For as long as I can remember, I have been socially awkward.
There are some who don’t believe me. There are some who’ve labeled it “Social Anxiety Disorder.” There are some who say I’m just an introvert. There are others who just consider me painfully shy. Of course, there are those who simply acknowledge that years of sexual abuse and other traumatic events have left me with more than a few walls that one must climb in an effort to gain entry into my life.
Whatever. It is what it is. I am socially awkward. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not antisocial. I love people and, at least for the most part, they love me back.
I am, for the most part, a liked and even loved human being who can function in crowds, work on teams, facilitate groups, be a productive member of clubs, attend gatherings, and form healthy friendships and relationships.
I suppose it started way back in third grade when I left the safety and security of my school that was specifically designed for children with disabilities and was mainstreamed into a public school setting that was fully prepared to honor the mainstreaming laws but wasn’t quite sure how to go about it.
They were awkward. I was awkward. We were awkward.
I was this friendly but shy third grader with spina bifida and all the things that seem to come with it ranging from physical ailments that kept me in the nurse’s office often to learning disabilities that made the classroom transition more than a little challenging. It seemed like I did everything differently from everyone else, and it seemed like everyone else felt an obligation to point it out.
Mike was one of the cool kids in third grade, though it still feels weird to me to think about “cool” being a concept even in the third grade. When he noticed that I held my spoon funny while eating my favored Spaghettios, he felt obligated to make fun of it.
I don’t think I was aware of being hurt by his comments, but I’ve long been aware that from that day forward I started to change. I think that I suddenly realized that I was different from everyone else and, for the first time in my life, I think I realized that not everyone was okay with these differences.
As my schooling went on, it became apparent that I wasn’t attractive enough or even close to rich enough to be with the really cool kids. I wasn’t smart enough to be a brain. I certainly wasn’t athletic. I wasn’t a stoner. Heck, I wasn’t even nerdy enough to hang with the geeks or disabled enough to be in special education.
I really didn’t have a place other than with a few of the outsiders who basically thought our entire school system was one series of cliques and they refused to be a part of it.
I had a small circle of friends and, for the most part, I was happy.
But, I was different and I knew it.
I really only had one consistent friend in high school and it wasn’t because my mother, on top of everything else I had to deal with, opted to raise me as a Jehovah’s Witness just to cement my outsider status. I’d had one “sleepover” in junior high and that led to my sexual abuse so I wasn’t exactly anxious to spend the night with any other friends. I never went to parties. I never really socialized. Oh sure, I did my activities – speech team, drama, journalism, and others.
But, I kept to myself.
In addition to all the time I spent in the hospital due to the numerous surgeries I required, I found that my body was just unpredictable enough that it seemed like humiliation was always just right around the corner. I had certain procedures that were required on a regular basis, procedures that were difficult to do alone and would require the help of either a parent or someone else willing to deal with stuff that most of the other folks didn’t bring to the table.
By the time I graduated high school, I began to realize that a good amount of the social skills that I did have were based almost solely upon my existence as a human being with a disability. I suddenly realized that almost every aspect of how I presented in human relationships had been formed out of my body and all the things it needed to survive.
“Normal” relationships didn’t so much terrify me as they simply left me completely clueless. I had no idea how to relate to people in ways that didn’t involve my disability.
Initially, I went to college briefly and figured out that physically I couldn’t quite handle it.
Then, I went to work and failed miserably because I had no concept of self-care and was no longer surrounded by the folks who would reinforce it for me and help me with it.
Then, life began to spiral downward due to one traumatic event after another and instead of relating through disability I began to form relationships, incredibly unhealthy ones, through trauma.
It wasn’t long before I’d burned the majority of my friends out and finally, after many failures, began to identify that if I had any hope for a normal life I needed to improve my independent living skills and redefine what it meant to give and receive love.
It took years, but over time I began to succeed. While I’d been placed on Social Security Disability right after high school out of the expectation that I’d never really work full-time, I found my life changing after I started the first Tenderness Tour event in my mid 20’s and came home with the realization that, as Stuart Smalley would say, “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough…and doggone it, people like me.”
Here’s the problem. On the surface, I transcended all the dramas and the traumas and the relationships borne out of my needs and weaknesses, but the truth may really be that I just swung that pendulum to the other side and became so fiercely independent that I built a life devoid of certain aspects of who I am that are important.
I do have a disability, after all. It may drive me crazy. It may exhaust me. It may humiliate me. It may require the presence of other people, but I do have it and disowning it didn’t make it go away. For quite a few years, though, I found myself able to survive and thrive through my will to live, my willingness to work, and a small handful of well placed relationships with people who persevered with a fierce dedication long enough to find out the truth of who I am and they possessed a willingness to deal with it all anyway.
My body, despite its many limitations, allowed me to live a decent quality of life even if I couldn’t always get my body to do what I wanted it to do and even if handling even the very basics of life occasionally became an exhausting endeavor. I had friends, peers, and close acquaintances with whom I’d built a life even if they didn’t always fully realize the truth of my existence.
