I have wanted to talk about my experience of social anxiety, but it’s a tricky, vulnerable subject for me. I started writing this piece ages ago but then, ironically, felt too anxious to share it.
Since I started this piece, I’ve also received an autism diagnosis, which has filled in a lot of explanatory gaps for me – anxiety and depression are now experiences I can frame as misdiagnoses, but also predictable emotional reactions for an autistic child growing up in a hostile environment. So I don’t even know if social anxiety is the proper way to describe this experience I’m about to elaborate. Maybe the anxiety I experience is more specific to autistic people, maybe it’s not.
Regardless, I know I am not alone in these experiences, and writing about how my anxiety feels is my attempt at creating solutions to the inequities I and so many others experience in our daily lives. I want to believe that if more neurotypical people understood how it feels to be an anxious person, the world might be less alien and hostile to people like me. Like so many things in my life, it’s scary to be this vulnerable, but it’s one way I can usefully contribute to a better world. Being vulnerable like this is my attempt to be recognized as equally human and, hopefully, inspire some compassion.
So, dear reader, this is how it feels.
It feels like I was supposed to be somebody else. Like who I am is a mistake. It feels like being imprisoned inside a broken version of myself. I am trying to communicate that I love you but all that comes out is fear.
I used to think I would become some kind of mystic because I felt this deep, overwhelming, almost religious love for everyone. But after decades of struggling with the alienating aftermath of a mental health diagnosis, I have nearly lost that love. It’s as if I have been meticulously trained to push love away and distrust everything.
After repeated experiences of maltreatment and abandonment, other human beings are terrifying to me. You can be so cruel, completely by mistake – or even worse, by design. We cause each other so much pain without trying. I can hardly take any more.
This is how it feels.
I notice a series of unconscious defense mechanisms: operating under the assumption that I ought not intrude too far into anyone’s good graces, the anxious mind tells me that I do not deserve to cast my shadow on anyone; that it would be the nobler thing to just quietly contain my demons and remain in life-long solitude. The pain of that solitude is overwhelming, but it is my lot in life to bear it or be crushed under it.
So I withdraw. Enough time passes between interactions with others that I become too scared and ashamed to reach out to anybody. I forget how to interact properly and slowly I begin to feel that, at least within the larger context of the society I live in, I don’t even exist, or perhaps I shouldn’t exist.
I remember that line from that movie about how happiness is only real when shared. I wonder why I have so much fear to share instead, and why no one is trying to share their happiness with me. Quickly I recognize it is because I would immediately ruin it. What else could it be?
I understand with perfect clarity that I am impossible to love. I indulge myself with regrets and imagine how charmed life could have been if I had just been more desirable to be around. But I get it. I’m sad and scared all the time. Who would want to be around someone like that?
I live in flashbacks of the moments I felt people and opportunities slipping away. I am listening to music in the car and suddenly I am at a noisy festival in my head, it is hot and I am sitting against a tree. My best friend gets angry with me for failing to dance to the music. “Can you just be happy for once in your f**king life?” he says. I’ve never liked dancing but I want him to respect me so I lie and say I’m just tired. He later makes fun of the scars on my arms on the way home and calls me a coward for having failed to kill myself. Everyone else in the car laughs. I wonder if the reason I didn’t find it funny is because I am just a humorless loser.
This is how it feels.
I used to have this cute little punch line I would use to enamour myself to people while also trying to describe social anxiety: It’s not that I hate people. It’s just that I hate how hard it is to be people.
I’m not sure if that ever made sense to anyone but me, but that’s maybe as good an explanation as any: I am tormented by the feeling that I don’t know how to be a human being. Like everyone else got a manual except me. There’s more to it than that, of course, but it’s hard to explain. I could go on for days talking about it and never feel like I had captured what it is like.
Even my desire to explain is motivated by a fear that I owe an apology to everyone I have unwittingly left behind, and everyone who still puts up with my miserable existence. I know this is an unhealthy attitude – it’s not my fault that I haven’t been able to maintain many relationships. It’s not my fault that I am more difficult to relate to than most. It’s not my fault that mental health and neurodiversity are targets for exploitation, exclusion, and prejudice.
