Living With Social Anxiety Disorder
I have social anxiety and this is my story. It is not an easy story to tell, as you will soon read. But it is something I need to do. Not only for myself, but for others that might struggle with this disorder too. To raise awareness. Especially around the link between social anxiety disorder and alcohol abuse/ dependence.
Social anxiety disorder is not easy to live with. A lot of time it puts a limit on what I am able to do. But for now, I manage to live a fulfilling life.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), about 15 million U.S. adults, or 7 percent of the population, have social anxiety disorder. And, about 20 percent of those suffering from social anxiety disorder also suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence.
What It Is Like
I myself fit into that 20 percent that have suffered from alcohol abuse/ dependence. Even trying to write this now is difficult. Thoughts running through my head like “No one is going to read this, it’s garbage. Everyone is going to talk about you and say what a horrible writer you are. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I believe, and have come to learn, that that is not only my alcoholism talking. It is my social anxiety talking as well. Sometimes, for me, writing is just like talking to someone face to face. Even though I’m not baring my soul, it’s still very vulnerable to me. I’m setting out a little piece of me every time I write an article, or talk to someone, and that fear is always there.
The first thought that crosses my mind is “what do you think about what I’m saying?” Especially in writing.
Some other thoughts that race through my mind are:
“Everyone is talking about me.”
“Oh, god, is my hair sticking up? Do I have something on my clothes?”
“Oh shit, that person thinks I’m staring at them. Better look away.”
“Fuck. Now they think I’m avoiding looking at them because I looked away all the sudden.”
Those thoughts still run through my brain today, at 2 ½ years sober. You should have heard some of the thoughts that ran through my head before I got sober. Wow. Talk about a train wreck.
When I was growing up, and I felt anxious, I would stay home and read a book. Books were my way to escape from reality, to ease that feeling of anxiety. I could go off into another world for just a little while and breathe. Because I couldn’t breathe when I was with other humans.
Around the time I was in high school I found alcohol. At first it was sneaking beer at my Grandparents house after everyone went to bed. Just every once in a while because I didn’t want to get caught.
Then, after I turned 21 and the risk of being caught was gone, alcohol became my social lubricant. I went from being the shy, awkward girl to the funny, popular girl. I had a punch line for every joke. Whatever you were in to, I was too. And I had all the knowledge to boot (whether I actually knew or not. Sometimes I made it up). I could go up to cute guys and flirt when I was drinking. I could dance the night away like nobody’s business.
Of course that didn’t last long. The next day, after the alcohol wore off, I went back to being the shy and awkward little girl. Full of fear and tearing myself apart because I wasn’t good enough for anyone. That’s how screwed up my thinking was (and still is sometimes).
Some days following a night of drinking also consisted of beating myself up for what I had done, what I had said. Beating myself up for being someone other than myself, but not knowing any other way.
Then I crossed the invisible line into alcoholism. I didn’t know how to face social situations without a drink. Family gatherings were unbearable unless I had a little alcohol in my system. I had to drink at least 2 beers just to get up the nerve to go to church. Social functions became non-existent towards the end of my drinking career. The anxiety grew to be unbearable.
I had no friends because I pushed them away. In order to talk on the phone with my family I had to have a little liquid courage. But that soon came to an end because I would start the call with one beer. By the end of an hour conversation I was slurring my words. My family never said a word about it. I guess talking on the phone covered up the slurring. But I knew, and it embarrassed me.
Over time it became harder and harder to do anything without a drink and I began to isolate myself. I made up excuses about why I couldn’t go to family gatherings. Or, I picked fights with my family just so I could have an excuse not to go.
Eventually I got sick and tired of being sick and tired and I asked for help. One night (while drunk) I wrote my pastor a note and asked him for help. That was the only way I could do it. Of course the next day, after I had sobered up, I berated myself for writing the note. Telling myself I didn’t have a problem. But deep down I knew there was something wrong.
After I got sober my anxiety didn’t go away, but it did get better. I surrounded myself with people who understood how I felt. Many of them also had social anxiety too, and in that I found comfort. I could finally be myself.
Slowly but surely my anxiety lessened and I was able to find ways to cope. I learned tools to overcome situations that gave me anxiety. Many pep talks with myself, telling that little voice to shut the hell up. Telling myself over and over that people were not talking about me, and if they were, it was none of my business.
