At a social gathering, a house party, or some holiday festivity…I have had generally the same experience no matter what social event I attend.
There are people all around. Lights are bright, the conversations are lively and spirits are high. I enjoy everyone’s high spirits. I take in the bubbly feeling of the evening. Food wafts through the room. Some smells strong enough for me to almost taste and other smells too strong they make me gag. I distract myself from this feeling by looking around. I view the Picasso-like picture of everyone’s colorful outfits mixed with the colors of the surrounding decor. I observe each person’s expression. Many of them elated smiles and I hear the uproar of laughter. The evening is a sparkling cocktail of sights, smells, and sounds.
I stand adjacent to some clusters of people engulfed in conversation. Across the room other clusters of people burst into laughter, and others chat in the kitchen while the host feverishly finishes cooking the main meal. I have no idea what I should do and yet I feel I must do everything. I feel I must be social, I feel I must help in the kitchen even though several have already offered, and I feel I must match the jovial spirit of the party. However, I am content. I feel safe standing off to the side and silently observing the gathering. I am intrigued by the pattern of every social gathering I attend. Everyone in clusters, the smell of food that fills the room, and lights that feel so bright I cannot think straight.
“Why does everyone always stand in clusters? When waiting in line at a public venue everyone ends up standing in a mob, but at a private party people stand in tight circles. Why do we do this?” I think to myself. “Why does the food overpower the room? The food smells so strong it makes me queasy. It makes me dizzy. And the lights…do they have to be so bright? What is with the lights that feel like they bounce off every wall and then with laser-like intensity reflect off of every plate, dish, and piece of silverware that is present?”
After this train of thought, I feel deeply self-conscious and strange. I do not want to appear as though I am the odd-one-out or the wallflower of the night. So I walk towards a cluster of people. I try to appear involved in the conversation. I stand between a couple people. Someone makes a joke or tells a funny anecdote. Everyone else laughs, their eyes sparkling in delight. I don’t quite understand why it is so funny, but recognizing for myself that my timing in this conversation is off, I just give a half smile and muster up a quiet chuckle. After trying for a little while to engage in this conversation and still not understanding what everyone is saying, I make my way to another cluster.
I bounce around between conversations trying to find where I might fit, but nothing feels right. There’s too much going on for me to feel like I can relax into this traditional social gathering. So I grab a drink, if I can, and feel my legs start to turn to jello.
“How strange would it be for me to sit down?” I think to myself, “Would it be rude for me to do that? Am I going to get in trouble if I just take a break for a moment? Gosh, the couch looks so good.” I awkwardly meander to the couch, but I’m too embarrassed to sit. So I just hover in the general vicinity of the couch.
Finally the host sets dinner out and everyone flocks to the table. If this is a formal sit-down dinner then guests all sit around the table. If this is a buffet style gathering then guests grab a plate of food and sit wherever around the venue. Regardless of how the meal is served everyone has a rather full plate of food and the conversations are still lively. Some conversations end up shifting from being lively to being loud after each group laugh. This is where the social timer inside me starts to reach its end.
I am very glad to be sitting after standing for so long and feeling like I failed to participate in some social routine. As I sit and eat I feel a slight sense of relief wash over me. I no longer feel like I have to be on. I can relax, but then I get pulled into a conversation.
“So, Barbara,” Someone says, as they take a bite of food.
Or someone says, “Hey, Barbara. Could you pass the potatoes?” As I pass the dish to them they jokingly add, “hey you don’t have to talk so much.” Everyone chuckles…
*Ding* My social timer goes off. *ding* Sadly, I cannot leave. I know it would cause a scene if I left at that moment. So I stay at the party, which feels like shoving myself in a box. While this doesn’t feel good, I tell myself that it’s fine. It would be more uncomfortable to get in trouble or to be seen as rude for leaving. So I stick it out.
After the meal is over, I retreat to the conner and hover around the couch. But then I think to myself, “You know what? I’m tired.” So I let myself sit down. As I begin to zone out I hear a conversation about something that peaks my interest. “Finally something I can happily participate in”. I get up and join the group.
Person 1 poses a question to someone. That person answers said question. Cue opinions from person 1, person 3 and person 4. Person 2 reiterates their thoughts and explains themselves.
“Ah.” Person 1 and 3 say, “I see”.
“But what if you…” Person 4 says, adding another opinion. The conversation picks up and person 2 remains on the spot trying to explain themselves. All the while everyone remains lively and jovial.
“Dare I speak?” I ask myself, “Could be risky, but I want to be part of some conversation. I have a voice. I have something I can add to this conversation.”
I feel my body clench. My mind cringes nervously, but I take a big breath. And I say, “I agree with her. I like that kind of thing too…”
Four pairs of eyes turn towards me. They turn towards me, the voice that broke the two second silence, and they shoot through me with their harsh gazes. Crickets chirp for a moment and then everyone turns back towards their conversation.
“What did I do? Why am I at fault for speaking? Am I at fault for speaking or is it something else?” I think, as I slink back towards the couch and take my rest.
I begin to have flashbacks from my days at school. When someone would break the silence by blowing their nose everyone needed to see who it was. When someone would leave the room then heads would turn towards the door. That was embarrassing enough for me. But at a lively social gathering I have always felt like it was unacceptable to be quiet, to be awkward, to find something funny without laughing, to be nervous, to be honest, to be happy without smiling, or to use your God-given voice to speak in any capacity, even if just an utterance of a few words because heads always turn quickly and gazes always feel harsh.
Sometimes I feel like I should show up with a sticker that reads:
Hello my name is Barbara. Please do not expect me to smile frequently. I am already overwhelmed by this gathering. However, if there is a conversation that I feel I can be part of then I will make an effort to be part of it. I am glad to be here for the duration that my social timer allows.
Unfortunately, I do not think one could write that much on a sticker, nor would it control other’s reactions when I happen to naturally go against their social customs. It is not out of spite, malice, or disrespect that I go against the grain of social customs. It’s simply because I am showing up and it is hard. I am overstimulated, I am overwhelmed but I show up anyhow. And then I feel that the way I am simply being is not okay.
To speak or to be? That is my question.
So I don’t smile very much when I go to a party. That is not because I am unhappy. And I don’t laugh heartily at the anecdote or share vigorously in conversation keeping silence at bay. That is not because I don’t have fun and it is not because I cannot socialize. I am usually not depressed at parties, I enjoy having fun, making jokes, sharing anecdotes and socializing.
“So why can’t you show that? Why is it not obvious?” Some might wonder.
Would it help if I told you I’m ADHD and autistic? Would it help if I told you it is the way I am “beautifully and wonderfully made”? Would it help if I told you what my “social timer” means and how it works? Would it help if I explained my facial expressions and the meaning of my body language?
This is my face, content as can me. This is my body, relaxed and present. Can that be enough? If not, you can find me at home. Happy being on my own.
And I know that I am not the only one that feels this. To be or to speak? Keep on being.