A few years back, I went to the doctor for some help with my insomnia and left being diagnosed with severe Social Anxiety Disorder. Getting a two for one on mental health issues hardly seems like a fair deal and I rightly feel like I’ve been ripped off somewhere along the line, but as lodging official complaints and multiple telephone calls are exactly the kind of things that steer me towards panic attacks and sleepless nights I guess I’m just going to have to buckle down and get on with it.
Once I started to read up on the condition it became so abundantly obvious that it was something I’d been struggling with my entire life I may as well have been told that I had an Oxygen Inhalation Dependency or Sarcastic Prick Syndrome. When I first moved into student accommodation, I locked myself out of my room and spent an hour hiding in the bathroom rather than talking to my new house mates in the kitchen. This kind of thing seems perfectly rational at the time but in retrospect reads like the behaviour of someone who would eventually find themselves in the paper accompanied by the caption ‘and then he turned the gun on himself’.
I also, literally, didn’t speak to anyone for about nine months upon starting my current job. Mercifully the Christmas party rolled round and I was able to get completely shitfaced. I guess one solution to this problem would be to spend my entire life drunk, but I do have the nagging suspicion that this may come with it’s own set of pros and cons.
For those unfamiliar with the concept of spending every waking moment terrified you’re going to have to have a conversation, Social Anxiety can broadly be described as a phobia of spending time with other people. It goes a bit beyond ‘being a bit shy’ (which I had wrongly believed I was for many years) to the point that you worry excessively about these situations before, after and during their happening. To clarify, it’s not that I don’t enjoy spending time with human beings it’s just that I feel the need to compile a vast project management dossier beforehand to make sure it all goes smoothly and then undertake a painstakingly detailed post mortem afterwards to see where I went wrong. Honestly, Quincy would be proud.
I’ve spoken to other people with the condition (a gathering of a group of people that struggle with groups of people is a pretty wild party, I can tell you), and one of the common themes is that your brain is shouts ‘OH MY GOD! I’M HAVING A CONVERSATION!’ over and over whenever you decide to talk to someone. In the past I’ve found myself so preoccupied with trying to have a ‘normal’ chat that I’m not actually aware of the topic; I’m just vomiting sounds in a desperate attempt to stave off the threat of silence.
It’s all pretty exhausting and at my worst points made me wonder why I bothered spending time with other people at all. The amount of enjoyment I got out of it didn’t seem worth the stress and strain I put in. This is an unhappy paragraph. Sadface.
But don’t worry because this is a happy paragraph where the life-affirming Elbow song kicks in. I went to the doctors for a few months and read a couple of books and now have a whole bunch of tools that help me deal with it. You’re still unlikely to find me in the pub with my arms draped around the shoulders of strangers singing a rousing rendition of The Rembrandts “I’ll Be There For You” but I’m also no longer likely to spend a weekend curled up on the sofa in a feverish, waking nightmare because I didn’t get mad thumbs on a Facebook status.
It’s weird old fucking thing, given that it’s both a symptom of a lack of self-confidence whilst also comes with the assumption that you’re the centre of the universe. It’s a bit like when you wander into a village pub and everyone looks up from their pints to have a good old look at the outsider. But rather than going back to their drinks they just carry on staring, and then get a pencil and pad out and start making notes and muttering to each other whenever you have the audacity to open your mouth. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that not everyone is as obsessed with how I’m perceived as I am. I know, I was surprised too. Turns out you’ve all got your own shit going on. Who would have thought?
Fortunately, it’s not all depressing narcissism, sometimes it’s pretty funny. And as nobody reads anything on the internet that doesn’t have a list in it anymore, here’s 4 Weird Things My Social Anxiety Has Done (You Won’t Believe Number 2).
1. For our honeymoon, my wife and I went to the Ice Hotel in Sweden. This is situated in the middle of nowhere and the one of the few sources of food is a mega fancy restaurant. I ordered a risotto but they got my order wrong, lacing it with the largest, floppiest sweaty mushrooms I’ve ever seen. In case it’s not clear from my description, I am not a huge fan of fungi but rather than send it back and potentially ‘make a scene’ I forced it down between huge gulps of wine, silently convulsing with every mouthful. “Everything to your satisfaction, sir?” “Yes, lovely thank you”. This is the most expensive meal I have ever eaten.
2. Our landlord was doing some work on a conservatory style extention we had coming off the living room. Given that she was fifty-something and doing some quite manual labour and I was twenty-something and sitting on my arse playing Mario, my finely tuned ‘well-this-is-awkward” sense was already tingling. “Steve?”, she shouted. “Yeah?”, I instinctively replied despite this not being my name. I had a good twenty minute window where it would have been suitable to correct this but decided against it, preferring instead to spend the next two years perpetuating the lie, terrified that my wife was going to give the game away. We moved.
3. When you regularly walk to work at the same time every day you end up seeing the same people over and over. One day a lady had the audacity to smile at me so I smiled back. Not a broad, friendly smile or a cheerful ‘morning’, but a barely imperceptible movement of the lips like I had just secretly eaten a Tangfastic. Unfortunately, this recognition of each others existence had opened the floodgates and we now had to smile at each other every single day. Doesn’t sound too much of a hardship, but then you’re probably the kind of person that doesn’t put the prospect of a seconds eye contact with a stranger in the same bracket as the twelve trials of Hercules. I’d see her coming round the corner and find myself giving this moment of human interaction a ‘run up’. Look at the floor, look at the floor, look at the tree, look at the floor, look at her face, smile. Phew! That’s over for another day. Recognising that my options were either murder, suicide or change my walk to work I did the later adding another five minutes to my journey.
4. A trip to the barber’s handily consolidates all my social anxieties into one monthly repayment. Looking at myself in the mirror, time alone with a stranger, forced conversation, being touched; the whole caboodle. Hairdressers are always such a confident bunch too; I once went to a place with whose small talk included the nugget ‘mate, what actually is fire?’. I obviously didn’t go back. Anyway until recently when I loosened up a bit (yes, the Jolly you see before you now is a pretty free and easy version believe it or not), I hated it so much that I managed to develop a ‘script’ to get me through. Part of this script was what I ask for as I sit in the chair which I memorised from a visit with my dad over twenty years ago. What this does mean is that I can never have a different haircut; this is it now, stretching out into eternity. I’m rather fortunate my mum didn’t take me that day or I’d be in my second decade of looking like Kate Bush.
So there you have it. Mental health issues can be fun as well as emotionally crippling. I’ve had this piece sat in my drafts for a while now; trying to decide if laying it out like this is a particularly good idea. But I’ve spent the last year or so purposefully putting myself in situations that I find difficult to tackle this motherfucker head on. I’m bored of worrying about worrying. I’m tired of not feeling involved. And I’m sick of people assuming I don’t like them. So come over here and give me a cuddle; I love you all really.