One thing I grok in fullness is the absolute need to not have other people breathing all my air.

It may surprise people who saw me at the Awkward Army meetup, but sociability is not native to me. I learned that the very difficult way, much like I learned that I am not a functional human being at seven o'clock in the morning, no matter how much I want to do whatever got me up that early. It's not that I'm lying when I go out and make noises like you're interesting and I want to talk to you -- you are, and I do -- but it's a thing that takes a lot of energy, and a thing for which I need to be prepared. If you texted me and asked me if I wanted to come downtown and meet God Himself, right now, I'd probably say no, because I wasn't expecting to go out today, and it takes some time and gear-grinding to get the switch flipped. I am inherently introverted, and social interaction is essentially an improv-performance skill.

(And you'd have to text me, because I don't answer the phone. I hate phones. It comes from a combination of my mother having a lot of temper tantrums over phone calls when I was growing up, which means ringing phones set my teeth on edge and immediately make the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and the fact that even though my hearing is fine, I don't do so great understanding speech from handheld radios, which is what cell phones are. It's uncomfortable and I hate it, and for some reason people think I'm an adult now, so I figure I can do what I like as long as I make a proper effort to warn people nicely first. I eat a lot more pizza now that I can order on the internet.)

I think charming people per se is fun, so I don't mind doing it at prearranged times and places. This is a damn good thing, or I would probably end up like Sherlock, pissing people off left and right because most of the time I didn't care. I like being able to match what I present with what's actually going through my head. I can lie with it, but unless the lying is in the form of "acting on stage", all it would do is get me more of something I don't actually want, so I don't bother. I mostly choose to let the eccentricities show, unless I think it would bother someone unnecessarily; I don't much mind being startling, as long as I successfully convey the message that I'm understanding you.

Other than that, however, I need a door. A door which is between me and other people the vast majority of the time. I shared a two bedroom apartment with two of my best friends once. We had all the beds in one bedroom and used the other as an office. It worked all right as long as we were on three different shifts and nobody did anything but sleep in the bedroom, but I ended up spending most of my time in the office with the door closed. As the rest of my life deteriorated -- slowly at first, then very very rapidly -- I got worse and worse about it, until one day while I was at work the other two girls just pulled whatever they wanted out of the office and dragged my futon into the middle of it. I was seriously depressed at the time and it stung, but even I have to admit that just giving me a room of my own was a better idea than letting me go slowly insane crunched up into a tiny ball with my earbuds in and the covers hauled over my head.

I don't date much. It's not from lack of interest -- I like boys just fine, and boys like me to the point where I have had to refine the practice of politely not noticing when people hit on me into a goddamn art form. The problem is that in my culture, the amount of time I am expected to spend with someone with whom I am conducting a romantic relationship exceeds, by a lot, the amount of not-alone time that would make me seriously ax-crazy. If I moved in with the love of my life, I would last about two weeks, and then there would be CSIs meticulously picking bone chips out of the garbage disposal. My record for an unbroken span of time spent with one particular person without wanting to stab either them or myself is about three days, and that only worked because we were at Disneyland and there was stuff to do, and I was with my Watson my sidekick fellow social scientist Moggie, who has the remarkable ability to sit in the corner with a laptop and a pair of headphones and become furniture.

(Moggie has other superpowers; she can be mysteriously invisible even in jingly street pants, to the point where a chaperone on a school trip actually once thought they'd lost her extremely blonde, blue-eyed, American self for about five minutes in Cairo. She also has this mysterious ability to locate and befriend the nearest group of screamingly gay men, no matter where on Earth she is. She went to Japan for a semester, and was in the country for four whole days before finding a gay bar that had a 1000-yen all-you-can-drink special running for four hours on Sunday nights, and a gay boy to get her into the gay bar. She went to Scandinavia once for Eurovision with a friend whose superpower is to locate the nearest friendly source of alcohol, and they were offered free beer, in slurred Norwegian, before they even left the train station.)

One of my roommates is about to move out to be with his (admittedly awesome) girlfriend. He's with her pretty much every day. My head would explode if I did that. I've tried conducting romances the way everyone says I should, and inevitably it ends with me slowly getting ground down, the balance between 'I'd feel guilty because I know you would misinterpret if I said I didn't want to spend time with you' and 'I need to say no or I will lose my ability to get out of bed and do anything at all' sliding from one side to the other, until it finally hits the end of the line with a clunk, like the weights on a doctor's office scale, and I have to hide in my room (ALONE) for two weeks.

