Walking into a crowded room has always made me feel self-conscious; doubly so when that room is full of business acquaintances, competitors, customers, professional associates, old classmates and a sprinkling of new faces. In this small city, most any event is comprised of such a mix. No one is ever anonymous here.
Where to start? Whom to greet first? Do I laser in on the individual I’m speaking to, or break eye contact to acknowledge each person that passes by and pats my arm, nods, or waves from across the room? How do I prioritize the people I do want to connect with and avoid the ones I detest?
My strategy in the face of social anxiety has always been to dress sharp, wear heels and stand tall, move with as much physical grace as possible, and pretend that my insides match my outsides. This winning combination has gotten me through everything from high school dances to charity galas to block parties; however in the past I also had the help of a glass or two of wine to pass the evening (and more at home afterward to restore calm). Now with several years of sobriety under my belt, I must rely fully on myself and manage differently.
Last night my husband and I attended an annual industry event, a scene in which I once figured prominently but stepped back from last year. The group hosts monthly dinner meetings and we were faithful participants for twenty years. Apparently, our absence has been noted because walking in last night caused a mild flurry of attention.
Note: Attention is the enemy of the socially anxious so if it must be endured, I do everything possible to ensure it is of the positive variety – hence the focus on appearance and poise.
Further note: I just realized that the word “poise” is now somewhat tarnished by the bladder control product of that name. My computer suggests alternatives are “composure,” “dignity,” and “self-assurance”.
The first person I greeted was a city politician. I said a warm hello and extended my hand (firm handshake = confidence) but he waved it away, saying, “Give me a hug! It’s great to see you here!” (Uh, okay. A hug? At a business event?) It wasn’t a creepy hug, it was a happy, kind one but it threw me nevertheless. He asked how I am keeping (great, thanks). Then he tilted his head and asked with sincerity, “Everything okay?” I literally took a step back and tilted my own head in return. “Yes…wonderful.” “Yes…?” “Yes.” After a brief pause, we exchanged have-a-great-evening‘s and backed ourselves out of an odd moment.
I spotted my husband chatting at the cash bar and headed in his direction. (Bee-lines are another tool in the belts of the socially anxious.) He handed me a glass and whispered, “Tonic and cranberry. I watched the bartender make it.” (I love this man. He knows I am cautious to accept a drink I haven’t seen poured in case it contains alcohol.) We chatted and greeted and worked the room; it gets easier as I get into the groove. By the time we sat at our table, I’d gushed, “Hi! How are YOU?” “Good to SEE you!” “Hel-LO!” at least 25 times and was noticing something unusual. People seemed to be responding, “How ARE you?” with a strange inflection. Also a lot of, “How are things?”; innocuous words usually but again, was I hearing a certain tone?
Gah, I’m too sensitive. Or am I? My husband had coffee the day before with a supplier who told him there were rumours about us, presumably related to our recent down-sizing. My husband responded, “If I had a big ego I’d probably care what people say” and changed the subject. (Again, how I love that man!)
I count on him to keep me grounded, so during dinner I quietly asked him, “Are you noticing something weird here?” “Yes definitely,” he said, winking. Just then yet another person approached us, squatting awkwardly between our chairs and gripping our shoulders for balance. “Good to see you two. How ARE you? How are THINGS?”
My head spun momentarily. Have they found out about my blog, my alter-ego UnPickled? Is word circulating that I am sober, and did the boring truth get stretched and embellished? Do they think that being lower-profile is out of shame and not by choice? Do they imagine it was me and not the market that caused a change in our business plan? Have they concocted a “rock bottom” scenario that is completely opposite to my experience? Do they even care about the truth? Do they realize my sobriety is nothing new, that it’s been years now?
I sat back and looked around the room. Instead of seeing faces, I saw lives that have been intertwined with mine in various ways for decades. I saw men who, over the years, had left their wives for a woman at work. One, two, three of them; all within sight, all of them single again after their new relationships ended badly. I saw a competitor whose most senior employee had recently jumped ship – in fact, yes – there he was sitting with his new employer. (Ouch, what a betrayal.) I saw another competitor’s GM who is obviously disguising a baby bump, confirming gossip I’d heard weeks earlier. (She will be hard to replace! They’re seriously so screwed!)
We’ve all taken our turns being the story of the moment. As casual observers of each others’ lives, we feel just familiar enough to guess the details when short on actual facts. Soon enough someone else becomes more interesting and attention shifts en masse.
I smiled to myself, realizing this new understanding represents enormous growth for me. I don’t need to suss out rumours, control the message, or announce my truth. Time will show that our business changes were savvy, our lives are happy, and that we are just passing through a transition stage as time marches on.
Funny thing. I felt the strain to which I am so accustomed to in those dinner meetings lift from my chest. I felt myself morphing into the wise matriarch of business and family and yes, even felt a sense of maternal affection for the people in that room.
I am slowly trading my false armor for authenticity, a much more resilient garment. It still feels novel, though, and I’m often surprised to discover it’s there – like looking for the glasses I’m already wearing or trying to find the keys that are right in my very own hand.
I have dreaded for years the titillation that knowledge of my secret recovery journey might cause among this crowd. Last night I faced the possibility that the word was out, and calmly responded with compassion.
Why compassion? Because I realized that this group will need some time to catch up to a “new normal” that I myself took years to accept. Whatever they have heard, clearly it has exposed a gap between the utterly competent and admirable “outside” image I’d created and the human reality underneath. Whether they respond with pity or glee is reflective of their characters, not mine. I’ve been just as guilty of spreading gossip-as-news; and sadly realize that I wasn’t always kind. I’m learning. They’re learning. We are all just moving through life.
I am curious to see how the next event goes. Will walking in become easier for me? Will I be greeted with regular how-are-ya’s instead of the head-tilted-how-ARE-you’s? Perhaps by next month the focus will have shifted to that baby bump across the room; surely by then it will be too big to hide.