What They Don’t Tell The Shy Ones

What they don’t tell you is that if you tend toward the introverted, if you’re reticent and guarded and have a hard time connecting with people right off the bat, you will almost inevitably encounter the most debilitating loneliness after you graduate and begin to make your way in the so-called real world. I guess this seems intuitive enough, but it’s a new kind of loneliness, a truly terrifying kind that will make the loneliness you knew before seem insignificant.

In high school I was by all accounts a loner, your typical overlooked kid in the back of the class hiding in her hoodie. I read voraciously and wrote stories. I envied the ease with which my female peers flirted with boys, their air of teasing inconsequentiality I could only attempt to mimic. I didn’t know how the game was played; it was a foreign language. When someone spoke to me, I retracted, shrank like those underwater plants that close up when you touch them. 

But still, I was surrounded. Even the shyest person is bound to open up and make friends given enough time and proximity to other people. Because that’s the thing about introverts: we’re all there under the surface even when we’re unreachable; we’re just as whole and nuanced and real as the people who lay their personalities right on the table. It’s just the initial contact, the reaching out, that feels insurmountable. I sat next to the same kids in homeroom for four years, and by the end we were all pals who goaded and guarded each other. I was in the choir, I fronted a couple of corny high school bands—I had a schedule, a framework that forced me to interact with people. And the same thing went for college.

I left collegiate life and Upstate New York in my rearview mirror in 2010, set out for the sun-drenched desert of Southern California to find my first adult job. One of my early leads brought me to a depressing technical school in Culver City, which, if you don’t know, is Hollywood’s butthole. After my interview, a Human Resources girl decked out in a silk blouse, a pencil skirt, and uncomfortable-looking heels (attire that repelled the artist in me [that was self-deprecating sarcasm fyi]) looked over my paperwork and said, “You just graduated, huh? And just moved here? You know, for the longest time after I graduated I just didn’t know what to do with myself after work. I didn’t have any hobbies.” 

And there I was, dumb and young and still coasting on whatever confidence I’d garnered by having a serviceable social life for the past few years, thinking, “Wow, what a dull loser. That girl is like a year older than me. And I have played music in rock bands. She must just have no character.”

I became acquainted with unbearable, bottomless loneliness soon after that (I didn’t know anyone in California, and my instinct has never been to go and seek out friends), but the full weight of her meaning only settled years later. And, for what it’s worth, I felt like a total douche for inwardly calling her a loser. Because here’s the truth: if you are shy and don’t have any school-imposed extracurricular requirements to meet, if the only people you interact with are the people in your office/workplace, with whom you have a genial but reserved relationship, you might very well find yourself going home every night to eat a Lean Pocket and watch some 30 Rock and hit the hay. That’s fine and comfortable and enjoyable at first, but after a while you feel like you’re being erased at the edges. We introverts are not naturally compelled to sign up for a yoga class or join a book club or converse with strangers at a coffee shop, and our proclivity for being homebodies lapses into resigned despondence. Whether we blame our friendlessness on ourselves or feel forsaken by the world, we come face-to-face with an aloneness we never knew existed—a yawning, staggering emptiness that erodes who we are.

My best friend from college, Jess, still lives in the tiny Upstate NY city that knew me when, and her eager participation in endless social events both confounds me and makes me jealous. See, she and I have this weird bond; we’ve been through all of it, from passive-aggressive “I’m just going to leave this food to rot in the sink because you never do the dishes” wars, to getting matching tattoos on a whim, to staying up all night listening to Dar Williams and telling each other that we’re both just figuring our shit out, and that’s okay. She’s one of those lifelong friends for me, the person you call after a random Mardi Gras hookup so you can giggle and groan and say what the fuck was I thinking, and you know she’ll validate your actions because she’s awesome and she’s ultimately rooting for you like nobody else is. But we couldn’t be more different. Every time I call her, she’s on her way to some tragically hip venue to see a friend’s band perform, or preparing for a wine-and-cheese party at her apartment, or meeting her nerdy friends at the local comic books store for Free Comic Book Day, or whatever. She has the rare talent of being able to fit in with any social group or subculture, and she keeps her schedule completely booked. “I haven’t been to my apartment for four days,” she tells me. “All my girlfriends keep saying I need to take a nap already.”

I said I’m jealous of her, and it’s true. It’s not her jam-packed social calendar I envy, though; it’s her compulsion to line all these things up. That’s what I lack. The initiative to do something other than order Chinese delivery and watch Netflix on my weeknights.

When I was young, I thought I’d be married by the age of 23. I thought I’d have it together by now. I thought I’d circumvent this confusion, this narrowing of opportunities. I thought I’d be charmed. 

Look, I’m not saying it’s hopeless by any means. I have a hard-won, solid group of friends here in New Orleans, and I don’t feel invisible anymore. I’m not that post-grad poor soul or even that behoodied high school kid.

But I’m saying that it’s sobering. I’m saying that things change drastically in a way you never would have expected them to. I’m saying that you and I and every Netflix-and-Chinese-food-inclined homebody should be more like my best friend and seek out adventure even if our bodies reject it. When it comes right down to it, it’s not a matter of being courageous or ambitious or even conformist. It’s a matter of going against our instincts and diving into the fray of human complexity. Because in the end, what is more fucked up and beautiful and worthwhile?