Merry Christmas (and a Festivus for the rest of us!)
I hope you had a great 2018, and that 2019 is only going to get better!
Now go eat some of that chocolate!
I don’t like Christmas.
Well, that’s not entirely true. There are bits of it I enjoy…mostly the eating parts and the buying presents parts. I like buying people presents, thinking of something unusual to match their personality. I dislike wrapping them because I genuinely suck at it (ask my wife), but that’s another story. The tree looks nice, and I like all the lights.
But this is what Christmas is mostly about for me: People get friendly. People get sociable. People want to hug. Which is fine…but I don’t. Raised voices and laughter make my anxiety spike all year round, and there’s ten times more of it at Christmas. There’s ten times more of everything that makes me anxious at Christmas. Lots of people shopping and the endless crowds make it spike even more. I usually have a little patience for queues, but the pushing and pulling of Christmas erodes it even more.
The enforced jollity of it all makes me nervous. I really…really…do not like social gatherings at any time of year, and Christmas is everything magnified. There’s a staff party at school on the last day of term. I work with these people all year round, but I’m not going. I’m not going, and I’m still anxious about it, and it’s four days away. My wife thinks I’m being miserable and grumpy about it. I hated going to my own family parties, when such things existed. Parties aren’t somewhere I go to relax after a day at work.
Grumpy is my default behaviour when I’m in a social situation that’s making me anxious. I get grumpy a lot this time of year, as you can imagine.
The triggers for Christmas make a lot of it anxiety by association for me: Christmas songs and brass bands playing, it all adds up by association. Ugh. Make it all stop and go away!
Please, don’t invite me to anything. Just leave me alone. It’s nothing personal. If you need me, I’ll be in a puddle in the corner, exhausted and stressed.
I don’t hate you, or really hate Christmas. It’s just who I am.
I work in a school, and I was sitting in the staff room the other Friday, reading Eleanor and Park, lost in my own world. There were two other people in the room with me when one of them started talking.
I watched their conversation for a while, listening to the rhythms and the sounds rather than the words. I tried to sketch it out as a graph, just for fun.
One person suddenly started talking into the silent staff room – loud enough to make me jump, hence the 9 on the vertical scale at the start. The second person answered at a lower tone of voice.
It was like listening to an abstract piece of jazz.
Then person one started talking about a TV show I don’t watch (“Did you watch The Apprentice last night?”), and they were off. That’s about 11 on the scale on the bottom. Their words intertwined, sometimes lower, sometimes higher. It was like listening to an abstract piece of jazz, full of counterpoints and sudden sounds. They both laughed at 21, by the way, a nice harmony.
It tailed off before suddenly restarting again at 25 (“Nick!”), then again at 30, when I went back to my book.
I don’t know how well these two know each other outside their respective school areas. But I found the interplay between them fascinating, and the way they seemed to become friends inside of a few minutes amazing.
Some people make that look so easy.
That is, in case you didn’t know, the actor Daniel Craig. I’d seen him interviewed and seen every Bond film he’s been in before I suddenly realised something: How much he looks like my dad.
My dad has been dead since 1998, so perhaps it’s not surprising I’d see echoes of his face somewhere. But sometimes there’s a merry dancing light in Mr Craig’s eyes when he’s being interviewed that reminds me of him as well.
It seems to me he’s having the time of his life, and that’s one of the best memories I have of my dad: He nearly always had that same light in his eyes. An innate belief that life was fun and not to be taken too seriously.
And there’s a physical resemblance that always startles me and makes me look twice to make sure it’s not really my dad being interviewed.
My dad had a very primitive rhinoplasty when he was a child (He was born in 1933), and the cartilage in his nose was removed. As a result, he could push his nose completely flat, which is utterly captivating when you’re a kid (or grand-kid).
There’s a distinctive shape of the mouth and the nose there with Mr Craig and my dad, and those odd little thick lines at the edges of his cheeks. The squareness of the face. The size of the ears.
But it’s in the eyes I see it the most. The angle of the eyebrows and the brow ridge, and that happy light. Even my dad’s hair was parted the same, until it was shaved to look for the tumour that eventually killed him.
This is the only picture I have of my dad; all my others are lost, so I don’t have any later than a fading print from 1979. So you’ll have to take my word for it how much they look alike to me – this one doesn’t really do the comparison justice.
Or maybe that’s my brain filling in blanks that don’t exist. Either way, I always have to look twice.
