Where the doors are always open

I think it’s fair to say that I’ve lived most of my life behind closed doors.

It started when I was 7 years old–back in the December of 1984–when my parents divorced. Just 10 days before Christmas, and in the space of 24 hours, I was whisked over 450 miles from an air force base in Germany to the middle of England having no choice but to say goodbye to all my friends, almost all of my belongings, and my home.

I tried my best to adjust to the transition, but my anxious brain had other ideas. It was what you might call a triggering event.

School was hell. I was at one school for two terms before we moved again in the summer of 1985 and I started at another that September. Back in those days, and at the school I went to, divorce was apparently unheard of. I was the only kid in school from a “one parent family” and I was also the only kid who hadn’t been born in England.

Long story, short: I was bullied and humiliated. Relentlessly and mercilessly. For all sorts of things, for getting free school meals, to “not having” a dad, to being “german”. No one could let go of any of those things. I was referred to as Hitler, and a Nazi. They did the sign. They even did the moustache.

Every day I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. Every day, when I got home from school, I shut the door behind me and wanted it to stay shut. I would dash into my bedroom and shut that door, too. And if there had been a secret room inside my bedroom I would have ran in there and shut that door as well. And so on.

Over the years, I closed even more doors. That was all down to my burgeoning (social) anxiety. I guess I isolated myself as a coping mechanism, and in defence against all the bullying. I mean, no one can hurt you if you don’t make yourself vulnerable, right?

Some doors I actively slammed shut, some I passively let close. But the end result was the same. I didn’t mean for it to happen that way, but my anxious brain just kept swirling with thoughts that I wasn’t welcome anywhere, that I was a nuisance and, well, that no one would miss my absence anyway.

Throughout school, sixth form, university, and employment, I kept shutting those doors. Friendships and (often, one night only) relationships simply lost consciousness and there was nothing I could do to revive them. It was my anxious brain, convincing me that there was no point in letting anything develop into anything meaningful.

The only thing that seemed to break this social anxiety pattern was the few friendships I’d made through my hobby of collecting Transformers. Who would have thought, right!

In the mid to late 1990s, a few of us would get together to talk about our favourite robots in disguise. Then, as more of us found each other (first, via letter writing and then using online message boards) the meet ups eventually evolved into organised conventions.

By 2006 or so, a Birmingham-based Transformers convention called Auto Assembly became the main event in the UK (and Europe) to attend. I went to a few, and while I did enjoy them all, I could feel those dreaded doors closing again. I didn’t go to every one. In fact, I didn’t attend the last two in 2014 and 2015.

I can’t explain how or why, but I know for a fact that my anxious brain was up to its old tricks again.

In 2016 a new convention, called TFNation, came to be. When I first heard about it, I shrugged it off. My brain, again, told me it wasn’t for me. Who’d want me there? What could I possibly contribute?

But then I thought that if TFNation was a fresh start of sorts, then maybe I could be part of that fresh start. My brain and I fought and fought in the months and weeks before that first TFNation. We agreed a compromise, to open the door just a little bit… just to peek in.

I tell you what. I’m glad I did. There were a few points over the weekend where I felt the door closing but I pushed back and stopped it from shutting. I didn’t want to be shut out of TFnation, and I certainly didn’t want to be on the other side of a closed door from my friends, both new and old.

That first TFNation was a remarkably run convention. It felt like no other convention or meet up I’d ever been to before. The entire team had gone to enormous lengths to ensure that the event was safe, friendly, and inclusive.

For someone like me, who has spent nearly a lifetime at the mercy of (social) anxiety, TFNation really did (and still does) feel like a place where the doors are always open.

That’s what TFNation does. It somehow opens doors and, for four days at least, keeps them open. It’s a combination of the organising team’s dedication, the venue itself, the guests and dealers and, probably most importantly, all of the energy of the attendees, including the cosplayers and Forge artists.

It’s this unique combination that, in my view, provides the welcoming and inclusive environment that is talked about so much on social media (before, during and especially after the event) and helps someone like me immeasurably.

I can only hope to begin to articulate my gratitude and appreciation to everyone who, three years running, has made TFNation was it is and what I hope will continue to be. I had so much fun at this year’s TFNation and spending precious (and a frustratingly short) time with new and old friends, more than a younger me would have ever thought he’d deserve.

I have let a lot of doors close in the past, but TFNation represents one door that I am determined to keep open.

Yours aye.

–Graham (@grhmthmsn)

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