Social Anxiety: Carrying On Regardless
Have you ever arrived at some sort of social gathering and then asked yourself what on earth you’re doing there? Have you dithered on the perimeter of a conversation before plunging in, like a nervous swimmer contemplating an unheated pool? I thought I’d cracked this one ages ago, but I’ve caught myself doing it quite a lot lately. It could be that a landmark birthday looms and I’m a tad more aware of me than I usually am; or perhaps it’s that I’ve grown used to being on my own because that is the way writers work. I can be quite sociable when the mood takes me, and in fact, observing life and guzzling down juicy details for later regurgitation onto the page is this author’s crack habit. On the other hand, it could be that I’ve inherited more of my family’s acknowledged reclusiveness than I’d previously thought – but whatever the reason, it is apparent that I’ve entered a period in my life when going out to be with other people feels a tiny bit strange. I don’t like feeling strange – it’s putting a kink in my confidence.
Clearly this kink needs knocking on the head, ironing out, giving notice and showing the door, or I’ll become a total hermit and one of those people the neighbours would describe as “stand-offish”. As far as my new location in the Shires and my work schedule permit, I am therefore making efforts to kick-start some kind of social life. The most recent of these was a summer garden party. Now, admittedly it’s been some time since I’ve been to anything like this and I’m more accustomed to London socialising (where every other person is someone you haven’t met before), but I hadn’t expected to feel quite so… other. Decorously sipping Pimms amongst the towering yew hedges and impressive borders of the local “big house” while a jazz band played on one side of the lawn and the guests all made polite conversation on the other put me in mind of the beginnings of a rugby international – the part where the All Blacks line up and perform the haka – and when a heavy-ish summer shower fell, of the dinner party scene in Carry On Up the Khyber. We carried on regardless. While I struggled to contain and stifle a multiplicity of giggles I wondered if perhaps what lay at the bottom of “feeling strange” could be uprooting myself to somewhere I last knew 20-odd years ago and then retreating into my cottage for nine months to gestate a book, leaving me with slightly rusty social skills and a greater understanding of the psychology of my cat. The sunny afternoon on which I finally left the garden (to celebrate dispatching the final proofs and therefore freedom from house arrest) coincided with someone wandering up the lane, sighting me and announcing, “Ah, the author,” in the manner of Stanley discovering Livingstone, which was both pleasing and mildly disconcerting. In a small village where everybody knows everybody else, I am a bit of an odd fish, not quite fitting in yet. Then it occurred to me that perhaps my customary Birkenstocks mark me down as a potentially dangerous left-leaning townie…
My next outing was to find some garden pots. This meant a trip to a garden centre. The last time I’d been to this particular garden centre was, you guessed it, 20 years ago. Back then it comprised three sheds, a greenhouse and a handful of flowerbeds, and you parked in a field. Not any more. The place is now vast – there’s a “gifts” wing the size of a polo pitch (and full of jigsaw puzzles) and a further Albert Hall-sized building containing what I’m told is an excellent tearoom; there’s even a car wash and an overflow car park, if you please. The cashier chuckled when I remarked on how things can change in a couple of decades. “You’ll certainly notice a difference,” he said; “we get coach trips and everything.” And sure enough, as I made my way uncertainly back to my car (where did I leave it?), a coach full of people duly turned up. “But so many old people!” I lamented inwardly, and then answered myself with, “Well, yes, that would be you then.”
Of course I’m not old, not yet, not quite – with my 60th birthday in October I’m more of a pre-old person. I reckon this equates to being a pre-teen, and now I’m wondering if my strange feelings are a result of this in-between state of being. I did have the same feelings of not fitting in 45 years ago as I morphed into a grown-up. Not that anyone else cares very much what you’re thinking on the inside as long as you make the right noises on the outside. In my case, the phrase “20 years ago I lived on the other side of the valley” has proved to be the golden ticket. “Aha,” the expressions on the faces say, “so you’re not an outsider after all. You’re a local!” And there follows a rapid rearrangement of the features into acceptance.
I’m sure I don’t need to actually do anything about my strange feelings. It’s just another part of life and will probably pass – until my faintly scandalous 20-year-old shenanigans catch up with me…
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