I cannot seem to make clear with any amount of explaining that no, I still like you fine, I'm not trying to break up with you by millimeters, but I need you to be on that side of my door for several days or I will begin having a complete catatonic meltdown. Eventually it gets to the point where the alternatives are either to ignore the warning bells and be miserable but have a boyfriend, or to break up with the obviously-unhappy guy before I go out of my mind. I have no problem going entire days without saying words out loud to other hominids -- although I do babble to the box of rats -- which makes the solution kind of obvious.

I quit a consulting job several months ago because my boss was converting the position from part-time work-at-home to 9-to-5 office work. It wasn't the only reason I quit, but it was a big one. They were confused. They were like, but we want to give you more hours and therefore more money! And there was no way to really explain that I actually liked everyone I worked with, but even having to be in an office all day for one day a week already made my shoulders slowly inch up around my ears and freeze there and destroyed my concentration completely, and that the idea of having to do that for five days in a row every week was pretty much making me hyperventilate.

Moggie once told me that when I'm in one of those don't-come-near me moods, I grow spikes. I think that's a pretty fair assessment. It's not like I'm out to stab you, personally, specifically, in the eye with a salad fork, but I need you to not be in a room with me, because you are a person, and most people strike me as existing extremely loudly when I'm like that. Generally, if someone else is in the same space as me, I need to have at least one social-monitoring antenna poked up above the horizon. People get insulted, like that insinuates that I'm feeling a need to pretend around them, but I just can't not. It takes energy. The three-day limit suggests that the workstation doing the monitoring is running Win98, and once I bluescreen there really is no alternative except to crawl off and reboot.

Oddly enough, I don't mind crowds, as long as they don't want any of my attention. There's no such thing as a spot in downtown Boston that has no people in it, at any hour of the day or night, but living in a city gives people a lot of respect for personal space bubbles that I found rather lacking in Arizona. You move out into the unincorporated desert if you want to keep other people away with physical space, and it makes people really rusty at keeping mental space between them and other people when they're forced to come into civilization to buy batteries and potato chips. When I first got to Boston and ended up couch surfing for a couple months while I looked for work, I found the next best thing to having a room and a door was taking the train downtown and sitting in the Public Garden for hours and hours. The geese are mean fuckers and the squirrels will mug you for french fries, but none of the people there tried to interact with me.

Contrariwise, I can and will happily have twelve-hour conversations with other people over instant messenger, if we are both bored enough to sit with the computer that long. Moggie and I (and David and I, and most of the other roommates I don't end up wanting to throttle) have been known to IM each other from either side of an interior wall and think that nothing about this is at all weird.


  1. I find everybody has different rhythms of interactions...not just introvert or extrovert...but the rhythms and cycles of it all. And people have different levels of trust.

    I tend not to be bothered if someone I'm dating says, "I'll talk to you in a week, I need alone time," because I tend to trust people I'm dating aren't lying to me. Sometimes that trust is misplaced...but I prefer to operate on that model. Because I'd like a person to return that trust when I need to take a week off.

    I am a really social person, a huge extrovert...when I'm being social (Meyers-Briggs--ENFP!). But I can also go days without speaking to another human being--and be totally fine with that. And for the three years I lived in my last apartment...I invited not one person into my place. They didn't need to be there. People *might* be invited to my current place maybe...but I've not decided yet. I interact and spend so much time interacting with people intensely as a teacher, I like having that cocoon when I get home...I think this is a Cancerian thing.

    For me, my sort of...two different interactional personalities can confuse people. Most people know my very social and intensely interested side. And I have often dated people who were really attracted to that. But then...they didn't quite know what to do with the fact that the rest of the time I like to be really...private? Not so high energy? A bit alone? I've always told people I'd date that for me, a sign of a relationship that I really valued was one where my partner and I could be in the same room and not talk to each other at all, and be comfortable in that silence. But sometimes they just wouldn't believe that a person as bouncy as I in social settings could be so still otherwise.

    Oh, by the way, thanks for walking with me part of the way home after the Meet-Up. It made me feel safer. Earlier I'd seen Everett Gang Police "chatting" with black guys in Davis Square, and I was just a bit nervous walking home alone late at night in that context. I'm still not really certain how to assess the Boston area police considering some of the racist incidents I'd heard of, and if there were some sort of special "anti-gang" unit running around...that just made me uncomfortable. So walking with you made me feel just a bit better. Thanks!

