Social Anxiety, Friendship & The Perks of Being a Wallflower

This week, I re-read one of my favourite stories, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Despite being in the middle of several other books, I just felt a compulsion to read it a second time. And this is the important point: the fact that I didn’t so much want to as need to read this book a second time was the thing that’s been weighing on my mind lately. And I’ve been trying to work out why.

Personally speaking, I think it’s a brilliant, brilliant story. The same goes for the movie, and yet the book was what I needed to experience more. But the fact that it’s awesome isn’t the only reason I read it. Let’s take a deeper look at what makes it so great.

Charlie is perhaps one of the most relatable characters I’ve read. It’s not just the fact that he’s clearly a shy and quiet person. It’s not even the fact that the friends he makes in this book clearly mean a great deal to him, enough to perhaps be friends for life, I suspect. But it’s how much he clearly thinks and wonders so much about things that it prevents him from participating that I could especially relate to.

I think this is a key reason why the book is loved as much as it is – that Charlie, his friends and the experiences they go through are as relatable and recognisable as they are for many of us. Learning how to make friends, trying to engage more, falling in love, making bad decisions, being forgiven – all of these are just a natural part of life for many of us.

Personally speaking, high school was pretty straightforward for me. I never had any real trauma, I was never beaten up or anything as bad as that. There were nicknames given to me, some affectionate, some not so much, but I’ll be honest – in my case, the worst person I had to deal with, more than anyone, was myself.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean that in an angsty, emo way where I punch a mirror in slow motion due to hating my own reflection (although that is usually pretty cool to see in movies). Sadly, I also don’t mean in the way that I had to deal with a split-personality or, in the case of Doctor Who, a dark evil future self out to kill me. (I’m still not entirely sure how the fuck that’s supposed to work, but fuck me, do I just love the sheer insanity of that idea!)

In this instance, what I’m referring to is your standard level of social anxiety. It was pretty regular and standard back in high school. I could talk to people, particularly other students, although, frankly, as someone who virtually based his entire life on films, TV and books, you could only imagine how many of those attempts at conversation were awkward, especially when trying to make new friends in the early days.

However, I did have a problem with authority. Not that I was the kind of person who openly rebelled against it, oh no. It was the exact opposite. If I had a problem, if I had to raise my hand up or request help (for anything), if I had to so much as admit the words “I don’t know” or “Sorry sir, but I don’t understand”, 99 times out of 100, I wouldn’t do it. Because I genuinely was afraid to.

Don’t ask me why, but even during high school, for most years, teachers were less actual, reasonable human beings to me and more authority figures you had to obey as much as possible. It wasn’t their fault, of course – it would’ve been a pretty fucked up dystopian school if it was – but like I said, I had a bad case of anxiety, and that bastard’s rarely rational.

Still, high school was better than primary school, at least. Back in my earliest years, I had a problem talking to anyone. At least, anyone outside of the family. It got to be such a problem that I was actually labelled as a selective mute. (I still think that’s an odd term, as it makes it sound like a deliberate choice of who to speak to and who not to, rather than wanting to speak but the words don’t come because of ridiculous, irrational, almost paralyzing fear, but whatever.) Eventually, I got better, but I definitely had trouble engaging with others for a long time.

This wasn’t the only problem, however. In fact, it was merely a symptom of something else, something that I just couldn’t identify for a long time, something that continued throughout high school and beyond. I had done well in my GCSEs, but I had failed in virtually all my A levels bar one. It wasn’t enough to make me go onto university. In fact, part of the problem was that I had no fucking clue what I’d study for uni. Or what to do with my life in general.

For a couple of years after high school, I literally did nothing with my life. I didn’t even have a full-time job for over a year and a half, although I certainly looked for one. But being someone fresh out of sixth form with no actual fucking experience and, perhaps much worse, having difficulty speaking to others (something that proved to be quite the problem in interviews), it made the job hunt rather difficult. I was someone who had once worked hard in high school and yet completely failed outside of it. In a lot of ways, I was pretty much ready to give up on life.

It’s funny how the little things can change the direction your life goes in. Especially when it happens during a drunken night with one of your mates.

Speaking of mates, I’m going to make another point about why The Perks of Being a Wallflower is as great as it is – the friendship between Charlie, Sam and Patrick. In the book, we get the entire story from Charlie, during letters he writes to an unknown friend, and yet we get such a clear idea of that friendship and why it works. I could just relate to Charlie’s perspective so much. Particularly how his friends help him to open up and participate more with others.

There has been one friend in my life who has helped with that a lot over the years. I can’t remember how our friendship began – we’ve been friends since high school, and I remember how we wasted a lot of time in lessons chatting shit about great British sitcoms like Bottom and Red Dwarf – but somehow, for no clear reason that I can think of, we became close as hell. She helped encourage me to go out more, to enjoy myself, to just have fun with others.

