My co-worker looked troubled. “Marisa,” she said. “I need to talk to you.” I licked my suddenly dry lips and winced. “All right,” I said slowly, nodding my head. She gestured to me to sit on the floor with her. I sat down and crossed my legs and tried to suppress the urge to sigh. I looked anywhere but her face. “I’m worried about you,” she finally said.
I sat still and listened for the next ten minutes as she listed all the reasons why I was not fitting in at work. I’ll never forget her final bit of criticism: “You should sit with the other staff at lunch time. Talk to them. Don’t just sit in a corner of the room and read a book.” I smiled and mumbled something that sounded like “okay,” but on the inside I was reeling from our conversation and fighting the urge to shake my head.
I’m an introvert. I also have resting bitch face and learning disabilities. I often look angry even when I’m not upset. I’m weird and well aware of it. Sometimes I can be forgetful and clumsy. I may ask the same question more than once, and it can take a while to teach me new things.
I’ve had trouble fitting in since I started school. I never had a lot of friends. I was diagnosed with one learning disability at age 11, but I did not find out about the other three disabilities until I was 29. I spent my entire school career failing math and most of my other subjects and wondering what the hell was wrong with me.
I didn’t have a lot of self-esteem. It didn’t help that I was also horribly bullied from primary school all the way through high school. I can remember a girl at school turning to me once, smiling arrogantly, and asking, “Hey Marisa, what’s 2×2?” When I didn’t answer, she and her friends tittered with laughter.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know the answer. I’d just chosen not to respond to her. Being bullied at school made me quieter and quieter. I could never think of a smart way to respond to taunts so I decided the best thing to do was to ignore people who wanted to rouse a reaction out of me. I spent lunch hiding in the library reading books, writing stories, or browsing the Internet. I was too scared to try to make friends. The few times I’d tried hadn’t ended well.
I had a bunch of friends fleetingly in high school when I was thirteen, but they dumped me because they told me they were being teased for hanging out with me. I chose to ignore them after that and felt like I couldn’t trust any other kids in my year. I kept to myself. I decided I didn’t need friends. I thought I could lose myself in books and my writing instead. I tried to pretend I was all right but the truth was I was lonely and very, very miserable.
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I didn’t meet my first real friend until I was 17 years old. A girl came up to me in the library and introduced herself. The first thing I noticed about her was that she had the most unusual earrings on. I can remember them so clearly. They were a pair of bright purple parrots. I knew this girl. I’d seen her hanging out with my brother Ryan but we’d never spoken. Her name was Selena.
I’ll never forget what she said to me next. She smiled and said, “Hello. Are you Marisa? Ryan tells me you’re a writer. I’m very honored to meet someone like you!” I was so startled by this introduction. No one had ever said something this kind to me before. And her smile was so genuine. How could I not become her friend?
That was over a decade ago and today, we’re still close friends. I saw a comic strip once that described what it’s like to be an introvert. It showed a man surrounded by a bubble. A second man wanted to be his friend. He tried all sorts of ways to connect with him but the introvert kept pushing back his advances. He couldn’t break into his bubble. When he finally stopped trying to force the introvert to be his friend, the introvert became comfortable enough to let down his barrier. The introvert finally let him into his safe space.
That comic strip describes me well. If you try to force me to be more sociable you’re just going to push me deeper into my shell. Don’t tell me off for reading a book or listening to my iPod during my lunch break. I do those things because it relaxes me. I’m just enjoying my lunch break in my own way. If I want to sit with you and talk, I will come over and ask if I can join you. And I do have days like that. But if I choose to sit by myself please do not be offended. It doesn’t mean I don’t like you. I just don’t want to talk right now. I would rather read.
Selena understands me. She was the first real friend I ever made. She didn’t see me how others saw me. I wasn’t a weird, shy girl to her. I was someone fascinating. She showed me that I can have friends and that there are people who will accept me for who I am.
So, when you see someone sitting alone in school or at a party, think of Selena and me. That shy person may want friendship, but they’re too afraid to reach out. You can ignore them and tease them behind their back, or you can be like Selena and go talk to them. Say a few kind words and see what happens. I dare you. You will probably make their day. For me, what Selena did made all the difference.
I finished high school with one great real friend, and I learned a valuable lesson. I am fine being on my own, but sometimes I do want conversation and friendship. I’ve put walls around me for a long time. I don’t let a lot of people see the real me. I’ve been hurt a lot so I can be defensive. Just like in the comic strip, you cannot force yourself into my safe space. So be patient, and let me be who I want to be. Soon I’ll probably put down my book and have a conversation with you.