I don’t know exactly when social anxiety started to affect me, but it was definitely in my adolescence, probably in high school (and so I think it’s best to start there). I must have engaged in a negative social situation and came out of it, for reasons unknown, feeling like I had done something wrong–that I behaved inappropriately given the situation, perhaps. That social situation made me feel like I had to change something in order to act differently in future social situations. It most likely had something to do with my introversion. Being an introvert, I often feel like I’m doing something wrong by just being myself, and thus, I try to act more extroverted in social situations.
In high school, like most kids, I did all I could to fit in, including suppressing my introversion. I imagine my shyness came out in a social situation, and I was punished for it. This set off a chain of events (other social situations going wrong in the same way), eventually leading me to the cycle that I engage in today of setting unrealistic goals for myself for a future social event, not living up to those goals, and then feeling anxious and depressed afterward.
In my opinion, the original causes are not quite as important as the fact that I am actively recognizing my false beliefs and trying to accept myself for who I am. With that said, I still think it’s important to look back at my history in order to understand how I create meaning in the present.
High School (1998 to 2002)
When I started high school, I had lots of friends, but I wasn’t close with any of them. I didn’t see any of them outside of school, and I always had my guard up around them. Even at that age, I knew I was different, mentally speaking. I knew the way I felt on the inside wasn’t “normal”. And I had to keep people away so they wouldn’t recognize those differences. I was made fun of a lot in middle school because of my differences: I had a bad under bite and terrible acne. By the start of high school, my under bite had been corrected (years and years of braces) and the acne was somewhat under control. My goal for that first year was just to fit in. I wanted to be liked and respected, and so I kept people away from my differences.
This strategy seemed to work, and near the end of my freshman year I was hanging out with a different crowd–a more popular crowd. The people I associated with, though, knew me even less. On the surface, I was smart and funny and witty, but on the inside, I was very anxious and uncertain of myself. I think that most teenagers feel like this in high school. For me though–being highly sensitive–this set the stage for social anxiety.
What’s more, I found it very difficult associating with this new crowd. My friends were beautiful, perfect beings whom had nothing wrong with them–on the outside, at least. I didn’t know why they accepted me as one of their own. I was a mess. Again, I may have had everything together on the outside, but I felt very much out of control on the inside. Fortunately, I could suppress everything on the inside–the feelings, the emotions, the memories–so no one would have to see it. No matter how hard I wanted to though, I couldn’t completely suppress the feelings, and I used them to judge and compare myself to others. I compared how I felt on the inside to how my peers looked on the outside. This thinking set me up for failure, and in my eyes, I did fail.
My popularity grew and grew during my sophomore year. With that popularity came even more uncertainty, anxiety, unease, and I pushed people even further and further away. I didn’t really connect with anyone that year. Even though I was surrounded by friends, I felt more lonely than ever before. At that point, anxiety started to control my life. I thought all my peers were talking about me behind my back and I began making definite conclusions about random events. For example, when two friends would pass by me in the hall, they had to be talking about me. Or when a friend would pick someone else to partner with in biology class it had to be because I was inferior in some way. Anytime something bad happened it had to be my fault, and began telling myself I should be more outgoing, I should be more open, and I shouldn’t be so sensitive. Also, around this time, I started experiencing the physical symptoms of anxiety: shaking, blushing, and sweating. Giving class presentations was difficult. Raising my hand in class was difficult. Fitting in was difficult.
By the end of the year, I stopped hanging around my friends in school. I rushed from class to class, taking alternate routes–routes I knew my friends didn’t take. I stopped sitting with my friends at lunch. I even stopped going to some classes just because a friend would be there. People stopping seeing me, and I stopped seeing people. I coped by entering into a long-term relationship. (For more information on this, please see this post on Constancy.)
I met my first girlfriend on the Internet–via AOL Chat, I believe–and I almost exclusively hung out with her. I saw her almost everyday after school, every weekend, and every holiday. She went to a different high school, but she still managed to occupy my time at school. Some days I would just write her notes all day. I became obsessed with her. I told myself I loved her very, very much, and I wanted to be with her forever. In reality, she was just a distraction. A way for me not to make real connections with people, have real friends, and deal with my feelings inside. It didn’t really matter who she was or what she looked like as long as she occupied my time.
I stayed with her until the end of my senior year until she became aware of my dependency. She wanted to see me less and encouraged me to go away for college while she finished her senior year of high school. I didn’t want that of course, and I started searching for another girlfriend–someone to take her place–and I found another one almost immediately via the Internet. We started dating and a week later, I was in another long-term relationship. I applied to the college she was attending and was accepted. I felt happy and more sure of myself than I’d been in a long time. I just had to get through a few more months of high school, and surprisingly they actually went by fairly quickly. This new girl also attended a different high school, so I continued to distract myself by writing note after note, sometimes compiling up to ten pages a day. (I always gave a shortened version.)
