On Stories + Connection

I like to call myself an introvert. I took one of those online Myers Briggs’ tests and it told me that that’s what (or who) I am. Identifying as someone who’s introverted rather than extroverted has helped me to forgive myself for not being always energized around people. It’s helped me to understand why I need my alone time, or why in the past I’ve needed to nip home between social engagements just to breathe. It’s helped me comprehend why I’m less productive than my millennial counterparts in the open-plan offices of startup culture; it’s helped me understand that I can only get into a flow when I’m shut off, even if it simply means putting headphones on in the middle of a busy cafe, ‘of’ the world but at once in a world of my own. It’s helped me to forgive myself for not making sense sometimes when I talk to people, for seeming like I’m rambling, for coming across infinitely more eloquent on paper than in person as my brain struggles to formulate and present thoughts externally.

For the record, I’ve done the Myers Briggs’ test a few more times over the course of a couple of years, and yes, I still fall on the side of introversion over extroversion, albeit not by a wide margin. I’ve done other tests that have pegged me as an “ambivert”, which I feel is a more accurate description. Between the two, these labels have served a purpose.

Before this, and actually resulting in this, came the label of “alcoholic”. It has served (and still serves in certain contexts) a great purpose in my life. The first step for me in getting sober was identifying as this – it was an overdue admission to myself; it was an opening up to this truth and to others who were in the same boat. Plus, seeing myself as the “alcoholic” involved seeing myself as a ‘sick’ person; with that came the acceptance that this wasn’t my fault, and that healing was possible.

But as time went on, I felt like I didn’t want to be the ‘sick’ person anymore; the label was limiting and stifling my growth. I’ve never wanted to be placed in a box by other people; though it was never the stigma that bothered me, the fact labels never tell a full story did. My introversion or ambiversion, my mental illness or addiction – they’re not the full story of me. And I’m terrified of being misunderstood.

I’m starting to see, though, that other people are not the ones who tell half-stories. I am. Self-narrative is so bloody alluring and easy to slip into – especially if you’re a natural storyteller, which I think most people are – but it’s dangerously restrictive once you make a habit of it. Time and time again, I’ve proved that when my hands are on the wheel, I sell myself short; the danger is that I’ll write myself into my own safe narrative and miss out on the best that life has to offer.

The only thing scarier than being misunderstood is actually just being in the world, sans labels and my preconceived notions about myself. That’s big-league bravery, there.

I went to a conscious sexuality festival in Dorset last month. I was warned after I left that I should be selective about who I share my experience with because I might end up second-guessing myself, but this is a safe space.

The festival was utterly transformative. Sure, it was about sexual energy, but for me, it was more about intimacy and real connections with people than anything else. The first few days were a challenge as I struggled to put myself out there and not dip back to my dorm to avoid long conversations. I realized that people sort of scare me, still. In social settings and in conversations, I always need to know where the exits are. There’s an underlying level of anxiety that keeps me from being truly vulnerable (I know, I’m slipping into self-narrative; I should say that this is how I’ve behaved in the past).

So, I often think that I’m being vulnerable, but I have my ways of staying in the safe zone, opening up just enough to fool even myself. But the truth is that my vulnerability is so often conditional, carefully constructed and incomplete.

At this festival, I remained guarded (unbeknownst to myself) for twenty-four hours, but something broke me and woke me up, and I started to fully crack open – with this breaking came a subsequent strengthening. It was a remarkable feeling, this growing sense of power inside me and connection to something greater, and in that dual state of strength and vulnerability, I felt life flowing from its source through me and taking me with it. It was like I didn’t have to think at all, I just had to open up and drop into it.

The real lesson of the weekend, though, involved learning how to listen to my heart. Consent is so big in these kinds of communities, to the point that it was almost funny, being asked over and over again if someone could give me a hug or hold my hand, but in checking in with each other at every juncture, we were forcing each other to check in with ourselves. Not only should we definitely be doing this in real life when it comes to romantic relationships, we should also just be doing it all the time anyway.

By the end, I was fully viewing myself as dynamic instead of static. Instead of having this fixed identity, I knew that I was changing all the time and that my truth lay in my heart, not in my worn-out stories. All I had to do was check in, listen to it, and then act accordingly.

I spent a week at home basking in the afterglow, before heading to Croatia for a techno music festival. I decided I wanted to go to this while I was still living in Chicago, perusing the internet and stumbling across arguably one of the most incredible lineups of DJs I’d ever seen, so I decided to go ahead and book it, and to go alone.

In the week leading up to the festival, I joked (seriously) that I just wanted to go and dance, do yoga on the beach and make no friends at all. That was truly my intention. Even on the plane, having “made friends” with a couple of girls beside me, I was still adamant that I wouldn’t be making any friends once I got to the island. The only thing that seemed more unappealing than making friends was being misunderstood as someone who wanted to, and having to explain over and over again why this wasn’t the case. I don’t know why I often feel like I have to prove that I have nothing to prove. Because I want you to know that my ego is, in fact, quite small.

