My name is Marie and I’m one of 15 million Americans who suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder. The mere thought of social situations infused with forced small talk jump starts my heart with erratic palpitations causing my palms to sweat. Then I get the cold sweats all over and my head starts to swirl with all the possible faux pas I could possibly commit at said social event. Which starts with the likely, flows into the moderately plausible and doesn’t stop until I’ve reached the irrationally absurd.
I’m an introvert’s introvert.
I know it’s ridiculous. I want to stop. I try all the time. But, the more I try to stop it, the more I obsess over it. Every minute detail. Of nearly every human interaction. Unless you happen to be in my extremely small social circle. Consisting of my immediate family and a handful of close friends. In which case, I will only mildly obsess about things I say or don’t say. Because I guess I’m a bit callous with the ones I love.
I’m constantly worried that I’ll offend people or slight them in some way. Either on a minuscule or monumental scale. It doesn’t really matter which, because both plague me about the same. Which is why I try to avoid as many social situations as possible. But they aren’t all avoidable. Because there are people everywhere!
I have strategies for the everyday events that could turn social at any moment. I grocery shop in the early morning to beat the crowds and use the self check out to avoid exchanging pleasantries with the cashier, which I find excruciatingly unpleasant. I usually have a paperback book in my purse which can be used as a shield from potential interaction should I need to wait at the pharmacy or anywhere else. If I forget my book, I always have my phone as a backup plan.
If I can’t somehow get out of going to an event with my arsenal of excuses, I’ll show up first, rationalizing that this allows me to leave first. If at all possible, I will leave the party without telling anyone, disappearing into thin air. This is after spending most of my time in a quiet corner on the periphery of the action petting a dog if there is one. However, a cat is also an acceptable alternative. Maybe even better, because I’m allergic to cats, giving me a completely valid and socially acceptable excuse to leave early.
Social media, the introvert’s playground, isn’t much better for me. I’m far more retroactive, questioning everything I’ve ever typed, than interactive. I constantly edit, revise and delete things. Because putting things in print only opens things up for misinterpretation. Plus, the words last forever somewhere out there in cyberspace. And I can’t join your on-line group even if I wanted to, because I’m only going to screw it up and make everything uncomfortable by being a voyeuristic wallflower. And this is in print even, which is my medium. Making me completely antisocial even on social media.
Even with years of honed avoidance skills, there are times when conversing with real live humans in real time is inescapable. Where conversation is imminent. Forcing me to attempt to form cohesive sentences that convey precisely what I mean in a timely manner. Which doesn’t work well for me at all because I’m a slow thinker who likes to hand select meaningful words. Often a thesaurus is required. And lots of alone time to compose my thoughts. This, of course, is not conducive to conversations. Which is why I prefer to communicate in writing whenever possible. (Please reread above paragraph on how uncomfortable that is.)
Conversations require both excellent listening skills and well timed reactions. And while I’m a keen observer, I often have a hard time actually listening during a conversation because I often get distracted trying to come up with a quick, appropriate and relevant response. Long after the conversation is over, I’ll dwell on what I said or didn’t. That’s also precisely when I’ll find just the right words that I should’ve said. But as I’ve discovered, some of the best responses are actually non-verbal. Open body language, gestures and facial expressions. Which I’m not particularly good at either. Probably because they reveal too much and I’m constantly trying to rein them in. Sending conflicting signals making me appear even awkwardly aloof.
I invariably feel like a fraud pretending to be normal. Trying to conceal that my gut is churning and that my fight or flight response has kicked in. That I may need a bathroom in the most urgent way because of it. Because Irritable Bowel Syndrome often accompanies social anxiety. Which is probably the most mortifyingly embarrassing part, worrying that I, a grown woman, will shit my pants in public. This is always part of my worst case scenario pre-event anguish. Especially if I just ate some spicy Mexican or Thai food. So basically, all the time.
Although I feel completely transparent socially, like everyone can see my inner turmoil and what a complete freak I am, I’ve been told the opposite. That I come across as calm and composed. Which is kinda like winning the Oscar for best actor. Except that I’m a bit conflicted about that. Of course I want to make my social interactions look effortless to make the people I’m talking with comfortable. But, sometimes I want people to know the immense effort I put into making it look effortless. Because to everyone else, it’s invisible.
Except that it’s not. Because social anxiety is the most common anxiety disorder and the third most common mental disorder after depression and alcohol dependence in the U.S. So, while I’m consumed with my own anxiety, it’s likely the person I’m talking to knows exactly what it’s like because they’re coping with it too. Though my social anxiety makes me feel isolated, it turns out I’m actually part of a quite large, albeit, quiet group. And talking isn’t even a prerequisite at all.
So, let's not get together and form a self help group, ok?