by: Elise Nagy
I’m an INFP, a strange girl who went to weird hippie schools 1st through 12th grade, and therefore never really learned to socialize properly with people my own age in normal, friendly, situations. All of my friends, until the age of 17, were made through a magical combination of boarding-school induced proximity, the intensity and mutual awkwardness art students are blessed and cursed with, sleep deprivation, and the overwhelming affection you feel when you find your people: nerdy asshole weirdoes who have the talent to back it up.
As you can tell, I’m a gem. So simple. So modest. (Sometimes I have to drink just to be around myself for long periods of time!)
Fast-forward 4 years. I’m a senior in college. It’s autumn. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’m someone who will probably be in a lifelong battle with anxiety and depression. I try to keep it at bay however I can, and it’s a relief to find language for the feelings that have always made me think that I might be a little more eccentric than the eccentrics, a little more despairing than your typical moody artist.
I’m writing my senior thesis on women’s mental illness narratives; it’s enlightening and therapeutic. I’ve found a few medications (prescribed and regulated by medical professionals) that help me have fewer anxiety episodes and more “good” days; I rarely fixate anymore on Anne Sexton and fur coats and potatoes in the tailpipe. I’ve found people who understand that, more or less, and treat me like a whole person and not just a depressed person or an anxious person.
Sadly, most of them live hundreds of miles away, so it’s not really possible to go out for a cup of coffee or invite them over for a fierce round of Bananagrams. I’ve decided it might be nice to have relationships with people I can see in everyday life without the help of phones and Skype and blogs and Facebook.
I’m in a joint BA/MA program with awesome, lovely, grad students I want to be friends with. They’re smart, they’re charming, they’re kind, they tell me my redhead bangs remind them of Jenny Lewis and they’re (almost) always up for conversations about gay vs. queer political projects and whether campaigning for same-sex marriage rights has to be assimilationist. You know, fun, light, chatty fare!
So I’m presented with a situation I haven’t really ever encountered. In college my closest friends have been those people sprinkled across the city, country, and globe who I’ve known and loved for years and roommates found via craigslist who complemented my penchant for bizarre bonding topics. Suddenly I live alone. Suddenly I want to befriend people I haven’t lived with or known forever. We can’t reminisce about middle school or laugh over obscure late night Bernini jokes in the living room.
Enter wine. And vodka.
You see, I’ve also just turned 21, which opens up a whole world of possibilities for someone who always had legal roommates who were benevolently amused by booze-buying requests. I never got around to wanting or needing a fake I.D. and to be honest, having one would have just made me more anxious.
Wait, actually. We need to rewind a bit.
February 2011: Snowpocalypse in Chicago, which coincided with a new roommate moving into my apartment. Imagine a montage here of the month of friendly but awkward (on my end, she’s the dictionary definition of charismatic) getting-to-know-you conversations. Two empty bottles of wine on the kitchen table. Uproarious laughter as the three of us sit around talking about–I don’t actually remember what, but it was hilarious–until early morning.
April 2011: An old friend’s 21st birthday party. (The first real, red plastic cups, whippersnappers drinking and laughing in someone’s house, college party that I’ve attended. I’m usually pretty good about knowing my limits and being semi-eremitic without feeling guilty, but this is different because I can’t not go to this milestone birthday and feel okay about myself as a friend and human being.) I play beer pong for the first time and while it’s a curious experience, I realize that I was right to believe that college parties wouldn’t really be my cup of tea, no matter how fun they’re supposed to be or how fun they are for other people. This is also when I confirm my hunch that me + socializing + vodka = a great way to stave off feelings of “I want to crawl under the table and hide” for at least an hour or two.
Whenever I’m in places like that, full of people who know each other and are having a good time, it seems like I’ve missed a memo on how to be normal. This feeling, I’ve discovered, is common amongst my friends who are also cursed with pathological amounts of anxiety. Everyone else is in on the secret that we’ve never gotten. They know how to relax, have fun, and talk, instead of fixating on how long it’s been since they said anything, obsessing over how they’ve just been standing silently, stuck like a barnacle to the side of other people’s conversations. I’m suddenly very aware of my face, hoping desperately it’s doing what I’m telling it to do: be relaxed, casual, not desperate to escape, not resembling an animal frantically thrashing in a cage. I hope it’s obvious why it’s kind of a problem that parties—which are supposed to be fun! Cheery! Relaxing!—make me feel like a chipmunk in a trap.
Unlike most fellow students I’ve talked with about this, I don’t drink because I like it or because it’s the ticket to a good time, but to make those situations bearable. Most of my semi-drunkenness is the result of desperately needing some release from the iron grip social anxiety puts on my brain. It’s self-medication. Maybe that’s not healthy, but I think “healthy” is whatever works best for you, and harms the least. And you can’t deny that vodka—in reasonable quantities—works.
The other problem I have in informal social situations is that I am a wee bit opinionated. You can mention pretty much anything (besides, in a totally stereotypical artsy feminist move, sports) and I have a barrage of things to talk about, and ask you about, because I’m a Ravenclaw (nerd alert!) and I want to know what you think! It throws me off to have to make casual and less intense conversation. I overcompensate with quietness because, as my therapist insightfully pointed out, I have a deep-rooted fear of being too much for other people, overwhelming, a burden, isolated, insert clichéd-but-true-therapy-buzzword-here.
September 2011: Autumn of senior year and this grad program, with these people I admire and like, people I find myself saying “yes” to when they invite me to come out. So, I go out. And I get a glass of wine, and another, and another. And, sometimes, another. And it’s fun, and bright, and what I’ve always thought this sort of thing was supposed to feel like—I drink until words that are usually stuck in my head pour out of my mouth. I socialize. My therapist (and my mother) would be proud.
Alcohol is known as liquid courage for a reason, but it takes on new meaning when you’re anxious and depressed. Of course, you have to be careful and avoid going overboard. For a lot of people with mental illness, self-medicating with alcohol can hurt far more than it helps, which is why it’s imperative that you’re self aware and responsible about drinking (or not drinking, as the case may be). Alcoholism is serious, and it’s a problem a lot of college students are unexpectedly confronted with. I’ve never felt out of control or like my drinking was excessive or abnormal or dangerous. In fact, I can pretty confidently say that I drink far less than your average 21-year-old. If you know your limits and can stick to them, drunkenness can be a huge relief. That might be the most obvious sentence ever written, but for people with social anxiety it’s like a miracle palliative.
After a few months of this, I’ve learned something: I’ve made friends with flesh and blood people, not mediated through screens and phones. People I felt I had to drink around in the early days unless I wanted to be a shaking, panicking, irritable, seemingly aloof mess in unstructured social situations are people I’m happy to see now, people I can sit around and talk to without needing a drop of anything. When I’m sober and comfortable, I’m naturally kind of loopy, giggly, eccentric, and warm. With the right people, once I can get past being drunk on things that smell like nail polish remover and come from pretty glass bottles, I’m drunk solely on life. That sounds pretty good to me.
Elise Nagy is a Women’s and Gender Studies student in Chicago working on the last year of her Bachelor’s degree and the first of her Master’s. She spends an inordinate amount of time watching television, reading, and getting emotional on the internet. She used to be a poet and a painter, and would like to learn to fly small planes and write a whole book. You can find her sporadically updated blog atRedhead Bouquet and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She really loathes talking about herself in the third person.