I suffer from debilitating shyness. I know this is confusing to people who used to jam into dirty clubs and watch me hold court onstage over a room of sweaty drunk people, but what you were witnessing was a stunning display of acting. I never started a single show in nearly ten years without a broken record playing in my head, screaming, “You cannot do this. People are looking at you. Run out of the building right now and never look back. RUN!”
Thankfully, right when I was juuust about to fake a stomach cramp to get the hell out of there, the drums would start. I would focus solely on the drums (because they were the only thing that was ever on time in that band (zing!)) and then, somehow, I would manage to make it through the set without nerve-vomiting on someone. The other trick was to pick out one person in the crowd, and taunt them relentlessly the entire time. That way my brain only had one thing to focus on, instead of focusing on a pile of people who were staring at me. If I didn’t always have one exterior thing to focus on, I would have most certainly lost my shit and made a break for the closest exit. It was like a miracle every time I pulled off a show without running out of the room in terror.
I never got used to it, but I found ways to deal with it. Aside from focusing on one thing, I will tell you this much: Drinks help. I realize “drinks help” are the kind of words that eventually bite you in the ass when you wake up all dead and bloated at 27 and teenagers swarm your grave site every year on the anniversary of your death to give each other handjobs on top of your headstone, but I’m 41 now, so I no longer have to worry about anybody making blacklight wall tapestries of my face when I overdose on something in a bathtub. People only make bad art of your face when you die in your 20s. Nobody is going to print my face on a flag with the words “The Lizard King” printed under it. Pressure’s off there! So have a drink – it’ll loosen you up.
It also helps to pretend that you are not you. I never, ever acknowledged to myself that that was me standing up there. It was always someone who was playing a much cooler and confident version of me, but certainly, most definitely, not me. The person up there is not the same person who hangs up on the pizza guy when he answers the phone when they realize they aren’t emotionally ready to talk to a stranger on the phone. Definitely not the same person whose hands shake when they have to say “Two adults, please” to the movie theater box office person. Absolutely not the person who has actually hidden under their desk to avoid having to speak to a customer. If that person were the same person who climbed up on that stage on any given night, that person would have fainted every time.
I get that some people are just totally cool to be the center of attention – and here’s the thing – I totally am. I adore being the center of attention, so long as you’re not looking at me, listening to me, or even thinking about me. Because if I fully realize you are looking at me, or listening to me, or even thinking about me – it will freak me the fuck out. Right now, as I’m writing this, I’m thinking about you reading it, and it’s freaking me the fuck out.
I get why this may be news to you. Because while I am terrified of people I don’t know, I am capable of putting on a very convincing display when push comes to shove, because at the end of the day I’d rather be secretly terrified by staying in the room than be publicly humiliated by running out of it like a lunatic baby. I make deals with myself constantly to just be able to stay in the room. “If you stay in this room right now and keep talking to these strangers, later on I will let you hide in a bathroom stall!” “If you stay in this room, you can watch two episodes of The Love Boat by yourself when you get home!” I’m like the Monty Hall of Social Anxiety, but with considerably shakier hands.
That’s why I can’t really blame you (but I still will) for those times when you invite me out to dinner with you, and I show up expecting a relaxed evening of one-on-one conversation, but you had failed to mention you were bringing along ten people I have never met before in my life. Springing a table of strangers on me makes me wish a sinkhole would open in the ground right under me and swallow me up in it so I can get away. My palms are starting to sweat just thinking about it.
Keeping up the false appearance of being an extrovert is hard work on a regular day, but it takes a hell of a lot of mental agility to keep the sham going with a table full of people I’ve never met. I am so mentally and emotionally exhausted after these types of encounters that I feel like a wrung-out rag when I get home, and it takes a full day of hermiting to feel okay again.
Here’s the thing – I like you. I want to spend time with you. I can put aside my issues with you looking at me, listening to me, and even thinking about me, because the exchange of your friendship and spending time with you is worth it to me. I’ve run the cost-benefit analysis on it, and it’s a win. But with ten strangers staring at me, you have completely thrown off said cost-benefit analysis.
Now instead of spending time with you, the person I know and like, I get to spend the evening really struggling to make small talk with people I’ll never see again, or worse, be forced to endure a one-sided conversation with your cousin who wants to educate me on how he became a Buddhist after he saw The Matrix, and I’m supposed to just sit there with a straight face and not punt a cantaloupe right into his frameless sunglasses.
Do you know how hard it is to stop thinking about punting a cantaloupe into someone’s face after you’ve fully formed the picture in your mind? It’s not just the picture, either. I’m imagining the hollow plonky-thump noise that it would make, and it’s the most satisfying thing I’ve heard since that time Steve Bannon said, “I’m going to unshackle you from the hot tub rail. You’re free to go. Sorry I thought you were a teenage boy.”
I mean, I get it. You people are natural extroverts. I am not. Mine is accomplished through Photoshop and trick mirrors and shit.