This happens quite a bit with me — I promise to do something social, and then I flake. It’s a common enough occurrence that it’s pretty well known to my friends, and pretty frustrating. In fact, it’s common enough that I’ve started just not promising to do social things, rather than piss people off.
But, you know, why do I do this? Do I just like jerking people around? Am I truly such a colossal flake? What’s going on in this ugly melon, that would lead me to repeatedly plan, promise, and flake? Why, damn you, why?
Well, it’s complicated. Surprise, surprise!
I like people — I really do. Given how antisocial I am, given what a hermit I am, given my social anxiety, you might be forgiven for thinking that I’m just yer typical Aspie genius type, who can’t get along with humanity. Nothing could be further from the truth!
I really do like people; and I find that in many situations when I’m around people I really shine. But you see, being around people is difficult for me.
When I’m around people, I’m bombarded by unpleasant thoughts and emotions. Most of them have to do with the assumption that everyone is judging me. You know, looking at me, thinking about me, criticizing me behind my back — generally paranoid type thinking. I’ll give you an example.
I’m fat — surprise, surprise. I used to be extremely obese — almost 350 lbs — but then, in May 2010, I had weight loss surgery. I slimmed down to around 200 lbs; since then I’ve put on about 30 lbs, and I’m around 230. While I’m nothing like I used to be, I do have a little “jelly roll” around my midsection.
I refuse to buy new “fat clothes.” I’m sure some of you can relate; I worked so hard to lose almost 150 lbs, I refuse to accept that I’m heavier and just buy bigger-sized clothes. So, I have pants and shirts that are all marginally too small for me. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t look like a size XL sausage in a size S casing, but still, in some lights, you can see “muffin top” (hopefully not plumber’s crack, but I can’t see my own ass…)
Now, objectively, this is stupid. I need to lose the weight again — but I know from personal experience that weight loss is hard and takes time. I shouldn’t expect miraculous results overnight; it just doesn’t work that way. What I shouldn’t do is obsess about my current weight and how I look; what I should do is buy some new, more flattering clothes. But I don’t… instead, I obsess about whether or not my spare tire is visible, or whether it looks like I have moobs (man boobs), or something equally silly. The truth is, objectively speaking, I mostly look pretty good; yes I don’t have anything near washboard abs, and yes, I have a middle-aged man’s physique. But I’ve also got pretty good genes — I’m broad-shouldered, broad-chested, and still pretty decent looking, physically speaking. That’s if I’m being objective.
Most of the time, I’m not objective. I assume I’m the fattest, most disgusting creature around, and feel incredibly self-conscious in public. I assume everyone is looking at me, laughing at my flab, judging me. The idea of dancing — all that fat jiggling and bouncing… *shudder*.
If it’s not being fat, there are a million other things to obsess about — from having less than perfectly white teeth, to not being seven feet tall, to the inevitable vicissitudes of aging. It’s not that any one of my obsessions is rational or not (although most are very irrational, or at least quite distorted), it’s that no matter how many times I bop the “I’m ugly and ridiculous” mole with the stick, another one just pops up in a new place. Teeth look okay? Well, fine — lookit that zit that’s coming in!
And this is just appearance; I worry that I seem ridiculous when I interact with the world. I refuse to fall into the stereotype of middle-aged guy; I’m not married, I am willing to date anyone of any (legally consenting) age, and I’m not going to settle down in front of the TV and watch NFL while guzzling Budweiser and reliving the glory days of my high school football career. I’m just not going to do that — but then I worry that people think I’m acting like I’m having a mid-life crisis (if I am, I’ve been having one since I was 20, so… no).
I talk a lot; if I don’t intentionally censor myself, I can talk your bloody ear off. I get really excited about things (science, technology, philosophy, music, linguistics, the list goes on, and on, and on…) that most people don’t care about. So I tend to prattle on — only to stop myself in my tracks, thinking “oh christ; are they there just waiting to get away from me as I ramble on?”
Sometimes it’s not a fear of judgement, but rather my own judgements. It’s very clear that I think quite differently from most people. Usually by about two words into a sentence, I have a pretty good idea what someone is going to say. It’s not psychic powers, it’s simply knowing what we were talking about, what the probable next sentences are, and projecting out from the first word or two to figure out what the next thing to be said is. This sounds complicated — I suppose it is — but I do it instinctively; and as a result I find that people who speak or think slowly annoy the holy living hell out of me. I mean, I can hold it in — I have to, or I’d go on some kind of psychotic killing spree. But the truth is, it bothers me to have to “slow myself down” so much, and “small talk” feels to me like driving down the freeway with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brakes. I’m not going nearly as fast as I could, and that burning brakes smell is driving me spare… So I try to squelch these thoughts, because frankly — they’re assholish. They’re what comes up if I’m not being mindful — god, people are slow, society moves so glacially, how is it that people can’t see what I see — but they’re assholish, and they only serve to distance me further from the rest of the human race.
