When I was in elementary school, my social struggles developed into an intense fear of other people.
I sought out friendships, connections, but lacked the basic communication skills necessary to traverse the social world. I didn’t know that I lacked body language; I didn’t know that my mind was unable to catch the nuances of non-verbal communication. Needing people, interested in others, I repeatedly jumped into interactions, only to stumble for reasons I had no way of understanding.
My self-confidence eroded. I became quiet, withdrawn. That fear-of-other-people thing happened, got hold of me.
In a strange way, the situation improved once the social world became more complicated.
Junior high rolled around. Groups began to coalesce; cliques began to form…forces predicated on the concept of exclusion. The various groups defined themselves by rejecting others…and I was fine with that. Rejection…being kept away from interactions: I found this to be an enormous relief. I was ready to be alone…I wanted to avoid people as much as possible. So I had this unspoken compromise going on at school: groups kept me out; I kept to myself. It was a pretty good system. I just walked around, lost in my head…adrift in a solitude that increasingly felt like a safe, non-threatening alternative to the chaos of others.
Church was a different story. Church should have been the safer place. But beginning in junior high, it became a nightmare. My parents were strong proponents of church life…we attended three times a week, twice on some of those days. Socially speaking? Church doesn’t work compromises. Church brings people together, forges bonds. Actively, intensely. Church makes projects of people like me, of the odd, the introverts.
The primary issue was my age: many churches place teens in a youth group. You couldn’t escape them. And there is no alternative to the youth group. All of your classes and activities are structured around this group. And the pressure there is to include…a pressure that never lets up. Sunday morning; Sunday night; Wednesday night: there was one class for the teens; and during any church service, all of the youth sat in a section of pews reserved just for them. It was constant, all-encompassing togetherness.
The intentions were good. The goal was to foster a sense of belonging, of connection. I kept asking myself, “I’ve wanted connection, right?”
Even in this environment…where meshing was mandatory…I couldn’t swing it. I was too clumsy-headed to make friends and navigate even basic conversations. I was encased in the social-blindness: totally surrounded by people, fully incapable of forming connections.
The pressure to socialize was painful and quite often humiliating. Before Sunday school, the other teens would stand around, talk. I’d stand on the periphery…listening, staring at my feet. People would politely talk to me; I would throw out scripted lines…memorized bits of social dialog. I would make eye contact, count to three, look away. The conversation would die off…I’d go back to staring at my feet.
Internally, I felt broken and lonely and anxious.
It was at this time…at church…that I began to hide.
I hid a lot. I put a lot of mental power into developing elaborate escape routines. I was like a social Houdini. Sometimes I would walk away from the groups, hide out in a bathroom stall for awhile (minutes at least, hours if I could get away with it). Sometimes I would find empty Sunday school classrooms…I’d slip into those, keep the lights off; I’d lay sideways on a row of chairs, try to slow my breathing, quiet my thoughts.
Sometimes in these classrooms, I’d stand on a chair…lift a ceiling tile…climb up, into the mess of beams and pipes above the room. You could pull this off if you climbed on top of a wall, which provided support. I’d scramble up there…lower the tile…lay along the top of the wall, letting the absolute lack of others radiate comfort into my frazzled body.
That was a favorite place: up, out of my oubliette…hidden in the ceiling, in the darkness. Other people- the ones below- just sounded like echoes, then…much further away. I’d close my eyes, pretend they were old, fading ghosts.
Even today, I don’t know what the answers are for situations like this; for those who need people, yet find people to be confusing. It’s a question that I’ve never been able to fully answer: what do you do when you’re lonely, yet feel most alone around others?
I just know that it was nice to have safe spots…those hidden places where I could breathe and think and untether from a world of old ghosts.