Words of desperation from a despairing man, on the brink of a cosy Sunday lunch with close friends. ‘A Dead Man Walking’ sprung to mind as I laughed nervously at him, but the implications were more serious – he is an introvert in crisis. Telling everyone he was dead, however, was never an option. But should something happen to me, I do worry that no one will know the truth about the Howard Hughes-esque recluse, who lives in the house, at the end of our street.
It’s not a question of him not liking people, or that he is fashionably eccentric, just cripplingly shy. So even though Sunday’s guest list included some of his dearest friends, the thought of being dropped into potentially unknown territory, because there may have been infiltrators (i.e.people he didn’t know), filled him with social anxiety.
His preparation involved relentlessly firing the names on the guest list at me, a ‘clearance’ system of sorts, a practise usually the domain of law enforcement agencies. At work he has no choice, but on home ground he exercises his free will to anonymity, within the frustrating constraints (for him) of being married to a serial social organiser.
So when he uttered those seemingly glib words to ‘tell everyone I’m dead’, I knew that the avoidance disorder was taking control. You see, he had been thwarted in a misguided escape plan just before we left, when he thought I was offering him a ‘get out of jail free’ card by feeling unwell, (when in fact, cancelling became an option because my inflamed throat was threatening to compromise my drinking prowess). I watched the build-up of pressure dissipate from his face with that tiny nugget of hope, and I felt something akin to pity for him. Then it dawned on me that he had assumed that he could stay with me. I had to burst his bubble – the bubble about no longer being a child!
Apparently, the thought of a boozy lunch with my mates can render him immobile with fear if the stars aren’t aligned, and only a thorough risk assessment can manage his anxiety. I managed to ignore his pathetic last-ditched suggestion of ‘cuddling on the sofa with a romantic DVD’ and began loading the car, as the last flick we’d watched together was ‘Four Weddings’, back in the nineties. As soul mates, I am as aware of his misanthropist tactics as he is of my vulnerabilities. I am so used to his spin, that surrendering to his bargaining pleas would be the equivalent of allowing the dog to eat chocolate; I have to be cruel to be kind, before his anxiety becomes toxic.
How can a successful, professional man be so constrained by shyness? And how do I cope with these early onset hermit symptoms, which threaten to destroy the social bonds I have so carefully cultivated, in spite of his resistance? Our social life has developed into a game of ‘one step forward, two steps back’ with rules, terms and conditions and maddening negotiations. Social arrangements are permitted only once a weekend, on a strictly rotating basis and only with people who ‘understand’ him. New friends need the persistence of a mosquito.
They say that opposites attract, but how can I organise the party if no guests are permitted? I dream of the community of a retirement village, while he dreams of acreage, high fencing and separate bedrooms.
My analogy of friendships, like cars that need servicing, falls on deaf ears, while every week he conspires against me, diminishing face-to-face social time with all but our direct line. And as the diary fills, so too does his trepidation, and he says it’s time to move suburb again.
Hermit Street – EC1 Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com (EZTD)
- Do You Have Social Anxiety Disorder? (everydayhealth.com)