Twice in the past week, I have had people tell me that they thought I was an extremely outgoing and social person. When I told them that my internal experience was the opposite, they both expressed not just surprise but actual disbelief.
I am about to graduate from the school that has felt like the closest thing to home I have had for half of my life. My sister is the only member of my immediate family still alive. We are trying to be closer than we have been in the past, but for us that means we talk six times/year instead of two. I am not close to my extended family. I would like to be, but I’m not sure how to go about it, and I am afraid that they don’t like me very much or they won’t be interested if I try to become closer to them. I have a few friends who I have, at various times, shared a deep connection with, but I am not currently certain of the status of any of these friendships.
All of this is to say that I feel pretty darn homeless and lacking in meaningful connections right now. Not to paint too bleak a picture, I started crying yesterday which I absolutely never do with other human beings (rarely do by myself, even), and a good friend of mine walked me up into the mountains and put his arms around me and told me he loved me and then just let me cry. So I’m not as utterly alone as I feel, but still I feel it. And given other people think that I am so social and friendly, I am confused.
So when I’m confused, I do research. Cus that’s just the way I roll. So on the internet, I found this description of emotional detachment:
Emotional detachment may also be referred to as dissociation, depersonalization, or emotional numbing. Frequently, it will occur due to some sort of psychological trauma that was experienced in the past after the individual felt emotionally connected to another person. As a result of this trauma, the individual might consciously or unconsciously choose to protect himself or herself by refusing to allow a similar situation to occur. As a result, this person’s behavior in a relationship can be quite frustrating to others, including family members.
So this is what I feel around other people. I have no trouble speaking in class. I go to school parties and carry on conversations. I go to work and tease my students and do my job. I do all of this often in a manner that must come off as cheerful and friendly. But underneath all of these situations, I feel a deep sense of detachment. A going-through-the-motions-because-this-is-what-life-requires feeling.
I think I can actually pinpoint the moment that feeling started. I have told this memory to people. I have thought about it often. I have used it on many occasions as my explanation for why I don’t seem to have gotten as socialized as other folk. But I think there might be another meaning in this memory that I am only now starting to see.
In this memory, I am six years old. I am sitting in the pagoda at the back of the playground during lunch at my elementary school. I am alone and I am looking out at the other children playing and I suddenly have a flash of insight. I can suddenly see, almost as though they are actual tangible things, the unspoken social rules that all the other little children are playing by. I can see them, and suddenly they just look stupid. So I decide in that moment, that I am done following them. And that is the moment when my personal social hell starts.
But if I go back a little further, I can pinpoint some other interesting memories. In possibly my earliest memory, I am walking along fifth avenue by the beach with my grandmother (who I was raised by and often refer to as my Mom). But at the time, she was merely my new guardian. I was about four, and I had already been given away by my birthparents and stolen and taken back several times. But in this memory, I am walking along fifth avenue window-shopping with her and she is holding my hand. When we get to the end of the street, the stores are just starting to open and we go into Regina’s for an icecream cone. But the important part of the memory is definitely that she is holding my hand. And the other important part is that I felt so much hope in that memory. And I’m pretty sure it was hope that this was someone who might love me and cherish me.
But that didn’t really pan out. The year before my playground memory takes place, my aunt (my grandmother’s daughter) kills herself. It is another one of my clearest early memories, though I have been told I was not there so I can’t possibly remember it. And yet, I do. Or I remember something that I attribute to her suicide. My aunt was one of my primary caretakers when she died. Also that year, my grandmother divorced her second husband and we moved away from him. Also that year, it was discovered that “Uncle Bob” was molesting me. So he went away, too. And my grandmother’s mother and little sister both also died that year. So then she went to bed, and that ended that hope that she might love and cherish me.
So maybe I am naturally social. I’m not sure. What I do know is that I have very few memories from a time before I learned to fear people.