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  • Joanna RightToJo@gmail.com

Shy?! Not Shy!




 

It was the first week of March of 2020 and Andrea had disliked crowds for a while now. She’d graduated from college two years earlier, had started an entry-level job at a logistics firm outside of Austin, and had observed herself slowly doing less and less socializing. Sitting on her sofa one Friday night as her very furry kitty, Banana, snuggled behind her knees, Andrea paused her favorite episode of The Big Bang Theory, and asked herself what was going on? She’d always been a person with a lot of self-awareness.


The truth was, she’d started going to the grocery store on off-hours and turning down just about every invitation to do anything….Ever. She’d had to pick up a prescription eye drop at the pharmacy early in the week and had frozen upon entering the store and finding the aisles jam-packed. Even with her horrible allergies and painfully itchy eyes, she couldn’t force herself to stand in line and wait for her item to be filled. No. Her heart raced, her palms dripped with sweat, and she could not ignore the feeling that everyone in the store was staring at her. She left without the drops, ran to her apartment, and plopped herself down on her couch, her pulse still beating rapid-fire. 


Why did she spend so much time alone? It wasn’t that Andrea didn’t like people or fun or activities. She searched her brain for an answer. It was groups of people. She liked a dinner one-on-one with a close friend or colleague. She genuinely enjoyed interesting conversations and hearing what people had to say. But, there was something deep inhibiting her from not only going out but from reaching out as well. Andrea pulled her laptop off of her hand-me-down coffee table, flipped it open, and, as we do, began to Google her symptoms. 


She went down a rabbit hole of varying kinds of anxiety and resources, issues, phobias, horror stories, and illnesses. After a solid hour and a half of learning about all kinds of new mental and physical illnesses to fear, Andrea clicked on a site that described her to a T:


Are you intimidated by large groups of people? Does that prohibit you from having a social life? Connect with more people like you!


Huh? Andrea almost laughed to herself, imagining a bunch of people in an immaculate conference room, all standing around and staring at each other. But, she had to be honest with herself, this concept was intriguing. What could be more enticing than making friends who understood how difficult large groups of people could feel? How debilitating walking into a restaurant or party where dozens of people held seemingly interesting conversations all at once? Andrea shuddered recalling the last time she attempted one of these impossible situations. The cacophony of the crowd felt deafening. She couldn’t make out one person’s voice over another. Each time someone glanced her way, the meanest part of her brain would jump in with a zinger:


That woman hates you.


That man thinks you’re boring.


The one in the blue hat is so much smarter than you.


You probably have something in your teeth. Is your fly down? Did you offend them? You should have stayed home.


Anxiety can be relentless. And so, so cruel. But social anxiety adds another layer. People become more than people. They become waves in the ocean when you’ve swum out too far and are only trying to catch your breath. Each interaction crashes down on you, plunging you back under, to a dark space with no footing, your legs flailing under you with no purpose or stability. At least, this is how Andrea felt. And to compound this issue, she was lonely. So, what exactly was she supposed to do?


A red button on her computer screen blinked: JOIN NOW.


So, Andrea did. Her fingers flew across the keyboard as she imputed as much personal information as she “felt comfortable with.” The group even gave her the option to have an Avatar and create an alias. Andrea didn’t need to go that far, the next event was only a Zoom, but she appreciated the choice. 


All week, Andrea found herself looking forward to the meet-up. She’d never spoken to anyone about her social anxiety. Hell, she hadn’t even identified a name for it until the night before. It was funny: at first, thinking about the event gave Andrea the usual tightening in her stomach that all social situations induced. Her brain asked her what she would wear. Then she remembered, it didn’t matter. It was just a Zoom. Half the people might not even have their cameras turned on. She could wear her favorite sweats, put a funny background on her page, and call it a day. And, she didn’t have to talk to anyone if she didn’t feel like it.  Her stomach, begrudgingly, released its knot.


On Friday, Andrea took a shower, dressed in her favorite comfy clothes, and poured herself a glass of wine before she turned on her computer and joined the link provided. 


Maybe it was because her expectations were so low. Maybe it was just perfectly targeted marketing or wonderful timing or, well, who knows what - but, it couldn’t have gone better.


Eleven people joined, maybe eight of them women, from mostly Austin but a few other cities in Texas. It went slowly at first, with people introducing themselves and sharing something about their situation. Every voice was so familiar. They talked about how much time they were spending alone, in their own apartments. Some could no longer make it into an actual office and were doing virtual work. Some just couldn’t keep up with old friends. A few had gone through some pretty tough break-ups. But then, after half hour or so, the conversation shifted.


