For an introvert, one of the main (and wholly ironic) advantages to having an office job is that it requires you to interact with people other than the one living in your head. While these interactions range from mildly pleasant to downright excruciating, they do have the added benefit of keeping your otherwise poor social skills at least somewhat up to par.

Conversely, finding a vocation that fulfills your inner need to be quiet and alone may feel to you like coming home. Unfortunately, over time it will also make you less and less suited for public consumption, until finally one day you realize that it’s been multiple days since you talked to someone who wasn’t either married or related to you.

At least I have found it to be so since leaving my job. As my inner world has increasingly taken precedence in my daily life, so my external considerations have all but dropped away. So what if “dressing up” these days constitutes putting on my black yoga pants instead of my muddy jeans, or if I haven’t taken a shower in two days? I’ve been gardening! And yeah, maybe I talk to myself a lot more… hey, it’s allowed when you’re in the garden. And the garden center. And Ross. And Trader Joe’s…

OK maybe that’s stretching it, but still, I usually manage to get by without too many mishaps. I even remember to put a smile on my face, quiet my inner dialogue, and go through the motions of small talk with the people I encounter, from the person at the checkout to the various acquaintances I run into around town. Silly me, I thought I had everyone fooled into thinking my life was still normal. Ha.

Then yesterday, while out at the garden center with a good friend, I encountered someone I used to work with. Apparently she didn’t recognize me the first time I smiled at her, because when I caught her eye again, she actually had to confirm my identity. I said, mostly as a joke, “I guess I do look a little different right now!” She replied, with astonishment clear in her voice, “I know, you always look so polished at work!” Read: “Wow, you look like total shit!” Umm… thanks?

The comment stuck with me, and later on it occurred to me: what exactly is one supposed to look like when going through hell on a daily basis?

You see, I’ve had some conflicting input on this front. Apparently, some people think that you’re supposed to look like crap when you’re caring for a dying person. Thus they are surprised to see that you can in fact muster enough energy to lift the mascara brush to your eyelids, put on clothes that match, and perhaps even wash them and put them back in your closet again afterwards. (I’m still working on that latter one today.)

Both my mother and I have had people we know remark with surprise on how good we look. Perhaps they expect the illness to rub off by association, making the caretaker look like they’re the ones who are dying. Or maybe it’s some kind of consolation prize, as in, “Well, your life really sucks, but hey, at least you look good!” I never quite know how to take it. Again, umm… thanks?

Then there’s the opposite side of the spectrum, which usually comes from people who don’t know you that well. Those are the ones who make comments like the one I got at the garden center. I mean, there I was, actually emerging from my self-imposed social withdrawal long enough to spend some time with a good friend on a sunny Saturday afternoon. And what, I’m expected to look “polished,” too? Do you think I gave more than 30 seconds’ effort or energy to my appearance after tearing myself away from the garden? No, because that time might have been sufficient to talk myself out of going at all. I just wanted to laugh at her and go, “‘Polished’? Honey, you’re lucky I even got out of bed today!”

I’m not sure what’s worse: people lowering their expectations because they know what you’re going through, or holding you to normal standards when they don’t. Either way, I just wish people would let me go about my stinky, solitary business, or let me get gussied up and feel like a normal human being for a day, all without comment. I mean really. Is that too much to ask?