By Jack Sheedy
I recently visited Stonycliff College, representing my class in an Academic Convocation ceremony at my Catholic alma mater, when afterwards I took the opportunity to visit the college library and review the papers of fellow alumnus Thomas John McSheey in my ongoing research of the little known and oft-misunderstood 20th century writer.
What I discovered surprised me.
Besides learning that his studies ranged from theology, philosophy, and literature to physics, astronomy, and even geology, as he searched for direction, I also learned that he lived with a psychological condition known as social anxiety. This condition can be masked, and can even exhibit dormant periods, but in its full bloom form it renders the sufferer deathly afraid of certain social situations. It secretly plagues those who outwardly appear to be quite comfortable in such social gatherings. Yet, beneath the surface, the sufferer is in turmoil, not only during the social event, but even more so in the days or even weeks preceding such an event as the thought of having to attend the upcoming gathering needles away at his or her psyche.
There are differing forms and severity of this condition, ranging from what might be termed mere shyness to feelings of inferiority, in extreme cases rendering the inflicted unable to articulate a coherent sentence. McSheey’s condition existed somewhat in the middle of this spectrum, but the severity could ebb and flow over time, and as stated above, could go dormant for months or even years before returning with a vengeance.
Typically, the condition made McSheey uneasy in any planned social gathering involving more than a handful of people outside of his usual circle of close friends. The use of the term “planned” is quite important, as McSheey could walk into a room not expecting to meet anyone there, and thus happening upon some people could fairly easily hold up his end of a conversation. It was the planned or scheduled event that wreaked havoc with his inner workings. The buildup to the scheduled event was almost worse than the event itself, and many times, he would find a way to make his excuses to avoid such an upcoming situation, either feigning illness, or announcing a sudden change in his plans or another conflicting appointment, or sometimes even scheduling something at the same time just to create an airtight alibi.
In either case, whether a planned situation or unplanned, he did not fare well in any type of small group gathering. In these situations, in his mind, he was rendered more and more invisible as he grasped to find a way into the conversation, his self worth plummeting and thus compounding his invisibility. One-on-one he was fine; even perhaps in a small group of three. But beyond three or four participants he felt uneasy. Strangely, he did a bit better in large groups, as he was able to become lost in the commotion and confusion of the throng, and then slip out without being noticed or missed.
Yet there were other social interaction scenarios that plagued him. For instance, at home, he planned his morning walk around the schedules and habits of his neighbors, slipping into that thin half hour window when others were not stepping out their front door on their way to work, or out to water their flowers, or to walk their dog.
This social anxiety condition even caused scholars to misinterpret McSheey’s decision to stop attending Mass as his leaving the Church, when in fact he remained a devout Catholic, watching television Mass instead. It seems all week long he had lived in a sense of dread of that moment in the Mass, right after the Lord’s Prayer, when the parishioners were to offer each other a sign of peace and shake hands. That planned impending social interaction each Sunday morning had become too much for him to bear.
A food shopping excursion could be postponed if he noticed somebody in the store he knew, sometimes skipping ahead a few aisles, forgoing some purchases in order to make a quick round of it, and then getting through the cashier’s queue and out the door as quickly as possible.
He lived in fear of being invited to birthday parties, anniversary parties, retirement parties, dinner parties, cookouts, weddings, family reunions, high school and college class reunions, even avoiding wakes and funerals if at all possible.
In an attempt to seek some solace, he even went so far as joining a social anxiety support group, but the membership disbanded after just one meeting when no one showed up.
He hated small talk. He much preferred a meaty discussion concerning the origins of the universe, and of God’s role in that universe. He also had a rule than no casual conversation should go on for longer than five minutes, and he often held to this rule, sometimes walking away while the other person was in midsentence. This behavior did not make him popular.
Interestingly, he was much more at ease socializing with a small group of women than with a group of men. He did not enjoy the company and comradery of men. He did not fish, hunt, sail, or even play golf. He was not overly interested in sports. Well, ice hockey perhaps, but no one else he ever met seemed to care for hockey. He didn’t know anything about cars. He was not into high finance so he could not converse on stocks and bonds and such. He was apolitical, so he did not have strong feelings either way on any political subject. And he despised the typical locker room banter. He especially disliked when men talked about women in a derogatory way. Women, he felt, were by far the better sex, and spiritually closer to the mind of God.
In the end, McSheey even dreaded his own death, as he hated the thought of people gathering around his casket at the wake and funeral. But death did eventually meet Thomas J. McSheey. It was said, by a nephew who attended his wake, that he looked “extremely anxious lying there in the open casket, almost embarrassed, and I thought, let’s get this lid closed and get him into the ground as quickly as possible.”
McSheey's grave lies in the east end of the burial ground along Cemetery Road in his home town. At the time of his burial the east end was the newest section of the cemetery and his was the only headstone for many yards in any direction. Over time, though, that section has filled up and he is now surrounded by other stones and markers.
He must be in eternal social anxiety agony.
Jack Sheedy is the author of a number of books and hundreds of articles in newspapers and magazines. As mentioned above, he did in fact attend the recent Academic Convocation ceremony at his Catholic alma mater, proudly carrying his class banner, but he then slipped away unnoticed during the reception afterward.