It’s taken me a long time to write this post because frankly, I really don’t know an awful lot about social anxiety and I will be talking about a time which was particularly dark and difficult for me. What I do know about social anxiety is that it’s frustrating, crippling and isolating but I’m not sure of the mechanics behind it, if indeed there are any! About five years ago I was diagnosed with social anxiety and referred to a CBT course at Healthy Minds. Although it didn’t really help improve my anxiety, it did help me make a bit more sense of it.
I don’t really know of any defining moment when I realised that I had a problem. I was a shy kid who progressed to painfully shy in secondary school and then that shyness manifested itself into something physical whenever I engaged in social events with friends and even family. It’s very hard to put into words what happens during an anxiety attack but it can very quickly turn into a full blown panic attack and in a brief moment you can go from coherent and stable to a quivering, sweaty mess on the floor. Not many people are aware of my social anxiety, it’s not because I’m particularly ashamed of it, but when you also suffer from depression, fearing being around people pales in comparison to the awful symptoms of depression, like wishing you weren’t alive anymore.
My CBT sessions were supposed to help me find the route of my anxieties and how to better deal with them by firstly defining the trigger, then talking and walking myself through the complex muddle of emotions that followed and then the symptoms of the anxiety itself. I was able to pinpoint that my anxiety attacks would often occur before social gatherings, drinks with friends, meetings, going clubbing, going food shopping, etc. We narrowed it down to being in close proximity to a large group of people, whether known or strangers seemed to set me off. At first I would get a nervous feeling in the pit of my belly, the sort of feeling you get before a big exam, I would then start to get hot all over, I would become aware of how flushed and red I looked, my palms would get sweaty and then the rest of my body would follow suit. The nervous feeling in the pit of belly would grow and twist and churn until I felt the overwhelming and out of control need to go to the toilet. That was the pinnacle of my anxiety and that was what I was most afraid of, losing control of my bowels in front of a lot of people. It got so bad that I would take a spare pair of underwear, baby wipes, body spray and nappy sacks with me wherever I went and I always had another supply in my car.
For an SVN with social anxiety, there was no worst place to be then to back in a school environment. In fact, my worst nightmares consist of being back at school! I hated school, I didn’t like most of the students there, in my mind they were immature, superficial and pathetic but at the same time I hated being apart from the norm. I didn’t feel like I fit into any slot as a teenager, I wasn’t a “geek” per-say, but I enjoyed reading and wanted to get good grades and please the teachers. As a child the thought of getting older, getting married and having children repulsed me but it was something I would be expected to do and maybe as an adult I would feel differently about it. At 31-years-old, the idea of marriage and babies still doesn’t appeal to me and as I see my brothers and my friends marry and procreate around me, I still don’t have that desire to do the same. Does that make me weird? broken? I don’t know. I find I am happiest in my own company, I love coming home to an empty house where I can sit in silence after listening to people talk all day or watch television and remain an outsider of a conversation that requires no contribution from me.
Anyway, I digress. As an SVN it was inevitable that I would need to go back to college to achieve my qualification and get the job I so desperately wanted. My first day of college was a nightmare, I was so nervous, I felt sick, I had about 2 panic attacks on the way there. I knew in no uncertain terms that I had to appear normal, I couldn’t let any “weirdness” leak out otherwise I would make myself a social pariah for the rest of the course. As it is, I got chatting to one girl and I must not of given off any “weird” vibes because she was happy to chat to me and sit next to me in class, then came the pressure of talking to the other students around me. I’m so worried about saying something stupid or inappropriate that I will always sound test what I’m about to say before I say it, “Is this what a normal person would ask/say?” I ask to myself (in my head, not out loud, as that definitely would not be normal!). After class I will usually critique what I said, could what I have said been misinterpreted? Did I say this wrong or could I have said something else? I sometimes lie awake at night worrying about what I have said or done during a social transaction, which is insane, I know, believe me I know! But I just can’t stop myself and it ends up causing more anxiety and I feel even less equipped to deal with social situations.
