My career was built on the bedrock of customer service. Not just taking and making phone calls, but in person, at your desk, putting you at ease and fixing your system no matter how difficult the situation. And I’ve been damn good at it for years and years, rose to the top ranks of deskside computer repair folks. I worked with the most difficult customers, company CEO’s, doctors, board members. I mingled with the top brass of the navy when they visited my company, and looked damned dashing in my suit I might add, to the point people thought I actually was one of the high mucky mucks. But for anyone who knows me, deeply and truly, anyone close to me, this probably seems like a strange oxymoron given who I really am.
I’m a massive introvert.
Now, we’re not talking a little bit shy here. What most people don’t know about me is that I operate constantly in low-grade panic mode about having to interact with folks. It feels, yes, a little like a fever. While the logical, rationale part of my brain knows that everyone worries all the time about everything-their clothes, their jobs, their personal relationships, whether or not their pet vomited on the kitchen floor-it does nothing to mitigate the panic I feel everytime I start planning an interaction with people. This often becomes so bad I simply avoid the interaction.
I’m lucky. I don’t suffer from true panic attacks. I’ve had one or two of those in my life, and for those who do suffer from those on a regular basis, you have my heartfelt sympathies and understanding. When they happened, I was so frozen I couldn’t speak. Not to anyone. For me the panic is mostly manageable and I can often force myself to do the thing that is frightening me. I find some common ground of discussion, and go from there. With customers, it might be something as simple as a picture in their office I can ask about. Folks LOVE to talk about themselves.
There’s no doubt this feeling of mine has limited my opportunities. Not career wise, because I was able to force myself to overcome it there by dint of necessity and a desire to feed my family. But in my personal life. Not love and relationships, because I’ve been very blessed there. When I love someone, nothing about sharing myself frightens me. But in other aspects, like making friends and hanging out with them. Like putting myself out there with my writing.
I went to Viable Paradise with a vow to suck the morrow of that bastard like a cheap Hollywood monster. And I got a ton of worth from my experience, and a group of great writer friends to share support with. But every night I went back to my room and went to bed early instead of staying up and enjoying the company. Every break during classes, I hid out and gave myself space to breath. Because I was low key panicking about having to interact with everyone.
The worst was the first night. I picked up Elsa on the way there, a wonderful young writer with her career already solidly developing. She’s amazing, you guys have to check her out. We spent five hours chatting in the car, and the whole time I was freaking out that I would say something wrong (note: this is not specific to Elsa, I ALWAYS feel that way no matter who the person is). It sapped my energy to be “on” for so long. By the time we got there, got our stuff into our rooms, I was beat. (also, Elsa – I’m pretty sure I DID say some stupid stuff, and I apologize for that. . . I recalled much later that I think I made a mocking comment about other drivers and their ability to see, and god, how I fucking almost a year later still kick myself I made that insensitive comment).
That, right there, that last line of the above paragraph: that’s me. I wouldn’t be suprised if Elsa had completely forgotten the drive and any faux pas I made during it, but ten months later I’m still wondering just how much I fucked up our conversation. I’ve had discussions with folks I thought I insulted where, after my apology, they twisted their face up and said “I don’t remember that.” But my panic keeps me on edge on the time, keeps me wondering how or if I’ve pissed people off.
Everyone was meeting the instructors our first night (we arrived Saturday night, and most folks wouldn’t arrive until Sunday). I bucked up and went up to the room, applauding myself for bravery. I then proceeded to stand like an idiot for an hour, getting in the way, to the point Elizabeth Bear mockingly yelled at me about blocking the kitchen. I slunk over to a corner and did my best impression of Still Life As Wallpaper. I am STUNNING as a piece of art, let me tell you. I bailed on this evening as quickly as I felt was appropriate (note: another problem with the constantly low-grade panic is you never know the appropriate time to say your goodnights and leave the party, you’re always waiting for the right time and feeling like you’re stuck).
Writing is, for me, a chance to get AWAY from people. It feeds right into that panic part of my brain. A career I can do alone (somewhat, I know interacting with folks in the industry and – hopefully one day – fans is necessary), spend hours with myself and my thoughts. And I like myself well enough, so that’s a good, comfortable place for me to be. I don’t panic about interacting with myself.
On the other hand, I do panic about normal writerly activities outside of the work. For example, I’d love to participate in panels at writers conventions. But I constantly think that I have nothing to offer. Everyone is so smart, so well-versed in various aspects of the world. They know other cultures, are ecologists, astronomers, doctors. They know the history of firearms, or how to sword fight. What do I have to contribute? I grew up a poor boy in central Maine, played trumpet and ran cross country, and lost myself in reading at an early age. I never got to travel much, didn’t become an expert at anything except computers, and even that knowledge isn’t as useful because technology keeps advancing and I’ve not kept up like I should. My 1990’s level of how to strip and fix computers isn’t useful in 2020.
I’ve thought long and hard about where this part of me came from. One the one hand, I’m pretty sure there’s a genetic component. My mother was not a social butterfly (my dad is a totally different story of course, the man can talk to anyone about anything, and does it with a Maine drawl that makes it impossible for me to ever watch a Hollywood show set in Maine, because ain’t no actor can talk like a Mainer but a Mainer). Looking back on life with her, I see shades of my own social feelings in her actions. I could be misinterpreting, but I’m pretty sure she suffered from the same introversions I have.
But there’s also an external component. There are moments in my childhood where I remember so clearly, moments of being mocked for who or what I was. Mocked for being a redneck trailer trash nothing. That judgement, by the way, did not come from “coastal elitists” who drove into town to make fun of us backwater bumpkins. No, that judgement came from the folks around me. In my life, I’ve found that the truly judgemental folks are the right-wingers I grew up with, who love to find someone lower than they to look down their noses at. The pastors, the business owners, the high mucky mucks. And they’ll let you know that you’re a piece of shit, even as they mockingly condescend to give you attention. I find it funny to hear those same folks now claiming that “elitists” mocking them are their reason for voting conservative and support truly heinous human beings like Trump. They always were that way, it’s nothing new. And if they think Trump cares anything about them if they’re not blowing smoke up his ass, they’re even bigger idiots than I think they are.
All of which is my round about way of saying: “You’re fine!” Yes, you’re an introvert. You suffer from panic and worry and fear about every human interaction you’ll have. There’s nothing abnormal about that or wrong. Take care of yourself, give yourself permission to be alone and just…. be. Those who care about you will know and understand it, and it’s not something you need to fix or make better. It’s part of who you are, part of what makes you special and unique. Try and work out a vacation where you get away from everyone but your closest love. My favorite vacation ever remains the two weeks Jennifer and I spent on the road in 2016 traveling around the country and doing our thing, with a few brief visits to friend and family in that time. I still have to post more pictures of that. We had sooooo much fun, and when I got back I was so refreshed and recharged that I promptely wrote 55,000 words in September on the second novel I had in progress.
Now if only someone would publish this motivated introverts novels! 🙂