By Luca Gerke
In one of my earliest memories, I am hiding in the rhododendron bushes during playtime in kindergarten. Since the branches veil me rather poorly, my friend Lina soon finds me and asks me to play with her. Exasperated, I roll my eyes at her.
“Can’t you leave me alone for once?” I plead.
I like to replay this memory in my head not because it’s a particularly fond one, but because I think it encapsulates my lifelong struggle with balancing introversion and loneliness. Even though I had never heard of the term introvert as a four-year-old, I was acutely aware that I needed to spend time alone in order to function. However, when I told Lina to leave me alone, I did not for a second consider that she might take me at my word and never play with me again. Instead, I was confident that she would return to me and that we would continue being friends after I had taken a break. I was confident because I was not acquainted with loneliness yet.
Today, whenever I cancel plans because I need my cherished alone-time, I am terrified that friends or even family members will react by pushing me away. I assume that they will not only take an eye for an eye and cancel on me the next time I make plans, but that they will take an eye, some of my teeth and maybe a finger or two. I fear that canceling plans once will result in them cutting me from their lives forever. Of course, I am rational enough to know that the horror scenarios I paint in my head will likely not happen, but the part of my mind wired for survival tells me differently. In a way, I envy the younger version of myself that communicated her boundaries without fear of being abandoned. I am fascinated by this particular childhood scene because as the semi-adult I am now, I am more than ever trying to figure out how to balance asking for space and not pushing away the people I care about.
In tenth grade, I swallowed a bigger bite of loneliness. Growing up in a small town, I had had the same friends all the way through elementary school and secondary education. This changed overnight when, at the beginning of tenth grade, one of my closest friends went abroad to England, and the other one simply made a new best friend. While everyone around me seemed to be making new friends in no time, I suddenly found myself left alone. I felt like I was competing in a race and while still arranging my feet in the starting blocks, everyone else had already sprinted off beyond my reach. Being now a weirdo, I had no choice but to make friends with the other weirdos. And, let me tell you, it was not as romantic as in the high school movies. We were no edgy kids sharing a passion for art or literature. Instead, the only thing we had in common was that we were all too weird, too socially awkward or too anxious to fit in with the rest. (I feel like at this point, I have to mention that, after being a weirdo for the first few months of tenth grade, I got adopted by a different group of friends I stayed a part of until I graduated. There is, after all, shame in being lonely and awkward.)
Over the years, with friends coming and going, the loneliness has stayed. Nowadays, it is like a tinnitus. Constant, but easily drowned out. The ringing in my ears fades into the background over the sounds of work, spontaneous coffee dates, 8 a.m. classes, or communal afternoon walks. It recedes during late-night kitchen conversations over the obligatory bottle of wine or when I am dancing in dark basements between both strange and familiar bodies. Yet, my tinnitus vibrates in my skull when scrolling Instagram on a Saturday night spent at home or when returning to the small, hostile town I grew up in. But overall, the days when the chorus of life sings louder than my tinnitus outweigh.
Almost twenty years after begging Lina to please leave me alone, I understand that asking for space is a necessity, not only if you’re a massive introvert like me. Yet, I hesitate to do so, afraid that the ringing in my ears will get louder again.