Let's tell the truth to people. When people ask, 'How are you?' have the nerve sometimes to answer truthfully. You must know, however, that people will start avoiding you because, they, too, have knees that pain them and heads that hurt and they don't want to know about yours. But think of it this way: If people avoid you, you will have more time to meditate and do fine research on a cure for whatever truly afflicts you.
Yesterday, as I had just started talking to two coworkers, I felt my longtime arch-nemesis, Anxiety, enter my coworker's tiny, suddenly airless office. I felt her arrival in every part of my being. I felt my bright, red blood seep through my skin and burn across the surface of my face. I felt my heart begin to race, and I heard each of its quickening beats echoing in my ears. As if controlled by a switch, I felt my brain turn off all extraneous thoughts except for the only one that mattered.
"Fight or flight?"
Even with my brain in survival mode and unsure of its ultimate decision, I continued to talk. Random words that formed unintelligible sentences poured from my mouth. I heard the words and knew they made no sense, but continued to talk.
Finally, my brain chose "flight" as my best chance at survival and quickly conveyed the message throughout my body. Hearing my brain's message loud and clear, my cellular troops stopped my voice mid (unintelligible) sentence and swiftly ushered me (some might call it running) away from my coworker's office and to the safety of my own.
As my brain slowly regained its ability to reason, and in between my thoughts of, "Oh, shit, did that really just happened?", I desperately tried to come up with possible explanations for my sudden departure from my coworker's office. I thought about saying that I was about to vomit or that I had a mini seizure or that sometimes my brain goes haywire and causes me to speak gibberish. I tried to come up with anything to explain myself. Anything, that is, except the truth.
In order to hide what I perceived to be an embarrassing truth about my self, I spent a ridiculous amount of time concocting just as embarrassing lies about my self. Telling distant and unfamiliar lies seemed so much easier than telling a truth that lives deep in my core. Telling a coworker that I was about to shit my britches seemed so much easier than telling him of my truth, that I have a terrible, stinky, runny case of social anxiety disorder.
In some form or another, I think that social anxiety has always been a part of me. (I don't really like considering it a disorder so I'm going to drop that particular word from this particular disorder that I have.) I have always been a shy person, but my shyness was never an extremely debilitating condition. As a child, I can remember hiding behind my parents legs, the curtains, a potted plant, anything, in order to avoid the stares and conversations of well-meaning adults. I also tried to run away from home at the age of eight when my mom invited Ratalie Neid* over to play with me. And, when Bistin Kenneman* came over to play once, I broke the head off of her Barbie and told her, "I'm going downstairs to watch American Bandstand… don't follow me." But, overall, I was able to function as a fairly normal (in a weird way) kid and teenager.
Some time during my freshman year of college, I was put on anti-depressants. I honestly don't remember the reason behind it. Part of me thinks that it was because I listened to the Cure, wore all black and wrote poetry. Part of me thinks that I may have really been depressed. And, then, part of me thinks that I may have really been depressed because I listened to the Cure, wore all black and wrote poetry. Regardless of the reason, in my very early 20s, I began to take a tiny, magical tablet every single day of my life. For the next 15 years. Throughout those years, I remained shy and introverted, but I never blushed and I never felt extreme anxiety around people. Throughout those years, I forgot what it was like to have social anxiety. Indeed, I forgot that I even had it all.
In my mid-thirties, when my grandmother and both of my beloved dogs died and when I was going through a divorce and preparing to move from the city where I had lived for almost 20 years and when I had just been robbed at gun point and was secretly dating two different men at the same time, I decided to quit taking anti-depressants. Looking back, I have no idea why I chose the most tumultuous time of my life so far to go off of the pills, but I did. And, I'm glad that I did. Throwing away my crutches and fully experiencing every thing that was happening to me thrust me into a deep, dark pit, in which I allowed myself to wallow for only a short time. Then, without any outside help (except for self-help books and wine, lots and lots of wine), I pulled together all of my resources and began to get reacquainted with my self.
As I learned more about the real, unmedicated me, I felt free and invincible. I took solo road trips, signed up for art classes, proudly told nurses that I was on no medication, dated two men at once (Oh, did I already mention that? It really wasn't that cool) and dined solo at fancy restaurants. Eating alone in nice restaurants (without either of those two men) made me feel strong, confident and liberated. Until one night when an unexpected visitor joined me at my table.
