I do not like large groups of people. Social gatherings make me anxious. I avoid parties, almost at all costs, and when people suggest dinner I need to explain that it can unsettle me. For most of my life I carried with me a self-belief that this was a wrong way to be, a view moulded by bossy authority figures who chastised my craving for solitude and preference for strong one-to-one friendships, with a jocular mocking, a disapproving grimace and jaunty invitation to join in. On a somewhat sinister level, my lack of social aptitude attracted the psychological abuse of bullies, keen to attribute my state to my unlikeability. “People think it is strange that you never go out,” sneered one, as though I were a juvenile hermit, collecting dead flies and chatting with squirrels. I was being measured against a straight man’s template of male banter, alcohol consumption and coolness. But I was a small gay boy and this invitation to a world of clubs and pubs and parties was worthless.
I once refused, with the stubbornness of cat being presented with a cage and visit to the vet, the offer of a school trip France. It was residential, over a week long, and frankly I did not wish to go. Not for me. No thanks. 10 years old or not, I knew my own mind, when really pushed into an emotional corner. For most of my life I have felt ashamed of my approach to socialising. The Billy No Mates label sticks long and hard. I do not think I am alone in my ‘sociophobia’ though. I have a friend who actually takes annual leave to avoid parties. Perhaps more of us than we think dislike the enforced jollity, claustrophobia and mounting panic engendered at parties. I am a quiet person, at times reserved, confident only in my own roles and groups. Even in my thirties I had the unhappy experience of working for a dreadful language school, now defunct, where one was expected to drink at least two pints on a Friday night. The manager prided herself on sidelining those who did not. I loathed the woman, with her loud voice and contempt for ‘half-pint drinkers.’ When I watched her open a can of lager, tinsel round her neck and dancing to Slade’s Merry Christmas, I quietly craved the freezing cold London night beyond the window. Her eyes flickered with a challenge to those on the margins.
As I turn 50, I have earned the right, I feel, to just refuse. I do not need to qualify my refusal anymore, nor make up colds, stomach upsets and prior engagements. I just do not really feel comfortable at events where a certain behaviour or dress code or mood is expected of me. I am never going to wear evening dress. I am never going to attend a fancy dress party, and I am never going to dance in public. It will not happen for I do not wish it to. I will attend some events if I wish, leaving when I no longer feel right in my skin. What people in Team Party or Team Down the Pub might not quite get though, is that I am not unsociable. I love relationships, I love friendship. I love coffee with a friend, just the two of us, cosy and gossipy, quiet and surrounded by air and light. I love walking with a friend. I love visiting a museum with a friend, new or old. I might even be persuaded to eat with a friend, if I am comfortable with the venue. I would love you to come to my home and I would be delighted to come to yours. My ideal way of getting to know you would be for us to get on a couple of bikes and cycle together, or trudge through a muddy forest chatting. And you know what, there is nothing wrong with being like this, nothing at all.