February 13, 2013

Introverts: Part 3) Old Age Need Not Be Lonely

Here's a stereotype: College years are happy times. Even introverts make friends there. But old age is a lonely, unhappy time, with few friends.

For THIS introvert, the story is reversed.

My Lonely College Years
My years as a Cornell undergraduate were the loneliest of my life. I was an introvert, and I was shy. Compounding those realities, I lived at home with my family -- not in a dorm with classmates -- and I also had a part-time job... not circumstances that encouraged me to make new friends.

I'd lost touch with local high school chums after graduation. I started at Cornell in the liberal arts college, with thousands of others. I felt "lost in the crowd." The loneliness eased when I ran out of money and transferred to the state-funded School of Industrial and Labor Relations, where the student body was only about 300. After college, I went to Cornell Law School. These smaller schools made it easier for me to make some friends. And it became even easier in law school when I started spending bar-time with my pals.

My Working Years
Just weeks shy of getting my degree, I got kicked out of law school. But fate smiled on me: a month later, I was hired as a labor law editor at the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA), the 100% employee-owned company in Washington, DC. I ended up working there for forty years, from 1955-1994.

I found two families at BNA. I met Diana LeBlanc and married her, starting a family that within a few years was enhanced with the births of a son and daughter. I also found a second family of friends.

1978: the Turnaround Year
In late 1977, I came out to both the Schappi and BNA families about my homosexuality. Diana and I initially separated, but we reconciled after her throat cancer diagnosis. I finally came to terms with my alcoholism and began my recovery in AA in March, 1978. Diana died that May. Daughter Ann left home in the fall to start college at Northwestern's  School of  Journalism. Son Todd was already living on his own. Now, so was I.

In the space of just a few months, my family and my friends were privy to my two deepest, darkest secrets. I was pretty sure my kids would stick by me, but feared losing my friends.

How wrong I was.

Each April, BNA's employee stockholders elect 12 employees to the company's board of directors. I was on the board, but had been voted off once before and expected to get the boot again. Really, who would vote for a queer alcoholic? As it turned out, lots of people. I was re-elected with more votes than ever before.

My family and BNA friendships remained intact. I made a host of new friends in AA and the gay world. Ever since, I have not wanted for friends.

Introverts As Good Listeners
As an introvert, I had a talent that helped me make friends: I was a good listener. I suspect many extroverts are happy to find friends. like me, who don't compete for the spotlight... friends who instead are happy to sit back, listen, and applaud.

My discovery that I could be open about my "dirty secrets" of alcoholism and homosexuality resulted in my being open about most everything else. As a result, I soon  found I was often listening to people say: "You know, I've never told this to anyone else, but...."

At AA meetings, I encountered people who openly discussed their deepest feelings and real issues. The same thing was happening in my expanding circle of gay friends. These conversations made for deeper friendships than the more typical "news/weather/sports" conversations.

I've never felt comfortable in large groups. While one-on-one remains my favorite format, I'm now OK with slightly larger groups. Four is about the limit, one reason I like playing bridge.    

I am blessed today with two loving families -- the Schappi family and my home family with Nimesh and Bhawana -- and more good friends than ever.

Introverts need not be lonely in their later years.              

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