“TURN RIGHT ONTO 3RD STREET. YOUR DESTINATION WILL BE ON THE RIGHT.”
The stilted, robotic voice directed me into the parking lot of the Kenny Anderson Community Center, temporarily fading the voice of Ira Glass with the announcement. It was six o’clock on Monday, and I was there for a meeting of the Sioux Falls Writers Group. This was my inaugural attendance. I was anxious.
I carefully navigated into the car park, feeling out its layout. Then I saw the kids. There was a group of high schoolers playing basketball. Some younger children were walking down the sidewalk heading home after an extra-curricular. My stomach churned. I wasn’t expecting to see anyone but attendees: people with notebooks or laptops, bags quoting famous authors, eyeglasses.
I pulled into a parking space. “YOU HAVE ARRIVED AT YOUR DESTINATION,” said the woman. I pause “This American Life” and waited in the still-running vehicle measuring my breath.
That’s when I noticed the little mouse.
At first, we said nothing. Despite my anxiety, I was feeling strong. I thought, for just a moment, that I could win this time. I reached for the key.
“No,” said the little mouse.
“I have to turn the car off if I’m going to this meetup,” I said.
“You’re not going to the meetup,” said the mouse. “You’re going to drive home, like a coward.”
My stomach churned harder, but I held my resolve. “I don’t think so,” I said. “This isn’t a big deal. It’s not like they’re reading anything I’ve written.”
“Not this time…”
“I’m pretty sure I’m in control of when they read my stuff.”
“What will they ask of you tonight, then?” The mouse’s tone is gentle but patronizing. He’s leading me somewhere.
“We’re critiquing two pieces.”
“Both of which you have criticisms for.”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “That’s the point. These people asked for criticism.”
“Yes,” said the mouse, “they did. From a group of their established peers. Not from you, a new guy, an outsider. How do you think it’s going to go?”
In a flash I saw myself being called upon to give my thoughts. At first, I hesitated, offering up the parts of the story that worked for me and holding back on what didn’t. As my comments elicited thoughtful nods, I continued, picking up steam, and tearing the author’s work to shreds before his eyes. I finished and looked up to find expressions of betrayal from the others. The writer stared at his lap.
“Who are you,” continued the mouse, “to critique anyone? Are you a professor? An English major?”
“I’m a writer,” I attempted.
“Really? And where have you published?”
“I have a blog…” I said, deflating.
“Oh, that’s right,” the mouse chuckled. “A blog. I forgot what a democratic platform the Internet is. Anyone can get published these days.”
“Not anyone can win a contest. I won a contest,” I declared, saving the best for last.
“You won a contest?” the mouse asked with feigned admiration. “One that no one’s ever heard of? Let me guess: they’ll even publish your story on their blog. Two blogs for one story. Let’s start calling publishers.”
I said nothing. The mouse said nothing.
I picked up my iPhone and filled the car with the sounds of a classic American storyteller, a professional adored by millions. On my drive home, I asked Siri to send my wife a text message.
“WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO SAY TO HOLLI RAUSCH?”
“You are married to a coward,” I said, “Period.” Siri sent the message, and Ira faded back in.
Welcome to my self-diagnosed social anxieties. Some points of clarification: I don’t suffer conversations like this before every social interaction, and I don’t literally see a little mouse. The mouse is a metaphor I conjured to illustrate how my social anxieties work. (Hopefully, it’s a little more interesting to read than a list of “Then I thought…”)
Most social interactions are fine. I’m pleasant, funny, and a little quiet most of the time. Some interactions are stellar. I’m energetic and outgoing, riding some foreign, extroverted high. Then sometimes the mouse dances into view, building arguments and stacking chips against me before I finally concede.
I can never tell when the mouse will show up or how strong he will be. I may not have been able to walk through the doors, but I won a small victory: I drove there. Sometimes I can wear him down by continuing to try. That’s how I drive him back to his hole, by tiny, inconsequential victories.
The little mouse lost a lot of battles on my way to that meetup: I signed up, I marked it on my calendar, I discussed it with my wife, I ate supper at work, I read the discussion pieces, I drove across town, I got to the parking lot.
Next time, with some luck, the little mouse won’t show up at all. I will.
Do you have a little mouse you battle? How do have you been victorious against your own mental oppressors? Leave a comment.