Meeting new people is hard. It’s hard for any adult. Ask anyone a few years out of the college graduation about the biggest surprises of adulthood and in the top five will be the challenge of meeting new people and making friends. Just placing yourself in proximity of people you don’t know who may be willing to have a conversation with you is a difficult task.
The basic being around new or different people, it is a challenge for me. I don’t work at a job anywhere. I live alone. I don’t belong to a church. My hobbies are solitary ones, mostly. I manage it, mostly by annoying my friends to include me in their fun with other friends.
But the challenge doesn’t end for me at the initial getting in front of new people, where it does for most other adults. When I meet someone new, my internal dialogue goes something like this:
‘what do i say about my cancer? oh shit, can they see my disfigured chest? is that a thing in this outfit? do i say something before they notice?’
‘how long can I go without mentioning i have cancer? i am so sick of talking about fucking cancer. i don’t want to do this. they are going to ask me a question about something and i’m going to have to say something about being a cancer patient?’
‘oooo, this person is funny and smart and kind. can i make them my friend? if i make them my friend, how long can i go without telling them my cancer is end stage? is that fair? am i allowed to make friends if i’m likely to be dead sooner rather than later?’
‘please god don’t ask me what i do, please don’t ask me what i do, please don’t ask me what i do. oh shit, he asked me what i do’
Here’s how the conversations go externally:
Me: blahblahblah opening conversational gambit
Them: blahblahblah answer and possible parry
Me: blahblahblah funny thing or follow up
Them: blahblahblah answer; what do you do?
Me: I’m a writer.
Them: What do you write?
Me (possible answers to include): I’m working on a memoir/ I’m a freelance writer.
Them: What about?/What kind of freelancing?
Me: I’m writing a book about surviving end stage breast cancer/Whatever pays the bills.
Responses for the first kind of answer range from an ‘oh’ followed by long, awkward silence through to ‘you don’t look sick’ said either admiringly or accusingly. For the second, I get a lot of blank looks, especially from corporate types because they are used to elevator speeches and I don’t have one because right now if your check clears and the enterprise is legal, I would write whatever bullshit you paid me to write. Also, my give a damn is kind of broke when it comes to playing the business network thing.
My favorite responses are the ‘you don’t look sick’ kind. I went to a business conference a couple of years ago, in between surgeries, to get ideas about writing as a content creator. I ended up getting into a heated argument with a CEO over whether or not my cancer treatment was suitably hardcore enough to warrant my trying to earn a living outside of a corporate career trajectory.
Sometimes I think it would help if I looked more on the outside the way I feel on the inside. Maybe it would help if I had a tag that showed the line on my arms where the nerve damage starts. Or a sticker on my back that showed the pain level at the base of my spine. Or a thermometer that showed my physical, emotional, or mental reserves available at any given moment.
Anyone who has lived to be in their forties comes with some backstory. I have more backstory than most. I feel like doing the work of being my friend now should require a week of orientation and a battery of assessment tests. I don’t have the psychological or emotional stamina to get everyone up to speed on all my shit.
I think maybe what I could do is staple together everything I’ve written in the past decade plus a copy of my medical diagnostic charts, add some testimonials from current friends, include some of my favorite recipes and a reading list and put it all in a binder. Every time I meet someone I like, I could hand them a binder. Tell them to go through the material. If they are picking up what I’m putting down, we can discuss moving things to the next level.
I wouldn’t have to explain why I often cancel plans at the last minute. That would be covered under sections Chronic Conditions (physical) and Chronic Conditions (mental). I wouldn’t have to explain why I don’t make long-term plans. Or why I don’t look for full-time work. I wouldn’t have to explain why I have complicated feelings about money and why I am always broke. It would all be covered in the material. People would know upfront being my friend includes the distinct possibility of having to bring me casseroles or take me to an appointment or that I sometimes won’t answer the phone even though you know I’m home and not busy.
Meeting new people is complicated. It is really, really, complicated. It makes me tired, just thinking about it. But, being alive and moving forward with living, it means forging new connections. It means doing the work of being alive on the planet and part of that work is getting out and about in the world.
I don’t know. It’s so hard being a person.