One reader's rave

"Thanks for the newspaper with your book review. I can’t tell you how impressed I am with this terrific piece of writing. It is beautiful, complex, scholarly. Only sorry Mr. Freire cannot read it!" -- Ailene

Sunday, November 01, 2009

I've passed a tipping point.

Starting a few months ago, with the prodding of a therapist, I've been struggling to make a regular habit of going out to clubs and trying to meet people. It was a struggle chiefly because of the social anxiety disorder I've been coping with since early adolescence. I was extremely apprehensive about approaching strangers and trying to start conversations, especially with a sexual object in mind. A few years ago I did discover a technique for temporarily abolishing this approach anxiety, a sort of self-hypnosis, but I employed artificial-feeling conversation starters like, "Hi! My name is Eric. What's yours?" which were chosen not for their likelihood of leading anywhere, but simply to provide an immediate objective the achievement of which proved to me that I was capable of making approaches. They accomplished that, but didn't motivate me to turn this into a regular habit, and I only tried it on a few occasions.

While seeing Dr. Ross I came to appreciate the importance of being comfortable with small talk, which I'd long thought of as "stupid," and I started practicing it in casual situations such as elevators and subway stops. But it was still a struggle to get myself to a club and, when I got there, to talk to anyone; precisely because it seemed like a more "serious" setting for sexual possibilities, it was more intimidating. I'd managed to do it a couple times when my covered number of therapy visits ran out about a month ago.

For the next couple weeks I seemed to be backsliding, finding ways to avoid going out. But week before last I managed to do it again. Unfortunately the bands never showed up, possibly because it was the night of the game that put the Phillies in the World Series. But I did manage to make a little conversation, including with an attractive woman who turned out to be an office employee of the club. (I also got my cover charge back before leaving.) So it wasn't a total waste.

For a few days it looked like I was procrastinating again, but toward the end of last week my self-confidence revived. I think I can at least partially credit this to a song. I'd heard it before but only really noticed the lyrics a couple weeks ago, and found them very relevant to what I was struggling with. The song is "Somebody's Baby," recorded by Jackson Browne. If you listen closely you realize that the object of the narrator's desire is definitely not somebody's baby, because he, along with all "the guys on the corner," is intimidated by her beauty. They rationalize their approach anxiety by telling themselves that she must already be taken. But he overhears her saying something that demonstrates that this isn't the case; what the song seems to be suggesting is that she's alone precisely because her great beauty intimidates those who desire her.

From what I understand, this isn't a particularly common scenario. Most beautiful women get plenty of approaches; the problem is that the quality of those approaches rarely suggests that they have anything to gain by encouraging them. But leaving this quibble aside, the point for me was that the song casts the situation in a decidedly moral framework, where the narrator is in a sense failing both of them until he develops the understanding that the situation calls for his initiative, and the resolve to act on it. There have been a couple earlier instances in which a song somehow captured a similar sense of moral mission that briefly motivated me to do something courageous. Perhaps I just wasn't sufficiently prepared to make intelligent use of it then, but perhaps it also makes a difference that in this case the lyrics were very specifically relevant, unlike in the previous cases. (I've posted comments on them at both SongMeanings and SongFacts.)

In any case, by Friday I was eager to get out again, and went to a Halloween-themed "karaoke gong show." I'd been to one karaoke event before, last New Year's Eve. This time I wanted to sing "Somebody's Baby," but since it wasn't in the book, I fell back on "Imagine," written by John Lennon, which I'd sung the previous time. I think I'd gotten through the second verse before I was gonged. I stayed maybe another 45 minutes, having made conversation with several people of both sexes before and after my performance. I had a pretty good time.

Although I might have considered myself to have "filled my quota" for the week, I decided to go out again last night, partly because I wanted to do a more regular club scene. This was a hard rock show, but before it started and made conversation difficult, I made quite a lot with several women and men, including a good deal of playful repartee. Most of them also called my Halloween costume "awesome," but I think I'll keep it a trade secret.

The most remarkable part of the whole weekend was that, as I was going home last night, I realized that, after going out two nights in a row and coming home late, I wanted to do it again! Bare months since I could barely drag myself to -- er, "make time for" -- a night out, now I wished I could do it every night! What a change -- and a much happier kind of problem to have!

For most of my life I've called myself an introvert. Early last year, when I went off Paxil after taking it for 23 months and experienced no backsliding, I felt a surge of confidence at this proof that the improvement it had enabled had "taken" and become permanent. I started to suspect that I'm not naturally an introvert at all, even that I'm an extrovert whose natural propensity has merely been masked by my disorder. After all, I recalled, I had casually initiated many conversations with strangers as late as age ten. (In fact this had been the inspiration for my self-hypnosis technique, which used certain behavioral tricks to put myself in a "little kid" state of mind.)

That surge of euphoria after going off Paxil only lasted a few weeks, but I was reminded of those thoughts a couple months ago by a conversation with an old friend and fellow member of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society. She'd previously mentioned that she isn't really the extrovert she might seem; as a child she'd had great trouble socializing, and had to learn to do it by a lot of practice. But she went further into it this time, explaining that even today, after a lot of socializing she's worn out and needs a couple days to herself. A light went on in my head: that wasn't me at all! I've never needed to be away from people; I've never wanted to be. I learned to get on OK without other people because I had to -- I felt intimidated by social situations. But I didn't want to be alone; I wanted to be comfortable with people.

So that's what a real introvert is like, I thought -- and it's not what I am! What I'd started to suspect last year was now confirmed. And what's happened this weekend has finally brought that inner extrovert out again, eclipsing the anxiety that had kept him hidden so long, even from me.

No comments: