For most of my life, I was painfully shy. Now, when people hear painfully shy, I often wonder if they really understand what that means. As a child, if I saw a classmate in the grocery store, my stomach would start cramping. If it looked like they saw me too, it would get worse, and I would start to shake all over. If my mother noticed and suggested that I go over and say hi, I would be almost doubled over in pain and feverish. An extremely outgoing person, Mom never understood. She would get angry and accuse me of being over-dramatic or of acting like I was sick to get my own way. Maybe that was true, but to me, it was extreme pain and panic that came out of nowhere, and I didn’t feel as though I could control it. This lasted all through school, making school a nightmare, and beyond. The actual pain lessened as I grew older, and I could stifle the shaking a bit, but it was still very uncomfortable.
My husband was also very outgoing and also didn’t understand. We would go to parties together, and I would follow him around until I felt comfortable with a few people. Then I would be okay on my own. He resented being shadowed and tried to coach me at being more social. He would feed me pieces of conversation, and we would practice small talk at home. Finally, I got up the courage to try it out on my own. The first time was a disaster. I spit out the first few lines I’d practiced and got very little response, so I stood there squirming, flushed and nauseous. I didn’t know how to escape gracefully, so the other person finally just walked away leaving me feeling humiliated. So, I crawled off to a corner of the room and stared at my drink for the rest of the night, fighting back tears of rejection and shame. My husband was furious. He insisted that I had ruined the party for him and everyone else because of my sour face and bad vibes. I tried a few more times, but my conversations were stilted and forced. Because I never learned it as a child and didn’t have the practice that comes with making and having friends in school, I didn’t feel it. It was just a role I tried to play.
As time went on, I was finally able to function in social situations. I watched others closely and tried to imitate their free and easy demeanor. I had become a good actor, but it certainly didn’t come naturally to me. The whole time I played the role, my palms sweated and my insides quivered. It was a miserable feeling. But, I loved parties and other social events, and was very interested in people. I just preferred to be a fly on the wall and listen to all the fascinating conversations, invisible and inconsequential, because of my intense fear.
My second partner also tried to teach me social skills. He had more patience than my husband and understood my extreme discomfort. If he noticed me isolating myself at a party, he would often come over and introduce me to someone or counsel me out of the corner. After a while though, even he got tired of coaxing me along. However, when we started performing together, he began to ask me questions onstage, forcing me to answer in a very public way. After a while, it became easier. It almost felt like we were sitting at home together just having a personal conversation. The audiences reacted so favorably to this, it encouraged me to embrace storytelling as a part of my performances. I would think about my stories when I made up the set lists and even practice them aloud to make myself more relaxed at the gig. I suddenly discovered that I could make people laugh. I realized that they weren’t laughing at me but with me. People actually liked me and wanted to hear what I had to say. And, after being told my whole life that I had no sense of humor, I found out I could be funny. That was a first for me and an important revelation.
Eventually, I transferred that comfort level to other social functions by playing a part. I was totally aware of the fact that it was a dramatic or comedic role, but it didn’t matter. Finally, I could navigate parties without panic attacks. Occasionally, the panic would sneak up on me, and when that happened, it was almost as bad as in my youth. It could ruin a fun time in a flash. I would feel as though everyone was judging me, that they all wanted me to leave so they could enjoy themselves without my wet blanket dampening everyone’s spirits. It wouldn’t matter that I had been having a great time up to then. All I would feel was rejection and desolation.
In 2010, my mother had a severe stroke and never recovered. She was very outgoing, always the life of the party, had more friends than anyone else I’ve ever known, was generous in spirit and loved by everyone who met her. She also was an adult child of an alcoholic and had to control everything. She tried to run my life up until the stroke and ostracized me from many family functions because I didn’t comply. As a child and a teen, my mother picked out my clothes, chose my few friends and tried to tell me what to think and feel. When I moved out on my own, I had no idea how to do anything for myself. I picked out the most bizarre outfits, didn’t know how to keep my home clean or how to cook, and didn’t know how to manage my money. When I was 20 and living with my boyfriend more than a few blocks from my parents’ house, she bought me groceries and would let herself in to the house to deliver them. I didn’t dare refuse her a spare key. When she came into my bedroom early one morning, where I was asleep with my boyfriend, to wake me for work, I knew I had to escape her clutches, so that’s when we hitchhiked across the country. That escape enabled me to learn how to stand up to her, which I did.
During the 6 or 7 months after her stroke, I visited almost every day. I read to her, helped her to regain some speech, though it was very little, and learned how to do her physical therapy when the insurance company cut the funding for it off. I immersed myself in her recovery, and healed our relationship in the process. One day, I looked at her, and laughing, said, “You know Mom, because you can’t talk and can’t criticize me, I feel like I can finally be myself with you.” She laughed too and nodded. It was an important moment for both of us. I don’t know what got into me that day, but it was a relief to have it finally out in the open.
I never felt as though my mother liked me. I know she loved me, but she always wanted me to be someone that I wasn’t. When she died, something shifted for me. It’s hard to explain what I felt. Of course, I felt sorrow but there was an almost physical change that happened deep inside. All that shyness just melted away, and I could feel it melting. It felt as though I had been encased in a block of ice all those years. A warmth grew inside not unlike the uncomfortable heat the I experienced during the panic attacks, but this time it was comforting and stimulating. I felt as though I could conquer the world. Ever since then, people describe me as an extrovert, a social butterfly. Ah, if they only knew …
The day after she died, I had a dream that she walked into my music room and complimented me on the "beautiful" dulcimer tune I was playing. In life, my mother never gave me a single compliment and was not very supportive of my music. When I woke that morning, I wrote this tune, named for her.