As time went on, I noticed that my social anxiety was certainly starting to impact my ability to keep up in class. I was so preoccupied with appearing normal and appeasing my fellow classmates that I found my work was suffering, I would have up to seven panic attacks in the morning before class and after college I would feel so emotional drained and exhausted I would go straight to bed. It wasn’t long before the anxiety began to exacerbate my depression and I found myself spiralling downward until I just couldn’t cope anymore. On the morning of college I would sit in my car and cry my heart out, I would feel physically sick, I would have a panic attack and then in shame I would drag myself to bed wishing that I would just go to sleep and not wake up. It was a terrible existence and when I finally went to the doctors they immediately insisted that I be signed off work. I was too ill to argue and spent the next month recovering. On returning back to work, I had to have a very serious conversation with the management of my training practice about my future as an RVN. I had missed a great deal of college due to my sickness and I was very much behind on assignments and my NPL. I was given a choice, either I rejoin my class and struggle to catch up with my class mates plus deal with the very real possibility that I would fail, or I go back six months and join another class to catch up on everything I had missed. The thought of rejoining my former class made me feel sick, all the questions about my absence and I was in no position mentally to deal with the strain of the extra study to catch up on months of work but on the other hand, I was upset at the idea of not graduating with my former classmates. But as I thought about it, none of my “friends” from my former class had contacted me during my illness. In fact it was if I hadn’t existed there in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hold this against them, they had lives and studies of their own but it became obvious to me that I hadn’t made any lasting friendships in that class, especially none that had warranted all of my panic attacks, stresses and intense anguish that I had endured for almost a year prior to my breakdown. I knew in my heart of hearts that I had to do the sensible thing and go back six months and catch up properly. I initially was apprehensive at joining another class, one that had already been together for two years and had formed friendships and groups. I felt the familiar burbling of anxiety in the pit of my stomach as I got in the car to start the long journey to Potters Bar. My limbs were shaking, my mouth was dry as I wandered by myself into the classroom alone. I took a seat at the back of the class to make myself as unseen as possible and then my new classmates began trickling into the room and a bubble of nausea rose in my throat as I gave a polite smile. I could see in the faces of these people that they were wondering who I was and why I was there. I felt judged and examined, I hated it, hated being the new kid at school. All the anxieties were coming back but I had to do this, I had to do this for my college and training practice who had given me another chance, but most importantly I had to do this for me.
After the initial awkward chat of explaining why I was there, the girls became engaged in catching up with one another. I looked around the classroom, was this it? There was about 10 students, 10! There had been close to 40 in my last class, all those bodies and voices causing a constant wave of anxiety to swoop over me, but 10 students! I could cope with that! I didn’t feel as claustrophobic here, this was…doable. And of course it was, I went on to pass my exams and became an RVN.
I do imagine that some might ask how is it possible for someone with social anxiety to deal with clients on a daily basis, it is our job after all to deal with people as much as animals. Well, I can’t speak for others with SA, but I find dealing with clients a different kind of social interaction, it’s a professional one where I am in the position of authority, I am a professional, I am Kayleigh Charman, RVN, not Kayleigh Charman socially awkward anxious wreak! No, that Kayleigh is for outside of the practice where she can’t go out to the supermarket without preparing herself mentally.
I have a few amazing friends who I have confided in about my anxieties and they have been just amazing. One of my best friends is a complete extrovert, she loves people, she’s confident, always out there, easy to talk to, easy to make friends with and she can’t imagine feeling the way I do but she does what she can to make things as comfortable for me as possible. She usually will come to mine to catch up or I will go to hers, last weekend was the first birthday of her little boy and she had invited me and some friends and family to a little party at her flat. When I arrived there was about fifteen people, friends I didn’t know and family, some of which I had only met a handful of times. My friend actually apologised to me and said she didn’t realise how many people would turn up, she got me a drink and sat me down beside her and didn’t leave my side until I felt a bit more comfortable, but inevitably she was needed else where and her sister took up a conversation with me, which I was so grateful for. Eventually a mutual friend turned up, who also knows about my MHI and I sat with her and her husband and became a lot more relaxed. Friends like these are worth their weight in gold. Friends who can’t associate with what you’re going through but try their best to make things better for you anyway, just by listening and acting on what you’ve said.
I have a long way to go, as I’ve said before, I still really don’t understand social anxiety but I am finding ways of helping ease the symptoms, such as being with my dog or listening to calming music. I may give CBT another chance, just to see if there’s anything else I can learn but in the mean time I have learnt that it’s okay to say “no” to social situations where I know I will struggle, and that being open and honest about why I feel I cannot attend social situations has helped my relationships with friends and family as they now know it’s not personal, and many are willing to make changes in order to accommodate me and my weird brain! So, if you have a friend who continuously turns down invites or seems to cut social visits short, ask them if they have social anxiety because it might be the start of a conversation that will help someone open up about their own issues.