I woke up this morning with grand plans for a blog post all about the role of vampires in fantasy literature. I spent much of the morning thinking about it, composing, and then over lunch something happened. As I was leaving the restaurant, a small group went out ahead of me: three grown men, and a young boy. He couldn’t have been older than six, but as the four of them crossed the parking lot he was joking with the others, carrying on an effortless conversation in the most natural way.
As I got in my car, I realized with a shock that I could remember that. I’d been that boy, years and years and years ago.
Sometime in the last couple years, I’ve started using the phrase “social anxiety.” It’s become a tag for my blog posts, it’s become an excuse for missing social events, and it’s become a lot of misunderstanding. I imagine it’s become a little tiresome, too. I’ve made an effort to be open and honest about it — sharing as much of myself as I can to those people who’ve earned some explanation. The last time I tried, someone asked me if I could remember when it started, but my memory failed me. Seeing that little boy outside Buffalo Wild Wings reminded me of a life I’d lived before social anxiety, though. And then I realized that, even though very few of my friends have experienced life with social anxiety, I’ve experienced life without it. That gives me a touchstone, if nothing else.
I know a handful of extroverts, but the one who stands out most in my mind is Brent Lightsey, a fellow in our small group at church. He’s so outgoing, so anxious to meet new people and make them feel at ease. It’s clear anytime you’re around him that he takes energy from that interaction and delights in everyone he meets. Social encounters really make his day.
I know a lot of introverts, too, and I’m certainly one myself. When it comes to introverts, social encounters are draining. It takes effort to be friendly, even with people you like, and when the social experience is over, an introvert needs a little time alone to get back up to speed. Then there’s the person with social anxiety. When it comes to real anxiety, it’s not just draining. It’s not just uncomfortable. Social encounters make me feel like I’m dying.
That’s not an exaggeration, not hyperbole to get your attention. If you want some corroboration, go look up the symptoms of an anxiety attack. They come in varying degrees of intensity, but even moderate anxiety attacks are often mistaken for heart attacks — to the extent that a person’s first anxiety attack almost always takes him to the emergency room. You can’t catch your breath, and you feel like you’re about to throw up. Tension builds in your chest until it aches, and often your heart races until you can feel your pulse pounding in your ears. Your limbs go weak without warning, and if it’s bad enough you find yourself unable to focus your eyes, to maintain a train of thought.
That’s not shyness. Shy doesn’t send you to the hospital. That’s not being an introvert. That’s not antisocial, either, because it has nothing to do with your attitude, with your intentions, with how much you like the person you’re talking to. It’s a physical response, not an intellectual one.
That’s not Asperger’s, either. There are people who are incapable of normal human interaction, either because they fundamentally cannot understand other people or because they haven’t developed basic social skills. That’s not my problem. I’m not the most charismatic guy in the room, but I can play my part. I can make friends, I can charm, I can be the life of the party.* It’s just that, for days beforehand and days after, I’m crippled by the physical toll of it.
If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ve probably noticed I’ve been talking a lot about Courtney in the last month. Courtney is arguably the first new friend I’ve made in seven years, and part of the reason that actually happened is because we have so much in common. Courtney and I are both writers. We’ve both been writers since high school. We’re both long-time fans of the fantasy genre, and of sci-fi, and just basically both huge nerds. We’re both multi-lingual, fascinated with linguistics, and interested in all the languages of Man. We both went through the same degree program at OC — just a couple years apart. We were both in the Honors program. We both grew up in the same faith. We’re both monarchists.
After our writer’s group last month I stuck around to talk with Courtney some, to share stories about our lives. We’ve exchanged novels and shared fantastic feedback and discussion. We’ve compared music and movies and favorite authors, and we’ve read each other’s blogs in all their verbose monstrosity. It’s fair to say we’re real friends at this point.
And then last Wednesday night, in the four-minute break between class and service, I caught Courtney to comment on her novel and borrow a book she’d recommended. We stood in the aisle between two rows of pews, and discussed some of the same sort of things we’ve exchanged (literally) hundreds of pages of digital communication on, and I spent the whole time feeling ill.
The topics were things I was perfectly comfortable with, so a sane part of my mind carried on the conversation, but at the same time another part of my brain was screaming in frantic panic, trying to figure out what to do. “What am I going to say when she stops talking? Am I going to sound like an idiot?”Neither one of those was a problem — that other part of my brain was responding casually, easily, but the irrational fear was there anyway. “How long are we supposed to stand here talking? When is the bell going to ring? Are we in people’s way? Should I be talking to Jeff? What about Nicki? I just got up and left them in the pew. How am I going to wrap up this conversation? What can I say to get out of it? Maybe I should just run away. I’d look like an idiot. But I look like an idiot now, right? What am I going to say? What am I going to do?” All of it a screaming fury that I had to pretend wasn’t there.
And all of it absurd. Don’t feel bad if you laughed at any of that, because it’s ridiculous. The moment the bell rang and Courtney said, “Oh, I guess we should sit down,” it was gone. All of that frantic panic. All of the thoughts that had gone with it. But it’s not just the fleeting nature of the experience that tells me it’s false. I can find the words, I can identify the specific fears, and I recognize them as totally baseless. I do know what to say next. I’m fairly confident I don’t sound like an idiot (because people keep wanting to talk to me). I even know how to wrap up a conversation. To me, that frantic voice has to be a manufactured expression of something physical. Something more primitive, and outside of my reason.
It happens every time I talk to anyone, though. I described my encounter with Courtney so you could see the absurdity of it, because we have so much in common, and that social encounter was predicated entirely on the things we have in common. True, she’s a new friend, but I feel the same thing when I find myself in a one-on-one conversation with Kris, or even Dan. I’ve been friends with Dan for as long as I’ve been me. I experience the same thing when I call up Trish to ask her if she could pick up some Dr Pepper while she’s at the store, or anytime I walk into my boss’s office to talk about work.
It’s fleeting. Minutes after that conversation with Courtney I was better — albeit a little bit ashamed — and that’s the way these things go. The physical symptoms that went with it were maybe a little difficulty breathing, maybe a little pain in my chest, but nothing you’d really be surprised by. The full anxiety attack usually grows out of big events: a long weekend spent with family, a Halloween party with our small groups, a writer’s group where I’m going to do a lot of talking.
If I see it coming, that panic starts a long, long time before I ever lock eyes with anyone. It messes with my sleep schedule, sometimes for weeks. It messes up my appetite for days beforehand, and hits me with real nausea all day the day of. In the hours before the event, I often find myself wandering around aimlessly, unable to concentrate on anything at all. I’ll usually lie down somewhere dark and quiet, and tell myself it’s just an anxiety attack — it’ll be over soon enough — and mostly I just try to breathe.
Then when it’s over the let-down is almost as bad. There’s almost always a severe headache from the sudden disappearance of all that stress. I can never sleep the night after, with the sickening rush of adrenaline still in my system, and usually I still feel sick to my stomach, too, after days of irregular appetite. The worst of it, though, is the real shame that comes from realizing how much of the last few days (and weeks, and months) I’ve spent agonizing over something so trivial.
That’s social anxiety. In case you were curious.
* references available upon request