One Dinner With Friends Reminded Me Why I Avoid Social Interaction
A look inside a bipolar mind after a dinner party.
I’m notorious among my group of friends for turning down social invites. It’s amazing I have any friends left as often as I reply with a ‘no’ to their invitations. The guilt crushes me, but I feel helpless most days to offer another answer.
A few nights ago, while scrolling through viewing options on Hulu, the face of my phone lit up. It was one of my young friends, perhaps the one I’ve turned down the most. She invited me to dinner with her fiancé and a few friends.
I hate making decisions quickly. My general rule is to sleep on it even with matters as simple as buying a new dress shirt. My default is to say, “no,” to protect myself, but my guilt was stronger than my willpower. I told her I would see her in an hour.
Immediately, my stomach knotted up and my heart took off like a young horse at the Kentucky Derby. What have I done?
“It will be fine,” I tried to console myself, speaking aloud to the bathroom mirror.
I knew everyone who would be there except one person. It was a small enough party we could all easily fit at one table, and it was a fun group. As tempted as I was to call her back and make up a believable excuse—I’ve got dozens of good options constantly at the ready—I forced myself to go.
Dinner was nice. I didn’t eat, largely because of my issues with eating around other people, but that’s a story for another post.
I enjoyed listening to the spirited conversation that bubbled across the table. Mentally, I did the math and figured out exactly how many years I was older than each person there. The reality of turning 50 sunk it with a deafening thud, reinforced by the laughter of all the “kids” surrounding me.
Hilarious stories of embarrassing moments and poor decisions elicited waves of laughter. For a while, I felt good being there, even if I was the token old guy.
As is typical, things turned more serious the longer we talked. When discussing the war in Ukraine, we shared our empathy for the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the stupidity. Many are now living with families who were strangers just a few months ago.
“I’m not sure I could do,” I said, the words out of my mouth before my brain engaged. “It would be hard to take complete strangers into your house for an indefinite time.”
“Is that because of your anxiety?” The young woman who invited me asked.
The table went silent. Of the eight of us sitting around the table, only two people know about my mental illnesses. The other six fixed their eyes on their plates and my awkward meter jumped up to 100.
Oh, God. Here we go.
“I suppose,” I said, hoping to end the conversation quickly, but my friend had more questions. I answered in short phrases, endeavoring with each answer to steer the conversation back to a lighter one.
It took a few tries, but I drove the topic in a different direction, one less uncomfortable for all involved.
I’m very open about my bipolar disorder and anxiety. In fact, I have hundreds of thousands of words posted on my blog, Medium, Vocal, and other sites sharing my experiences. I’m good with being called “the bipolar guy” because I know sharing my story has helped many. I don’t want mental illness to be my only identity, but I’m not afraid to discuss it in public.
With new friends, though, I limit what I share. Too often, people close up like a turtle snapping closed his shell every time mental illness comes up in conversation. Stigmas are still strong, and many avoid the topic rather than risk saying the wrong thing. You have to read the room and act accordingly. I try to end the awkward conversations quickly because I don’t want anyone to be uncomfortable in my presence.
I stayed for almost another hour after the anxiety conversation. In those 60 minutes, I watched how almost no one made eye contact with me. The awkwardness level dropped dramatically, but the mental illness cloud hovered not far above us.
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I excused myself and left the remaining seven to talk without filters. The crazy man was gone.
Yes, I know that’s bipolar talking. Likely, none of my friends said anything about me after I left, but that’s always where my mind goes.
The bipolar brain often distorts your world. You have to be extremely selective about what you believe based on what you think you see or hear. Probably, I was the only one who felt any different. The eye contact with others around the table was likely nothing like what I observed. But it was how I felt, and a feeling I couldn’t shake.
On my drive home, my brain shouted insults, scolding me with thoughts of how I should have known going to dinner was a mistake. One by one, I reviewed the reasons I avoid most social interactions.
