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Living with the discomfort of strangers

How a wallflower finds refuge in social situations.

You wouldn’t think it possible to be a wallflower at a fifth birthday party, and yet I’ve achieved it. On this occasion, there were 30 children and a DJ – a small boy from up the road who’d come round with a notebook and his parent’s Spotify membership to carefully curate a list of bangers for the big day. I wore black and hugged the corners of the room, hoping I’d blend in with the sheets of polythene we’d hung over the windows to block out the light.

If you’ve never seen a children’s mosh pit, you’re missing out. It was a heaving mass of small humans who were losing their minds on candy floss, and they were reaching hard for the lasers. (That’s not a colloquialism: the DJ came with a lighting kit that spun lasers on a random rotation.) I’d done some dance practice with the birthday girl the week prior, and we had been euphorically sweaty to about a dozen songs. At the end, she peered at me through a damp mop of hair and said, “Aunty Mouse – if you dance like that next weekend, you might win a prize.”

Suffice to say, I did not win a prize. I froze in the laser light, overwhelmed by the volume of kids, and shuffled halfheartedly to the side of the room, gripping a slice of pizza in one hand and some lemonade in the other. I discovered the blackout polythene could be stretched into a convenient alcove that I could hide behind. I don’t know what happens to me in these situations. I get nothing out of them except party food and panic.

Read more from Michelle Langstone: How I found relief from anxiety at a bird rescue centre | My low-rent version of Sisyphus in hell

I’d like to say I wasn’t always like this, but the fact is, I was born for obscurity. At age four, I spent several weeks hiding in my mother’s skirts when my family came to visit us from America. I fell silent, and for almost a year, off and on, I barely spoke at all. I’ve since learned this is called “selective mutism”, an anxious condition brought on by stress triggers in social situations. At that time, my stress trigger was strangers. If I’m really honest, it still is.

At an awards night recently, when I won something, it could have been my moment to enter socialdom. Instead, I stayed rooted to my chair, eyes fixed to the podium, only getting up to scuttle to the bathroom. I tried to go to an after-party and was blindsided by the realisation I would have to speak to new people. Other attendees arrived home from that evening at daybreak the following morning. I was in pyjamas, nose-deep in a burger, by 11.30pm.

I used to sit under tables at other kids’ parties. I once hid in a toilet for 40 minutes at a Christmas party, rearranged the contents of my handbag, and used some nail scissors to trim my fringe.

I’ve been known to hide in wardrobes. It’s not helpful to assign blame, but I blame my mother, who first introduced me to the cool comfort of the wardrobe when she politely suggested I practise violin in there. I was not a good violin player, even I could see that. I stood in my wardrobe, illuminated only by the glow-in-the-dark stickers on my mirror, and coaxed strangulated sounds out of the instrument. It was quiet in there, and safe. I listened to my breath, and to my poor playing, and knew I had found something remarkable.

I stopped playing violin at the end of that term, but I never stopped hiding.

Find Michelle Langstone on Twitter @mifflangstone

This article was first published in the October 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.