Some time ago, a close friend of many years mentioned that his clearest memory of our teenage years was how I would walk into a room full of people, choose a corner, and stand there looking like I wanted to be anywhere else.
I thought about this recently, when I joined a dance class. This is added to a counselling skills course I'm doing, and a martial arts class I've been attending for over five years now. I'll tell you a secret: these places are full of people, and I'm still absolutely terrified when I walk into them. I'm not sure I've become any better at hiding it.
A low point was the death of a close relative a few years ago. I did my usual thing of appearing to calmly carry the weight of my grief but, when I arrived at the leisure centre for a martial arts class, I looked through the window in the door to the room, saw all the people in there, turned around and walked back to my car. The massive courage it took for me to walk into that room had gone, replaced by one clear thought: "I can't do this." I'm just thankful that I made it back to my car before the grief hit fully.
You might see me walk into a room full of people, or exit that room and, if you're particularly observant, notice that I appear to feel a little uneasy. Wrong. I'm absolutely terrified. You might notice that, for a while, I'm unusually quiet. I'm still listening to you. Believe me, I'm listening to you. Every one of my senses is heightened because, as silly as it may seem to you, the situation feels threatening to me. I'm just one man. The numbers are not in my favour. I'm not going to tell you why that's important. Let's just say that experiences from our early lives affect us, and leave it at that.
Again, if you're observant, you'll see the point where I visibly relax, where I might even smile and share a joke with you, and you'll notice, when I'm leaving, that I'm scared once again. So, what's happening during the point in the middle? What's happening is something that it took me many years to figure out.
For the time that I'm talking with you, practising kung fu with you, dancing with you, or practising counselling skills with you, you're the only person in that room with me. If someone else grabs my attention, they temporarily become the only person in that room, and then my focus shifts back to you. It's a trick, I guess, but it's one I've been using successfully for a while now.
I still haven't found a way of coping with entering, or exiting, a room full of people. Anything more than three, and it's a problem. You'll probably notice that I'm more of a listener than a talker, but I hope you don't mistake it for a lack of intelligence. If you ever see me after I've had a few pints of beer, you might think I've had a personality transplant, if such a thing were possible. I just want you to know that it takes a great deal of courage for me to be there with you, that you have my full attention and, if you're one of the people on the periphery, I'm not being ignorant or rude. I'm just coping with a difficult situation in the best way I know.