Dennis Talbot (1933 – 1998)
(As a side note, I’m the same age writing this as my dad was when this was taken: 46.)
I remember one New Year’s Eve party in particular. My dad was in the Territorial Army (An army reserve he went to on weekends) for most of his life that I was a part of. This was a NYE party they were holding in their big hall in their barracks, and the whole family were there, plus about a hundred other people. Lots of food and a disco – you know the deal, right? It must have been perhaps 1982 or 1983; that’s the best date I can put on it, anyway, and the year doesn’t really matter.
The reason it doesn’t matter is because here’s the thing I remember the most about that year-going-into-the-next, the thing I’m here to talk about: I spent the seconds across midnight in the empty and mostly dark gym that looked over the hall. On an exercise bike. Alone.
I was more comfortable up there than down on that floor singing Auld Lang’s Syne with a bunch of people I didn’t know. I was more comfortable in a dark room than taking part in the fun down there below me.
Does that seem strange to you?
Parties, you see, even ones where I know people, aren’t my thing. Even small ones at some-friends-my-parents-knew house, with ten people there. I’m just here for the food thanks, please don’t talk to me.
Neither are wedding receptions; park me next to the buffet and leave me alone, please. Neither are meetings where you have to talk or contribute (You know…most of them). Neither are being parts of a team and networking, something my work friend likes doing constantly. He likes talking to people you see. Mostly, I probably come across as rude and indifferent; mostly I only talk when I have to.
Social situations of any sort are exhausting to me, and I want to get out of them as quickly as possible. Stay and make small talk? No thanks. Office parties? Never been to one; never want to go to one. If someone invited me to one, I would decline.
What always puzzled me was how many people think this was (and is) a deliberate choice on my part. How many teachers would write in my school reports “Tony needs to get more involved and speak up more” as though it was as easy as changing socks.
There seem to be a lot of people who want to cure me of the way I am by “getting me involved”; not to draw too many parallels, but I see the way introverts are treated in much the same way as homophobia: “Have you tried not being quiet?” Well…have you tried not being noisy?
I always ate my lunch alone when I was in college, and never in the canteen (eating in public is something I avoided for years), hunting out the quietest corner I could find if it was too cold to eat outside – and you’d be surprised at how high that outside-eating bar could be raised. I’d eat with freezing fingers on a park bench and only move inside if it rained. If I had a free lesson, I’d go for a walk rather than socialise.
If you’re curious about how I was able to make any friends with all this static, believe me it wasn’t easy. So I tend to keep the ones I made, and if they vanished, I didn’t make many new ones.
And if you want to know what it was like being a teenager in a world like mine, go read Black Shark, my short story. A friend read it and commented, ” I don’t think I’ve ever met someone with the level of anxiety that the main character experiences.” Well, yeah…you kinda have, albeit virtually. ;-). (This isn’t a plug for the story, by the way)
So I thought there was something wrong with me for not enjoying being at a loud disco or nightclub. I used to think it was only me who had this odd affliction for not wanting – not needing – to be around people, but I discovered only recently that there are many people out there who are like me. They very rarely get together, you see – as you can imagine, the annual meeting of the Socially Anxious and Introverted doesn’t get many people turn up, and when they do, it’s a quiet affair.
Growing up, of course, forces you out of your shell whether you like it or not. For the most part, that is. But I will always be on the edge of the crowd and looking in. I will always be the last person to speak up, and certainly not voluntarily.This drives my wife a little mad at times. She’d love to go out dancing at a nightclub. I’d love to sit in the car and wait for her to come out. Or I’ll sit at a table all night and be uncomfortable, thanks. You go have a good time and try not to drag me to the dance floor. Please.
I’d rather not have anything to eat than have to order it myself, and she’ll do it for me if we’re in Starbucks. I’d rather not go into the chip-shop and order if she’s willing to do it for me.
Don’t get me wrong (and don’t call me lazy) – I can do these things if I have to. But I don’t enjoy doing them. I don’t relish going into a shop and making small talk with the girl behind the till or the chip-shop owner. I don’t enjoy crowds. I don’t like people’s leaving parties at work and meetings are to be dreaded and sat through like a dental appointment.
And you know what it’s taken me a long time to realise? It’s the way I am, and the way I’m made. And I’m good with that.
Finally, after all the years of people saying there was something wrong with me standing on the edge and looking in: I’m good with that.
I am what I am.