I was a painfully shy child.
I used to hide behind my mother’s skirts at kids’ birthday parties. Yes, she had to stay with me until the end; I’m not sure who was more relieved when the candles were extinguished and we are able to go home. Whenever I had to speak in class, my cheeks would burn, flushing tomato-red. The center of attention was my own personal hell. I was also an introvert, much happier spending time with one or two friends — or with my nose in a book — than being part of a big gang. The playground overstimulated and exhausted me.
I use the term “painfully shy” because that’s exactly what it was: Agonizing.
In the early ‘80s, in small Scottish towns like the one in which I grew up, kids weren’t celebrated for being anxious, self-conscious, or introverted. A state of shyness was something to apologize for (or to be apologized for on my behalf, in a room of grown-up strangers, trying to get me to perform). It was something to try to grow out of. My grandfather said to me, when I was 12, “There’s such a thing as too shy, Claire, and that’s you.”
My grandfather said to me, when I was 12, “There’s such a thing as too shy, Claire, and that’s you.”
Fast-forward 10 years or so, and I’d discovered how to bring the introvert out of her shell.
It was simple: I just had to get her drunk. By age 18 — after a couple of years of occasional experimentation — I was drinking regularly. It was so easy; I was away from home, living in my university halls of residence, an environment where heavy drinking wasn’t just accepted but encouraged. All our orientation events revolved around booze, like the pub crawl around the 20 most prolific boozers in Glasgow’s west end. Or the afternoon drinking contest where participants downed pints of lager, blindfolded, and were spun in circles the moment each empty glass hit the table. The winner was the person who was still standing when everyone else had withdrawn — in most cases, by collapsing or throwing up.
I was a different person when I was drunk — my chatty, lively alter ego let me break out of the bashful kid mold I’d been trapped in for so long. Fuelled by booze, I could talk to boys, dance without feeling self-conscious, and hold my own in an increasingly raucous conversation.
I thought alcohol made me a better version of myself. I thought it enhanced my life by making me more sociable and less anxious. I thought it was my friend, encouraging me to have the fun every teenager deserved. None of those things were true, of course.
Today, I don’t see shyness or introversion as things to be ashamed of, things to be “fixed.”
By the time I figured that out, I’d changed. I was no longer shy. I’d grown out of it, just like everyone hoped I would. Simply by living life — engaging with people, trying new things, going for job interviews, becoming a parent, putting myself out there as a genuine, vulnerable person — I’d largely left the blushes and the nerves behind.
I was still an introvert, though. Sensitive, self-reliant, and empathetic by nature, I relished my own company and preferred spending time in small groups than busy crowds. I got anxious before parties and weddings, and had to avoid overstimulation for a few days after any big event in order to recover. During my 20s, I saw this as a flaw, not a strength. We live in a culture that values — and celebrates — extroversion.
Even now, with two years of sobriety behind me, I think a lot about why I started drinking in the first place, and how it got to the point where a couple of glasses weren’t enough. Was it because I grew up in an environment where drinking to excess is considered the norm and a teetotal lifestyle is considered unusual at best? Did I binge drink because that’s what everyone else did, without question, without shame, without ever considering that there was a healthier, more fulfilling way to live? Maybe it really was as basic as that. But my struggle to accept my introverted nature was a major factor.
Today, I don’t see shyness or introversion as things to be ashamed of, things to be “fixed.” Being quiet doesn’t mean being less interesting or charming; in fact, often the opposite is true. In my experience, shy people are often the sweetest.
I’m okay with being someone who doesn’t feel comfortable at parties, who enjoys her own company, who hates small talk. (And whenever I forget, I remind myself of Maya Angelou’s words: “When you know you are of worth, you don’t have to raise your voice.”) I’m getting a kick out of getting to know the person alcohol stole from me for so long. I’ve let her sober up, and I want her to stick around.