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.