Confessions of a Social Phobic
From the age of 13, I’ve lived with a disorder that affects how I function every single day. It’s a disorder you might not be aware of, but one that has greatly shaped the daily decisions I make and even who I am as a person. It’s my biggest insecurity and the thing I like least about myself. I have social anxiety disorder.
What exactly is social anxiety disorder? For those of you who don’t know, social anxiety disorder or social phobia is a range of negative emotions and anxious feelings resulting from social situations. Anything from talking on the telephone, to ordering food in a restaurant, or speaking out among a large group of people can cause someone with this disorder extreme distress or even panic attacks. People with social anxiety disorder often fall into a pattern of avoiding social situations to avoid the negative feelings associated with them, thus strengthening the symptoms of the disorder when they’re finally forced to be social. Examples of things that scare the hell out of me include taking public transit, meeting new people, and participating in lectures and seminars.
If you’ve met me or know me well, you probably see remnants of the disorder. The inability to speak up in large groups of people, the constant use of my phone in social situations, the nervous laugh and averted eye contact when someone I’m not familiar with tries to strike up a conversation. My least favourite aspect of the disorder is the silence. My vocal chords literally feel like they’re being held captive sometimes, especially when I’m trying to speak to strangers or acquaintances. My mind will go entirely blank, and my heart will race as I try to think of something, anything, to say to fill the silence. More often than not, I just sit quietly or make the occasional comment in an attempt to appear social.
On the surface, I may not be someone who appears to have this disorder. I’m the President of a sorority, a frequent club-goer, a former Residence Life Don and social work student who always goes after leadership positions and strives to help those in need. I just recently travelled to Malaysia independently for the first time. I may not seem like someone affected by social phobia, but I very much am and have been for as long as I can remember.
In the 12th grade, I remember confessing to my English teacher that I had recently been diagnosed with social phobia, and she was shocked, as she viewed me as a skilled public speaker and someone whom my peers admired for my academic success. In reality, I missed school often, walked down the busy hallways staring straight ahead and fighting panic attacks, feeling like everyone was looking at me and thinking that I was a freak.
I remember the first time I showed signs of social anxiety disorder. I’d always been a shy girl, someone who would have her younger sister call friends on the telephone and pretend to be me until they answered so I wouldn’t have to talk to my friend’s parents. However, when I first started high school I had my first panic attacks, which would become a daily occurrence. I would walk to school, past a busy bus stop where many students would be getting off. Suddenly, I’d begin to panic, mind full of thoughts that they were staring at me, and suddenly I had tunnel vision and a heaving chest. I used to think I had breathing problems or perhaps a heart condition, until I realized this only happened when I was around large groups of people. High school moved by in a blur, I had few friends, never dated, never went to sporting events or parties. I studied, kept to myself, and barely held on until the day I finally graduated.
At the age of 17, I made the exciting decision to attend the Trent University Peterborough campus, as opposed to the Oshawa campus in my hometown. This would mean that I would be living in residence, an hour away from my family. The prospect excited and terrified me, and while I had my pleasant moments, first year was ultimately a nightmare. During Orientation week I was too afraid to leave my dorm room and attend events, turning down my bathroom mate’s requests to go out. I sat alone in my room, watching Studio Ghibli movies and crying. My social anxiety was so bad that I was afraid to go to the cafeteria and eat when it was busy, ultimately keeping an emergency stash of food from home in my fridge at all times, and losing 15 pounds from the stress of it all. I once again never attended parties, frequently missed class, and barely socialized outside of my bathroom mate and her group of friends. The negative experience, as well as a traumatic event that occurred in November of my first year, caused me to leave residence at the end of first semester and take a semester off of school.
During my time off I was extremely depressed and isolated, as all of my friends were away at school. I did nothing but sit in my room and binge watch as many television shows as I could. My anxiety worsened, and every time I went out I’d have a family member speak to the salesperson on my behalf. It was only after having the courage to finally leave a toxic and abusive home environment behind in July of 2016, that my self-confidence, and in turn, my anxiety began to improve.
Some of you may be wondering how I’ve managed to cope with such a crippling disorder for the past 6 years. I’ve seemingly tried everything in order to get better: medications; cognitive behavioural therapy; visits to social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists; and one hospitalization. I meditate, and use positive affirmations, positive visualizations, and reward-giving strategies to help get me through the rough patches. Despite these positive coping strategies, I, as many others, have fallen into some negative coping strategies that I’d like to address here.
When I was 17, I developed a dependency on the anti-anxiety drug Clonazepam. It got to the point where I was taking it all day long during my first year of University just to stay sane, and only after a hospitalization was I able to get clean. I actually took Clonazepam during my second year in a much healthier and more responsible way, and now take Ativan only as needed. More recently, I’ve fallen into the habit of consuming alcohol to cope with my feelings of anxiety in social situations. Perhaps this is why I enjoy clubbing so much- the adventure, the lowered inhibitions, the ability to dance and have fun without a care in the world. Alcohol allows me to finally let loose, the anxious thoughts that plague my mind all day disappear and I’m able to say and do whatever I feel like doing. This is a freeing experience, however it’s led to some trouble both in my personal and professional life, and I’ve found myself fighting a dependency to it as well.
I’m happy to say I’m doing a lot better than I was. I’m making new friends, going on dates, partying, excelling in my studies, travelling, trying new things, and ultimately living my life to the fullest for the first time. Things still aren’t perfect though, I still freeze in social situations, still have days where the thought of facing the world is impossible and on those days I snuggle up in my bed and watch Netflix instead.
I’m writing this article both to educate others about social anxiety disorder, and to let those who are also struggling with it know that things truly do get better. If you’re isolating yourself, and having a hard time managing your anxiety, seek help. Trent has a fantastic counseling centre with people who are more than able to provide you with positive coping strategies to help overcome this disorder. One of the biggest things you can do on your journey to overcome social anxiety disorder is surround yourself with a support system of people who care and are both compassionate and challenging when they need to be. My support system includes my dad, my friends, my sorority sisters, my psychiatrist, and my excellent SAS coordinator, without whom I wouldn’t have made any of my recent progress.
My second strategy to overcoming social anxiety disorder is finding strategies that work for you. For example, in my experience as a don I knew that at staff meetings I would have a very tough time participating in discussions without preparation, and so I arranged with my CRLC to give me the discussion questions ahead of time so that I could write down my answers and practice saying them aloud. Little tips and tricks like this can make all the difference.
I end this by saying that social anxiety disorder is not an easy diagnosis to receive, and it is likely something that I will struggle with for the rest of my life- I’ve accepted this. However, I refuse to believe that this disorder has to run my life or that it gets to define me. I never thought I’d travel independently, hold down a job, or go on dates, but here I am pushing myself to achieve my goals and once again proving that my disorder does not define me. And you can do the same