Social Anxiety seems to be a guest on my bus of life that I cannot get rid of.
A year ago, I was curled up on my living room carpet, shaking and crying with fear.
The TV was on and tuned to some mindless channel but I only registered it as background noise. I was shivering but not cold, my mind was running away with itself and I had no clue why.
I was terrified of leaving the apartment. I had fully dressed, put on makeup and done my hair. I put on my coat and my shoes and stared at my front door. I had nothing in my fridge and needed to go to the grocery, yet I could not compel myself to go anywhere near that door. The action of grabbing the handle of the door to open it seemed impossible as if I had to climb mountains, push boulders and cross great chasms to get out. My breath got short and I felt faint. I thought of stepping over the threshold into the corridor outside and that’s when I felt it. That shaking from the pit of my stomach that quickly spread throughout my body, the deeply rooted fear of what was out there. I hung up my jacket, put away my shoes and curled up on the carpet crying and shaking once more. That’s when I knew it was back and that I needed help – but I didn’t know how much.
I was diagnosed with clinical depression in the year 2000, so I assumed it was the same thing – it wasn’t but it was. I was re-diagnosed as clinically depressed, but other mental illness had decided to jump on for a ride – I was now diagnosed with social anxiety as well.
No, that does not mean I was going or am going crazy. It just meant that my brain tricks me into being fearful of any and everything to do with interacting with society. It means that I feel everyone is judging me once they glance at me. It means that I cannot use the phone to talk to strangers, even if I need to.
I didn’t know what I was fearful about until I went to a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy group at the North York General Hospital with Dr. Levitsky for a few weeks. I was so scared of going that while I sat there during the first session I felt as if I were going to throw up or pass out or both or worse. Over the weeks it felt better because it got more and more familiar, but I do not believe that I was ever comfortable there – not because of who was there or what it was, but because I had disappointed myself by letting myself “fall” into this state again and because I was among other people. It was there that I truly understood what social anxiety was and I started working towards healing myself. When my husband joined me a few months later from England, he helped me through it and together, baby steps by baby steps, I felt more confident leaving the house. I was able to dress and walk out that door without having to get ready hours before and without screaming at myself in my head.
The group therapy finished and I kept up with what I had learned, believing that I had it down pat.
That is – until I moved here to Huddersfield.
It’s started again – I walk down the high street here to go to Boots or T.K. Maxx and I keep my head down and my gait strong and fast. I get there, do what I have to do and run back and then start deep breathing exercises if necessary to repress the raw fear that has infused itself throughout my body. Yet, at other times I would stroll along, enjoying the cool temperature and fresh air….but then again, those times I walked in such a way to avoid any possible interaction with the human beings around me – sometimes stopping to examine the ugliest quilt I had ever seen, to punch the dollar store pillows yet again or to stare at the architecture above me with wonder – just to not have to look at people in their faces.
Two days ago, I wanted to do a trip to Boots for some grooming items that I needed. I felt my fear sitting at the bottom of my intestines but refused to let it take me over and forced myself out the door, albeit grumpily. As soon as I left the safe confines of the apartment I felt it brewing in the pit of my stomach…the nausea…the cramping…the uneasiness. I walked out of the building into the alleyway and breathed the cool, fresh air and felt it calm down slightly. Maybe I just needed fresh air? Then I got out onto the main road and looked down the high street towards Boots. People walked up and down getting their daily errands done. Children squealed, university students guffawed, salesmen hawked their wares – and I panicked.
Refusing to give in I forced one foot in front of the other, walking more quickly than I normally do, head down, glancing up only to make sure I was avoiding all contact I could. Two girls laughed and that spurred me to walk faster. Were they laughing at me? I entered Boots as quickly as I can, so quickly that I was panting as if I were exercising. I couldn’t catch my breath. My whole body was shaking. That feeling in the pit of my stomach had taken me over. I walked up and down the aisles of the Boots which I still haven’t memorized looking desperately for what I needed. Where was the freaking baby oil?!
As I scanned and walked up and down (and sometimes around) the aisles, I imagined how I must look – ridiculous woman speeding through the aisles, sometimes twice, scanning all the shelves as if the world was about to end. Did I look like a junkie? I certainly felt like what I believe one would feel. A fear but a high, almost manic. Every time I looked up and saw someone else in the store I imagined them looking at me and I imagined them thinking I was about to steal something. I wasn’t, but what if the way I was reacting to my anxiety made me look guilty? Oh God, the CCTV cameras will think I’m a thief.
Oh God, oh God, I cannot breathe. I stopped in front of a display of little girl hair accessories and fingered the soft silk on a beautiful pink flowered clip. Then I ran. Not literally, but in my head. I was walking quickly, into the nail section, into the lotion area, the sexual aids area, the cosmetics. Where the hell was the baby stuff?!
I saw it – my relief – an escalator to an upstairs floor. What was up there? There was no one on the escalator and not many people seemed to be going up. I needed to get out of the crowd so I made what felt like a mad dash out of the crowd and practically sprinted onto the escalator. I stood as it took me up in quiet oblivion trying to calm down.
The top floor was quieter. There were people there but not the rush of the floor below, and I was able to immediately go to the back of the floor and calm myself a bit. Luckily, the top floor was also where the baby stuff was, and the corner I had picked happened to have the baby oil. I managed to calm myself to a reasonable level, baby lust kicking in instead of the fear. When was my turn? Would it ever happen? Was I pregnant now? Maybe I should pick up these coupons? Don’t be ridiculous you don’t have a baby etc. Crazy, manic baby thoughts flew through my head at light speed. At least it helped distract me from how terrified I was. At least I could breathe now and walk at a decent pace. At least I could stand at a shelf and examine the products without feeling as if the security was waiting for me to mess up, baton in hand.
I walked over to the straighteners and picked one – after reading all the descriptions. A sales clerk walked by and I asked her one question about the straightener, terrified I was making the wrong choice and that it would not work when I got home or that the husband would be displeased with me for spending money on something that, in the end, is all for vanity. I went to pay and she realized the wrong tag was on the straightener. She also then helped me find a different, cheaper one that was just as good and then cashed me out.
The interaction brought back the panic. I paid as quickly as I could, forgot about the grocery shopping I had to do and sprinted uphill and up three flights of stairs to get back to my apartment. As I walked in I realized that I was about to hyperventilate, I was incredibly hot, the shaking from the pit in my stomach was full force throughout my body and tears were rolling down my face. I was about to break down at the thought that people saw me like this when the Luv Luv called out and made me jump to seven levels of heaven. I dropped his items for him, stripped off my coat to feel the blissfully cool air of the apartment wicking the cold sweat away and headed for my bedroom where I almost completely lost it. I sat on the bed and controlled my breathing as best I could, then took two drops (half dose) of the natural sleeping aid I recently bought and lay down in the fetal position.
Thankfully, my heart slowed down and my breathing became normal. The empty pit in my stomach slowly filled in and the shaking subsided to just the very interior of my being where it always lives, mostly unnoticed in my calm state.
After that, I got on with my day. After all, what else could I do?