    1. Ha! Usually it's people asking me if I want a escort so I feel safe. I've not had any problems with the cops here, but I'm exactly the sort of person who didn't have problems with racist redneck cops in Arizona, either, so that doesn't mean much.

      I think you're underestimating my solitariness. Mean Time Before Social Failure for me is more usually in the neighborhood of 6-8 hours. I was very wary of sleepovers as a kid, because they were kinda too much and I never could work out if there was a polite way to bolt for home the nanosecond I woke up in the morning. If I get to go home by myself every night, I can handle a regulation work week, but if I also have to spend the weekend with people -- even if I'm doing fun things I want to do -- by the following Friday I'm ready to either burst into tears over nothing or stab someone with a ballpoint pen. I tell people I avoid retail sales jobs because I don't want to be indicted for murder, even if the customer was so obnoxious no one would ever convict.

      I am also not kidding about catatonic meltdowns. You can ask Moggie if she ever pops up here, but essentially, the more I'm forced to interact with people when I don't want to be interacting with people, the less successful I am at being a viable human being. I just stop working -- can't think straight, can't untense my back, can't breathe, and have a really hard time stopping myself from being a terrible hostile thing to everyone around me. Similar things happen when I'm sick. I think the gold medal winner on that one is when a roommate solicitously asked germ-ridden me if I wanted the window open or closed, and I wailed at her FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON'T MAKE ME RESPONSIBLE FOR THE STATE OF THE WINDOW while hauling the covers over my head.

      Sitting in a room with someone else, even if that someone else is ignoring me completely or even unaware of my presence, doesn't count as alone time. Moggie's trick of becoming furniture is not a common one, and none of my boyfriends have ever managed it. The only way I can describe it is that people exist at me extremely loudly when I'm like that, and not talking to me doesn't really make them exist at me any quieter. I'm aware that I'm the one being bizarre here and that I'm probably being some combination of confusing, insulting, and disappointing when I finally snap and scuttle back into my room with the computer, but if I don't, I go mad.

  2. Being a couple who lives separately is apparently not unheard of, whether it's just separate bedrooms, separate apartments or separate houses. I'd read an article on the phenomenon of Living Apart Together (LAT) years ago, and just found a more recent one:

    I've sometimes wondered if my husband and I should at least have separate bedrooms; we have different internal clocks, and sometimes I disturb him when I climb into bed an hour or two after he's drifted off. A gay couple we know has lived together over a decade with separate bedrooms, which they documented once on their youtube channel:

    Husband and I can definitely sit in silence together. We even often sit reading books while we're out dining at a restaurant, eating with eyes glued to the page and not talking; this has bemused more than one member of the waitstaff!

    Also, I recognize the "trooper6" handle anywhere. Good to see my ability to introduce people over the internet hasn't faded with time or increased distance from the rest of the civilized world. :)

    1. This happens to me all the time. One semester at NAU, I ran into two people from Las Vegas. They were different years, in different majors, and I met them through different friends, in different places, under completely different circumstances. A few weeks later, I found out their parents used to throw Christmas parties together.

      The winner might be when I found out a co-worker's (later roommate, and also sort of co-worker at a different job) brother-in-law coached speech and debate at the local high school with a friend of mine from the same anthro class where I met Moggie, and that one of the men in their wedding party was a friend of mine from when I was in high school, in Phoenix. The best man and the debate coach didn't know one another, and the co-worker/roommate/co-worker didn't know I knew either of them.

    2. I think you are the bestest seawallglen! I love it when people I know recognize my handle!!!

    3. By the way, seawallglen, when ariflynn and I met, it was at aCaptain Awkward meetup...and I didn't realize she was the same person you Facebook introduced me to...I don't know if she did either.

    4. Nope, not a clue! The Facebook page is under my stage name for modeling/acting, and most of the people on there are people I've met casually doing that. I give prospective friends a cursory once-over to make sure you're not obviously a serial killer, but if I don't immediately recognize you I just assume you're a 'tog or a publicist or something whose name I didn't catch.

  3. Thank you for articulating so clearly the "I can't relax if someone else is in the house" feeling, even if they're leaving me alone and I'm on a different floor. I described it once as having a Marauder's Map in my head at all times, and it doesn't chill out unless there's no one to track.

