something my therapist recommended, my “happy” place. A cool summer night on little stoop in Bed-Stuy, beer in hand.
Focus. And breathe.
Focus. And breathe.
Time to start over.