One, I hate when mental illness feels like my sole identity. Yes, I am the “bipolar guy with the blog,” but I am also so much more. Yet, every time my mental illness comes up in a group conversation, I can’t help but feel that’s all people see.
Two, I despise the dark place my mind goes while with others. Unless I’m extremely manic, I pick apart every word and every action. I’ll relive every conversation, reviewing both the words spoken by me and anyone else. In every phrase, I’ll look for the worst possible meaning in the words.
For several nights after a social outing, I’ll lay awake, reliving the event over and over until it becomes a monster worthy of a horror movie. The problem with viewing memories on repeat is they distort and twist. After a while, you can’t tell what’s true from what you imagined. Both truths swirl around each other in a colorful vortex.
It’s been weeks since I had dinner with friends, but my mind is still stuck there. I have not accepted any invites since, and it’s killing me. This is not who I want to be. Yet, I hate even more the person I become after spending time with people I don’t know well.
So, yes, I’m a generally positive person. I strive to keep the bulk of my writing encouraging, but that’s not my life 24/7. Just like anyone else battling a mental illness, I spend a lot of time in dark corners, reliving the worst moments, even if they never happened.
If you struggle with the aftereffects of social interactions, please know you’re not alone. Medication and talk therapy can help break the cycle, but in my experience, it never goes away completely. It’s like learning to live without a foot. You can still do a lot, but most things will be more challenging for you.
I’m not giving up. Hard as it is, I’ve added some amazing new friends to my circle over the last few years. Remembering the value of those relationships keeps me trying. With the hope of success, I keep putting myself into stressful social situations. The potential good is always worth more than the negative. At least, in the long run.
I may relive my last dinner out for a while yet, but I’m ready to venture out again. The night was fun until the anxiety question. Maybe the next event will be even better.
Until next time, keep fighting.
About the Creator
Bipolar for 49 years, chronically ill for 36. The voice behind the Speaking Bipolar blog. Wrestles taxes by day, wrangles words at night. Thinker. TV Addict. Poet. Links: https://speakingbipolar.com/socialmedia
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
Expert insights and opinions
Arguments were carefully researched and presented
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Original narrative & well developed characters
Zero grammar & spelling mistakes
I just wanted to express my appreciation for your story and the time you took to share it with us. Your words really resonated with me, and I'm excited to follow your writing and see what you have in store for us in the future.
yes, friends are ultimate. nice article Scott Ninneman. thanks
I’ll admit: I cried when I read this. I found it so relatable. I’ve thought so many of these things word for word. You’re right; those feelings may never go away, but you’ve got to learn to work with it. Thanks for sharing such a vulnerable story that helps remind people they aren’t alone. :)
Thanks for sharing your experience!
I still suffer from the effects of PTSD. I use that term lightly because my actual diagnosis is CPTSD. When I mention that people jump to conclusions, and often throw past diagnoses at me. I can be very avoidant at times, though I am trying. My problem with stigma is I'm often ignored or labelled 'crazy' because once you have a name for it, that seems to be all others see.
Awesome work. Keep up the finer excellence.
I enjoyed your work. I have bipolar disorder and anxiety too. I cannot eat doughnuts and drink mountain dew or coke before bedtime because I would wake up crying from a harsh nasty violent nightmare that I can't tolerate. Some may call it a night terror it's so bad. I quit eating sweets before bedtime and now the nightmares are scared away for now anyways.
Interactions good for life with others but we should maintain limit interaction
Your awesome Scott.. Keep sharing your stories and experiences because it's helping others who are going through the same thing.. your a blessing.. Peace and Love
Interacting with people is very important.
Definitely worth the read! Very informative - thank you for sharing! 🌺
"It’s like learning to live without a foot. You can still do a lot, but most things will be more challenging for you." Brilliant way to put it. Thanks for this piece.
This is a very heartfelt and compelling article. I can relate, and I want you to know that you're not alone in the journey to find peace. Great piece of writing
Definitely worth the read! Very informative - thank you for sharing! 🌺
I love your honesty, you aren’t crazy you are valid in your feelings