People don’t think that your absence from something is because you suffer from social anxiety. Often the reaction is negative. I guess though it is like severe depression, and other mental illnesses, if you don’t openly talk about it, which none of us do, then nobody knows the real reasons why you didn’t turn up. It’s not because we are rude, anti-social, too busy – it is because we are threatened by social anxiety that grips our throat, races our heart so fast we feel like we are going to have a heart attack, causes us to sweat profusely, become short of breathe, and start to shake. Our body goes into flight mode in response to the threat of people, of going out, of having to talk to people, and trying haphazardly to be yourself, which we often fail at.
Our fears culminate after any social outings that we manage to attend, we spend hours if not days reviewing in our heads every word we spoke, action we made, and behaviour exhibited. We torture ourselves to a point where the self-talk and over analysis becomes so much that we are too scared to go out again. It can be weeks, months, for some unfortunately years, locked away in our own homes where we can shelter ourselves from the fears of people, society, and conversations.
During a depressive episode, social anxiety heightens, preventing us from leaving our house, going to the supermarket, shopping centres, functions, even our own child’s sporting events.
But like severe depression that people don’t want to know about, social anxiety causes the same reaction from people – they don’t want to know, don’t care, and we are seen to be difficult to be around, we make things awkward, and people don’t know what to say or what to do. They are even somewhat relieved that you didn’t turn up!
For many years I did not go anywhere, I had excuses for everything, and instead of overcoming social anxiety I added to it, isolating myself from the world, pretending that outside didn’t exist, sticking to routines and only doing the bare minimum that was required to get by. I coped somewhat with work by putting up my mask to hide who I was, I avoided big meetings, get together or anything that involved socialising outside of a strict work agenda. But my biggest problem was when my son became Mr Popular, joined sporting teams, and made lots of friends – leaving me with busy weekends taxing him around to the many things that kept him socially very active, throwing me into the very environments that I hated, and feared beyond words.
I soon mastered the ability to get my little boy to all these social events, and sporting competitions without having to talk to anyone, and avoiding showing people who I was. I put up the mask to protect me, I allowed mania to take over, which in the eyes of people around me, made me seem worse and sending people running from wanting to know me. I was forced into situations that became unbearable, if alcohol was present I would drink too much to overcome my shyness and help me to talk to people, but eventually the alcohol started to talk and I would become angry, argue, talk over people, talk loudly, and end up crying, and leave. Then spend days, weeks regretting going, analysing everything, and listening to the constant self-talk that would send me into a depressive state and stop me from going out, avoiding people and conversations, and letting anyone know who I really was. I lost the few people around me, I didn’t get asked out anymore, even my little boy wasn’t as popular as he use to be, all because my anxiety had turned me into something nobody wanted to be around, who they wanted to know, and definitely that person you didn’t want around in your social group.
I was protected from having to be social for many months while I was extremely sick with a major depressive episode that nearly took my life and had me locked up in hospitals for months on end. The only socialising I did was with other patients, in some ways that was a relief because patients of psychiatric hospitals don’t offer anything personal, the only conversations you have is why you are ‘in’, what is your diagnosis. They are the conversations that no patient has with people ‘outside’, inside its all we talked about.
I started my mission to overcome my social anxiety as a patient of a psychiatric ward, and then as an out-patient. I started to attend group therapy on a range of topics, and groups with a range of outcomes. But what I found with all these groups was that I didn’t need to put up the mask, I could reveal my pain, I could talk comfortably, I could be myself and there were no repercussions, the worst that happened was that I would end up crying when the topic of conversation hit home like a train, and you became aware of so many of the reasons, contributing factors that led me to where I was, how I ended up so depressed and anxious. In the past, when therapy has reached this painful place it was always time to bale, I would stop attending, wouldn’t return to that therapist. I would tell my GP that I stopped going because work was too busy, I didn’t like the therapist, I had all the excuses to avoid therapy. It wasn’t because of these excuses at all that stopped me from attending, it was the fact that therapy hit home, it dredged up the past, the very reasons that had sent me spiralling into the depths of depression, it made me cry uncontrollably, it made my mind go into complete overdrive, it threw me into a place I had not wanted to go – facing the demons that drove so much evil into my life.
The difference between group therapy and the individual counselling sessions that I had been to in the past was that while in the psychiatric ward it was compulsory to go, pj’s and all if need be. The facilitators/mental health workers made group a safe place without stigma, judgement, and negativity, they allowed discussion to be almost about anything, and when you had a meltdown everyone in group were actually there for you. There were no restrictions on time, topics, or discussion. I was able to finally be me, I could take down the mask, break down the walls I had up to protect me, and I could finally talk about the very things that had culminated resulting in me locked up to protect me from myself. I even continued attending group as a out-patient, when I wasn’t forced to go, but actually wanted to go, because I felt good about it.
But the biggest outcomes for me was my ability to relearn who I was, find who I wanted to be, build positivity as opposed to the negativity that burdened me, build confidence where as a person I had none, it gave me hope, and I could become me again. I can now openly talk about my experiences with living with depression, about suicide, and about the impacts on me…..now I can write about it without recrimination but with support. But the biggest thing for me at the moment is being able to reunite friendships, go to coffee, and just chat with the girls, it has been literally decades since I could do that. Yesterday I reached another milestone on my journey down the road to recovery. I was able to go to my first Christmas party, I was actually invited to one, and I left my mask at home. I chatted, I laughed, I even smiled and enjoyed myself. I only stayed a little while because I find socialising completely exhausting, but I did it, one step towards combating my social anxiety. I didn’t even analyse this event, there was no self-talk and no regrets. Instead of adding to my fears, I went a little way into turning these fears into positives, I am becoming slowly somewhat social and I aren’t afraid anymore to be me or worried about what people think of me.
Parts of my storey are very confronting and some may find upsetting, if you find yourself upset and depressed I encourage you to ring Lifeline on 13 11 14 or BeyondBlue on 1300 224636.