From ages 19 to 24 I spent most of my time in isolation as a result of being in episodes of schizoaffective disorder and/or their aftermath. Being alone all this time caused me to develop strange habits and strange ways of interacting with others because I socialized very infrequently. Odd occurrences happened during these years while I was with friends I had grown up with. For a while, these friends stopped socializing with me but they eventually gave me another chance and decided to ask me to hang out.
During this interaction, all I could think about was my odd behavior from ages 19 to 24 when we intermittently met up and crossed paths. I was arrested by my memory of this old way of behaving and I also wasn’t certain of how to socialize at all, never mind in a positive and healthy way. In our conversations, I recalled odd behaviors and I tried explaining them but this only made our get together more awkward.
After this meeting, these friends hung out with me occasionally but usually avoided me because they were uncertain of how to interact with me. They knew I had schizophrenia but interacting with me took effort and was difficult for them so they decided not to hang out with me. I discovered they are fair-weather friends.
The difficult part about being socially awkward was that I knew I was awkward but I just didn’t understand and/or know-how to socialize well. After four to five years of isolation, I had little to no knowledge of how to socialize and this was the main reason I was so awkward. I also had social trauma from past years that was causing me some anxiety too.
Once I started working again I began learning how to effectively socialize and get along well with others because I was so frequently forced to talk at work. I still had many awkward moments but I made a new group of friends who seemed to be more caring than the ones I grew up with. I also improved at socializing from watching TV and listening to the radio. Hearing the voices of people who had healthier minds gave me examples of how to express my thoughts and it allowed me to hear voices that were adept at speech and were socially acceptable in tone and language.
It helped me learn word choice and connotation, and it also gave me a better sense of appropriate ways to talk about certain issues and which topics were and also were not acceptable to talk about and the situations I could talk about them in. I worked hard at learning how to socialize well in talk therapy and in journaling. I addressed the issues that were giving me social anxiety and I figured out ways to pacify them.
After spending about a year with my new friends there were some awkward occurrences that happened that I wanted to explain. I informed them I have schizophrenia although I have schizoaffective disorder which is both bipolar and schizophrenia but I was hoping one ailment would be easier to disclose than two. Unfortunately, they stopped hanging out with me. I called them but they stopped returning my calls immediately after I told them my diagnosis.
This same occurrence happened with another friend so unfortunately, this was a time where disclosing an illness was not a good idea. These newer friends had stigma and hearing the word schizophrenia coupled with the thought of the odd social situations that occurred while hanging out caused them to draw the conclusion they would be better off avoiding me than spending time with the friend they had been hanging out with for the past year or so. This is an instance where re-addressing an awkward past occurrence worked against me and I have never found it useful to bring up awkward occurrences from past interactions. In both situations the people I wanted to hang out with had obviously left the awkward occurrences behind because they were spending time with me again but my recollection of these occurrences was extremely awkward in itself and it pushed them away.
After this I ventured on and I made some new friends. I was a lot healthier when I met these friends but I was still somewhat socially awkward. We hung out regularly but it seemed like we were about to part ways. My two best friends at this time were a couple and my friend’s mom had schizophrenia so I decided to tell them that I also had it. I figured I had nothing to lose because it seemed as though they were distancing themselves from me anyways. It took courage to tell them and I was nervous.
After telling them about my diagnosis it brought us closer together and I also felt much more comfortable around them. I only told them about the schizophrenia part but they figured out I also had bipolar and they were still accepting of me. Having my friends accept my diagnosis was extremely helpful and it put me at ease whenever I interacted with them because I now had nothing to hide and they accepted me for who I fully am and they still stood by me. I felt I could tell them anything about myself and I had nothing to fear and I was able to interact far better with them than with anyone else. Informing them I had a diagnosis drew us closer and we hang out at least once a week now and talk all the time. They recently got engaged and I was asked to be the best man in their wedding.
