I was officially diagnosed with social anxiety at 24, although I’d been showing signs from when I was about 6 years old. Eighteen years is a long prison sentence, particularly when you haven’t killed anyone.
As a child, I was labelled as “sensitive” and “shy.” I hated family gatherings and once even cried when they sang “Happy Birthday” to me. I couldn’t explain it. I just knew I felt uncomfortable being the center of attention. And as I grew, “it” grew with me. At school, being asked to read my work aloud or called on to answer a question would result in a meltdown. My body froze, I’d blush furiously, and couldn’t speak. At night, I’d spend hours analyzing the interactions I’d had that day, looking for signs that my classmates knew there was something wrong with me.
University was easier, thanks to a magical substance called alcohol, my liquid confidence. Finally, I could have fun at parties! However, deep down I knew that this wasn’t a solution. After university, I secured a dream job in publishing and moved from my rural hometown to the great capital that is London. I felt excited. Surely I was free now? “It” wouldn’t follow me all the way to London?
For a short while I was happy, working in an industry that I loved. I wasn’t Claire “the shy one” here. I was anonymous like everybody else. However, over time I noticed the telltale signs returning. Even though I did my job perfectly well, I felt insecure and froze whenever a colleague asked me a question. I analyzed people’s faces when they spoke to me, and dreaded bumping into someone I knew in the lift or kitchen. At night, I’d worry about the following day until I’d worked myself up into a frenzy. I was exhausted and constantly on edge.
This was a typical day:
7:00 a.m. I wake up and, for about 60 seconds, everything is OK. Then, it hits, like a wave crashing over my body, and I flinch. It’s Monday morning and I have a whole week of work to deal with. How many meetings do I have? Will I be expected to contribute? What if I bump into a colleague somewhere? Would we find things to talk about? I feel sick and jump out of bed in an attempt to disrupt the thoughts.
7:30 a.m. Over breakfast, I watch TV and try desperately to block out the buzzing in my head. The thoughts jumped out of bed with me, and they are relentless. “Everybody thinks you’re weird. You’ll start blushing if anyone talks to you.” I don’t eat much.
8:30 a.m. The commute is hellish, as always. The train is overcrowded and too hot. I feel irritable and slightly panicked. My heart is pounding and I try desperately to distract myself, repeating “It’s OK” on loop in my head like a chant. Why are people staring at me? Am I acting strangely?
9:00 a.m. I cringe as I greet my colleagues and manager. Did I look happy? Why can I never think of anything interesting to say? They ask if I want a coffee, but I decline. Best not to draw any more attention to myself by asking for a soy latte.
9:05 a.m. My heart sinks when I look at my calendar. There’s a drinks thing after work tonight, and I’ll be expected to network. “You’re going to make a fool of yourself,” the voices hiss, and my heart starts pounding once more.
11:30 a.m. During a conference call, my voice cracks slightly whilst answering a very basic question. I blush in response and feel humiliated. My whole body is burning with embarrassment and I desperately want to run out of the room. Nobody comments, but I know what they’re thinking: “What a freak.”
1:00 p.m. My colleagues nip out to a café at lunch, but I decline the invite. I’ll only behave awkwardly, so why ruin their lunch? Besides, I’m sure that they only invited me because they feel sorry for me. In between bites of my salad, I jot down topics of conversation for this evening. I’ll definitely freeze up at some point, so it’s best to have backup.
3:30 p.m. I’ve been staring at this same spreadsheet for nearly two hours. I can’t concentrate. My mind is going over every possible scenario that could happen this evening. What if I spill my drink over someone? What if I trip and fall on my face? The company directors will be furious. I’ll probably lose my job. Oh, for God’s sake why can’t I stop thinking this way? Of course nobody will be focusing on me. I feel sweaty and tense.
6:15 p.m. The event started 15 minutes ago and I’m hiding in the toilets. In the next room, a sea of faces are mingling with each other. I wonder if I can hide here all night? Such a tempting thought.
7:00 p.m. Networking with a guest, and I’m sure that he’s bored. My right hand is trembling rapidly, so I stuff it in my pocket and hope he doesn’t notice. I feel stupid and exposed. He keeps looking over my shoulder. He must be desperate to get away. Everybody else looks like they’re enjoying themselves. I wish I was at home.
8:15 p.m. I spend the whole of the journey home replaying each conversation in my head. I’m certain that I looked odd and unprofessional all night. Somebody will have noticed.
9:00 p.m. I’m in bed, completely exhausted by the day. I feel so alone.
Eventually, days like these triggered a series of panic attacks and a nervous breakdown. I’d finally pushed myself too far.
The doctor diagnosed me in 60 seconds: “Social anxiety disorder.” As she said the words, I burst into tears of relief. After all these years, “it” finally had a name, and I could do something to tackle it. I was prescribed medication, a course of CBT therapy, and was signed off work for one month. This allowed me to heal. For the first time in my life I didn’t feel so helpless. Social anxiety is something that can be controlled. Six years on, and I’m doing just that. I’d be lying if I said that I was cured, but I am happy and no longer a slave to my condition.
Never suffer with mental illness in silence. The situation might feel hopeless, but there is always something that can be done.