Naturally, as Charlie had with Sam, I eventually had fallen in love with her. To be honest, I think it would have been very, very hard for me not to fall in love with someone who truly helped me to find my voice, at least, back then. But of course, that kind of love was always one-sided on my part, and she never felt the same way. I’m not surprised, considering the pedestal that I put her on, to be honest. Eventually, I moved on and our friendship got even better.

But that’s not the important part. The important part that I genuinely believe helped to change my life occurred during one night, hanging out with her and people I barely knew. After a few beers and seeing her help out another of her mates, I had decided to ask her a question. I was twenty, I hadn’t gone on a date, and I’m not gonna lie – it was starting to get to me. I needed someone to tell me what my problem was, and I thought there was no one better than my best mate. We’ve always been honest with each other, it’s probably one of the key reasons why our friendship has been as strong as it is, and I knew she could give it to me straight.

She told me a lot, and built it up with a lot of compliments first about how I was a great guy. I was getting ready to argue that if I was such a “great guy”, then why was I having this problem (if you want to label me as a fedora wearing “nice guy” by this point, go ahead, I wouldn’t blame you)…and then she said it. Something that not only made me think about my lack of a love life, but my entire life up to that point.

“James, if you have one fault, it’s that you’re always filled with constant self-doubt.”

All the arguments I had went away then. Everything about how much I had fucked my life up, of how I couldn’t be that great a guy, they just all went away. In just a few words, she had hit the nail on the head on what my problem was. And I knew it was something I needed to sort out.

Things began to change in my life after that night. Not immediately, but slowly, bit by bit, I started climbing uphill. I dated someone a few months later and got through a number of key firsts, and while it wasn’t exactly the romance of the century, it did get my anxiety about sex and even kissing out of the way. I have a complete lack of a love life now, but it’s definitely much less of a problem than it was before I lost my virginity.

I went back into studying a year after that, once I finally found what I wanted to do with my life. Eventually, I went from temporary work to a couple of permanent jobs across several years. I had my first serious relationship, and while that wasn’t meant to be, I was grateful for it, even more so than what I casually had before.

Last year especially was fucking amazing. First, my friend encouraged me to try out improvised comedy. Yes, the kind that eventually involves going up in front of an audience and having to think up shit on the spot. My answer was a strong, firm “NO”. Actually, it was many strong, firm “NO”s. But eventually, I learned just to say “Fuck it!” and join in.

And honestly, it was by far one of the best decisions I had ever made. It not only really boosted my confidence, but I met so many awesome, amazing people. And it really encouraged me to open up and trust others more, because quite frankly, if you don’t and you’re on that stage with a couple of others in front of an audience, you’re gonna really fuck things up for everyone, something I aim to avoid doing as much as possible.

I also went to America to meet up with a couple of my mates. Again, I had a really great time and met so many awesome people. I also got to get a glimpse of myself away from England. And after losing my last permanent job, I realized that, despite thinking that having a job was the most important thing in the world and being a big part of who you are as an adult, it ultimately wasn’t. Which lead me to deciding to move to Canada, at least for a couple of years.

I wonder if my best friend even remembers telling me what she said to me that night. Probably not. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that what’s important to you won’t always be as important to others, and vice versa. I don’t know if things would have turned out much differently if she hadn’t said those words to me, or if things would’ve happened exactly the same way. I just know that I constantly think about what she said, especially if I’m about to make a decision that scares me. Regardless, I’m sure she knows why I’m getting away for a couple of years, and I hope she knows how important her friendship has been and always will be to me.

I think I know the reason why I needed to read The Perks of Being a Wallflower again. Right now, my life hasn’t been this uncertain since sixth form. I’m not sure of what will happen when I go to Canada. I don’t know if I’m going to be happy there and really make something of my own, or fuck up completely and beg to come back home. I just know that I really need to at least fucking try, while I still have the chance.

As I said, the character of Charlie was one I could really, really relate to. He reminds me of the boy I was back in high school. But more than that: he’s a reminder of who I’m not right now. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve still got my problems with anxiety. There are moments when I genuinely panic about not knowing the right answer. And I know for a fact that, while I’d like to have a relationship and perhaps one day even a family like many of my friends have, I also know that I’ve got a lot of growing up to do before that.

But I also like to think that I’m not someone who always hides away, either. That, while I still depend on my closest friends and family, I don’t depend on them for everything. That I’m a better person now, or at least, I hope I am, and that I hope to be even better in the future. That’s why I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower. To remind me of who I once was, how different I am now, and how, while the future can never be certain, to embrace the anticipation, not the dread, of what’s to come.

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