Socializing is work. It takes effort. Even when the people I am socializing with are people who mean the world to me, the people I love, and even the people I love who I also live with, it takes work to socialize. When I’m overwrought, overwhelmed, overextended, overcommitted, and overtired, it takes a great deal of effort just to function. In those times, it’s easier to pull in on myself than it is to socialize.
I’ve been there a lot in the last few months. I’ll horde a small bit of energy for minimum-necessary-interactions, but I just can’t “be there” whenever I’m wanted, or even whenever I’m needed. According to a great deal of literature touching on a broad range of topics, this is not a “best practice” for human relations. The emphasis is almost universally on “being there,” wherever you are, whoever you’re with. If you’re at work, then be there. If you’re at home, then be there. If your home is your work, then set boundaries so you can be there with whatever set of tasks/people you’re with at the moment.
My conscience knows this is right and true. But, in these times of high demand and low self, it feels like a matter of survival to hold back.
When it comes to minimum-necessary-interactions, I force myself to be there, as best I can, no matter what. When I get the boys up and off to school, when I tuck them into bed, and the little moments that happen every day in between. I know my children need me to be there during these moments. But even then, even when I try my best, I tend to be so tightly strung that it’s far too easy for me to snap.
Ben, my baby, my willful young man, tends to trigger my breaking points. He’s not cooperative. He resists going to sleep. He resists waking up. Even with routines in place, there are transitions that he just doesn’t like. Oh, sure, eventually he will fall asleep, and eventually he will wake up, and if these transitions occurred according to his natural rhythms, he’d be just fine. But, like me, his rhythms are out of sync with the general public and the general public determines when school starts. To be honest, I don’t like it any better than he does. There are times when homeschooling seems all too attractive, if only because we could keep our own wacky schedules. Then, I remember that there would still be doctors’ appointments and a myriad of other engagements that have to be on someone else’s schedule. So, while I sympathize with Ben, I don’t give in. Except, sometimes I just don’t have the energy to do it right and my being there just makes things worse. His stubborn streak sets in and our volumes rise and Alex gets upset and the reassuring morning routine turns to chaos.
I’m a kids-first kind of person. It’s wired into my worldview. As the parent, it is my job to satisfy my children’s emotional/social needs as best I can. I feel a great deal less responsibility for the emotional/social needs of other adults. This is especially hard on my husband. We’ve been married for nearly seventeen years. We’ve been through the proverbial fire together. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether we are interdependent or co-dependent or both, but we function best when we are in sync. But, when I pull back, I can’t provide him with the emotional support he needs. I do save up some time/energy for him, too; but, it’s not enough. He keeps trying to engage me when I have nothing left to give. And then there’s my mother, who needs me too, and I have even less to spare for her. The guilt just adds to the stress.
I live in a society that admires those who can “stand alone.” Self-sufficiency is encouraged. But there’s another side of that. There are people who stand alone because they have to and there are people who stand alone because they can’t/won’t stand with others. Those of us who isolate ourselves may do it out of a need to survive—a feeling that we have to pull in on ourselves, rely on ourselves, suffice ourselves in order to survive—but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
I can already hear the surge of criticism: I’m defining “healthy” as “normal” and all that. But that’s not it. We isolate ourselves to survive, because we feel endangered by others. Sometimes this danger is real—it is a learned response, after all—but the response becomes ingrained, it becomes triggered not out of any true danger, but out of habit. Human beings, even those of us who function differently, are not wired to be alone, even when we tell ourselves quite convincingly that we are. We’re not.
Socialization may be work, but it’s also a need. I know this, I understand this, yet the defense mechanisms remain. I know they can be changed. I know that I can change them, yet I feel as if I cannot. I feel as if I’m trapped in the isolation of my own making. My husband reaches out, my mother reaches out, but I am as intangible as mist. I slip through their grasp. I go it alone through the dark, even as I scramble for the light. But there’s no switch to flip. A lifetime of learning cannot be undone in a single moment. The darkness I see is behind my own eyes. It’s inside me. It’s a choice made too many times. But I can choose differently.