I used to think I wasn’t suitable for groups: being part of a group, taking part in a group.
By groups I mean coworkers writ large, or as a small group working on a project. I leave out social groups because I’ve never belonged to any kind of social group, unless a group of friends counts (though I’m thinking more of organized groups)
Some people aren’t great at being in a group. Sometimes you have a handful of people in a group who all need to be the leader, and things can become tense and anxious while the battle for power plays out (later there’s the awkwardness involved if you were backing someone who didn’t end up the winner).
Then there are the shy people.
I am shy. I disguise it effectively. I often over-compensate. People who know me say “I never considered you shy.” Shy isn’t always about being subdued, eyes downcast. Shy is often a feeling inside: a sense of extreme vulnerability, of anxiety, of paralyzing fear at meeting unfamiliar people and dealing with new situations.
It took several years, but I realized that being outwardly shy drew more attention my way—unwanted attention. The brash, pushy, fighting-to-be-in-charge Alphas live to persecute the outwardly shy people. I learned that the more I appeared to fit in, the less attention I drew. I didn’t pretend to be an extrovert who wished to be in charge. Instead I took part, presented ideas and suggestions, posed questions, never pushed backed, agreed with those in charge. I was middle-of-the-road.
Unless I was going through a manic cycle.
Mania, the “high” or “up” end of the bipolar cycle isn’t simple to describe. It’s an intense emotional high, which, said like that, doesn’t sound too bad. In some respects, it isn’t bad. Bipolar means, literally, direct opposites: mania and depression, high and low. Of the two, the low is always the worst. Being manic, being up, is easier to handle than the crippling depression. The best way to describe my manic cycle is to quote an old boss of mine. This was many years ago, before I learned I was bipolar. If I was in full-on mania mode, those were the times someone summoned me to the manager’s office for having used an improper tone with a customer, or for having been snippy with a colleague. My boss called them the “There Is More John In The Room” days: times when I seemed Larger Than Life, times where my personality arrived in the room before my body. I recognized that my brain was lit up, but I didn’t always understand how that translated into my outward presence and behavior.
When I am manic, I talk louder and quicker. Sometimes I can’t talk fast enough. I laugh more. I am more intense. I am more likely to go on long tangents and rants. I’m rarely angry when I’m manic, though if someone pisses me off when I’m in full-on manic mode, I’m more likely to say things I can’t take back. I’ve dramatically quit several jobs because I was angry and manic: quitting on the spot, with a flourish of vicious words and an even more dramatic exit. Generally, though, I’m just “More John In The Room.” And, in a group, being “More John” makes me seem Alpha-like, and I attract unwanted attention. The other Alphas circle, seeking to control the pecking order they perceive is under threat from this manic, seemingly Alpha person. Since I am not an Alpha by nature, my fight-or-flight instinct takes over, and I flee or shutdown mentally and emotionally.
For a long time I assumed I wasn’t great at groups because I wasn’t positive where I fit in. I didn’t wish to admit to being shy, which often lead to being picked on and bullied; and, I wasn’t an Alpha, though occasionally I come across that way. Being part of a group is about fitting in, about identifying your rank in the pecking order.
I’ve had time to reexamine my aversion to groups. I’m not convinced that it is my personality that is the issue. At least, not altogether.
I think it is my restless nature. Groups have a dynamic: they function once everyone finds their place within the group. The people nearest the top are constantly in motion, fighting each other for dominance, and everybody else takes their place in line.
My mind is too restless, too charged, too much in motion to remain in one place. I don’t seek dominance in a group — I don’t need to be in charge of anything. I am not Leadership oriented. Neither am I a follower. I am always up for learning new things, new tasks, new duties; and, once I’ve learned and mastered said task or job, I’m ready to move on, to learn something new. This doesn’t always work well in a group. There are only so many places to go within a group without presenting a perceived challenge to the Alphas. There are only so many new things to learn within a group. Once I’ve tapped the possibilities, I become bored, restless, lose interest, and my once stellar performance becomes “John needs to work on his focus and task completion skills.”