They started talking about which shows to binge and which take-out was the best in the city. They talked about funny memes they’d seen and recommended quiet places to go for walks. These weren’t people who didn’t enjoy life. They were people who felt assaulted by common social situations. And damn, could Andrea relate.


She logged off feeling fulfilled in a way that she hadn’t felt in a very, very long time. It was great. She couldn’t wait until the next one. She was so elated that evening that she didn’t even bother reading the news before she went to bed.

As you probably guessed, five days after the Shy, Not Shy Facebook group had their weekly Zoom, the Covid pandemic hit and the entire city of Austin went on total lockdown.


So the Zooms continued and the group grew. They began hosting bi-weekly “Anti-Social Social Events” and taking turns organizing. Even though Andrea had never met any of these people in person, many using avatars instead of their real faces, she felt like she now had a community, a real group of friends. As the weeks dragged to months and months into a full year, Andrea now totally working from home, began to feel like something inside of her was healing, although she couldn’t fully articulate the emotion.


The loneliness was now an argument within itself. Part of her felt way, way less lonely now that the whole world was also lonely. Her loneliness was somehow offset by the comforting knowledge that the majority of the human inhabitants of Planet Earth were all on the same page. Now that she finally felt like a part of her was healing, she wanted to go out and maybe see people in person. But she had so few options.


Dating Apps were so, so not happening. That was maybe forty steps into the journey that she’d only just begun. She wanted to push her comfort zone, but with people whom she already shared a certain comfort level. Which is why, on the 77h Zoom, eighteen months into the pandemic, Andrea suggested that they all meet in person, at a certain, out-of-the-way movie theater to eat popcorn and just watch a comedy. Didn’t they all deserve something like this?


Andrea was nervous before her pitch to the group. What if this was overstepping some kind of unspoken boundary that she hadn’t heard about? What if no one wanted to go? She toggled her mouse over the microphone button for six, then seven minutes, still contemplating her idea. But there was something soothing about hearing familiar voices and Andrea found the confidence to unmute herself and ask the members of Shy? Not Shy!  to meet up the following week. To her relief and excitement, about half were interested.


Andrea posted the link to buy tickets and two reviews of Together, Together, with Ed Helms and Tig Notaro. She crossed her fingers that the film would be good. Because productions had been shut down completely the year prior, there wasn’t a ton of new movies to choose from. 


Oh well,  she thought,  Ed Helms on his worst day is still funnier than the rest of us on our best.


And, with that, the familiar feeling of worry and dread crept its way into Andrea’s stomach for the next five days.


What was she so worried about? She told herself that they were probably the most socially forgiving people that she would ever meet in her life. Also, you don’t have to talk to anyone at the movies. You can just sit there, enjoy your popcorn or Buncha Crunch, and do absolutely nothing but be entertained. That's a pretty low bar, wasn’t it? She didn’t have to stress about what kind of greeting was socially acceptable since people weren’t touching each other anymore. She could just smile and say hi and, now that she was really spiraling into it, she realized that she didn’t even have to smile since a lot of people would probably be wearing masks and she could totally hide behind one of those.


Come on, she told herself, it will be fine. 


Her thoughts continued, And, if I didn’t suggest this, what were we all going to do? Live behind our keyboards for the rest of our lives?


One of the discussion points that the group often revisited was how they didn’t want this anxiety to be permanent. For the most part, the group didn’t like feeling this way. There were a handful of folks who seemed older and uninterested in change, but that wasn’t the majority of the members of Shy? Not Shy! 


Andrea forced herself to accept these data points as a substitute for her worry. 


And finally, it was Friday at 7:10, metaphorically and literally show time.


Andrea showed up at the theater fifteen minutes early so she could properly meet her, well, friends - yes, they were her friends- but there was no one congregating in the mall lobby. She looked for people talking to each other in the refreshment line and then even in the Ladies' Room. She looked around the entire row of seats, waiting for someone to recognize her without her night-time glasses and Hawaiian Island background. But she couldn’t tell if anyone did behind their own glasses and masks.


Slumping in her seat, utterly defeated, Andrea felt her eyes well up with tears. Her first event. Her first meet-up in almost two years, and it had been an utter failure. She tried to focus her attention on Tig Notaro’s brilliant timing and her fabulous back-and-forths with her co-stars but even this brilliant indie flick could not distract her from the reality of the present moment. Nine people had expressed interest in coming to the movie. At least seven had confirmed. There were a couple of “maybes.” And yet, here she was, right back at the starting point which was, well, alone.