In the last few days of high school, when everyone else was saying goodbye to friends and teachers, I just waited the days out by writing notes, daydreaming about college, roaming the halls during lunch (because I had no one to sit with) and hiding in the bathroom stalls during some classes (because they were too difficult socially). I then skipped my high school graduation (because we had to choose a friend to walk with), and I spent the summer with my girlfriend, and then we went off to college.
College (2002 to 2006)
College was supposed to be different. I was supposed to reinvent myself. I didn’t want to continue hanging around my girlfriend exclusively. I wanted friends, and I wanted to experience the quintessential college lifestyle: the partying, the freedoms, the new experiences. Unfortunately, I found the social situations too difficult. While my roommate was connecting with others in my dorm, I was hiding in the library, waiting for my girlfriend to return from class. I spent almost every night with her. When I hung around my roommate and others in my dorm, I never knew what to say or how to act. I always felt out of place. I always felt like an outsider.
I must say at that time I didn’t think there was anything truly wrong with me. I knew I was different, but I didn’t think I had any real social issues–and I hadn’t even heard of Social Anxiety Disorder. I just thought I preferred the company of woman. I never stopped to look at myself. I didn’t know who I really was, or what I really wanted out of life.
I made it through that first semester without making any real friends. I felt like I was still in high school. I wanted to change, but I was terrified. During the winter break I remember having a conversation over IM with my girlfriend about the next semester. She said she didn’t want to spend as much time together: It isn’t healthy. We need to have our own lives. We need to experience college. I panicked, and immediately asked if we could still spend every night together. We could hang around others during the day, I implored. She said no. She wanted space. I felt scared, and I felt super anxious, and I dumped my girlfriend and dropped out of school a week later.
Throughout that first semester of college I worked on the weekends at an office supply store in my hometown. I don’t think I spent even one weekend down at school. Anyway, when I dropped out of school, I started working full time. I felt fairly comfortable around my co-workers because I didn’t really need to connect with them. Working relationships have never really been difficult for me. I just stay to myself and make as little small talk as possible.
I also reconnected with some high school friends around that time. Suddenly I felt stable. I felt normal. I had a job. I had friends. But that quickly changed. I started dating someone at work, and that relationship turned into a long-term one almost immediately. I stopped hanging around my friends. They felt betrayed, again, and eventually stopped calling. We had been dating for about three months when I suddenly realized the patterns I engage in: I have friends but it’s hard to maintain, it becomes too hard so I dump them and find a girlfriend, when they recognize my dependence they dump me, and then I go back to my friends, starting the cycle over. This time, I took the initiative by trying to distance myself from my girlfriend. She had some dependence issues as well, and so when she recognized that I was pushing her away, she responded by clinging herself to me even more. She called and called and called. She would call my cell phone over and over and then my parent’s house over and over. She wouldn’t let up until I talked to her and agreed to see her. I knew I had to get away from her. I started slow: I got my Associate’s Degree at a local community college and then finally freed myself from her by going to a college far from my hometown to complete my studies. We broke up the day I left.
At this new school I had a chance to do everything over again–and to do it “right”. I got a second chance! I no longer had the option to use a girlfriend to avoid social situations; I had to make friends and engage with others. I found it very difficult at first, and the negative feelings I experienced were familiar. I felt anxious, nervous, uneasy, and unsure of myself. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do. I made it through somehow. I made friends, and I even moved off campus with two male friends.
Alcohol really, really helped.
Presently, alcohol doesn’t really help much with my anxiety. It masks it but the anxiety still filters through. The intensity of the anxiety plays a major factor in this. If I feel some anxiety, I can usually hide it with a few beers. But if I’m feeling really anxious it doesn’t matter how much alcohol I drink, I’m still going to feel anxious. At that time, I didn’t experience as much anxiety as I experience today, and so I could mask it fairly well with alcohol. I grew dependent on it though. I knew I had to find other ways of coping, and so I stopped hanging around friends. I spent a lot of time in the library, and on the weekends, I went home. Eventually, I met another girl.
Again, I fell into a relationship much too quickly. We moved in together after only two weeks of dating. We did everything together. We scheduled our classes around the same times so we could ride to school together and eat our lunches together and spend our breaks together. On the weekends we’d go to dinner or drink alone at our apartment or go to a movie–all together. Again, my friends stopped calling, and I avoided them by avoiding the main campus routes. Everything felt right. I didn’t care that I had dumped all my friends again. It just felt good that I didn’t have to engage in any difficult social situations, and I didn’t have to depend on alcohol any longer. My girlfriend was also very liberal and she gave me a new perspective on life. I began thinking differently. I dressed different. I talked different. I acted different. I began reading and writing during my free time. I liked the new me. She also encouraged me to “live outside the box” by studying abroad, while I encouraged her to come with.