I’m giving a lot of disparate, silly examples, but I have to emphasize, this is really what it’s like in my mind when I’m around other people. I’m constantly watching and judging, trying to see if others are judging me, trying to see if people are laughing at me, if people don’t like me. It’s an incredibly uncomfortable feeling, and usually I just run away or avoid social situations.
But you see, I need social contact. Not just dating or sex. Not just that one good friend I can call on, but a social network. Because I’m not willing to make sobriety and recovery my life, I’m not going to just sink into AA and 12 step programs — which is the sort of built-in social network a lot of sober people have. I have the unenviable task of building my own social network, literally from scratch. I need this; we all do. It’s a basic human need. But social connections make me so intensely uncomfortable that it’s really no wonder that I avoid them. I used to “cope” with the discomfort by going to the events, then drinking to numb the unpleasant feelings. But that’s off-limits now, so I’m having to re-learn how to interact with other human beings.
So this is why I flake; it’s really not an attempt to be infuriating, honest. I want to be connected. I want to have a big circle of friends, lovers, acquaintances. I want to go do fun things, I want to have silly, light-hearted conversations about not much of anything. I want all those things. But I feel so very… uncomfortable when I try to do it, that I flee (and I used to flee into drunkenness; so it’s not just a bad habit, it could kill me if I get into a dangerous situation).
My need for social contact overcomes me — I plan to host a burner barbecue, go to a dance party, hang out with 100 of my closest friends. And then, the event draws near and… bam. Social anxiety rears up. Fear of being judged appears. Worry about my own douchebag thinking overcomes me. Fear of relapsing into drinking as a way to deal with this unpleasant script in my mind makes me retreat. And a million “good excuses” appear to flake — I’m not feeling well. I’m not prepared. I’m worried I might drink. I’m too broke.
Of course, with me, being a clever boy, my excuses usually have enough of the truth that I can use them without lying. I am worried that I’ll drink in a social situation that’s uncomfortable enough, with alcohol present. Sometimes my mental discomfort really does turn into physical malaise. And hell, I’m always broke enough that I probably shouldn’t do anything except stay at home and eat ramen. But I know, in my heart of hearts, that I’m making excuses. What’s really going on is that I’m afraid — I’m uncomfortable, and I’m afraid, and I’m afraid of being uncomfortable.
It’s not terribly flattering, when I put it like that, my flaking. But hey; this is a blog. I’m done with trying to paint myself always in the most rosey of light; I’m a real boy, Pinocchio, and I have very real faults. I’m an amazing human being, don’t get me wrong — but I’ve got some pretty serious fucking flaws, and this is one of the biggest. My walk, when it comes to social interaction, does not match my talk.
I have been thinking that there might be a mindful path through this; ultimately this is about unpleasant feelings — embarrassment, boredom, fear, loneliness. And I am in the habit of trying to make unpleasant feelings go away as soon as I feel them (seems rational, eh?) or simply avoiding situations that make me feel bad, or that I think might make me feel bad. But that’s a one-way ticket to being cut off from life! Every situation — even being alone in your room with no stress, soft music playing, and a full belly, even that might bring unpleasant feelings (boredom, for one!) Avoiding anything that might make me feel uncomfortable is just… well, it won’t work.
So, the mindful path is to just accept the feelings. Don’t run away from them. Don’t try to “not feel them.” Accept that I feel uncomfortable and… just be with it. I know, this sounds simple, but it’s fucking not. I need to go to social stuff and be uncomfortable. I need to be fat, and accept that sometimes my spare tire will show, and just accept that. I need to know that yes, some people will judge me as too old, too arrogant, too fat, too pathetic, too desperate, too something — or not something enough — and there’s nothing I can do about that. Boredom won’t kill me. Being scorned won’t kill me. Annoyance at others’ slowness won’t kill me.
Very, very much easier said than done. But it might, perhaps, be a path out of constantly planning to do the things I’d find fulfilling, and then flaking. It might be a way to start taking appropriate-sized mouthfuls of life, instead of always biting off more than I can chew, and then retreating, retreating…