Photo of Justine Caldwell

(photo of Justine Caldwell)

A is for Avoidant

During my sophomore year of college, my balding mental health counselor peered at me through the round lenses of his glasses. He had encouraged me to take a personality test, and we were discussing the results.  According to my answers, I tended to avoid situations that make me uncomfortable. Well, duh! IsnÕt that just human nature? My counselor was concerned my actions (or lack thereof) might have some far-reaching implications in my life. My cousin Becca, a clinical psychologist, told me she had treated people with avoidant personality disorder. Over the receiver of my flip phone, she assured me I didnÕt fit the profile. Pathological or not, I have avoidance down to a science.

I hate small spaces, especially if they are closed off. As a kid, I never felt the joy of going down tube slides at the playground.  These days, I willingly climb several flights of stairs at work. I am a registered dietitian at a nursing home.  I would rather pant while chatting with residents than step inside an elevator, or as I like to call it, a death box. Besides elevators, I avoid plenty of other things out of fear: new experiences, public speaking, amusement park rides, driving unfamiliar routes (even if they are quicker), and swimming anywhere I canÕt hug the edge or touch the bottom of the pool.

 

While in the 2nd or 3rd grade, my class practiced math problems using colorful blocks. We put them together to mimic addition and pulled them apart to simulate subtraction. A problem was set up on the board and a lucky student would get to provide the answer visually. My teacher knowingly called on me as I goofed off, requesting I bring my configuration up to the front of the class. I froze and focused intently on the blocks laid out on my desk: yellow, red, blue, and green. I grabbed a structure I had previously built and pretended the blocks would not come apart, as if someone superglued them together. To further sell it, I even made grunting sounds of struggle. My teacher waited for a short while and sighed, saying something along the lines of:

ÒPerhaps next time we will pay attention instead of talking.Ó

Then, she called on someone else, leaving me to my shame and my patented approach to problem solving: ignore it and it will (eventually) go away!

 

During my teen years, after some flirtatious night, IÕd find myself lying beside a guy I liked. I felt his lingering hands, but instead of reciprocating, I awkwardly looked away or pretended to be asleep. I thought too hard about how to respond. I worried about how poor my sexual technique might be, so IÕd just lie there, limp as a rag doll.

 

As an adult, I instinctively look away from the TV if there is a sappy moment on screen, as if IÕm witnessing an actual emotional exchange and embarrassed to be a part of it. During job interviews, and most daily interactions, I must force myself to stare people square in the eye. Whether IÕm interacting with a cashier or a close friend, I struggle with this simple gesture of acknowledgement. If IÕm speaking to a crowd and manage to connect with more than one pair of eyes, I feel accomplished. My uninhibited father-in-law once called me out on it:

ÒYou should look people in the eye when you talk to them.Ó

It was sound advice, but it fell on deaf ears. Mortified to have been discovered, I may have looked him in the eyes even less afterwards.

If I am in a public restroom, I cannot let another woman see me fix myself in the mirror. I am overly cognizant of her presence. I assume she will silently judge me for attempting to present myself as attractive. How dare she! Who does she think she is?! I feel simultaneously guilty for caring about having a polished appearance and for pretending to be a normal girl.

I dodge grocery aisles where other people reside. I search for empty rows to pass through, to prevent conversation, even though it would probably transpire in this seemingly innocuous fashion:

ÒExcuse me,Ó IÕd feel obligated to say while squirming past them with my shopping cart. To which theyÕd reply with a head nod and a ÒMhmn.Ó

Can you see why I refuse to put myself through this? If people chat at me when IÕm not in the mood, I often ignore them or feign a tight smile. For whatever reason, if I donÕt have an interest in an interaction, I cannot even summon this common courtesy for the sake of civility.

 

A few years ago, I took an overnight trip to my old college town of St. Cloud, Minnesota with my close friend Gracie*[1]. I was still a minor when I transferred to a different school, so this was my first chance to fully partake in the St. Cloud night life. Hoping to save some money, we purchased a hotel room with one queen-size bed to share. She invited her friend Eli* to come along while we bar hopped. We went to all the well-known spots including The Press Bar and Red Carpet. The bartender at The White Horse resembled comedian Marc Maron. A middle-aged man with a longer dirty blond mane, groomed facial hair and hipster glasses, he seemed to harbor MarcÕs moodiness as well. ÒMarcÓ practically proposed to me after I ordered a shot of gin with water for a chaser, but he seemed disgusted when I changed my liquor preference to vodka. I struggled to make small talk with EliÕs friend, shifting uncomfortably in our booth while Gracie batted her eyelashes at Eli.

Later that night, I cowered on my side of the bed as I listened to Gracie and Eli get it on in the same bed. I told myself a normal person would stand their ground in this scenario. A normal person would get up and demand they knock it off right this instant! Instead, I tried like hell to fall asleep, ignoring the moans and sex smells as best I could. At one point, I went storming into the bathroom to attempt sleeping in the bathtub, and ultimately ended up trying to sleep in the backseat of my car. I was not pleased. And yet, I said nothing until the next day.

 

I eschew certain numbers. I will eat 12 almonds instead of 13 (the unlucky number). I will eat 7 M&Ms instead of 6 (the devilÕs digit). When I was pregnant, I avoided leaving the volume dial of my CD player on smaller numbers. I had this unspoken rule that louder was better, because I preferred seeing 32 rather than 24. I ascribed gestation weeks to the numbers and worried going too low might jinx my pregnancy, causing me to go into premature labor. I also understood this was crazyÉand continued to do it anyway.

Art imitates life. I procrastinated writing this piece, because I knew it would include profound humiliating confessions. Thank God this essay is over. Now I can go back to ignoring the reality of my avoidance problem.

[1] * = Pseudonyms

© Justine Caldwell

Bio:  Justine Caldwell is a former blogger at TheHungryGuineaPig.wordpress.com 

and ParentalAdvisorySite.wordpress.com. She is currently writing a book of essays: "The ABCs of My Neuroses: Tales from an Anxious Life". She lives in Minnesota with her husband, daughter, and feline friend.