By Michael W. Harris
I have become quite adept at putting on a happy face. Like so many, when things get bad you rarely want to talk about it openly, especially to family and co-workers. Friends are a different matter, but being thousands of miles away from those nearest and dearest to me, and having only fleeting contact with them, I started lying to them as well about how rough things were during my first six months in Virginia. A difficulty that I barely hint at in my previous essay.
But, I think I turned a corner in early March and it is only with the benefit of hindsight that a few things have became clear to me. 1) I completely withdrew into myself soon after moving to Virginia. 2) In doing so I had created an emotional barrier around myself as a protection measure. And 3) both of these things combined were preventing me from both embracing my new job and area, and also from properly healing.
Yes, healing. While I withdrew into a self-imposed emotional coma to survive my first month in Virginia—a necessity while dealing with the triple traumas of picking up and moving from my friends and home of a decade, the uncertainty of if I would ever see my stuff again while it was stuck in incompetent/unscrupulous movers limbo, and seeing my grandfather for the last time on my way to Virginia and losing him less than a month later—it is clear now that rather than allow myself to slowly heal and emerge from that coma, that I instead sunk deeper. Built the wall around myself thicker. I removed myself from social situations (even more so than normal), avoided any chances to interact with co-workers or meet new friends in my new home, and took comfort instead in the regularity of surviving day-to-day. I had a routine and I would get physically uncomfortable when forced to deviate for more than a day or two.
However, what concerned me the most was that I was working to avoid the issues that really needed to be confronted: social uncertainty which has always caused me anxiety, the awkwardness of interacting with people who don’t know me, and the fact that I only have a one-year contract and am constantly on edge about doing something that could jeopardize my chances to successfully interview for one of the permanent positions coming available.
And on top of that was the ever-present anxiety of my singleness, which my feelings towards alternates between not caring and severe existential angst. I had actually moved to Virginia with high hopes for a fresh start in this realm, but instead quickly gave up as I built my emotional barriers. It was one more thing that I emotionally withdrew from.
* * *
Early in 2017 I tried on-line dating but found no success. After six months I had chatted with a few women, but never went on any dates. I made the decision to suspend my account when I went to Wyoming for my library school internship, and much to my surprise, while there, I managed to meet someone entirely on my own and had even scheduled a date…only to be stood up at the last minute. Awkward, over-dressed guy wandering around downtown Laramie, table for one.
In my mind, as I withdrew from any chance of social interaction after I moved, I created a maze of logic that rationalized my decisions. That I wasn’t really meant to have a large circle of friends, that I was better off keeping to myself because it allowed me more time to focus on what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be. That I was better as an introverted, near recluse, etc., etc. I was attempting to rationalize my self-imposed emotional coma, and I think I succeeded…in my own mind. While my logic is certainly faulty, my goals were to some extent rational. I do want to devote more time to writing, enjoying movies or TV that I want to watch. I don’t want to waste my time thinking about dating apps or trying to approach unknown women at bars or coffee shops, or even going through the anxiety of small talk to try and make new friends. I still suck at that and get anxious because I am not great at reading social cues. I am still an introvert and those situations still terrify me. And yes, I do want to be selfish with my time and work on my personal and professional goals.
However, the problem with my logic was that I was taking it a step too far and cutting myself off from all forms of social interaction. I had preempted any type of friendship out of some irrational fear of social rejection and I was rationalizing it as being selfish for a good reason. What I see now is that I was in emotional shock from the move and all that it entailed, and I was not allowing myself to heal. And because I didn’t have any friends here who knew me from before, there was no one physically here to challenge or call me on it, and I am pretty good at obfuscating how I am really doing via text messages.
I was trapped in the Hedgehog’s Dilemma, and had gone so deep within my own head that I could not see a way out, not that I was actually looking for one.
* * *
So, what happened? What finally changed to draw me out of the shell and attempt to get close to people again? Well the first was the visit of one of my closest friends who is not afraid to call me on my BS or challenge my logic. A friend who is patient and kind and generous with his time and understands my neuroses and doesn’t dismiss them out of hand. He was here for over a week and was unafraid with confronting me. I clearly needed someone to crack the wall I had built around myself, and he took a sledgehammer to it.
The second thing that happened was something that at first annoyed me, but then turned into a fun way to change up my attitude at work. During the first day of spring break, my boss calls me into her office to assign me a new project, something that will help get me much needed project management experience. However, at the end of that meeting, I was told in no uncertain terms that my level of dress was “not professional,” that I “dressed like a grad student,” and “needed to step it up.”
Those who know me know that clothes are usually the last thing I think about and spend a max of thirty seconds a day picking out. But these people will also tell you that I never dress poorly. I wear nice jeans, a button-down shirt, and Converse almost religiously, and in Colorado that counts as “business casual.” However, I live on the East Coast now, and in the South at that, which is a much different culture than back West. And I am not afraid to admit that once she said this I began to pay attention to my co-workers’ dress, and…well…she had a point. So, after buying a new work wardrobe (and discovering that I now wear a medium size), and deciding to put my collection of bow ties to use (because bow ties are cool), I will say that I walk around the library with a different outlook, not to mention many positive comments on the new wardrobe. To wrongly quote Colin Firth in Kingsman: “clothes maketh man.” It is truly amazing how much of a lift you can get from feeling good about how you look. It is still a bit annoying, though, since I walk to work and now have to change clothes at the office, and then make special trips to pick up the dirty clothes and bring them back after washing them at home.
Regardless, these changes combined with a few tentative steps into the socializing sphere, signal that a corner has been turned and I have begun to emerge from my coma, or hibernation if you want a less scary metaphor.
* * *
So, what does the future hold? I am not certain. Just as when I was in the depths of my withdrawal and could not see what I was truly doing, it is uncertain what might come next. Of course, so much will be dependent on the job situation and if I remain in Virginia, though I am happy to report that my impulse to flee that I detailed recently has subsided. That being said, I would like to still one day live in Washington or Oregon. I just don’t have the same urge that I did before that was so clearly tied to my anxiety and the shell I had constructed to protect myself.
To be clear, I am not “well,” but I am recovering. Healing. I have a much more positive outlook on my life and situation, one that I had had when I began the process of moving, but which vanished the first week of October 2017, like so much dust in the wind.
If the process of applying, interviewing, and accepting my current job was the first act of a film, then the past six months was the second act. The act in which conflict arises, problems manifest, and our protagonist reaches their lowest point. All hope seems lost. The orcs are about to overrun Helm’s Deep, Luke is about to succumb to the dark side, and Gordon Bombay’s players lose faith in him and everyone reverts to their bad habits. However, I am right now at the end of that act, as hope is restored, the music swells, and the protagonist stands himself up and faces the challenges head on instead of hiding. Or as Martin Lawrence might say, accompanied by a spiraling camera shot…
And this change could not have happened at a better time. I have opportunities before me. Opportunities that can alter the trajectory of my future career. Opportunities that I might have missed or otherwise screwed up if I had remained in my shell and continued to barely keep myself together by being something less that what I can be at my best.
Indeed Mr. Lawrence, shit did just get real. Now then, are we going to stand around here all day? No, no we are not. Cue the music.