My comfort with them informed me I was afraid of people knowing my diagnosis because of the times I had previously lost friends who I had informed about it. I realized I was getting social anxiety whenever I did or said something awkward because I was afraid this awkwardness would indicate I had an illness and people knowing about it would cause them to not want to talk to or be around me. The awkwardness was from schizophrenia-related trauma but I didn’t realize no one would be able to trace where the awkwardness was from; especially when most people are completely unable to identify when they are talking to someone with a mental illness because they don’t have the knowledge and frame of reference to identify how someone with it interacts.
I finally figured out I can be myself and this put me at ease. I learned everyone, including most people without diagnoses, say and do awkward things from time to time and no one has stopped hanging out with them for these things. Usually, they’re fun to joke about and everyone has a good laugh. Having this knowledge made me less afraid of being awkward and as a result, it made me far more comfortable socializing, which eliminated a great deal of my social anxiety and awkwardness.
There were also times I was socially awkward with my family and these memories were salient every time we reconvened.
Over the years I have seen my Dad’s side of the family about once per year because they live far away. For several years I was still recovering from schizoaffective and my interactions improved over each year but I was still socially awkward and it was remembered. In our most recent gathering, I was fully recovered and functioning well but they were still not aware of this. People tend to label others and carry expectations with them to conversations and they comprise those expectations from previous interactions.
Many people don’t change much over the course of their lives so these people tend to carry the expectation that once they have met someone that person is always the same person they initially met, which means they will treat them in a way that concurs with the expectations they developed from previous social interactions. My previous social interactions with them were awkward so of course, they expected me to be off. I also remembered being awkward while interacting with them last and I expected they would remember these interactions, which we both did, and this created diffidence and more difficulty socializing. I felt off for a little while because I was afraid they were going to hold the previously awkward moments against me. I felt unwelcome from their expectations of awkwardness and from the memories of my own awkwardness.
The memories from past interactions were salient in my mind and the way they approached me suggested I wasn’t as healthy as I was. I am constantly working on myself and from the previous time I had met with them to this time I was a completely different person. I had a lot of friends and I went out three to four nights per week so I was fairly adept at socialization but during the initial stages of this meeting this didn’t show. My family members made statements with expectations of me having strange thoughts and they expected me to say or do awkward things and I picked up on this. I felt ambivalent because I wanted to get along with my family but obviously I didn’t want to be treated or thought of as strange or weird.
I weathered the storm and there were many moments I wasn’t certain how to interact because my family made statements that held the connotation I was strange but I wanted to contrast this and I wasn’t certain how. I also felt the one place I could go for refuge was now a place of discomfort and I was angered by this. I became withdrawn and my family asked why and I simply told them I was tired. I had plenty of energy but I was just discouraged from talking to them because the interactions weren’t going the way I wanted them to based upon their expectations and my memories of our past social interactions.
I went back to the hotel that night and I was still a bit angry. I reminded myself this is my family and they care about me and they want to see me do well. Whenever I have had difficulty socializing in the past but I have had positive interactions thereafter, the people who previously seemed averted to me were friendly and I started hanging out with them again. This told me the people who matter and the ones I want to spend time with are people who want to see me do well and I reminded myself there is no one in the world who wants to see me do well more so than my family.
The next day I knew I could expect to be approached and spoken to with the strange expectations but I was going to react the best way I knew how, instead of trying to meet their expectations. When they had strange expectations I made joking comments to inform them these were ridiculous and I kept reminding myself I am a healthy person. I remembered to forgive them for not initially having the mental flexibility to change their understanding of who I am because I was a different person during this interaction than I had been the previous several times I had seen them. I initiated conversations about topics that are considered normal to talk about and I spoke in ways that were socially acceptable and I started being myself. I spoke at length in a healthy and functional manner when I initiated some of the conversations so my family could listen to me speak in a relaxed and socially acceptable manner thus learning that I am different than I was when we met the last several times.
I also joked a lot which was helpful because people usually relate well to a good sense of humor. It took time for people to learn that I had changed because they had to adjust or switch the lens from which they had been viewing me so they could see the picture in its true light. Once they saw me in a different light the way they treated me changed. Their expectations were now concurrent with who I was and the rest of the vacation was a lot of fun.