Imagine you’re walking down an abandoned street in a town you’re unfamiliar with. It’s night; there are a lot of alleys off the street you’re walking down, and there are noises in the alleys that imply there are people down there. The noises sound menacing. You hear a scream off in the distance; a portentous chuckle not too far from where you’re walking. People whispering from one of the openings ahead.
What emotions are you feeling right now? What is your body urging you to do in this situation?
Most likely you’re not seeing this as an fun adventure. Your fight-or-flight has kicked in. Your startle reflex is high. You want nothing more than to be out of this place; your heartrate is up, thumping away in your ears, your nerves are jangling, you’re attuned to every little thing around you, ready to jump at the slightest noise, touch, scent.
You want out. You might walk faster to get out of here; if you’re really freaked out, you might run. If you know you’re going to have to be in this situation, in this place again, you’re going to probably avoid this street, and you’re going to go another way, or stay home altogether.
Now: imagine something so much nicer.
A party. Everyone’s wearing nice clothes; there are frosty beverages, but no one’s really over-imbibing. They’re just drinking enough that the conversation’s flowing and there’s a lot of laughter. People have gathered into small groups, two, three, four or more; everyone’s very happy, talking a lot, if there’s music playing, it’s low enough in the background that it’s not distracting. Every now and then someone’s voice spikes up over everyone else’s in a laugh or a joyous cry. Snacks on the tables, never a long wait for the bathrooms. It’s a good party. It’s a party everyone would like to be invited to.
How does this make you feel? What emotions? What’s your body telling you to do?
Calm and happy; you’re having a good time, you’re among friends, you’re relaxed and safe. This is a good place. This is something you look forward to for weeks. This is something everyone likes. When this ends, people are already talking about when and where the next one will be.
What, exactly, is wrong with someone, then, when the second scenario creates the same emotions as the first one does? (Or – and this is even better – the first scenario is LESS SCARY than the second?)
The thought of a party like this causes an increased heartrate, sweaty palms, and an upset stomach; actually having to (heavens forfend, and only if you really, really can’t avoid it) attend one means you spend the days leading up to it in an heightening state of panic, characterized by the inability to sleep, headaches, and nerve problems (such as jumping about two feet in the air when a coworker taps you on the shoulder when you’re not expecting it.) Once you’re there, you’re the person in the darkened street. You’re in fight-or-flight mode. You’re sure everything is out to get you (including yourself; everything you say/do/are is wrong, and you’re a total embarrassment to life.) If there’s a room no one’s in, you hide in it, but someone always finds you. Mostly what you do is sit very quietly, like a deer in headlights, and hope no one sees you. Or talks to you. But they always do. And usually in that pitying “oh, this poor dear, she’s so lonely and sad and pathetic” way.
This is social anxiety, kiddos. No, it’s not just “being shy” or “hating people” or “not being good at parties” or whatever. It’s social anxiety. And it sucks. Like, sincerely, sincerely sucks. Because going into a social situation is, to those of us who have this, to me, akin to going on live television naked, and the studio audience consists of my high-school nemesis/bully who is screwing my current-day crush. While they both talk about me meanly. And laugh. (DAMN, but they’re multitasky.)
Here’s one of the (many) things that sucks about social anxiety.
You are constantly having to defend yourself. Because no one believes you have it.
Yes, I have trouble going to parties, and actually haven’t been to one in years because of it. But also, yes, I am active on the internet, and can function (albeit somewhat nervously) in smaller social groups, or (even more strangely) larger groups of people I don’t know at all. And I SEEM like I’d be a lot of fun! “Amy!” people say. “You must be SO MUCH FUN TO HANG OUT WITH!”
If I know you really well, and it’s just a few of us or just the two of us – yes. I’m a barrel of friggin’ monkeys to hang out with. If we’re at a large party, I’m in a corner trying not to vomit. I am not fun. At all. I am not HAVING fun, and I am not fun to BE with. Sometimes I’m crying. Why? Because no reason at all. Fear. Nerves. Straight panic.
“Oh, well, you could be having fun if you TRIED harder!”
No. I couldn’t be. Because my brain utterly will not let me; it shuts the hell down. Or, I suppose, goes on overdrive.
“Well, maybe you just need a drink. That helps everyone.”
Yes. That helped me for years. I was a HELL of a lot of fun when I was drunk. It helped me forget I was afraid of social situations. And then I realized it was helping me right into early alcoholism, and I refused to lean on a crutch that was actually less of a “crutch” and more of a “thing I needed to both get out of bed in the morning and get back to bed at night.” The crutch became a wheelchair and the wheelchair was threatening to become either that thing they strap Lecter into when they want to take him out into public, or a coffin. Either way, probably best to walk away from that crutch before it bludgeons you into the inability to function, right? Right.
I get severe stage fright having to talk in front of groups; however, I can act in front of people with no problems in the least.
“THIS MAKES NO SENSE!”
Actually, it makes tons of sense. If you’re acting, you’re using someone else’s words. People are judging your ability to act, and that’s it. There are also (usually) other people on the stage for them to concentrate on other than you. If you get in front of a group to talk, be it to give a speech, or present something, or to read something you’ve written, or what-have-you, people are not only judging you, they’re judging what you’ve written. They’re judging a LOT of things. That’s terrifying.