We settled on Poland and flew out together in January of 2006. I understood that I had dumped my friends and that I was too dependent on my girlfriend, so I wanted to start over again. I wanted to balance my relationship with the new people I’d meet in Poland. I had high hopes. Much too high. I couldn’t handle it, so I came up with an excuse and flew back home after only two weeks. I stayed home for a week and then flew back, thinking I could start over again. I couldn’t, and I didn’t, and so the rest of the trip was difficult. I didn’t really connect with anyone. I went home disappointed, broken.
For more info on Poland, check out these posts–
Back home, I knew there was something wrong with me, and with my girlfriend’s encouragement, I saw a school psychologist. I went to two sessions. Two very difficult sessions. (Which is surprising because I didn’t open up.) I told her about my difficulties with friends, and she said that maintaining friendships is hard. I told her about my troubles with socializing, and she said that socializing is hard. It felt good that I went to two sessions, but I should have stuck with it. I left thinking I could just reinvent myself again and that I could just will my anxiety away. I had one more semester to accomplish those things before entering the real world. One more semester to change. That semester proved to be the most difficult one. I spent most of my time hiding in the library from familiar faces. I rushed from class to class. I felt like I was back in high school. Four years later, nothing had really changed. My classes were also very difficult, and I had an internship, which wasn’t easy socially. I’m not sure how I made it through that semester, but I did, and I rewarded myself by moving to New York. I wanted to start over. Again.
New York (January 2007 to February 2008)
I’ve always been good with change. Change usually means I can start over. I can be someone different, someone new. Because of this, I handled the transition to NY really well. I didn’t know anyone in the city and I didn’t have any leads for a job, which sounds hard–but it wasn’t. I lived in a cheap hotel in Queens for a week and landed a corporate desk job a week later. I moved to a permanent spot in Brooklyn a few weeks after that, settling into my new life. Once settled, I reverted back to my old ways, to my old self. My problems came with me (partly because I took my view of the world with me, partly because I can’t outrun social anxiety). No matter where I go in life, my problems will always be there. I have to address them in the moment, in the here and now. Unfortunately, it took me a few more years to realize this.
My job was very difficult. I hated it. Actually, the job itself was fairly easy, as it was pretty much a glorified data-entry position. But socially I just wasn’t cutting it. I worked in a sales office supporting the sales team. The people in my office were beautiful and perfect. They were outgoing and insensitive. They were the opposite of who I am–the person I want to be. Because of my judgments, I put them up on a pedestal above me. They were the ideal; while I was less than, inferior, imperfect, a loser. It took almost six months for me to finally settle down and feel somewhat comfortable coming into work. Even then, I felt very intimidated by everyone. I had my guard up constantly, and I was always anxious and nervous. The only place I felt comfortable was in the bathroom. I’d often take a book with me to the stalls and just read and read while an optional social gathering took place, like a birthday celebration or a lunch pizza party or something.
On my way in to work every morning, on the subway, I always envisioned myself acting different at work that day. I wouldn’t feel as anxious. I’d talk more and connect with others. I’d walk with my head up on the way to the bathroom or break room, smiling and saying hello to people. I’d feel comfortable in my own skin. Each day, I tried to be someone different. I tried to be someone other than myself. I wanted to be outgoing. I wanted to not care about what people thought about me. And each day, I failed. Each day I’d be the same old me, and I hated myself more and more because I could never live up to my expectations.
Outside of work I didn’t have a social life. I rode the train an hour home each night. I lived in an apartment with seven other people. I didn’t hang out with them. I was afraid to go to the kitchen to cook or run into one of them on the way to the bathroom. Once home, I’d either eat a TV dinner (if no one was in the kitchen) or run out to grab a bagel or a slice of pizza. After dinner, I would just read and write until everyone else was asleep, and then–and only then–I’d come out to heat something up in the microwave or go to the bathroom. Those were dark times.
I didn’t make a single friend in NY while I was there. It was only after I left that people starting reaching out to me more–and those people were from work. I went on a few Match.com dates and met a few people at bars, but nothing seemed to work. If someone got close, I’d push them away. A part of me wanted to be lonely. A part of me wanted to be depressed.
