Looking back, I know I wasn’t always introverted. I don’t even like to call myself that because if you know me well enough, you’ve seen the sides of me that are loud and open. According to my mother, I was that toddler on the playground that tried to be friends with everyone. I would run right up to other kids with no inhibitions and ask them to play. If I tried to be that person now, I think my anxiety would eat me whole. I was so extraverted as a kid. I wasn’t tired yet. Since then, many things have happened that changed my world view, and instead of assuming people’s intentions are generally good — I am now skeptical of everyone and everything.
When I was six years old, I was bullied for aspects of my appearance. Looking back on it from an objective standpoint, I know I didn’t look much different. I just lived differently. At the time, I lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, despite originally being from Bronx, New York. Trust me when I say the Bronx, compared to Charlotte, are like two different worlds. I didn’t go to church every Sunday because my mother was not religious, and my father was Muslim. My family never became fully immersed in the Charlotte lifestyle, and people knew that. So, their kids decided it would be okay to take it out on me. I remained silent about my treatment at school until the end of first grade when my mother told me we would be moving back to NYC. I tried to water down as much of the story as possible, to convince her I was okay. Yet I could barely convince myself I was okay.
Two years after I moved to Queens, in the middle of processing that maybe the bullies were wrong about me, my father passed. All I remember is feeling very numb about the situation. I didn’t let myself cry because I felt like I had to assume the central pillar’s role, keeping the roof over my life from collapsing. Not only did my father’s life end, but I had to watch every stable adult in my life crumble into piles of grief and sadness. I don’t blame them for that, but I wish that instead of assuming my silence was strength, someone could have seen how badly I was hurting on the inside.
When I entered high school, all those experiences had left me with a massive shadow of anxiety following me everywhere. Every time I thought I had figured out its root, new reasons showed up, giving me months of more contemplation about what exactly was wrong with me. When it was time to go to college, it seemed like this shadow had exploded, leaving bits and empty pieces around me. I didn’t want to leave my mother, and it was so hard for me to be social at that point that the thought of having to make new friends made me sick. I had one saving grace, my best friend. Someone I had known since I was seven was coming to college with me. This was kind of a double-edged sword for my anxiety. I desperately wanted to cling to my best friend and survive these strange four years with only her. But I knew the college experience that she wanted, and I was not prepared to dive headfirst into it with her. She thrives in social situations. She can talk to anyone and make you feel like you’ve known each other for years. Communicating, networking, and socializing are her strengths, those are my fears. For the first few weeks, it was hard. I knew I didn’t want to join a sorority, and I had so much anxiety about finding an organization I wanted to be in that I neglected to make an effort to immerse myself in the social scene. Eventually, in one of my smaller lectures, someone made an effort to be friends with me first, which was a huge relief because it seemed like I was on my way to being alone for four years. I introduced her to my best friend, then she introduced us to her friend she made at orientation.
By October of that year, we had garnered ourselves a little family. I had felt more confident and more like myself than ever. Being alone in my dorm was no longer the only space that felt safe. I had people to look forward to seeing when I went outside. I had people who accepted me in all states of my being. They didn’t care about my life before college, they wanted to be friends with me because they genuinely enjoyed me. They also accepted that sometimes I just needed to be in solitude. There is nothing wrong with being introverted in college or with being an introvert in general. To this day, I still greatly value my alone time, and I find comfort in solitude. But it’s also okay to have people in your life that care about you. It’s okay to struggle to find them, and it’s okay to struggle to convey that being alone doesn’t mean you’re lonely. My anxiety has often tried to trick me into thinking I’d be better off having no relationships with anyone and that the safe feeling of being alone should consume my life.
What I had to learn was balance. If I remained alone for long enough, I would lose touch with reality and who I was. I would forget that I enjoy being social sometimes. It’s okay to be alone when you need to recharge, but don’t let it cloud your mind into thinking that there are people who won’t accept that. I’m thankful that I didn’t appear so closed off that someone felt too uncomfortable approaching me first. As much as I need my alone time to support myself, I need others in my life to support me just in case I get too overwhelmed. I need others to ground me and remind me of the reality when my mind wanders to dark and twisted places. I need others to remind me of who I am when the world brings chaos to my thoughts. Be alone, be an introvert, allow yourself to recharge. But don’t shut the whole world out because you will then miss out on growth and opportunity you can never get in solitude. Leave me lonely, but not forever.