She struggled to make new friends each time her husband was reassigned. Could she summon the courage to make just one new connection?
Posted in , Jan 24, 2020
Time to move. Again.
My husband’s next set of military orders arrived. Cody is in the Army. He was being assigned to Fort Hood, Texas—1,500 miles from our home in Alexandria, Virginia.
This would be our sixth move since our oldest daughter, Morgan, was born. In those 11 years, we’d moved about every two years. The moves were hard on Morgan, though eventually she managed to make friends. Her younger sisters, Brynn and Hadley, mostly seemed fine.
The one who dreaded these moves most of all? Me.
I’m an introvert. Some people get energized by a room of strangers. Social situations drain me. My comfort zone is my job—I’m a licensed clinical social worker who works on military family programs—my family and my home.
My idea of a good day? A productive time at work, home at a reasonable hour, dinner with Cody and the kids, a cozy evening reading a book or looking at something online.
Over the years, I’ve developed a small network of close friends, but making friends is hard for me. Meeting new people always feels forced. I have no idea what to say that doesn’t sound fake. I’d rather stay home.
Every two years, I went through the ritual known to most military families. Pack the house. Say goodbye. Drive thousands of miles. Find a place to live (usually off-post). Enroll the kids in school. Find a babysitter, a dentist and a hairdresser (the true trifecta of a military move). A church.
Last and hardest item on that list— for me anyway: make friends.
“At least it’s Fort Hood,” I said to Cody. Fort Hood is one of the largest military installations in the world, with more than 36,000 soldiers and some 12,000 civilian employees. Surely we knew someone.
Cody scanned his mental Rolodex. “Is Ann still there?” he ventured, naming someone we’d known a few years earlier.
“She just retired and moved,” I said. “What about Brad?”
“He and his family are in North Carolina now,” Cody said.
We went back and forth. “There has to be someone!” I said.
Packing the house, I felt a creeping sense of dread. You’d think by this time I’d have mastered this process. Instead it just seemed to be getting harder. Especially the friend part. The thought of yet another round of meet-and-greets, stilted conversations and trial-and-error coffee runs sapped my spirit.
“Anyone know someone at Fort Hood?” I asked my social media network. No one did. In the military, all your friends move too.
Driving to Texas, I realized there was an even deeper layer to my dread. We’d made a home in northern Virginia, finding friends at work and in our neighborhood, our day care and our daughter’s Girl Scout troop. We’d all said goodbye to a place and people we loved.
Now, as we headed into the unknown, I felt weighed down by grief.
A familiar temptation came over me. Maybe I could just skip making friends and consider this posting a retreat from social life. Introverts like to be alone, right?
Immediately I remembered the time several years earlier when I’d needed emergency surgery while Cody was off on deployment. The kids had ended up in the care of strangers because I’d failed to find people to list as their emergency contacts at day care.
It’s a common dilemma for military families. Often you show up somewhere in the middle of the school year. You know no one. Relatives live far away. Who comes to pick up your kids when you can’t?
I’ve asked people I just met at a party to be my kids’ emergency contact. I’ve been asked the same question.
After the surgery debacle, I begged God for help making friends. God did not answer that prayer by giving me a sudden infusion of extroversion. Still, I always managed to make at least one or two friends wherever we moved.
I knew I should ask God for help again. But I also knew what “help” felt like. The enormous reluctance. The awkward introductions. The strained conversations.
I just didn’t feel up to it.
“Of course you can do it,” my friend Mandy back in Virginia said. She was one of the first people I called when we got to Fort Hood. Mandy makes most extroverts look introverted. She can walk into a crowd of strangers and leave with everyone’s phone number.
“Just talk to people,” she said. “Get to know them.”
“Easy for you to say,” I said.
“All you have to do is meet one person,” Mandy said. “Then you get to know that person’s people. You can meet one person.”
Could I? Once, before Cody and I had kids, I came back to the U.S. from being stationed in Germany while Cody was still in Iraq. For several months, even after starting graduate school, practically the only people I talked to were the pizza delivery guy and my next-door neighbor, who turned out to be a drug dealer.
Those were some of the loneliest months of my life. Introverts like alone time, but we don’t like feeling lonely. Who does?
I knew what I should do here at Fort Hood. I just didn’t know if I had it in me.
A month after we arrived, I got an e-mail invitation to a meet-and-greet for military spouses. I tried to convince myself the e-mail had been sent by mistake; it seemed to be addressed only to spouses of soldiers in positions different from Cody’s.
“Let me find out,” Cody said. A few hours later, he called me back. “You’re invited,” he said. “They specifically said they want to make everyone feel welcome.”
“I don’t want to go,” I said.
“Why not? You might meet some people.”
“I might win the lottery someday too,” I said, picturing myself standing awkwardly off to the side as women chatted happily.
“Just go,” said Cody.
I went, a knot in my stomach and a smile plastered on my face.
For a while, I did stand off to the side as women chatted happily around me. I overheard someone say she lived near where Cody and I had found a house.
Mandy’s voice sounded in my head: “Introduce yourself! Maybe she could be your one person.”
I felt the familiar reluctance.
Go, a deeper voice seemed to say. I will be with you.
Oh, all right!
In order for me to meet that woman, I would have to cut into her conversation. Was there anything more mortifying? What if I introduced myself and everyone just stared at me?
I stepped forward. when the conversation paused, I summoned up my strength, stuck out my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Elizabeth. I overheard you say you live near where my family lives. I’m new here too. I thought I’d introduce myself.”
Well, that sounded dumb.
The woman smiled and, to my amazement, we started chatting—about the neighborhood, kids, schools, past deployments.
“Maybe we could get coffee sometime,” I said.
“I’d love that,” she said.
We exchanged contact information, texted a few times and…never met up for coffee.
So much for that.
I tried to convince myself that being alone was preferable to the struggle of making new friends. If loneliness was the price to pay, then so be it. What could I do?
A month later, a second meet-and-greet invitation arrived. Apparently these things happened regularly.
“I am definitely not going,” I said to Cody. “The first one was a bust.”
“Just go,” he said, then grinned. “You know, Starbucks is on the way home.”
This man knew my weaknesses.
“Fine,” I said. “But I’m also getting a brownie there.”
I kept my ears open for conversations that sounded promising. Again I heard someone mention living near me. Without thinking, I plunged in. “I think we’re neighbors,” I said.
“Me too,” another woman standing nearby said.
The first woman introduced herself: “I’m Lori.”
“I’m Emily,” the second woman said.
A third woman held out her hand. “Justina. I think we all live close to each other.”
We also had kids at the same school. This time conversation flowed. We were still talking after the event ended. One of the things we agreed on: how hard it was to move all the time!
Not long afterward, we got together for coffee. Talking to these women was so easy. We arranged to meet at the park with our kids. Soon we were getting together for lunch and even going out for dinners periodically.
“Can I put you down as my kids’ emergency contact?” I asked Justina. I’d penciled in faraway relatives as a stopgap when we first arrived.
“Sure. Can you be mine?” she said.
Meet one person. We can’t all be extroverts like my friend Mandy is. But with God’s help, even the biggest introvert can meet just one person. We can find that emergency contact—and so much more.
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