After a while I started to realize that I would never amount to anything in New York. Something needed to change. I started visiting message forums dealing with psychological problems, and I soon realized that I probably had Social Anxiety Disorder. I began reading book after book on it. I understood it on an objective level, but this understanding brought me no closer to acceptance and healing. I needed to go to a psychologist and begin working through my problems, but I was scared. Instead, I decided to run again by accepting a transfer out to San Francisco. It’s easy to run when you don’t have any connections to where you are.
San Francisco (February 2008 to September 2009)
In San Francisco I fulfilled the exact same role but I had more responsibilities. Suddenly all of the sales team was coming to me for answers to their problems. I was the sole point person for support. It was hard. I sat out on the sales floor. Everyone was loud and outgoing, and I just didn’t talk to anyone. Everyone was friends and would go out for drinks after work, and I just didn’t go. I didn’t fit in. It was a familiar feeling.
I also didn’t get along with my boss. Her approach to management was antiquated: she believed that people need to fill certain roles in organizations, that people are simply cogs. If you get everyone to fill their assigned roles, then the machine (the organization) will run smoothly without any problems. I don’t believe in this approach. Instead, I think that roles and tasks should be guidelines, not absolutes. I think managers should allow their subordinates to define their own roles. We clashed, my boss and I–a lot. She also wanted me to be outgoing. She wanted me to mingle with the sales crowd and go out with them for drinks after work. One day she persuaded me into coming out with everyone. Long story short, I drank a lot to mask my anxiety, which didn’t work. I ended up blacking out, waking up the next day back in my apartment. I don’t remember how I got there. It was scary. I never went out again with co-workers.
Outside of work, meanwhile, my social life was going really well. I moved to San Francisco with a childhood friend (who moved away in the seventh grade before my social anxiety set in) and lived with him and one other roommate. We all got along fine. We all went out together on the weekends–drinking, going to shows, working out, that sort of thing. I actually had friends and joined a book club and started writing fiction. Aside for a particularly difficult experience with marijuana (where I ended up having a panic attack and ended up in the ER) everything was going great outside of work. I started seeing a psychologist (who taught me some CBT techniques) and psychiatrist (who put me on Lexapro and Ativan). I even started dating someone (again, someone I met on the Internet).
Our relationship moved quickly, but I was able to balance my social life for a while. She was going to school to become a psychologist, and I knew she would understand my mental issues. It took some time for me to open up, but when I did it felt great! For the first time in my life I found someone I could talk to. I told her about my frustrations at work, and she encouraged me to look for something else, and so I applied at San Jose State University to go to graduate school in Library and Information Science, and I quit my job.
Unfortunately, my decision to pursue graduate school was based less on my desire to study library science and more on my struggles at work. I just couldn’t manage my social anxiety. More and more, my anxiety was preventing me from doing the things I wanted to do at work. I couldn’t talk to people. People didn’t know me. I needed to work through my problems, but I chose to escape instead. I ran again, in other words.
Graduate School (September 2009 to present)
I quit my job and started the graduate program in September of 2009. It was then that I ran again. It was then that I started digging myself into another hole because I not only quit my job, but I also moved in with my girlfriend as well. The graduate program is entirely online, so that doesn’t help my social anxiety at all. I also pretty much stopped hanging out with my friends, because friendships are just too difficult to maintain. Since I had my girlfriend, I thought (unconsciously) I wouldn’t need others. And so I grew apart from my friends (my roommates and others) once I moved. I continued to hang out with my childhood friend–my best friend–but he moved to NY in January of 2010. Since then things haven’t been the same.
I feel like my anxiety has taken an even stronger hold on me. Depression is hitting me harder. I have so much to work through, and yet everything is just so hard. I’ve been seeing a therapist for almost a year now, but change is slow. My problems didn’t build up over a matter of months–it took years for them to manifest. Working through them will take years too. I need to be patient. I need to be easy on myself. I need to heal. Finally, I started seeing a psychiatrist at the beginning of the summer. He put me on an SSRI, which didn’t help, and Ativan and Propranolol for my anxiety. I eventually quite the SSRI and just last week, my doc decided to take a different approach: I told him about my mood swings and he diagnosed me with Cyclothymia and put me on a mood stabilizer. Once I start feeling better, we’ll try addressing the anxiety once again.
That’s my story. It’s a work in progress. So far I’ve focused a lot more attention on my high school and college years than the more recent years, and that’s because I pretty much wrote this all in one sitting: I got really, really tired toward the end and really, really depressed as well. It’s also easier for me to look at the past with an objective eye. These past few years are hard to look at, because in a way, I’m still dealing with, and living through, them. It’s hard to take a step back and look at things objectively, without attaching to them, when they’re still fresh in my mind.
I am going to continue working on this as the weeks progress. I’m also going to go deeper with some of the issues through separate posts on this blog. Thanks for reading.
Last Updated: 12/20/2010