I arrived on the island after a taxi journey from the airport with some rowdy, colorful, coked-out howiya Dubs whom I’d met on the plane over, and immediately proceeded down to the village after dropping my stuff in my hostel. All the way there I kept thinking “This was a mistake. You made a mistake. But that’s okay, you’ll get through it.” From what I could see, there were drunk and messy young Irish and English ruffians everywhere, and I couldn’t quite understand where I was going to find my peace amongst them. I hopped in a cab with a couple of semi-obliterated, oblivious Welsh chaps,  ditching them as soon as I got there and running straight into one of the clubs to hit the dance floor. As soon as I felt the bass beating in my chest, I remembered why I’d come. My body started to sway, the night air was cool, the bodies around me were heaving and thrusting and sweating in time to the mechanical rhythms, and shocks of pleasure were running up from the base of my spine, spreading out from my hairline across the back of my head, around my face, pulsating into my cheeks, causing the most blissful numbness so that I felt like I was on drugs, felt as though I was coming up on the invisible waves of ecstasy that were rising from the bodies of my compatriots.

I had felt so closed off all day – I had known this. Sometimes, there’s nothing that we can do about it, we just have to wait for it to pass. Sometimes it doesn’t, and all we can do is put ourselves to bed and hope for a better tomorrow. But sometimes, the world cracks us open, through art or music or laughter or a nice view or the cheeky glance of a stranger. On this dance floor, I felt the mechanical techno rhythms chipping away at my rock-solid heart, cracking the stony exterior that was keeping the soft flesh underneath from connecting with others, and I started to smile at how simple it all was – it was all in the softening of the heart.

Within minutes, a couple of lads had struck up a conversation with me – less of a conversation, more of a series of gestures and words shouted over music as our dance moves drifted our faces closer and then further apart. I believe we were laughing at the shoulder pads of one of the guys’ open blouses. Suddenly, I was dancing with five people, and being invited to hang out with them all the following day by the time I decided to go home that evening. Here was my reaction – no way am I hanging out with all of you tomorrow. I liked these people very much, but I was at a festival and drawn to the idea of meeting others that were more interesting, better looking, better suited to my purposes. I didn’t want to be tied to one group and their shared itinerary; it seemed so limiting and confining, like a monogamous relationship. I wanted to explore and be free.

It flutters deeper than the surface, though, the butterfly in my nature.

What was truly unappealing about going to the beach the following day with these folks was the idea of spending hours at a time with them, getting to know them, and them getting to know me. All the walking to and fro; all the potential silences that I would have to fill. All the time spent investing in deepening intimacy – I realized the following morning when I woke up that this is what I shy away from. Being a butterfly is so much easier. It’s non-committal and superficial. It’s safe and familiar. It’s as instantly gratifying (and ultimately unsatisfying) as drugs or alcohol.

The morning after that first night, I surprised myself by sending a message to one of the guys and letting them know that I was down to meet them at the beach, of course on my own terms, at my own decided time (a few hours after they were set to arrive). It just felt like this was the step I needed to take.

What ensued was beyond anything I could have dreamed up for myself for the week.

Our afternoon beach triste rolled into dinner, which rolled into dancing until the sun came up. After a couple of hours kip in my hostel, I got up and went straight over to their neck of the woods to repeat the entire thing. I stopped back at my hostel the next day to grab a few changes of clothes and some toiletries. I sensed, and happily so, that I was in for the long-haul with this crew. It wasn’t these new relationships that were restricting – not our fateful run-in on a dance-floor and the organic deepening of our connections over our time together – it was my narrow plans. But doing something different and going with the universal flow, I experienced instead a great freedom; freedom from the stories I’d told myself.

Just like a million other things, yet again life has proven to me that I sell myself short with my expectations. I got what I needed. If I’d gotten what I wanted, at most I’d have left having missed (probably) half of the acts that I should have been dancing at, and with a hundred gossamer impressions of people in my back-pocket, soon to be swept away on a breeze. At worst, I’d have relapsed on MDMA or cocaine and would have had a drink to ease the inevitable comedown.

But I got what I needed. In my experience, few things that are instantly gratifying have any real depth, guts or substance. They are simply exactly what they are. But getting to know these individuals over the course of the week together was such a richly satisfying experience – every day, every hour, I’d uncover something new, go a tad deeper, add another layer of experience, context, and understanding. I also got to experience the festival through the eyes of five people who ultimately knew their techno much better than I did. Moreover, I felt safe, respected and taken care of by five people who knew that I was sober, who were taking drugs but hyper-aware of the fact that I wasn’t, and who took it upon themselves to make sure I always had a bottle of water in my hand, and to constantly remind me of how proud of me they were.

Human connection. That’s what it’s all about. Not introversion, not addiction, not dreams and future plans… just love and connection. That’s what I need to align myself with.

I’m back in Kilkenny now, and my heart is worn out; I’ve shut myself off and I’ve watched myself do it. I’m having trouble readjusting to real life, coming down so hard I’m actually wondering if I did drugs after all (I’m struggling, I’m not going to lie – I feel like a dry drunk, too dry to write about it, even. I’ll elaborate in time, for now, it’s just a footnote). These experiences have enrichened me, but they’ve laid me bare, left me raw and vulnerable. The more I peel away, the less my words and labels matter, the less sense my stories and expectations make. The truth I seek is found in living.

2 Comments

  1. This is a great post, thanks for sharing with such honesty. I can completely relate to so much of what you have written here – the introversion, the problems with labels and the fact that human connection is what has been the missing piece of the puzzle for so long. Thank you! 🙂

    Like

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