Just as the waiter was taking my order, the visitor tapped me on my shoulder and, uninvited, sat down next to me. I felt myself blush. The awareness that I was blushing stunned me into an immediate realization of my visitor's identity. The unwelcome guest, who had just sat down at my grand table for one, was my long-forgotten social anxiety.
It was as if someone who had walked out of my life 15 years ago without a single word was all of a sudden sitting at my dinner table like no time had passed at all. I was unable to eat my dinner that night. The wind had been stolen from my sails, and I had to figure out how to continue my journey with this new and unwelcome first mate. With me as the captain of my ship and my social anxiety by my side, we took to the open seas.
Together, we sailed.
And, together we sail. Most of the time, we float along, largely unaware of each others presence. Those are the times when, not only do I feel like a normal human being (i.e. a human who does not have social anxiety or a disorder, in my narrow opinion), but I feel better than my normal. I feel grounded, strong and alive.
But, just as weather patterns can suddenly and unpredictably change resulting in a raging and turbulent sea, so can my relationship with my social anxiety. When triggered, without warning, she knocks me off of my feet, leaving me unable to find the ground. While being tossed about and unable to gain my footing, I desperately search for lifelines, but never can any be found. As my feet reach for ground and my hands grope for stability, the violent waves continue to control every part of my being. Sometimes, the turbulence ends only when I find a means of escape. Sometimes, I simply have to ride out the storm into smoother seas. Either way, I end up feeling exhausted, weak, uncertain and embarrassed.
I don't really want this to sound overly serious. I mean, sure, it's terrifying to have anxiety hijack every part of my self just because I happen to be around other people. And, it's challenging having social anxiety sit like a heavy weight on my shoulders, not allowing me to move in any direction, but inward. But, on the positive side, having social anxiety has helped me weed out friends and, when I'm able to laugh at myself (which is so important because, really, I need to lighten the fuck up), some of my experiences make for some humorous stories.
Like the time that I actively tried to make friends by going to see a Michael Jackson cover band with a group of women whom I'd never met before. My friends who know me well find it tremendously funny (A) that I even went in the first place… not really my thing (hey, I was trying to branch out), and (B) that I walked 1.5 miles home at 11pm just to escape a large venue full of women who were excitedly dancing and screaming at the feet of a cheesy Michael Jackson impostor.
Don't get me wrong; sometimes, I would kill to be that type of person. The type of person that does not give one ounce of a fuck and can have fun no matter what. But, sadly, I'm not. And, that night, there was no riding out the storm; my only option was to abandon ship. So, without a word to any of the other women, I slipped out of the venue and blissfully walked home in solitude.
Truthfully, solitude is where I am happiest. Unfortunately, I can't spend my entire life hiding out from people. It wouldn't be healthy anyway. The more time that I spend alone, the harder it gets for me to be around others. So, I have to practice.
The days when I pull my car into the grocery store parking lot and have trouble getting out of my car to go into a huge warehouse full of people and food (I do it for the food), I have to practice. There have been times that I've pulled up to the grocery store and thought, "No, I can't do this." Then, I turned around, drove home and ate canned beans and boiled potatoes for dinner. Other times, I take a few deep breaths, and commit to finish what I set out to accomplish -- buying food.
That is practice.
When I walk places, instead of driving, so that I can slow down, be mindful and stay grounded. That is practice.
When I get out of my head so that I can simply enjoy another person's presence. That is practice.
When I remember that all people aren't just out to get me. That is practice.
When I make small talk with strangers. That is practice.
When I meditate daily to keep me present. That is practice.
When I realize that I need outside help and seek guidance. That is practice.
When my boyfriend leaves me at a social gathering to go to the bathroom, and I talk myself through not freaking out. That is practice.
When I simply breathe my way through whatever (people) life throws at me. That is practice.
When I am able to tell someone that I didn't shit my britches, that, instead, I have social anxiety. That is practice.
And, when I share this truth, that is practice too.
* Names changed to protect those who might have been traumatized by having me as a childhood friend.