What do homeschooled girls and trash cans have in common?
They both only leave the house once a week.
This joke was well-received among homeschooled youth because it rang true for so many of us. For almost all of my teen years, church was the only social activity that I engaged in, the only time during the whole week that I might have a chance to interact with people who were not my immediate family. Making friends in that context, especially as a shy teen girl, seems daunting. However, I had an even greater obstacle to deal with: I was not allowed to participate in youth group.
My parents were absolutely terrified of teenage rebellion. Thanks to various books and speakers popular in the homeschooling community, my parents believed teen rebellion to be a recent American trend due to indulgent parenting and peer pressure. A rebellious teen was more than just an annoyance in the homeschooling community: that teen was turning his/her back not only on the parents, but also on God. What a tragic waste of years of sacrifice and careful training by the parents! This type of thinking motivated my parents to maintain careful discipline and to shelter us from almost all contact with our peers, even at church.
I distinctly remember the conversation between the youth pastor and my mom. I was probably 14 or 15, and so shy that I would start shaking if anyone tried to talk to me at church. Although social interaction was painful, I desperately needed it, and I think the youth pastor noticed that. He approached my parents after church one day to invite us to Sunday school. My mom asked for the materials that were being used in Sunday school, and took them home to peruse them with my dad. I heard the decision the next week at the same time as the youth pastor: "Our kids will not be attending Sunday school." The reason? Apparently the material mentioned a teen who was frustrated with his parents, and it was dangerous for me to think that frustration was a valid or normal feeling for a teen to have toward parents.
The tough thing about social phobia is that it is often self-reinforcing. In my case, my severe social anxiety displayed itself in uncontrollable muscle spasms, and anticipating the shaking made me even more anxious about interacting with people. What if someone noticed me shaking? I used to cry myself to sleep at night quite often, occasionally trying to get my mom to notice my tears by sniffing juuuust loud enough for her to hear as she walked by my door. When she came in to ask why I was crying, I would say something like, "I don't have any friends" or "I don't know how to talk to people." The answer to these was always the same: "You have us" or "You're talking to me right now." In the morning, life would proceed as usual.
Unfortunately, the "usual" for my life at home was very empty and quiet. My dad was working long hours and was permanently in a bad mood when at home, and my mom was always sapped of energy for various reasons. She left us kids to do our schoolwork independently much of the time; we even corrected our own errors from the answer key. Later, due to mysterious and debilitating health problems, her energy was so low that just going to the grocery store was often too much for her to handle. It was simply understood in the family that we shouldn't harass her about wanting to leave the house. Since I wasn't able to get my driver's license until I was 18, I was stuck for hours, days, weeks, months, years with little-to-no mental or social stimulation.
Little-to-no stimulation is not an exaggeration; obviously, a teen girl who can't even go to Sunday school due to "bad influences" is going to find many other things forbidden to her as well. Our home did not have a TV; we watched few movies; we only read pre-approved Christian or classical books; we did not have internet access; and we certainly did not listen to most music. My one musical joy was listening to Steve Green and going to his concert with another homeschooling mom. When I tried to add Rebecca St. James to my CD collection, my mom almost had a meltdown because of the beat and the heavy breathing; it didn't matter that almost every song was a verbatim quote from the Bible. I knew my role--honor your parents--so that CD went straight into the trash and I tried to feel happy that I was obeying God.
What did I do with my time at home? I dragged my school work out to take up most of the day; I spent large amounts of time spaced out, lying on my bed; I wrote in my journals; and I made my own clothes. My homemade clothes were the outward sign of my feelings of isolation. Starting at about age 13, I was responsible for furnishing my own wardrobe (within the boundaries of modesty my parents provided, of course). I had $25 a month to work with, and my mom could tolerate shopping at fabric stores much more than at clothing stores, where everything was "immodest." (And that was in the women's clothing sections--I didn't even know that clothing came in junior sizes until after I had graduated from high school!) Out on various errands or on family vacations, wearing my very odd, ill-fitting clothing, I felt the stares and desperately wished that human contact was unnecessary. "I wish I could just be a hermit!" ....this sentence occurs a little too frequently in my teen journals.
My first friend of my teenage years came from Hope Chapel, when I was about 17. Pastor Reb Bradley, with the support of the homeschooling families of HC, would not allow a youth group in the church. Finally, I was not so odd! It was easier to strike up a conversation with someone, knowing they might be just as desperate and nervous as me. It was easier to not feel judged when the other person's clothes were just as odd as my own. I could more easily feel successful at conversation because it was not full of cultural references that I had no idea about. I became a little more confident socially, strengthened my atrophied conversational muscles, and got a little more hopeful about life. I was even able to add a second friend by the time I was 19.
Now I'm 30 years old, with four years of college and eight years of work between me and my teen self, yet I still feel the effects of the isolation I experienced growing up.
First, I still feel significant social anxiety in even the most non-threatening situations. I am particularly at a loss in group settings full of new people. What do I say? When do I say it? Whom do I say it to? How/when do I end a conversation? Even in a circle setting, when it's my turn to say my name, my blood pressure skyrockets.
Second, in the whole world, there is no place and no group of people where I feel like I belong. It's like I was raised in a different culture, with the distinct difference that I can never go "home" to it. I'm permanently a foreigner; interacting in this foreign culture takes a lot of attention and effort. I've tried to catch up on the culture I missed...to watch the movies, to listen to the music, to see pictures of the clothing styles.....but it will never mean to me what it means to you. People always use cultural references and nostalgia as a way to build community and connections between people; for me, they create distance and remind me how different I am inside.
My profile photo is of the 80s star Molly Ringwald. The first time I ever heard her name mentioned was at my first real job, when I was 22 years old. God bless my dear gay boss, who saw through my awkwardness and gave me a chance at the job because I looked like his favorite childhood actress! When he learned that I had no idea who she was, his jaw hit the floor.
These days, I manage to avoid shocking people too much, unless I decide to tell them about my past. To me, the biggest compliment I can receive today is, "You were homeschooled? Wow, I can't even tell!"