This is going to be a personal post. It’s about something I’ve never really opened up about before. It’s long, and rambling, and doesn’t have all that much of a point to it other than opening up.
Right now I’m about halfway through reading Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, a memoir by Jenny Lawson, The Bloggess. In it, she writes about her anxiety disorder – with the associated panic attacks, and embarrassing conversations – and the things that go through her head when meeting people, and making friends. And I identify with a lot of what she is saying.
I suffer from social anxiety. Not as severe as Jenny Lawson’s, but very real. I’ve never been medicated, never been in therapy (although I had one professor in University who recognised my nervousness and told me I should consider it). But it makes it hard for me to talk to people. To go places and do things. I can’t initiate conversations, for example, unless I have a good idea of what I want from it and how it will go.
To give another example: When I moved house in January, I needed to get a haircut shortly afterward. It took me over a week of walking past various hairdressers and barbers in the area before I settled on one in particular, and longer to actually convince myself to go in. On the day I did, I walked straight past the door and kept going on the first try. I had to convince myself to stop and go back.
The worst part about this anxiety? I don’t get nervous any more when interacting with people. Hardly at all. The anxiety hits me before I talk to someone, before I go in somewhere, in the minutes-to-hours I spend working myself up towards dialling the phone. Once I actually engage, I’m mostly fine. Knowing that doesn’t stop me panicking.
So I live with this problem by not engaging. I very rarely have a big attack of nerves, because I’m so accustomed to never putting myself in the positions that make me nervous.
This is how my life goes:
I go to work on the weekdays. I interact with people there, I chat during downtime, I mumble hellos when I pass people. I do most of my work through email, which is easier. Then when it gets to 4 o’clock, I switch off, I walk home, and I spend the rest of my day reading, gaming, watching TV, or on the internet. On the weekends I might go into the city to buy things, or I might go to the cinema, but whatever I do, I do alone, and the rest of the time is the same: online, reading, watching, gaming. I don’t have any contact with coworkers outside of work, and I don’t have any (non-internet) friends outside of work.
I have been like this since my teens. As a young child, there were a bunch of other kids on the street I lived in that I’d spend most of my free time with. There were kids from school I’d sometimes go out riding bikes with. I slept over with friends a few times. As I got older, I made friends less easily and got more uncomfortable with people. Starting in secondary school, and especially after we moved house when I was about 14, I didn’t see friends outside of school any more. We had the internet by then, and I got sucked in to spending time on that very easily.
I did have friends at school, then – a few people I’d spend most breaks talking to, who I got on well with, although I never felt quite like I fit in with them. It was just that when the end of the day came along, once again, I’d switch off and go off on my own. I’d chat to a few of them online, sometimes, although I did that less and less – because I was nervous about starting conversations, prone to long awkward silences when not face-to-face, and got annoyed when people wanted to chat and I wasn’t ready for it.
University was better. I met a small group of guys on my first night there and spent the next few years around them. We lived in the same college, and then shared houses, so there wasn’t that disconnect between work and home that allowed me to cut myself off. I was also pretty awkward and clueless, so I may have been annoying to be around sometimes.
That didn’t last. See that bit above about why I stopped talking to schoolfriends online? Well, when univsersity ended the same thing happened. I don’t know what to say to people, and the longer I go without contacting them the more uncomfortable I get about getting in touch, and so I wound up losing contact entirely with the guys I’d lived with for three years. That was six years ago.
Since then, my life’s been as described above. I spent a couple of years unemployed, got way-too-deeply into World of Warcraft, then I got jobs and I toned that back and I settled into what my life is. A couple of months back my World of Warcraft guild disbanded, and since then I’ve come to realise that raiding with them a couple of times a week had probably been standing in for actual social interaction in my life.
I hope this isn’t coming across self-pitying. I should make it clear that I have been pretty comfortable with my life being this way up to now. I’m accustomed to it. But, that said, lately the isolation has been getting to me.
I’ve done some things in the last year that have pushed me out of myself. I’ve moved out of my parents’ house, I’ve taken holidays alone, I’ve met people from the internet, I’ve made plans to go to Worldcon next year (which scares the hell out of me, right now). But I’m not used to actually goin out and engaging with other people on a regular basis, and I feel like that’s something I need to do. My mind’s been rolling this around for the last month or so, and it’s been sparked further by coming across things like Jessica Mills’ Social Guides for the Socially Awkward.
And there’s where I come to what’s really brought me to write all this out. Top on the list of how to meet people is to find groups that share your interests and join in. The problem is that as far as I can tell no one ever actually does anything in this town. So I’ve been looking, and looking further afield, and the best I’ve been able to come up with is a tabletop gaming group in the next city over, who happen to be having an event tomorrow. I don’t know anything about tabletop gaming, and I don’t know anyone in the group, two facts that are really good for feeding into my anxiety. I’ve spent the last week trying to convince myself to go.
The real nerves haven’t hit me yet (although the “publishing this post” panic just kicked in, yay) but I have a strong feeling it’ll be like the hairdresser: I’ll spend far too long hanging around nearby and walking past, unable to convince myself to walk in. Or I might not even manage to leave the house (but will still spend plenty of time beating myself up for not going).
I’m trying to talk myself up to this and instead seem to be talking myself down. I should probably stop.
Anyway, there it is, out in the open. I have actually made progress, thanks to my time at university and, even more so, in the workplace, and I hope I can improve, but… it’s always there. No matter how good I get at talking to people, I don’t think I’ll ever shake the anxiety. I hate having to go through it, but I hope I hate being isolated more.
This post has gone on far too long. (Don’t overthink it, just hit publish before you chicken out.)