4.34 I Don't Know How to Talk to People


I'm back. Yay. Aren't you glad? Sad? Perhaps indifferent? Well, it's been a ruckus of a few weeks. Lots of shit going down. Yeah, I went to New York to finish this damn book. This book that's been hanging around my neck like the famed albatross of yonder. Don't get me wrong, this ain't a bad thing or something I'm complaining about. I've just had it floating around in my head for far too long in many different incarnations. Needed to vacate, needed to get it the hell out to make room for other stuff. Cause no matter what ideas I came up with, the voice of this book kept creeping in like a spoiled little kid, stamping its feet on the ground and screaming, "What about me? What about me?" So, my plan was to finally extrapolate it from my system. Went to New York in order to have some time to give it the focus and attention it demanded. Seemed to work, went through the whole sorted thing, combed through every word and I feel that it's about as good as I can make. Does that mean it's actually good? The vote is still out on that one.

I've been away from writing this blog for a few weeks and have actually felt a strange gap. Maybe I'm addicted to writing this blog? Maybe I'm addicted to having an outlet for whatever the hell is going on in my life? To talking about myself in a selfish, indulgent, navel-gazing way to you out there, whoever you may be.

So this is where things are at now but I want to talk about something else. Last year I started working almost exclusively from my home office. Something I've always wanted to be in the position to do. I'm not a morning person, so looked forward to staying in my pajamas. But I know myself well enough to understand that I needed to get out of the house, set up things to do - writerly events, social engagements - in order to not fully isolate myself. Unfortunately, as the months alone wore on, that's exactly what happened. I think it's easy to get isolated in a city, especially out of the core, especially with no real community that you're a part of. Once you're a few years out of university, and you remove the physical space of a work place that you go to everyday, your desire to interact with people reduces without really noticing.

Maybe you don't relate to isolation? Or what is brought on with being isolated? You're well adjusted and have no idea what I'm talking about? If you're content, simply slip into a soundless sleep dreaming nothing but skiing on snow made of cotton candy wearing skis made of French fries, you wake up refreshed, ready to tackle the challenges of the day, you refer to them as this - as challenges of the day - and you're looking forward to said challenges, then maybe you think I'm talking out of my ass.

If you wake up late - always - and your back hurts, it feels like someone punched you directly on the brain, you're hungover but didn't drink a drop the previous night, you wear sunglasses even without the sun to hide the bags under your eyes that reveal the terrifying yet forgotten dream state buried deep in the subconscious that left you restless and you can't imagine talking to someone until the clock turns to the PM. And then still - still - cannot perform simple societal exchanges that represent the hallmark of being a functioning person participating in this world wanting to just walk into a café to get a coffee because you need it desperately to wash away the forgotten nightmares but this simple excursion involves true existential dread, yes dread, in order to even attempt to answer the barista’s quizzical question: for here or to go? Then you are my people and I've been looking everywhere for you.

Realized this was no way to live. Alone, and with no real connections to people or places. Started going downtown more often, somewhat energized by just being around people. Found a collective office space in a neighbourhood I frequented. The office space worked for a time but it was a place for writers, so understandably, there was not much interaction between people. But it got me out of the goddamn house.

And then I was walking down the street from this office and came upon this building that seemed to have a buzzing emanating from it. Stepped inside to a lounge where people were talking enthusiastically about, well, whatever. Lots of meeting rooms, white boards and Mac computers. And dogs, dogs were welcomed. At the help desk, I asked a stupid question, "Um, what is this place?" The friendly person at the front desk said through a smile, "The Centre for Social Innovation." Yes, CSI, but I'm not talking about the television show.

After attending an information session, I applied and was accepted as a member. We were asked what made our work socially innovative and to be honest, this was not really something I thought about before. But once on that track, realized what I was doing fit perfectly within the loose parameters of CSI.

The mandate of CSI:

The Centre for Social Innovation is a social enterprise with a mission to catalyze social innovation in Toronto and around the world. We believe that society is facing unprecedented economic, environmental, social and cultural challenges. We also believe that new innovations are the key to turning these challenges into opportunities to improve our communities and our planet.

We're a coworking space, community, and launchpad for people who are changing the world, with three locations in Toronto and a location in New York City. We provide our members with the tools they need to accelerate their success and amplify their impact. Together, we’re building a movement of nonprofits, for-profits, entrepreneurs, artists, and activists working across sectors from farming to finance and everything in between. We’re catalyzing new ideas for a better world.