When people HAVE seen me in social situations, I seem like I’m fine. I’m not rocking in a corner; there are stories floating around about having seen me at parties functioning, being friendly, funny, and fine. Therefore, I must be lying about this, and just don’t want to attend parties because I’m a terrible human being and/or a huge bitch.
Well, both items in the latter might (eh, fuck it, they sometimes are) be true, but just because you saw me being personable ONE TIME at a party doesn’t mean inside I wasn’t petrified. I’m a very good actress. I can pretend to be someone I’m not, if I have to. I can pretend I’m not petrified; I can bite back the tears (and the vomit.) I can tell entertaining stories and I can laugh and I can be engaged in what you have to say. And the minute, THE MINUTE, I wave my last wave and am all, “Oh, my, yes, we will HAVE to do this again!” and drive off, I’m a shaking mess, and no, we don’t do it again, because I was LYING to you. I was NOT having a good time. I wore the mask of someone having a good time. While you were enjoying yourself, I was working. Does that sound like fun to you? Because it wasn’t. Not even a little. I’m tired, and I want to go to bed and cry a little, ok? And why the hell would I want to put myself through that AGAIN?
I really, really thought this would get better as I got older. In a super-fun (in a not-at-all-fun way) twist of fate, it’s gotten worse. To the point that I sometimes get paralyzed at the thought of these things. I have a wedding to go to, and I just found out there’s going to be at least an hour of socializing before the food gets served. Now, I was cool with going to the ceremony, going to the banquet hall, eating, then immediately leaving so I didn’t get sucked into the drinking/dancing/having to make small talk part of the evening. I attempted to plan ahead. It’s how I handle these things. I specifically asked if there would be downtime before the food; I was specifically told no. I assume I was misunderstood, or perhaps I misunderstood the answer.
I’m therefore leaving right after the ceremony. I’m pretty sure no one will notice. A lot of people will be there. I’ll just walk like a lady with purpose. Maybe people will think I left something in my car. It won’t matter; by the time anyone notices I’m not there the night will be in the wee hours, anyway.
I am furious about this. Not at the setup of the wedding – that’s probably how weddings work, I’ve only been to a few in my life, my friends tend to live in sin rather than make it official – but I’m furious at MYSELF. I’m furious that I can’t celebrate my friends’ special day with them like everyone else who will be there. I’m furious that I have a broken brain and I can’t make it behave for a few hours so I can make nice and go to a damn wedding reception. I’m furious that people think I’m making this up because I don’t WANT to be there. Because it can’t be an actual PROBLEM. It’s easier to just think I’m an antisocial bitch, not someone standing outside the pretty party wanting so, so badly to go in, but it’s like there’s a force field around it: one, that, if you crossed it, your entire body would rebel, and you’d start panicking, freaking out, getting physically ill.
This is an illness that takes lonely people and makes them MORE lonely. So it nicely goes hand-in-hand with depression. What are you going to become if you desperately would like to connect, but your brain just won’t let you? Well. I’d think depressed, probably.
I also hate feeling out of control, and I hate hate HATE feeling weak. And this makes me feel both of these things. What’s wrong? Oh, nothing, being around people makes me have a panic attack, like a Victorian lady swooning on the couch, is all, I’m getting the vapors, where are my smelling salts. I hate complaining to my friends; I feel like in doing so, they will run screaming for the hills because ANNOYING. Why the hell can’t Amy have a NORMAL problem? No. SHE IS SCARED OF SOCIAL GATHERINGS. Shun the nonbeliever. Shunnnnnn.
I like being the strong one. I like being the no-nonsense one. I like being the one all “I will solve that with COMMON SENSE and also a little SPIT AND WILLPOWER.”
I am quite aware I need to go to the doctor at some point and get some Xanax and maybe some therapy. The last time I attempted to do this, the therapist told me the only problem was my attitude and to get more sleep and exercise and THAT was dismissive and shitty, so I haven’t been back. I’m sure there are good therapists out there. I just have this thing where, if you fool me once, shame on you, but if you fool me twice, well, that won’t happen, because I’m long gone after the first time and you’re dead to me. So therefore, all of therapy is dead to me. I realize this is not the best way to approach life.
I’d love to give you some sort of pithy ending to this, but I don’t have one, other than this, I suppose: please, for the love of Pete, stop being a dick to people who have actual problems THAT YOU CANNOT SEE. The depressed person isn’t just “sad” and she will not just “snap out of it.” The person with social anxiety isn’t “antisocial.” YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON IN SOMEONE’S HEAD. Stop judging them. Everyone has something they’re dealing with. Either help them or get the hell out of the way, but don’t make it WORSE.
That’s all the pithy ending you’re going to get out of me. I’m tired. My body’s been on high adrenaline for days in a row. I’m like a sniper waiting for the target to step out of the treeline. AND THIS IS ALL BECAUSE OF A WEDDING. I just want to sleep for a week.
Also, I think it goes without saying that none of the rest of you can get married, or, if you do, you need to livestream that shit because it’s just way too stressful for me to attend. As it’s all about me. Me, me, me. Me, the antisocial bitch who hates everyone.
Back to watching the treeline for those damn targets. It’s exhausting, but my brain tells me we’re nowhere near done. You can’t just walk away. You never know when that wily badguy will step out of those trees. And when’s a brain ever been wrong, I ask you?