I used to carry a backpack with me to my family gatherings ALL the time. I made sure to have all of my essentials for basic social survival packed up and ready to go.
I did this for several years right up to my 30’s, a pivotal turning point in my adulthood as my wife assisted me in the conclusion and realization that I have, and have always had, social anxiety.
So, I confess, sometimes I struggle with social anxiety.
And my backpacking was nothing more than a security blanket.
It’s funny too, because, I love public speaking. Though, growing up, I would’ve rather spoken to an audience of thousands upon thousands rather then approach one girl to ask her out.
I would justify my backpacking to family gatherings with excuses like “I do have homework to work on” when I was working on my Master’s (which was sort of legit) to “I’m working on this really epic blog article” (which could’ve been done at home).
But, I was missing out on being relational. I was hiding from real world relationships … be it as difficult and sometimes an endless struggle if not painful.
What was in my backpack!?
How, you might ask, did I manage to survive family gatherings!? I would often pack my books that ranged from novels to comics. I also had my video games. I sometimes would switch out my video games for my laptop. Anything that passed the time. I would also have with my sketchbooks and journals, spending hours during gatherings writing and drawing and creating my own worlds and getting lost. As I got older, it included all of those things along with my smartphone.
I was totally prepared to isolate myself.
That kind of activity also made for a really interesting high for me … a high that was nothing more than pride essentially.
I repent of that lifestyle … it wasn’t healthy. And looking back, it really kind of seemed like a cry for attention without really crying or yelling for it. But bringing a backpack full of stuff to a family gathering spoke louder than anything I could’ve ever said.
At the time, I didn’t think that. I was sort of in a mindset that felt like I had to protect myself, validate myself with my work, garner up some kind of attention with my stuff and maybe even receive affirmation for who I was as a person … experiencing attention all the while hearing that I was good and good enough.
Perhaps my backpack was carrying something heavier than books, tech, pens and pencils. Maybe I was carrying a weight I didn’t even see.
In fact, I know it did.
At least I was present at the gathering, right!? Also, I looked important! That’s right! I was busy! I was actually taking care of things and doing things of sheer importance and genius.
Handling the social anxiety
As of late, I have had a much better control of my social anxiety. But, a lot of other things in my life had to transpire before even reaching this conclusion.
At about age 28, I began to see a Christian counselor about some of the issues I was having as far as my identity and my Christian walk. I also began to be incredibly honest with a handful of my closest friends including my uncle and Pastor.
Over time, my counselor and I worked together to unravel some of the deeper issues that I was facing and ever since then my life has been changing. Even my life as a Christian has been a lot more genuine of an experience as I no longer felt this anxious and terrible weight of the idea that perhaps God was waiting to hit the off switch on my life.
My faith has made a big difference in dealing with social anxiety. I’ve been a Christian since childhood and I’ve had opportunities to walk away. But, I’ve seen and experienced too much of the real God the Father and the real Jesus as the son of God to do something like that.
But, I was still struggling with the anxiety in some ways. And though my heart and mind after a few years of healing was ready for marriage to my wife, Rachel, even she saw some of the remnants of what I’ve been through. She saw it in the backpack.
Once she called me out on it, l decided to try at least one time NOT to carry my backpack with me. The results were actually pretty good.
Rachel and I prayed before even leaving the house once for a family gathering. We’ve been doing this ever since. And I’ve since stopped bringing a backpack with me to family gatherings.
The root of my anxiety
Between journaling and tracing steps through my childhood to counseling to really praying and seeking God over the whole matter, I realized during some of my quiet time that the root of my anxiety was a host of things.
I lived through and overcame bullying that took place throughout elementary and middle school. I overcame sexual abuse. I grew out of what felt like childhood isolation and disconnect from other kids and from family members.
I vividly recall walking the hallways of school, the streets of my neighborhood or other public places with my head down.
Sure, I did have some good times growing up, and some of those moments of light and joy I believe were moments in my life to give me hope and to help me get past some of the traumatic moments of my boyhood.
Because of the bullying and the other traumatic events in my life, I made a vow, an agreement, that I would never, ever fight. I would avoid fights or confrontation or anything of the sort at all costs.
And it did cost. It almost cost me a fulfilled life.
I would later find that the sexual anxiety, especially once puberty kicked in, would later mutate into medicating what was a deep sexual brokenness, because social anxiety would create stress and isolation and create its own cycle.
As a boy, I didn’t realize that the agreement I was making in my heart was one that would mean that I would avoid being fully social, never quiet opening up, only to desire deeper connections with people but never gaining it.
And worse, from the Biblical perspective, I was fearing people, but not fearing God. In other words, I cared more about what people thought of me, what people saw me as, what people thought of me and stuff that didn’t matter, over what God really thought of me.
But, a scripture always stood out in my memory, one that was etched in to time itself in my mind and heart:
2 Timothy 1:7
For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.
The root of my social anxiety …. was FEAR.
And I invited the Lord into that place in my heart — to heal wounds and heal places in me that felt genuine fear … of life … of failure … of harm … of success.
And I repented, because a lot of fear was holding me back from doing what I was supposed to do, as a man, as a husband, as a family member, as a friend, as a son, as a creative, and as a follower of Christ.
For creative purposes, not a crutch
While my wife and I were on vacation, I bought a brand new backpack.
Besides the fact that it holds all of my material well, I am grateful for the fact that I’ve learned to lighten the load.
There’s just some items in that thing I don’t need. And it feels pretty awesome.
I have my journal, my sketchbook, a schedule book, my Surface tablet and my pens and pencils. Well, those things and my eye glass case and a small can of Axe body spray. What can I say, I have strong glands.
And, I’m still leaving my backpack at home when it comes to family gatherings.
I’m free of that weight and of that practice.