We can finally see light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. Things are opening back up, executive orders are lifting, vaccinations are rising, case rates are declining….
With the first weekends back to normalcy, it’s no wonder I’m seeing so many outdoor parties and gatherings as I go around my neighborhood. People are craving connections after such a very disconnected 15 months.
At least, for all of you. I’ve always felt that disconnected to other people.
As a young child, I would melt down while playing with the neighborhood children. My mother would call me inside and send me to my room, where she would soon find me contentedly reading a book. The frustration I faced, not having the language to express myself when everything around me just felt so disordered and wrong, would more often than not result in temper tantrums.
I stopped throwing tantrums decades ago, but the struggle to express myself remains. My brain, my thoughts, my heart are just so off the beaten path that it’s hard to explain what is going through my head to other people. My mother, in her attempts to help me, made me feel even more self-conscious about being “different” and “weird,” obnoxious and annoying. It felt like the real me was just not acceptable to the world.
So like many people with mental illnesses, I have become a master of hiding my symptoms, wearing my face in the jar by the door, pushing my square peg through the round holes of society, afraid of what would happen if the world saw what was really inside of me….
OCDP is an illness about perfectionism and order and control. I will let friendships languish because it’s not the perfect time or I can’t make the perfect communication or there was an awkward interaction. Another symptom of OCPD is having a miserly attitude, which for me was compounded by a decade of working in government/nonprofit. I’ve turned down invitations because they cost money that I was afraid to spend, or simply made me anxious about reciprocating generosity. Don’t get me started about the people who want to help me declutter my home (another symptom of OCPD, that you struggle to get rid of things). Speaking of long, involved processes…everything I do takes so much time that I’m often too overwhelmed with just getting through my day to pick up the phone and see if someone wants to grab a coffee.
Of course, I’m also pretty extroverted. I love meeting new people, when it’s easy for me to be the happy, outgoing person most people see me as. Just a glance at my social media feeds tells you I have friends and a fun social life, figure skating and running marathons and doing all sorts of different things. While I’m able to make initial connections and make some moments, I end up putting too much distance to create that true bond of close, long-term friendship.
I don’t have those lifelong friendships with classmates or sorority sisters or former work colleagues. I’ve walked away from people I’ve wanted to get to know better because I’ve felt intimidated--or just plain awkward. I’ve moved from friend group to friend group, none ever feeling quite like my “tribe.”
No wonder that self-love technique of imagining yourself as a friend doesn’t work for me at all. I usually end up screaming at myself in the bathroom mirror about what a friendless loser I am and how much I suck. Now, I realize I’m not a friendless loser, but my friendships are usually tied to activities and organized gatherings and social media, where I can control my involvement, instead of the more intimate coffees and bottles of wine and phone calls—or the shared fun of dinner parties, nights out, and random adventures. The experiences that create connections.
While it’s a safe existence, free of hurt and rejection, difficulties and disappointment, it’s also been a lonely one. Dinners and movies and sojurns into the city are done solo, as I struggle to invite someone to join me. Meanwhile, I live vicariously through others’ social media posts, looking in on everyone else. When I actually am around people, I often feel like I’m in a foreign country, in translation mode, speaking a different language.
Actually, last year really wasn’t all that different from my 2002 or 2014 or 2018.
Except that I finally know why. OCPD. And in the process of restructuring my life around my OCPD, I’ve learned that my new life is more dependent on connections than ever before. I’ve made tutoring my main career, so I have to generate the referrals necessary to make a living from it. I’m writing a blog about my experiences in mental health that I want people to read, so we can make the world a better place. I need to create a list of professionals, from my doctor to my auto mechanic, who are willing to listen to my needs and accommodate them, even if they don’t understand. Most important, though, is that I need to stop trying to find a tribe to join and create my own, one who understands and supports and cheerleads me through this process.
The timing is perfect, as we are all re-emerging, re-entering, re-connecting after months of isolation and disconnection. While some people will be able to pick up as if the last 15 months never happened, many of us have been changed by it. We all need to be kind and gentle as we come back to the post-pandemic world, and I hope more people check in on those who tend to self-isolate, pandemic or not.
I just know that I can no longer live with a mess of missed connections any longer.