Then, about five years ago everything began to change. Suddenly, this body I’d been able to successfully manage for so long began acting a little more unpredictably and that small handful of people who’d always been present through these challenges began to move, pass away, or otherwise leave my life.
Suddenly, as my body was changing, I realized that my body was begging for interdependence and I was clinging desperately to independence. I’d built a successful, happy life based upon the strength of my being and my ability to achieve and suddenly I became terrified that it might all slip away.
Suddenly, this socially awkward gimp began to realize that at least some of those friendships and relationships were merely protective buffers I put in place. Oh sure, we were actually friends but there was an undeniable truth that I’d surrounded myself with people who were workaholics, like me, or who lived far away, had extensive commitments, or who were otherwise obligated.
In other words, they were “safe” because they didn’t challenge all the walls that I’d built in my life.
I was suddenly faced with a heart that was tired of isolation, a body that truly needed community, traumatic memories that refused to allow vulnerability, and old tapes that kept playing and reinforcing that I would lose everything I’d worked so hard for if I wavered from my current path.
It was exhausting.
I began pushing people away, because I didn’t know how to explain the changes and I didn’t know how to deal with the fact that my body was changing in ways I found exhausting and stressful and occasionally humiliating.
It wasn’t that my friendships weren’t honest or authentic or real. They were. In fact, I’ve always been rather fortunate to have a small circle of rather extraordinary friends. It wasn’t that my friends didn’t realize I had a disablity … After all, it’s not exactly something I can hide. It’s simply that I had pushed the physical aspect of who I was to the background and believed that to be the best way to foster healthy relationships.
I was wrong.
So, I began fumbling towards a new way of being in relationship that balanced strength with vulnerability, pride with humility, independence with dependence, and the list goes on. I had a couple people in my life who understood it, though chief among these was longtime friend Melissa who would eventually take her own life a couple years ago and leave me even more dumbfounded by how to manage my daily life without one of my key supports in it.
I began experimenting by sharing bits and pieces of the truth of my daily life. I began balancing the guy I like to call Bravado Gimp with the socially awkward gimp that I’d hoped I’d locked away. I began allowing both to come out and play realizing that on occasion humiliation may result. I began redefining boundaries and I began encouraging the friendships that I did have to become stronger and more honest.
I failed. I still fail. A lot.
I’ve been thinking of all these things because just this past week I found myself invited to join one of my high school peers with her son as we attended a local concert by John Hiatt, my longtime favorite artist whom I’d never seen live. Truthfully, I thought she was kidding and when it came down to it I thought the invitation would remain just that – an invitation.
Nope. She was serious.
I remember telling another friend of mine a few months back that I wished I could be one of her “fun” friends, but I’m simply not. I can be a good friend, an inspiring friend, a purposeful friend, or a meaningful friend.
But, I’ve just never been that much fun. Heck, I’m always too worried about “stuff” to relax into being fun.
I also realize, even as I’m writing this, that I’m grossly exaggerating the whole “not fun” thing. I have fun with lots of my friends and, quite honestly, I have lots of friends who’d rather have a deep, meaningful friendship anyway.
But, I’m getting myself worked up so I’m going with it.
So, I said “yes” to this friend and I went to the concert.
It was fun. It was very cool. It was also meaningful. It was one of those very quiet, very affirming lessons that I can be both – I can have my disability and live into an authentic presentation of who I am and I can also be part of a mutually satisfying friendship.
I know. I know. This sounds obvious. I suppose it is obvious.
I just consider it amazing. I consider it amazing that there are people who embrace the fullness of who I am in ways big and small.
I consider it amazing that I can be both strong and vulnerable.
I consider it amazing that I can be both independent and interdependent.
I consider it amazing that I can have my disability without masks.
I consider it amazing that everything I am, when it comes down to it, is good enough, smart enough, strong enough, fun enough, and loving enough.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t get insecure. This doesn’t mean that I don’t struggle with a body that can be unpredictable and that still leaves me wondering about my purpose and value and ability to build truly mutual friendships and relationships. This doesn’t mean that I don’t approach social occasions with an absolute fear that my body will go bonkers and I’ll end up dying of embarrassment in a fetal position on the bathroom floor.
These things have happened before. I’m pretty sure they’ll happen again.
What this does mean is that slowly but surely I’m discovering a willingness to keep showing up anyway. I’m discovering an ability to figure out who in my life is truly comfortable with being a part of THAT part of my life that is so essential in maintaining my physical wellness and emotional sanity. I’m figuring out who can deal with disability and who is more comfortable in other areas of my life. I’m figuring out who wants inside that part of my life and who is meant for other areas of my life. I’m figuring out friendship and intimacy and relationship means different things and gets expressed in different ways.
It’s all good. It’s all important.
I’m finally figuring out that all those “secrets” I’ve kept locked up inside don’t always have to be secrets and that some friendships, in fact, are stronger if they’re not.
In short, I think I’m finally discovering that this ever learning gimp isn’t so awkward after all.