Add the mania to the usual restlessness of my mind and it explains why today’s obsession becomes tomorrow’s “who cares?” When I’m manic, I become obsessed with things; when I’m depressed, I couldn’t care less. I’m unsure whether I am a smart, inquisitive person who always needs to learn new things, or if my cycles of interest and indifference are an offshoot of my bipolar cycles. Perhaps the restlessness of my mind stems from the endless cycles of high and low. I am a rapid cycler. I can be manic and depressive within the same day which explains how I can be interested in something for part of the day and ready to move on during another part of the day. I can love my job at 10 a.m. and at 1:30 p.m. I can be vociferously telling off people and dramatically slamming out of the door, shouting “I quite this fucking job! You can all fuck yourselves!”
When I’m manic, I also can be obsessive about things.
A brief example of my obsessive manic nature involves Sharpie markers.
Several years ago, a new Super Target opened across the parking lot from the Barnes & Noble I was working at. The whole shopping plaza was new. A co-worker and I would go to Target for lunch — they had a hot dog and french fry special. Every day after work, I’d stop at the Target to pick up a grocery item needed for dinner, or to wander around, looking at the Clearance items. At the check-out lanes, they had a multi-pack of Sharpie pens, the regular Sharpies, not the fine-point ones, on display: it was a 24-pack. Twenty-four different colored Sharpies.
They obsessed me.
All 24 colors obsessed me.
Every day I’d stand in the checkout lane and debate with myself: how much I needed them versus how I had no use for them. Several times I was there with my mom, and I would laugh, point at the markers, and mention the Sharpie obsession and my inner debate. One day, my mom, in a heartfelt gesture, bought the 24-pack of Sharpies for me. I think I can safely say no one has ever orgasmed over a 24-pack of multi-colored Sharpie pens before, but I came close.
Once I had the Sharpies in my possession, my interest in them soon waned. I scrawled my name on a few things, made a few doodles. And, that was about it. They dwelt, unused, in a desk drawer for many years. Some are still floating around the house — we use one to write the “opened on” dates on condiment bottles and milk; or to mark purchased dates on things put in freezer bags.
The Sharpie story is illustrative of a lifetime of intense enthusiasms and obsessions. Change “Sharpies” to: books about the Salem Witch hunts; books about the Tudors; books about British history; books about anything; spiral notebooks (the same year as the Sharpies, Target had the notebooks from the Back To School sales marked down to three-cents each. I ended up with around eighty notebooks). I’ve been through obsessions with journals, scrapbook paper (I don’t scrapbook though), pencils, pens, notepads, cookbooks, spices, canning pickles, the Top-of-the-Line Kitchen Aid mixer (used once), the Instapot (also used once for split pea soup, which, while flavorful, was overcooked, leaving no trace of the split peas, just a pot of thick green soup). I devoted a year to learning about Buddhism, though I never practiced — I was only interested in learning about it.
It isn’t about groups; it is about interest and participation. I sign-up for things and lose interest half-way through. This explains why I have started and quit college several times over the years without earning a Bachelors Degree. I learn by reading the textbook and am frustrated by the participation part.
Endless repetitions of the same information for the students who need the extra explanations is torture for me, even though I understand we all learn in different ways and at different speeds. By the time everyone in class was up to speed, I’d shut down and was mentally far away. When I was in high school, I always had a spiral notebook with grid pages. When I couldn’t take listening to another repeat explanation, I would number the squares: easy at first, when using single or double digit numbers, but as the digits increased, trying to fit all the digits in the small box was mentally exhilarating!
It isn’t about not fitting into a group. It’s a desire to be the only member of a group, my group. When I’m on my own, I can be as restless as I choose. I don’t need to conform to the expectations of a group. I don’t need to worry about the moments of mania that still make appearances through the medication drawing attention to me.
Sometimes, it’s about the mania.
Sometimes, being alone, reveling in mania, restlessness, and obsession can be the most joyous thing I know.
Groups be damned.