But all the same, I miss so many people, and the guilt is overwhelming. Almost every day I ruminate on the relationships I’ve lost, or the relationships I never made because I was too afraid to pursue them. I feel that I’ve let people down because I was not good enough, and I want them to know that I’m sorry, that I still love them, and I am grateful for their being in my life, even if briefly, even if they ultimately harmed and abandoned me. I want to be forgiven for being anxious. For being myself. And at the same time, I recognize that existing is nothing to apologize for. Or is it? I don’t know anymore.
I second guess everything. There is no room for certainty when you’re anxious. I imagine how much money I could be making, what career I could be in, if only I were braver, if only I had been able to network, if only I had taken more chances, if only I had a better work ethic, if only I could conform to expectations. I wonder how many relationships, experiences, accomplishments I could have enjoyed if only I were not myself. In my constant rumination, alternate lives unfold from countless fault lines in the narrative arc of my life, each of them marking where my pathetic inadequacies betrayed me to a life of no consequence.
This is how it feels.
No one calls. You wish someone would call but feel like a hypocrite because you don’t call anyone. When someone does call you panic and don’t pick up. You hate yourself for feeling unreal and alone and alien among friends. You wish you could understand people and stop being afraid of them. You want so desperately for everyone to know that you don’t hate them. You observe yourself playing out anxious and avoidant behaviours that make people think you hate them, but you don’t know how else to behave so you just hate yourself for behaving that way and imagine that everyone else hates you too for the very same reason.
You spend hours and days and weeks and months imagining yourself as a person who is not afraid, who does the things that make you lovable, successful, noticeable even, and you wonder why you can’t be that person. You feel as if you need permission, but no one gives it to you because you couldn’t possibly have earned it.
This is how it feels.
It doesn’t feel like anxiety. The word is too clinical, too tentative. It feels like full body panic, like the paralysis of a nightmare from which you cannot wake up. It feels like maybe a heart attack is approaching. It feels like your life is a terrible, ugly, stupid poem, that to your own horror you can’t stop yourself from reciting wherever you go.
It’s wrapping your muscles so tightly around your own skull it puts your teeth out of place.
It’s delaying phone calls, social events, appointments, until you have the courage to face a stranger.
It’s being too afraid of doctors to get timely medical attention.
It’s all day every day trying to remember to breathe.
It’s chest pains and shoulder pulls and twitching fingers and cat eyes and heartburn.
It’s seizure-like spasms and hyperventilation.
It’s hair pulling, panic sweating disaster.
It’s collapsing into fetal position as your body tries to disappear.
It’s not wanting to die but wanting never to have existed.
It’s the shame of being alive.
It’s the negation of everything good there is about you.
It’s an ugly regurgitation of the miraculous joy of simply being.
It’s screaming into the void and making the silence of solitude your only confidante.
It’s reaching out, groping in the dark for a connection, only to console the hand that grasps at nothing and can’t let go.
That is how it feels.
Or something like that. I don’t know, I’m trying. Self-confidence doesn’t fit in with anxiety, but I have to believe that if people could better understand the daily experience of someone like me – and I am not alone in having these experiences – then they would be more patient, and more compassionate, and I wouldn’t have to second guess myself quite so often.
Neurodivergent people, mad people, mentally ill people – however we identify ourselves as being outside the normative standards of our society – we deserve love and respect as much as anybody else. It might take a little extra work, and a little more time to understand how to show that love and respect appropriately to people who are different from ourselves, but it’s worth it.
Isn’t it? Maybe it’s not. I don’t know. I feel like a giant sack of sh** a lot of the time and you don’t need that in your life. What can I possibly offer to balance out the stress and misery of knowing someone like me? Even I don’t want to know someone like me half the time. It’s so sad to see someone’s potential go to waste like that.
This is how it feels. And I just want you to know that. I just want you to know that I love you, and that I am also terrified of you, and I’m sorry.