    Luckily my extrovert wife gets that I'm a huge introvert and need her to leave every so often, but it isn't that I don't love her. And we text to each other in the same house.

  4. Thank you so much for writing this. I have met very few people with my same intense need for alone time. It is nice to know that there are others out there in the world!

    I don't know what I would do if I had to socialize at work everyday. I think that the spikes I would grow would either kill someone or cause me to be heavily medicated. Luckily, I work in a lab where I am isolated 99% of the time, but summer undergraduate internship season (where I am shadowed by someone everyday for 6 weeks) make me want to lock them up in a closet somewhere (I have actually found myself hiding from them in the darkroom). It is over now for this season, and I can feel the tension inside me slowly dissipating. I think I might be able to get the crick in my neck to go away once my neck muscles relax a little more and I can pop the bones.

    I used to think that I would never find a relationship that would allow me my time, because unlike you, I cannot stand roommates or live-ins. Everytime a relationship starting demanding more time, the dude would leave in a sad huff because I didn't want to spend my life in his pocket. It made me very happy to find out that my mother's neighbor had been married twenty years to a man that lived in a separate house. That's right. Married but separate. Such bliss that would be!

    1. I say 'roommates' in the American sense -- in BrE it would be 'flatmates'. I can live in the same apartment with other people, and I can sleep with other people in the room, but when I'm awake, it's either closed doors or homicide. My ability to share space nicely ranges from 'eh, okay' -- available for finite lengths of time only, usually while travelling -- to 'DEFCON 5', when I've had a shitty week and know I have to go out and talk to people again whether I like it or not.

      Boyfriends tend to get upset when they find I don't really like sharing the bed. I don't sprawl and steal covers; I'm exactly the opposite. They want to cuddle and I want to not have an affectionate octopus attached to me. They get very put out when they try to use me as a body pillow, and I automatically roll away again. I've woken up before on the last three inches of mattress with my nose practically smashed into the wall because they kept trying to wrap me up and I kept trying to flee.

  5. I hate phones and prefer to communicate by text, email or forum. Phones bug me partly because they are not occupying my vision and I end up wandering around the house getting distracted by things.
    I like people fine, but, in small doses or in settings where I can leave when I want to. I once was criticized by my then husband's coworkers' WIVES because I asked him to take me home from a Holiday party. I was done being around this bunch of people and desperately wanted to go home. I asked if I could walk home, even, since we were close enough. Apparently I was rude to my husband for making this request.
    Currently I am enjoying living by myself. I am also in a polyamorous relationship where my boyfriend lives an hour and a half drive away with his wife. I share my space once or twice a week and sometimes visit him when his wife travels to visit her boyfriend. He has another girlfriend that he sees every couple of months for a weekend. He also is fine with communicating by text. Yay!
    There are all sorts of relationship possibilities out there, but, sometimes you have to buck convention to get what you need. This fits me. I'm not sure that having a guy around all the time would suit me at all anymore, now that I have had a taste of this.

    1. I recognize some aspects of what you describe, Jenna. My wife and I struggled for a while to reconcile our significant introversion, with the added problem of her being mostly confined to the house (her health is pretty bad) and having little human interaction, and me working with lots of people all week. Often I'd be so socially exhausted that I really couldn't interact with her much, while she desperately craved interaction. We had to fundamentally restructure how we interacted to address this, and it helped a lot to abandon our early ideas that we were supposed to interact all the time to be "good" partners. These days we give each other a lot more space and structure our interactions in ways that address both our needs for both contact and space so much better. In quite a few ways we took ideas from successful polyamorous relationships I've seen, and that has helped make our relationship much healthier in my mind.

      I'm also the kind of person who could just bask in someone's presence all day long and be perfectly happy. I've found I really don't need to constantly talk to someone, and much prefer to just be around them. Some days we barely speak to each other, and just communicate by touch, and enjoy the closeness we share.

  6. This is exactly why I live alone. The number of people I can handle having in my space, even with a door between me and them, for a sustained period of time is severely limited. And right now it's not feasible for either of them to live with me, so I'm gloriously on my own and can go days without talking out loud to another human being if I so choose.

    And I do so choose. A lot.

    I also sometimes just can not even deal with people talking out loud, which is why I am pretty much only friends with people who think it is totally normal to be sitting in the same room together and talking over IM. It keeps the loud mouth noises that sometimes make my skin crawl to a minimum, which means I can handle them being in my space for much longer periods of time.


Post a Comment