Interacting with other human beings isn’t rocket science. Except to me. When another person asks me a question, I see algebra formulas. I’m so nervous about what words to use that they become mathematical symbols I never learned. I desperately try to solve sentences as if each social interaction has the possibility to reach the moon or dramatically combust, the failure haunting me forever.
Social anxiety has plagued me since cliques formed like crop circles in middle school hallways. I didn’t know how to break in. And so I stayed out and stayed home, harboring a fear of facing another person.
Awkwardness became a side effect. I am the person who finds a way to trip over the handles of her tote bag on the sidewalk, spilling out all of her tampons, as if some begrudged sitcom writer scripts my life. Because of my human glitches, I figure I just shouldn’t be around any. But this is a destructive and unrealistic thought.
When I first heard about and joined Tinder in 2015, after my most-popular-girl-in-high-school sister encouraged me to join, it seemed it could help ease me into a social scene by way of no-frills chatting. But it wasn’t quite as simple as I had hoped. I canceled my first batch of dates, too nervous to transport the conversation from behind the screen to real life.
I was hesitant to meet anyone because I was overwhelmed with what ifs. What if we don’t recognize each other? What if I get there first and he’s outside waiting for me? Should I wait outside for him? But what if he’s already inside? What if we hate each other? What if I have to pee when he’s in the middle of a story? What if I actually die?
Hushing the whirlpool of neurosis with a bathroom-mirror pep talk and aware that social anxiety was holding me back from everyday life in my early 20s, I finally decided to meet up with Joe*. I was 30 minutes early to our agreed-upon meeting spot. In that time, I constantly reminded myself of what his face looked like by studying his pictures, which illustrated him from multiple angles. I dug my nails into my palms and practiced breathing exercises. In, two, three, four, out, two, three, four. But, would it be a hug or a handshake? Or neither. Perhaps a high five. I could just get back on the subway where nobody expects me to look them in the eye, and I could stare at my feet for the rest of my life.
But Joe showed up before I could take my toes back home. And in that split second of his approach, I had to decide if it was a hug or handshake — a decision that nearly gave me unforgivable gas. I extended my hand forward toward his waist as his arms lifted for an embrace. A hold-your-breath moment of awkwardness. I continued the date with one eye clenched tight in an eternal cringe.
Joe and I never had a second date, but I had gotten out of the house, survived the interaction, and wasn’t ready to gravitate back to my corner yet. I went full throttle. I hit the gas. Like, Nope, match, chat, date. Exposure therapy, you could say. Tinder launched me again and again into the belly of the beast where anxiety churns and beads of sweat build cities on my upper lip.
It wasn’t smooth. I said “not much, you” after being asked “how are you?” I stumbled over my words. I gave up on sentences midway through. I excused myself to the bathroom to relocate a regular breathing pattern. I went for the hug when my date went for the wave and announced, “I’m a hugger!” like your odd aunt who you only see once every two years. I, on one special occasion, tripped over the arm of a movie theater seat and stumbled into my date. What matters, what I started to notice, is that I, against all expectations, survived these social hellscape scenarios in front of people I would like to date.
I was out of the house and I was functioning — not without my glitches, but, still breathing.
Gradually, I got better at conversing with the cashier at Trader Joe’s. I could say hi without choking on air when friends introduced me to their friends. Instead of rushing through social interactions to get them over with, I actually engaged. I dared myself to slightly smile at a friendly face waiting for the same flight. I was teaching myself how to do this social algebra.
By no means am I cured of social anxiety. Date after date did not vacuum the insecurity and timid nature out of me. Sweat still spouts from my forehead, even in the middle of winter, when I sit across from someone new or RSVP yes to a party. I am constantly in contact with my therapist. But Tinder did tear me away from the comfortable security of my couch, easing me into the mathematical world of social interactions. And finally I’ve started to decode and coherently solve the equations that come out of other people’s mouths. Maybe it isn’t rocket science, after all.
*Name has been changed to protect an innocent dater.