I learned that I can’t make last minute decisions. If I want to go out with friends after a sober support meeting, I have to plan ahead. I also learned the hard way what happens when I don’t plan ahead.
For example, the other night. After our Friday night meeting a lot of people go out to eat. And that night someone I know was doing a show downtown at a local bar. Part of me wanted to go to the show and hang out. But the other part of me, the anxious part of me, said bad idea. I felt like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The adventurous part of me said “cool, let’s go”. I told a friend of mine that I just had to run home real quick, and then I would meet them at the restaurant. But as soon as I got in my car I panicked. My stomach was in knots. I wanted to cry hysterically. And I wanted to go home to my cats (my lifesavers by the way).
I recognized my feelings as overload and decided to go home and stay there. But then the adventurous voice in my head said “Aw man! You’re so missing out! Get out there and socialize!” That voice made me feel like a piece of shit. Like I was doing this on purpose. Making me feel like I choose to be a hermit, staying home with my cats instead of hanging out with my peers.
But that’s something else I learned. I do not choose to be this way. I am the way I am because I have social anxiety disorder. It is not an excuse I give myself or others. It’s just the way I am built.
There are many types of therapy to help overcome this disorder. I feel that if my case was more severe I would seek help. But, through facing my fears, I have been able to diminish the more severe symptoms.
Tools to Cope
Some of the many tools I have learned to cope with my disorder are:
My two cats. They have been beneficial to me. Cats are generally self-sufficient, but at times they can be needy too. Traits I myself possess. They have been a wonderful help to me just being around. After a long, stressful day I can come home to them. Their unconditional love lifts me up, and hearing them purr warms my heart. Also, taking care of them gives me a sense of purpose. I don’t think I would still be on this earth if I didn’t have them in my life.
Planning ahead. It’s a way for me to sort of control the outcome of an outing. If I want to go out I decide ahead of time. I make sure I feed the kitties before I leave for the night, so I know they are taken care of. And by deciding ahead of time I can mentally prepare myself for a night out. It gives me time to think of things to talk about so I don’t fumble over my words.
My “safe” people. I have a select few people in my inner circle whom I have dubbed my “safe” people. The way I select these fine folks is, I spend some time with them. I’m sensitive to people’s energy, good vibes, bad vibes, etc. After spending some time with them (sometimes it’s a couple of meetings. Sometimes it takes a while), I check in with myself. Does this person make me feel like I can be myself around them? Or, do I feel like I need to keep my armor on?
After I have found my “safe” people, I stick with them. When we’re hanging out after a meeting, I float around them. Sometimes I join in the conversation, but sometimes I just hang in their vicinity. Since they are my “safe” people, I don’t worry about what they are thinking about me. I feel comfortable just being there with them.
On a Friday night after a meeting, when everyone goes out, I go too. Sometimes. If I plan ahead and decide I am going, I find out if my “safe” people will be there. If they will, then I have someone to talk to when I start to feel anxious. If they won’t be there, I don’t go. And yes, I know that prohibits me from overcoming this disorder, but I’m a lot better than I used to be. Believe me.
Books. This is something I carried from childhood to adulthood. Today books are still a vital part of my tool box. After I’ve had a particularly rough day, full of anxiety, I come home and read. For just a little while I can be someone else, and let my subconscious sift through events past.
Music. Music has become a vital part of overcoming my anxiety, as well as a tool I use in sobriety. You can read about it here in my article “How to Use Music as a Tool In Sobriety”. This is another way I “tune out” and let my subconscious work through events past.
Although I still have social anxiety disorder, I have made progress over time. The best way I have been able to make that progress is getting out there. Instead of letting this disorder rule my life, I tell it to fuck off and get out there. Now, sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. But I’ve learned to recognize the symptoms. That comes with being in tune with myself. I listen to my body when it starts to tell me a situation is too intense. When it’s just a little bit (I get shaky, start to stutter, sweaty), I push myself to see how long I can ride it out. But, if it’s intense (I want to cry, run out of a room, start to mentally shut down), I know that’s my cue to cut out.
Living with social anxiety disorder doesn’t have to rule your life. The more you understand the symptoms, the sooner you can start down the road to recovery. There are many resources on the web. A good place to start is www.adaa.org (Anxiety and Depression Association of America).
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