If you’re anything like me (and if you’re here, you probably are), social life is complicated year-round, but it’s especially thorny this time of year. You often connect with people you only see once a year, maybe even less often. I live far away from my family so going to see them or getting a visit is always an Event, but I’ve also lived in my adopted hometown for 11 years, long enough to have certain social realms slow down, but still be invited to maintain those connections at the holidays.
One of example of this for me is the Fairhaven Ladies of the Evening Society, a group of women who dress in bawdy Victorian costumes and celebrate our town’s first businesswomen. Fairhaven was a center for prostitution, with a robust logging industry, a vessel terminal sending men off to the Klondike Gold Rush, and the new railroad. The Ladies of the Evening show up in full regalia at the local festivals to stroll through the historical theme restaurants, sometimes culminating in a performance of “Hey Big Spender” on the Village Green stage. What a blast, right?
Until you try to suit up in your tight, itchy costume with the residual nerve damage from 3 spinal fractures, a left arm that’s so awkward it can barely get into the lace sleeve without ripping it, and a numb right hand that can’t find the zipper. Holding the posture to keep an elaborate hat on your head, walking in real women’s shoes, carrying only a small silk bag that forces you to consolidate all your meds into a single, delicate ladies’ pill box. Strolling around like this for two hours, then sitting in a straight-backed chair at Skylark’s Hidden Café, our official HQ where our afterparty is still a performance for the locals, for two or three more.
I want like hell to be able to do this; it was wild fun back when I was in my original body. Now it’s a labor on the level of moving house.
For our Halloween appearance this year, I showed up in costume to the after-stroll at Skylark’s. My friend Alice, who has a persistent cancer that is kept in check but never eradicated, got there at the same time I did. We joked about our “social get-out-of-jail-free card.” I stayed two hours and was the first one to leave—Alice outstayed me by an hour. Having done only a fraction of “my part,” I was exhausted and in pain, but glad to have seen my friends and grateful to still be included in the group. Sometimes I show up to the afterparty in plainclothes and I’m still welcomed and made to feel a part of things.
In other social realms, I’ve not been so lucky. I participate in my college town’s lively pub trivia scene, but can no longer attend the big match at Uisce Irish Pub, which gets so crowded that I used to arrive at 6 PM to guard the team’s table so we wouldn’t have to stand. This match runs from 8 PM to 10:30ish. It’s the one match in town where you can win serious money. I gave up the crowded late-night (for me) scene to join the quieter league at Skylark’s. We start at 6:30, just in time to catch the seniors as they leave the Early Bird buffets, and we’re home and catching This is Us on Hulu by 9. Even with this low-key league, Alice and I have to both be up for it, and we make it maybe half the time.
Another friend invited me to join a different weekly tournament on the night before my Skylark’s game. I explained to her that I really wanted to join her there, but that Skylark’s is my priority and if I don’t feel up to 2 nights out in a row, I’ll skip her game. A month went by and I didn’t join her, and I noticed I was deleted from all her social media contacts. When you are trying to build a team of 6, an RSVP of “maybe, maybe not” is frustrating, I get that. But to hear through another friend that this friend was sick of me “playing the cripple card,” that’s just offensive.
The holidays bring all this drama to the front, with special opportunities to see a select group of people. Some of them I can do, some I can’t. I might not really know until an hour before, when I give it the dress-up test—if I can face showering and getting dressed in proper clothing with zippers and buttons, without wanting to cry, it’s a go.
A lot of these people are ones I don’t see often, and they just don’t have the exposure to understand my situation. Last year, one acquaintance I hadn’t seen all year lectured me about how “my hand is fine” (like she’d know), and she reminded me that blind people and wheelchair users often have jobs, implying that I’m not inspiring enough. Others give me the eye roll I know all too well. Then there is the occasional acquaintance whose unexpected empathy moves me to tears, like what happened a few years ago at a Christmas party. Mary Ann, who I barely know, observed the corner of a pain medicine patch poking out of my dress toward my exposed cleavage, recognized what it meant, and led me to a sturdy armchair where she shooed away its young, able-bodied occupant.
What about you? What is hard about your social life? Is there anything you’re secretly grateful you’re no longer expected to do? What insensitivity have you endured, and what kindness has taken you by surprise?