Mental Health Day: A Taste of Living with Social Anxiety

It’s world mental health day. I’ve been meaning to do some more writing about social anxiety, and this seems like an appropriate day for that.

This isn’t easy to write about. A big part of social anxiety, to me, is that I’m afraid of how people will react to me. So talking about the things that are wrong with me is hard, and not exactly a lot of fun. But I try to do it, because I think it’s important. It’s useful for me to confront this; it’s important for other people with social anxiety to see and hear that they’re not alone; and it’s important to fight the general stigma against mental illness. I still struggle with my social anxiety – but I’m also happily married, with a great job and a successful career: I’m a walking demonstration of the fact that you can have mental illnesses like depression and social anxiety disorder, and still have a good, happy, full life.

In the past, I’ve tried to explain what it’s like to live with social anxiety. I’m going to try to expand on that a bit, and walk you through a particularly hard example of it that I’m trying to deal with right now.

What I’ve said before is that SA, for me, is a deeply seated belief that there’s something wrong with me, and whenever I’m socially interacting with people, I’m afraid that they’re going to realize what a freak I am.

That’s kind-of true, and it’s also kind-of not. This is difficult to put into words, because the actually feeling is almost a physical reaction, not a thought, so it’s not really linguistic. Yes, I am constantly on edge when I’m interacting socially. I am constantly afraid in social situations. The hard part to explain is that I don’t even know what I’m afraid of. There’s no specific bad outcome that I’m imagining. I can often relate the fear back to things that I’ve experienced in the past – but I don’t experience the fear and anxiety now as being fear/anxiety that those specific things, or things like them, will re-occur. I’m just afraid.

Here’s where I’ve got a good example.

I recently injured my back. I’ve got a herniated disk, which has been causing me a lot of pain. (In fact, this has caused me more pain that I knew it was possible to experience.) I would go to great lengths to make sure that I never wake up feeling that kind of pain again.

I’m seeing a doctor and getting physical therapy, and it’s getting much better. But my doctor strongly recommends that I take up swimming as a regular exercise – to prevent this from re-occurring, I need to strengthen a particular group of core muscles, and swimming is the best low-impact exercise for strengthening those muscles.

So even though I’ve sworn, in the past, that I would never join a gym, I went ahead and joined a gym. My employer has a deal with a local chain of gyms that have pools, and I signed up for the gym three weeks ago.

I still haven’t gone to the gym. Honestly, the thought of going to a gym makes me feel physically ill. It’s terrifying.

I’ve got good reasons for hating gyms. I’ve mentioned before on this blog how badly I was abused in school. The center of that torment was the gym. I’ve been beaten up in gyms. I’ve had stuff stolen. I’ve had things stuck in my face. I’ve had bones broken. I was repeatedly, painfully humiliated in a gym about my body, my clothes, my family, my religion, my home, my hobbies, my size (I was very short for most of high school). I’m straight and cis, but I have many memories of that damned gym, being confronted and tormented by people who were trying to force me to “admit” that I was gay, so that they could beat the gay out of me. (Or at least that’s what they said; what they really wanted was just an excuse to beat me up more.) Someone literally burned a swastika on the street in front of my house so that they could brag about it where? In that god-damned gym.

I could go on for pages: the catalog of abuse I suffered in gyms is insane. But it’s enough to say that in my experience, gyms are bad places, and I’ve got an incredibly strong aversion to them.

Intellectually, I know that the gym I joined isn’t like that. It’s not a high school gym. It’s a gym in the Flatiron district of Manhattan. I know that at the times I’ll be going, the gym is likely to be nearly empty. I know that the majority of the people who go there are, like me, adult professionals. I know that if anyone tried anything like the abusive stuff that was done to me in school, the gym would throw them out. I know that if anyone tried any of those things, I could have them arrested for assault. I know that nothing like that abuse would ever happen. I’m honestly not really afraid that it will.

And yet – it’s been a month, and I still haven’t been to the gym. I’m scared of going to the gym. I can’t tell you what I’m scared of. I can just tell you that I am scared.

This is part of what makes social anxiety so hard to fight and overcome. If I understood what I was afraid of, I could reason about it. If I was afraid of something happening, I could come up with reasons why it wouldn’t happen now, or I could make plans to deal with it if it did. But that’s not how anxiety works. I’m not afraid or anxious of those old experiences re-occuring. I’m afraid and anxious because those things did happen in the past, and they left scars. I’m not afraid of something; I’m just afraid.

5 thoughts on “Mental Health Day: A Taste of Living with Social Anxiety

  1. steeds

    thanks for articulating this. I recognize the “I’m a freak! they’re gonna see!” thinking–though I don’t have it to nearly the same degree as you.

    speaking for myself: a scar is the memory, “I was damaged,” with the particular cause of the damage being less salient. the intense wish of the scar, of the scarred one, is to avoid similar damage again. whatever threatens to do that damage gets red flags, sirens, panic. not rationally but, as it were, autonomically: below the level of reason.

    I’m reminded of the food-poisoning effect. if I get sick after eating at a restaurant, even one I’ve enjoyed repeatedly, I’m strongly resistant to eating there again. some part of me says, “uh-uh, really don’t wanna!”

    your experiences, of course, were much worse than food poisoning: more brutal, more ongoing, and more aimed directly at you. that much harder to deal with, therefore.

    best wishes on wrestling with all this. and I hope you are able get some swimming in soon.

  2. Roger Joseph Witte

    My immediate reaction is to feel concern for your well being and to big you up and say you have my moral support.

    My second thought is that you have to stop thinking about going to a gym and start thinking about going to a pool. The gym is just the organisation that runs the pool. You cannot reason about this sort of non-specific anxiety but you can ‘outfox’ it.

    And of course actual experience of passing through the gym may persuade your subconscious better than abstract reasoning

    1. markcc Post author

      Don’t worry about me!

      One of the reasons that I feel like I can post things like this is because in general, I’m in a good place. I’m happily married, with support from my wife and kids. I’ve got an amazing job, with great coworkers. I have a great life, and in general I’m happy, secure, and well.

      Social anxiety is a big deal. But it’s not my whole life. Even with it, and the pain it causes, things are good. There’ve certainly been times in my life when they weren’t. There were definitely times when I was afraid that I wouldn’t ever be able to have this kind of a life.

      And that’s why I think it’s so important to write posts like this. I want people in their own dark times to be able to see that there’s hope. It would be easy to just say that the past is past, and I don’t need to broadcast my faults and insecurities to the world. But the problem with doing that is that it helps build the stigma against mental illness. If no one ever sees how normal successful people have these kinds of struggles, then you’re making it harder both for people with mental illnesses to see the possibility of their own success, and you reinforce the belief on the part of everyone else that mentally ill people are hopeless.

  3. Emma

    This hits close to home. I didn’t have bad experiences in a gym (I’m so sorry that you had to go through that!), but I was just so afraid of going and working out around people. I couldn’t even go during the times that I thought it wouldn’t be busy because there might be someone there, and they would judge me for being out of shape, or not going fast enough or doing something wrong. My health required me to workout though, so eventually I found a gym that has private workout cubes. It’s been a life-changer for me. Somedays I even workout in the open now because I’ve gained more confidence in myself! I don’t imagine that they offer private pools, unfortunately, but I’m cheering you on because if I can get over my SA and get to the gym, so can you!

  4. bomag

    Interesting how logic and persuasion are considered the ways to get things done, but it doesn’t work in cases of social anxiety.

    In some cases, life itself becomes one big bad experience, and people don’t want to do anything. It seems the good times should give one traction to continue; but over time; in some people; the angst of bad times overwhelms the remains of positive results.


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