In elementary school, I was weird and awkward. I certainly wasn't the only weird and awkward kid in my class. I grew up in an area with a very real poverty problem and many of my classmates were struggling with home lives I never could have imagined. I wasn't like them. My family had money. We had stability. I wasn't like the other kids with money, though. I was fat. I didn't understand social interactions very well. I was easily offended and hurt. I had interests that did not align with my classmates' (for example, my favorite movie from the age of 10 was It's a Wonderful Life and my favorite movie star in fifth grade was James Dean--I used to wear a locket with his picture in it).
I never quite felt I fit anywhere. This isn't an unusual condition. I recognize that now. When I was a child, though, it seemed I'd never find the right place for someone like me. At home, I wasn't really like my family, either. My politics, from a very early age, were more liberal than my parents'. My interests weren't anything like my brother's. Because my parents didn't really know what to do with me, I ended being a bit flavorless: I wasn't exceptional at anything, I was obsessed with pleasing them, and yet I also never felt fulfilled or happy. None of this was by design or intention. It's just what happened. I wasn't like my family. I wasn't like my peers.
By the time I reached high school, I'd found a small group of friends. I was closer to some than others, but I definitely still felt like an outsider. They were smart and talented. They took high level math classes and joined the school theatre troupe and played in the marching band. I didn't do any of those things. I felt sick and unhappy at get-togethers and parties. I had a very hard time making friends with new people. I just wasn't able to find a spot for myself. I felt like a a lost puzzle piece. Somewhere, a puzzle wasn't finished because I'd gotten misplaced.
Well, actually, I'm sure I thought of it more like I was broken - I couldn't imagine a place where I would fit. This sounds bleak. It wasn't so bleak. Yes, I was very unhappy but I had friends, I got pretty OK grades, I had a nice home, I was better off than most people. I don't want to catastrophize. I only want to express that I never felt like I had a space where I could be myself, fit in, be a part of something larger.
College wasn't different. I wasn't good at parties. I couldn't talk to members of the opposite sex. I didn't do well talking to strangers. Grad school proved pretty similar. Then, came adulthood.
As an adult, I felt less weird and ill-fitting, but I didn't make any strides when it came to actually finding my tribe. I had great friends, but they all partnered up, married, and eventually began to have kids. I never even dated. I couldn't make myself get out there, meet men, or truly even think about making a move with someone. Instead, I folded up tighter into myself. I gave in to my depression, I chiseled away at friendships until my social circle was incredibly tiny - pushing everyone away with a series of excuses. I had a few hang on, but not many. Who could blame them?
I have always been a dreamer, an imaginer. I love to imagine what my life will be like when I move to a new place, find a new job, get that new car/outfit/pet/friend. I spend most of my time dreaming about it and almost none actually doing it. When I moved into the house where I live now, I envisioned walking to some of the many beautiful parks that surround me. I loved the idea of being in a small community where I could get to know my neighbors. I wanted to take the dog out for strolls around the neighborhood. I've done almost none of that. I'm as quietly shut up as ever. I don't know my neighbors. I rarely take walks. My best relationship is with Netflix. The poor dog's collar, which tracks her movements, keeps telling me she isn't very active. She isn't - because she's busy napping with me.
I'm getting ready, now, to go on this year-long trip across the United States. It's a dream situation and I am doing it in part because I want to prove to myself that I can, but also because I have to do something to break out of this hard shell I've created. I don't know where I fit, but it's time I started trying to figure it out. I need to find out where my puzzle is and slot myself into its empty spot. I have always been a drifter: when I leave a place, I am gone forever. I don't keep in touch with anyone from my hometown (who still lives there anyway). I am not connected to anyone I knew in college, or in grad school (except one amazing friend). I have always worried that I was a friend of convenience. Who would want to stay friends with me after it wasn't convenient anymore? No wonder I haven't found my puzzle.
In all my dreams and imaginings about my upcoming trip, I am alone but open: warm and friendly and happy to meet new people. I have to follow through on those dreams. I have to keep myself from shutting all the doors and windows, locking myself up tight again. It's the only way to go forward, to stop feeling like I don't fit in. I'm finally beginning to understand that fitting in is a matter of perspective: if you let others know you, understand you, get comfortable with you, then finding a tribe is easy. We're so connected, but we're afraid to find those connections (I'm afraid to find those connections) because what if the connection leads to rejection or hurt? Fine. But, what if it leads to acceptance or joy or love? What if opening up means finding something you thought you weren't allowed to have? I am taking this journey to figure out what I can do, who I can be, and to try to understand where the puzzle from which I went missing is located. I'll never do that with all the doors locked.
Puzzles don't get finished without some help. It takes fresh eyes to see what's missing.