I always blush and give a little apology when I write a blog post four or five days late. The lag on this one comes remarkably close to a true decade.
The summer after our Sophomore year at OC, T– and I went to the British Isles on a mission campaign led by Dr. John Maple. I mentioned it in passing the other day, because a chance name on Facebook brought back memories of it, but I’ve had a deluge of such chances lately. I keep coming across unexpected recollections of that time, and I finally stopped to think about it.
I don’t have a great memory of my personal history. That’s why I keep such excruciatingly detailed logs of my activity here, because even going back and reading through a page of my life last year floods me with startling memory. Going back two years or three without that assistance is a real stretch, so my college days — and a mission trip nine years in the past — is mostly nothing but a blur.
Sometimes things fall into place, though, and the veil is parted, and as that moment in time swam into view recently, I encountered insight with an unexpected shock. There’s something I’d never realized before. When I went to Scotland, I didn’t know I had social anxiety.
I talk about social anxiety sometimes, but not much. I’ve been told I hide it well, but I’ve been working hard at that for six or seven years now, so that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The anxiety is there, though, and it’s been there…pretty close to all my life. Maybe not in elementary school — at least, not early on — but it was well and truly in place by the time I got to middle school. I used to call myself “anti-social” because I thought it sounded cooler than “shy.” But I wasn’t really either one. I’ve always craved relationships. I make relationships work, and I depend on them, but I’m no good at socializing. Interacting with people on a casual level makes me sick. Really, actually, everyday sick. Low-grade anxiety feels like having the flu. A full-on anxiety attack feels so bad it’s commonly confused with a heart attack. I get these things from small talk.
That’s the difference between “shy” and social anxiety. And it’s something I didn’t really grasp when I was a kid, because a kid doesn’t have any reference point but his own experience. I got up into college and started encountering a lot more people with a lot of different life experiences, and I started to get a clue. I graduated and got a real job and learned about having to interact with people on a casual level day in and day out — and my paycheck depending on it — and that’s where I really discovered the truth about myself. These days I’ve got some good barriers and I’ve got some coping mechanisms, so I can survive in the workforce. But I learned that all two or three years too late.
The Mission Trip
We went to Britain for six weeks. Dr. Maple invited me personally, and I was ecstatic about the opportunity. My favorite books growing up were The Hobbit and Ivanhoe and The Three Musketeers (and, believe it or not, one of the sequels to The Three Musketeers takes place almost exclusively in England, so that counts!). I couldn’t wait to go.
Before we could do that we had the planning sessions, though, and I met the other missionaries we’d be working with. We had meetings every few weeks for months, and I never really enjoyed those. I kept looking for excuses to skip them, but if we passed a certain number of absences we got kicked off the campaign, so I managed to show up. Then we flew over to London — and that was my first international flight — and of course that was draining. But we got in early in the morning on a Friday and Dr. Maple didn’t want us all crushed by jetlag for a week so he insisted on keeping us all awake until sunset. We went to the British museum and had lunch in town and went to Something-or-Other Square (which is famous) and did a bunch of shopping and sightseeing, and we were all miserable by mid-afternoon. He finally set us loose on the town after dinner, and I remember I went to see Les Miserables at a little theater just to grab a seat in the back row and snooze in the dark. That was one of the happiest moments on my trip.
We went out to the site of our first VBS Saturday, got set up and went over our plans for the week, and on Sunday morning I showed up at church and Dr. Maple told me I’d be helping out with a skit during the morning lesson. I’d be wearing robes and performing a children’s play in front of the whole congregation. I learned this at eight and went on stage at nine. I was sick for the rest of the day.
That’s really how my whole trip went. I was hanging out with these awesome kids, experiencing my first visit to places I’d dreamed of all my life, and I hated it. I hated every minute of it. I hated showing up to teach classes, I hated getting together for Dr. Maple’s stupid devotionals, I hated meeting with the other missionaries to discuss class schedules, I really hated going out to dinner at the local church members’ houses….
I was on a mission trip. I was there to do God’s work, and I was surrounded by enthusiastic, happy, encouraging people. And the whole time I felt sick. I was tired, I was frequently depressed, and all I wanted to do, pretty much every minute of every day, was go off to my room, lock everyone else out (because I was generally sharing a room with one of the other missionaries and ten to twelve elementary-school boys), and just hide in the dark, alone, and try to catch my breath.
I don’t talk much about social anxiety and when I do, I don’t get a lot of sympathy. That’s fine. I understand. But the real tragedy of this memory is that, back then, I didn’t know. I didn’t understand that I was sick. All I knew was that this should be the most amazing, uplifting experience of my life, and I detested it. I couldn’t find any excuse other than my own weakness, so I spent more and more of my time hating myself. It astonishes me to read my writing from the time before that, to remember just how much I considered myself a real holy warrior, a dedicated disciple out to fix the world with words and Truth. I went to England, took a real stab at it, and learned that it made me miserable.
That broke my faith. Not…it didn’t hurt my belief in God. It just shattered my belief in me. I would sit in the corner — while everyone else laughed and joked over paper cups of punch and cheap cookies — I would sit in the corner and hope nobody tried to talk to me, and call myself monster. I spent most of six weeks doing that.
I can manufacture fond memories of the things I should have enjoyed while I was there, but the three times I was really, truly happy, I was alone. I remember those stolen hours in the playhouse on our first day in London. I remember the weekend between camp sessions when we got to go stay with my Uncle Perry and his family, and even though I was never too close to them it felt like sweet sanctuary compared to the chaos of church camp. And then I remember an afternoon at Saint Andrews.
I went off alone. T– went browsing in the town’s little shops, and I wandered away, down to the seaside, and sat by myself on the sand, looking out over the cold North Sea. I was there for hours, just sitting by myself, and then I wandered up to the old ruined abbey and sat among the graves for a while, enjoying that, too, until T– came and found me. And I smiled for her, and hugged her, and she showed me the headstones so old all markings were obliterated, and the path up to the belltower she’d found, and it was fascinating, but it was work. Even as I smiled for her, I felt that day’s peace slipping away. The three moments I really felt happy, over the space of six weeks, were moments when I was alone.
Knowing what I know now, there’s nothing wrong with that. Knowing what I know now, I could have carved out a lot more of those moments and felt a lot less selfish about them. I could have said no to the game of kickball. I could have found a quiet spot instead of seeking out the quiet kid who needed to be talked with, because that’s what I needed to do my job. At the time it just felt like weakness, and selfishness, and I never spoke up.
I wish I had known. I don’t bother wishing I were free from social anxiety, because I think a lot of what makes me special has grown from the quiet time alone that I’ve sought, throughout the years. But I wish I had known already what it was, and what it meant. Lacking that, I wish I hadn’t gone on the mission trip. It was a wonderful experience — even with everything I’ve said, it was a wonderful experience — but my reaction while I was there planted a seed of doubt and disappointment and darkness in me that quietly grew and grew. Years later, when we were living in Tulsa, that darkness became a deep depression, a crippling self hate that nearly wrecked my life.
All because my heart beats a little too fast when someone says hi to me. All because I can’t quite catch my breath when a stranger reaches out to shake my hand. It’s sad, really.
But I’m getting better.