All Peopled Out
Introverts of the world unite — separately
By Susan S. Kelly
Not long ago I said to some pals, “Heavens, tell me about Duncan. I heard he had four shunts put in.”
“Where have you been?” someone replied with incredulity.
“You know I don’t go out,” was my lame, weak, but honest answer.
Well, there’s the rub. At the core, I’m an introvert. Pause, for clamor claiming otherwise. But as my children like to say in millennial shorthand: “Truth.”
I do not fit the old-school definition of introvert: retiring, withdrawn, uncomfortable in social situations. “She’s just shy” was the old expression — or, as my mother excuses people, “She’s just insecure.” I am not shy. I veer toward that other old expression: “She’s as strong as train smoke.”
Nowadays, anybody with a penny’s worth of psychiatry or Myers-Briggs familiarity knows that “introvert” means someone who gets their energy from being alone, and that extroverts get their energy from being with other people. The old definition of introvert is no longer relevant, has gone the way of Greta Garbo’s famous utterance, “I vant to be alone.”
Take my sister. She so needs to be with people that she can hardly go to the bathroom by herself. In her 20s, she developed polyps on her vocal cords, and had to communicate with a pad and pencil for weeks. When I join her on the beach, unfold my chair, sit down and take out my book, she says, “Oh no you don’t.” She wants to talk. When her children came home from boarding school, she always said, “Let’s have a cookout!” Meaning, invite people over! Yay! “Let’s have a cookout!” has become an oft used, eyeroll mantra in our households now.
We lived in Larchmont, New York, when I was a small child, and my mother says she could put me in a stroller, go to the city and spend all day — shopping, eating, going to museums — without a peep from me. On the other hand, she claims that she’d put my sister down for a nap, open the door an hour later, and the room looked like a bomb had gone off. This could be attributed to undiagnosed ADHD, but I suspect my sister was just rebelling at being left alone. I guarantee you she has never played a hand of solitaire.
Looking back, my childhood strategy of asking a playmate, “When do you have to go home?” instead of, “When are you going home?” was just another way of getting back to my self-entertaining self. Back to playing with Steiff stuffed animals, alone; back to singing along with musicals, alone. Back to reading, alone. All my early, handwritten stories with plotless plots about someone running away to live in the woods and eat squirrels were another symptom. The introvert indicators were all there — I just hadn’t realized it. (There was that one day when I called three or four people to see if they could come play, and when I called the fourth, I opened with, “Can you come over? I’ve called everyone else.” Could be that the fact that I had to call four people to come play and no one could — or would — was an indication of something, too. Hmm. At any rate, my mother made me call the friend back and apologize.)
During a trip, any trip — Europe, the beach, a long weekend somewhere — I unfailingly have a moment when I’m desperate to go home. “I want to be home,” I’ll say to my sister.
“Yep,” she replies, nonplussed. “Been waiting for that.”
“I want to be home,” I’ll say to my husband, who’s lying in bed, reading a guidebook.
“I know,” he mildly answers, and turns a page.
Once, when all my children were small, my husband asked, “Just how much time do you need alone every day?”
“Two hours,” I said.
“That’s too much,” he said.
Still, he knows me well. “What’s the matter?” he’ll ask me of a Sunday morning, “All cuted out?” This is shorthand for my extrovert quota having been depleted. Also, a hangover.
My husband is the reason, as a matter of fact, I know about the Myers-Briggs introvert definition in the first place. When he was senior warden at our church, all the officers and spouses were (gently) required to take the test. Trust me, I’d never have done it on my own. I ventured, once, into a Sunday school class, well aware that we might have to “break into small groups” — an introvert’s nightmare — but nevertheless interested in the topic. The minister caught sight of me (at the back of the room) and called out, “What are you doing here?”
I never went back. This, as opposed to my friend whose wife claims that the main reason he goes to church is that he’s such an extrovert he can’t miss a party.
Existential question: If I post on Instagram, does that negate being an introvert?
Often, introverts are mistaken for aloof snobs. They are not aloof snobs. They’re just all peopled out. I’m an expert at the so-called “Irish exit,” when you leave a gathering without telling anyone you’re going. To all those hosts and hostesses of parties past, I apologize. I had a wonderful time and appreciate having been invited. A friend of my mother’s eventually sold her beach cottage because she couldn’t bear to be away from her yard. Oh, sure. Right. A fellow introvert told me that she hates having her hair cut because she can’t stand all the chatter. So she goes to no-name salons and shows the operator a card she made that reads, “I am a deaf mute. Please take an inch off the bottom.” A friend on the board of Outward Bound offered me an Outward Bound trip at no cost. “You’re the perfect person,” he said. I suggested he find another adventurer for his freebie. Whatever I don’t know about myself by now, I don’t want to know, and I certainly don’t want to find out through shudder-inducing group collaboration and cooperation.
My worst introvert nightmare was the summer Friday I made plans to go see When Harry Met Sally on its opening day. By myself, of course. There, I sit in the quiet darkness, waiting for the movie, eating my popcorn, contentedly alone and anticipating, and . . . three dozen members of the neighborhood swim team troop in. Talking, laughing, jostling, scrabbling to see who sits beside whom . . . nightmare.
On the other hand, as I was all by myself waiting for another movie to begin, a little old lady shuffled in, took a seat, and proceeded to unwrap carrot sticks from a baggie as her movie snack. Was this an omen for a future nightmare? Because it’s common knowledge that whatever you are — punctual, talkative, forgetful — gets more pronounced with age.
I deliberately quit writing novels to go out and be with people again. Because I’m not an irredeemable recluse. Essentially I’m a high-functioning hermit with intermittent FOMO.
Let’s have a cookout! PS
Susan S. Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and a proud grandmother.