Here's where my under the surface problems were revealed. From the start, everyone I have come into contact with at CSI has been so damn helpful, so accommodating, so interested in what I'm doing. I was actually overwhelmed, unable to take this sincerely. I'm trying to explain this but still have not really been able to articulate properly. Maybe by putting this into context. In many of the areas I've worked, I'm used to people being falsely interested in what others are doing. You know what I mean? Agendas and egos were always in the way. This created a somewhat cynical and suspicious attitude towards others. Especially when they're being super nice and curious. Listen, I know, this doesn't make any sense. I'm the first one to admit it and understand this is my baggage I'm bringing to the table.

Went to the orientation meeting. "What is your favorite innovation?" The CSI representative asked. Jesus, what the hell's going on here? Seriously? This kind of place to openly just discuss things has been what I've always secretly wanted and still I said nothing, unable to process what the was going on. Maybe not believing it was true. Had two events lined up the following week. Made it to the door for each one and then turned right around. I couldn't do it. Maybe I had a problem. All that time alone, isolated, I didn't know how to talk with people anymore. Learned self-preservation and close-mindedness. And when people came along wanting me to open up, I didn't know how to speak their language. But with any language, I had to start learning how to speak.

At the same time, I realized that this isolation, or perhaps my own personality makes me react in ways that are uncomfortable. Just talking to people can sometimes be difficult. So, I did what I've been told I shouldn't do, I Googled Social Anxiety Disorder, and this is what I found from the National Institute of Mental Health:

Social phobia is a strong fear of being judged by others and of being embarrassed. This fear can be so strong that it gets in the way of going to work or school or doing other everyday things. Everyone has felt anxious or embarrassed at one time or another. For example, meeting new people or giving a public speech can make anyone nervous. But people with social phobia worry about these and other things for weeks before they happen.

People with social phobia are afraid of doing common things in front of other people. Most people who have social phobia know that they shouldn't be as afraid as they are, but they can't control their fear. Sometimes, they end up staying away from places or events where they think they might have to do something that will embarrass them. For some people, social phobia is a problem only in certain situations, while others have symptoms in almost any social situation.

People with social phobia tend to: Be very anxious about being with other people and have a hard time talking to them, even though they wish they could. Be very self-conscious in front of other people and feel embarrassed. Be very afraid that other people will judge them. Worry for days or weeks before an event where other people will be. Stay away from places where there are other people. Have a hard time making friends and keeping friends. Blush, sweat, or tremble around other people. Feel nauseous or sick to their stomach when with other people.

So, to basically drive this point home, a few weeks ago I saw that CSI was having a talent show and I went and did something stupid and signed up. For a long time, I wanted to try and get up and read a story in front of people. Too scared. Keeping within the parameters of the symptoms, I worried about this for the weeks and days leading up to the event. Quite ridiculous if you think about it, I mean, who cares, right? I wrote and re-wrote the story to death. Had a good friend who was kind enough to look it over and offer some much needed encouragement. Walking up to the door, that goddamn voice in my head telling me I didn't have to do this. I don't mean to say that I'm ruled by fear, but I have to tell you, there is a constant struggle with so many things.

Here's the thing. Everyone at the event was (of course) so supportive and excited over the various talents on display. And here's the other thing, at some point I have to come out of this shell. In some weird abstract way, I do believe that I have something to offer people, I just need to break wide open this wall I've built up around me, this wall that on a daily basis if I don't continue to chip away at it, well, it threatens to finally solidify.

The host of the evening called my name and everyone clapped. I looked out at the audience and had some kind of dissociation, like I was looking at myself from behind me and watching everything. I just started speaking and nobody booed, nobody had a giant hook from the side of the stage to pull me off. And even more strange, people laughed where they were supposed to laugh and listened to where they were supposed to listen. I actually felt it. I finished and everyone clapped and afterwards several smiling people came up to me and wanted to talk and wondered if this is what I did for a living.

So, now what am I supposed to do with that?

Getting back to the signs and symptoms of social phobia. It's almost been about a month of being at CSI and still, just the other day, I retreated, sick of hearing myself talk about myself, sick of trying to spin what I do and who I am into some kind of interesting tale. But it should be about time to get over all this shit. No one is judging me more harshly than myself, there simply is no reason for me to be afraid of meeting people or talking with them or feeling like I don't belong. Um...right?