Andrea slipped out of the movie before the ending. She didn’t want to face any strangers on the way out. She thought that if she locked eyes with another person, she would cry uncontrollably and that situation is very unappealing for anyone, especially someone with severe social anxiety.


On her way out the mall door and into the dark parking lot, Andrea noticed a woman in a red sweatshirt and matching mask also leaving the same theater. They locked eyes for a brief moment and then looked away, Andrea rushing to her old Jeep, the woman in red rounding the corner of the building to the other side of the parking lot.


Andrea jumped into the driver’s seat, locked the door, and then allowed herself to feel it. She broke down in tears. She heaved and sobbed and let the snot just run out of her nose like a toddler who didn’t get the lollipop. She was a mess. And instead of trying to hold it together, to be collected, and whatever the definition of ‘normal’ was, Andrea just let it all go. She cried until her head throbbed and her eyes were puffy and bloodshot and there were no tears left. 


Then, turning on her car, blasting both the heat and Beyoncé, she drove the 25 minutes back into the city, letting herself into her apartment, and falling on her bed with Bananas in utter exhaustion.


The next week dragged. Each day, Andrea tried to make herself forget the movie theater incident but it seemed like every time she did, the memory would come crashing back into her brain like a tidal wave of shame. It sucked. She couldn’t concentrate on her work and forgot about more than one dish cooking on the stove. After three phone calls from her landlord about the smoke detector, Andrea knew that she had to log back onto at least one final meetup, and say goodbye. Otherwise, this was going to haunt her forever.


So Andrea forced herself through her usual routine: a hot shower, her softest sweatsuit, a cuddle with Bananas, and then logged into the Zoom link that had been sent out earlier that afternoon. She was a few minutes late, but she really didn’t care. And damn, was she in for a surprise.


“Anna and Matt were sooooo sweet together.” Said one corner of the Zoom.


“I loved that it wasn’t a conventional love story.” Said another.


“But what about the end? The end was kind of abrupt.” Said a man in the center.


“No! Don’t spoil it for me, I really wanted to go!”


Andrea’s head spun. What was happening? Had she gone to the wrong theater? Had everyone else had a fabulous time without her? She must have gotten the day wrong. Or the time. Or the place. Or… All of Andrea’s old anxieties slammed back into her brain. But, at least it wasn’t a bust. She scanned the squares of faces and avatars. And, that’s when something caught her eye. 


It was a bright red sweatshirt, exactly like the one she saw at the theater. But she couldn’t recognize the face. The wearer was in a dark room on their computer and had been wearing a mask at the mall…


Andrea forced herself to unmute -


“So, you guys went?” 


And that was the first time in the Shy? Not Shy! Meet-up group that everyone laughed. And, it was real laughter. Not forced or canned or uncomfortable. Now, Andrea was even more confused.


“I’m so sorry,” she said since although she felt like she’d come a long way with her anxiety, she was still an apologizing people-pleaser. The woman with the red sweatshirt spoke up.


“I thought I saw you there. Um, so here’s what happened to me… I got nervous, didn’t see a group, and sat alone. But I really enjoyed the movie. It was my first time out in over a year.”


“Me too,” said a guy wearing his usual baseball hat. That’s when Andrea realized that she’d never gotten a good look at his face. Was that Mikey? Was he in front of her ordering nachos?

“Same here,” A woman in a fuzzy pink bathrobe raised her hand. Was that Katherine? Had Andrea seen her in the row ahead?


“And me,”


“And me.” It took longer than she’d like to admit, but, Andrea slowly realized what had happened. Seven people had come to the theater. No one had seen a group. Everyone in the social anxiety group had felt awkward and sat alone. 


It was… yeah, it was really funny. Andrea felt the knot in her stomach dissolve and the tension that had been building behind her eyes all week completely disappeared. She laughed. She laughed hard. She laughed until the tears streaming down her face rivaled her meltdown in the parking lot.


“Thank you, thank you for getting me out of the house. Even if I didn’t actually talk to anyone.” Said red sweatshirt.


“Let’s try it again,”  said Dave, in a zip-up jacket.


“But this time,” Katherine suggested, “Let’s all wear the same color. And have like a secret nod or something if you don’t want to talk.”


Andrea clapped her hands and wiped her eyes.


And that is how the Shy?! Not Shy! became the newly remanded Not Shy! Club, meeting every other week for a comedy, all dressed in green. It may be weird to you, but it's absolutely perfect for them.

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