This story is part of a series called Craigslist Confessional. Writer Helena Bala has been meeting people via Craigslist and documenting their stories for over two years. Each story is written as it was told to her. Bala says that by listening to their stories, she hopes to bear witness to her subjects’ lives, providing them with an outlet, a judgment-free ear, and a sense of catharsis. By sharing them, she hopes to facilitate acceptance and understanding of issues that are seldom publicly discussed, at the risk of fear, stigma, and ostracism. Read more here. Names have been changed to protect her subjects’ anonymity.
Last holiday season, my parents invited my brother, his wife, and me over to the house for dinner. I don’t like spending a lot of time around family, but I said I’d go. My sister-in-law brought a friend, an attractive woman about my age. She was nice enough—she went to get some beer from the fridge and asked me if I wanted any. I don’t drink—never have—so why start now? But I said yes because my brain got jumbled, as it always does in these situations. So I sat there like an idiot, taking fake swigs of beer. And the rest of the night didn’t go any better.
Why was she there, anyhow? I looked around: was everyone in on this? Were they watching me make a fool of myself? Did they bring her around for me—because they pitied me? My palms started sweating, then my back, and then chills ran up my neck and behind my ears. My face felt hot; it was probably very red.
I must have looked pathetic. I bumbled and fidgeted, my eyes resting anywhere but on her—on the ceiling, on the floor, on the beer. She only seemed to become more patient with my every awkward move. That look on her face—that look of concern bordering on pity—it just made me feel even worse. When it felt like it was getting to be too much, I put the beer down and shuffled wordlessly into the bathroom. As I closed the door behind me, I caught a glimpse of her face: she looked bewildered.
I probably went to the bathroom ten times. I spent most of the night locked in there, berating myself over every interaction. When someone shuffled outside the door, my breath froze. Had they come to confront me? Would I have to talk to them? I ran the faucet and sat there, trying to work up the nerve to go out again. After what must have been two and a half hours of sheer torture, I excused myself and drove home. It was only after I’d locked my front door behind me and settled into bed that I felt a loosening in my chest.
That night’s bathroom episode brought me back to middle school. I was bullied mercilessly. Kids would take my backpack and put it in the girl’s bathroom, and then I’d have to go and ask the teacher to retrieve it for me. It was humiliating. They’d call me names or push me around in front of the popular girls. I was short and overweight, so I was an easy target. I didn’t have any friends to stand up for me.
The more difficult it became to interact with my peers and the more fearful I became of them, the more I withdrew into myself. I eventually started spending my lunch hour in the bathroom stall. I ate whatever my grandma packed for me and listened to the conversations of kids who seemed such naturals at navigating a world that, to me, felt so scary. Eventually, they found out that I ate my lunch in the bathroom and started teasing me about that, so I moved to the library. And people mostly left me alone there. Because of what happened to me as a kid, the idea of talking to or trusting people seems ridiculous.
My life today is completely structured around my social anxiety. I was an honor student in school and I scored in the 95th percentile on my SATs, but I chose not to go to college. Instead, I sell stuff on eBay during the day, and I work the night shift as a stocker—this way, I have very minimal interactions with people. I go to the grocery store when I’m done with work in the early morning, so that I find it mostly empty. I live by myself. I have very few friends because I have a lot of difficulty opening up to people. I’m just afraid of what they might think of me. I have very few friends because I have a lot of difficulty opening up to people. I’m just afraid of what they might think of me.
Leaving the house gives me anxiety—it’s not just the prospect of seeing someone or having to make conversation, but also the idea of being out in public and not being able to retreat into myself, if needed. When I walk down the street, or when I’m at work, I feel like people are watching and judging me—the way I look, the way I walk, or the space I’m taking up. My heartbeat quickens and I get sweaty or I flush—and sometimes the redness creeps down my neck, which makes me feel really self-conscious because then I know that people notice.
When I have to say something, I rehearse it in my mind a million times, even if it’s the most mundane thing. If I ever have to meet with anyone, I perseverate about all the bad things that might happen. If I send a text or an email, I read it probably over ten times before I hit the send button. I’m constantly editing myself. Sometimes, I just lie awake thinking about embarrassing things that I’ve done—just random memories from over a decade ago Sometimes, I just lie awake thinking about embarrassing things that I’ve done—just random memories from over a decade ago, like that time a girl I’d known since middle school had wanted me to ask her to prom, and I never did because I didn’t know she liked me, so she cried and called me “stupid.” And then I get depressed because I feel like I can’t get out of my own head.
The only person I’ve talked to about this is my brother. He knows I have a problem, but he likes to think I can just “get over it.” When I confronted him about putting that woman up to talking to me, he admitted it. He told me that I “just need to suck it up and be a man.” Sometimes I think that he’s right, that I do this to myself. I keep the world at bay, and now I have no one to share my life with. But I’ve seen how people can be, you know? I’ve seen how just innately cruel they can be, even as young kids, before the world’s really had at them. So what do I need people for? I’m better off by myself.
Read more Craigslist Confessionals here. To share your story with Helena, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at email@example.com.