Thursday, August 19, 2010

Pop quiz

What does your brain instinctively tell you to do when, say, a runaway bus is careening toward you? Or a mugger with a knife is lunging for your guts? Or Rush Limbaugh is stumbling toward you with his pants around his ankles and yet another engagement ring in his hands?

Right. You run like hell. No thinking, no putting on a brave face, no fighting back.

Now pretend you’re retarded* (and I use that word on purpose here). Pretend that your run-like-hell instincts kick in every time a friendly person smiles and walks toward you. Every time you enter a crowded room. Every time you get a freakin’ party invitation in the mail.

Congratulations! You have a social anxiety disorder.

Based on my interpretation of my personal experience with this extremely stupid disorder—and, as you’ll see if you keep reading this freakishly long blog post, I have nothing but contempt for it and what it does to people—a social anxiety disorder is an extremely impractical case of bad wiring that makes you interpret friendly, fun, happy things as hostile and terrifying. And you have almost no control over it.

For most of my life, I’ve lived under the crushing immobility of this goddamned thing. Since before it had a name. Since before those drug commercials with the sad little purple ovals that never went to parties with the other ovals. Since before I even realized my instinctive, everyday terror of friendly, nice people was not remotely normal.

Here’s the part where I pre-emptively apologize if this post is nothing but self-indulgent navel-gazing and then explain that I’m not writing it for pity or to make you see me as brave for telling my story and exposing my soul. In fact, I’ve started and stopped writing various versions of this post about 50 times over the last five years. And I’m still not entirely sure I know what I’m doing here.

But I’ve kept coming back to it. Perhaps I feel the need to explain myself to anyone who thought I was standing against a wall being all arrogant and unapproachable that one time at that one bar/party/rehearsal/meeting/parade/street festival/movie/social setting. I was not being arrogant. I was not ignoring you. I was actually afraid of you. Terrified, even.

Or perhaps it’s because I’ve come so far since I finally unlocked myself from this prison thanks to some intense (and very expensive) therapy. I can now walk up to strangers and say hi. I can carry on a conversation without looking around frantically for a way to escape all its horrifying pleasantness. I even went to my 20-year high-school reunion—which even to normal people can be a whirling sea of panic triggers—four years ago and had the audacity to have a great time.

I think I’m mostly writing this just to focus my own thoughts and mark my place in time as I go on this adventure from part-time terror to full-time (I hope!) normalcy.

All my life I’ve assumed people hated me from the moment I met them. I’d look for proof of my suspicions and easily find it (that guy just looked away as he was talking to me! those people I know are having coffee and they didn’t invite me!) in the most innocent of circumstances. Then I’d retreat to the relative safety of my house and struggle to breathe in my dizzying sea of rejection and then wait for the next person to hate me. And it all seemed so logical and rational and everyday-normal that I didn’t even realize I was doing it. Or that it was fucking stupid.

My folks, without realizing how much I was struggling with this or even that I was in therapy, recently commented about how I was afraid as a little kid to run around the corner and ask our neighbors—who were our good friends—for something. Which tells me this stupid problem has been my “norm” since I was old enough to leave the house on my own.

In fact, while I’m friendly with people from grade school through college if I run into them somewhere, I made no lasting friendships there. Aside from the handful of people I exchange Facebook greetings and holiday letters with, I have no actual close friends from school. And at my high-school reunion when people were planning parties at their houses and hotels to keep the fun going, nobody invited me to any of them. And why would they? We have very little shared history, so we have no old times to relive and no catching up to do.

One of the cruel ironies of this stupid problem is that people can interpret your terror as standoffishness. You don’t talk to them because you’re terrified of them, so they avoid you because you don’t seem nice or approachable. And then they keep avoiding you. And then you have real reasons to think they hate you. And the cycle never, ever ends.

And it’s really the most retarded* problem you could possibly have. (“Hi. My name’s Jake, and I’m afraid of nice people.”) I mean really. It takes pathetic and illogical to pathological new lows. (I just made that up! But it kind of makes sense!)

Here’s a brief list of the everyday ordinary things my social anxiety disorder has made me too terrified to do at one time (or sometimes a hundred times) over the course of my life:
• flag down a waiter
• hail a cab
• ask a clerk for help in a store
• ask a stranger for directions/the time
• walk up to a stranger at a bar or a party
• let someone introduce me to a stranger at a bar or a party
• ask someone to spot me at the gym
• ask someone in the aisle seat to let me out at my bus/train stop
• call/text/email someone I just met and ask him or her to do something fun
• make small talk with a co-worker
• make small talk with a doorman
• join an informal gathering of people after work without an express invitation
• join an informal gathering of people after a rehearsal without an express invitation
• call a meeting for a volunteer committee I’m supposed to be heading
• throw a party
• go to a party
• make small talk in an elevator/gym/audition/dog park/you get the picture

Sounds ridiculous, right? But when you’re trapped in a crushing, paralyzing fear, doing any of these things is as impossible as melting into the ground, which you’d prefer to do anyway.

And just try to find your fucking self-esteem when you’re walking an extra six blocks to work in the rain because you were too paralyzed to ask a stranger to let you up from your seat so you could get off the train at your stop. And then stop wondering why I’m describing this disorder with so many swear words.

Fortunately, my case hasn’t been lock-myself-in-a-dark-room-for-20-years extreme. I’ve had entire days an even weeks where I found myself somehow unshackled from this stupid problem. And I’ve never had these issues in places where I was “supposed” to be—like family gatherings or job interviews or official work projects or client presentations or rehearsals.

And there are cures. They take work, but this big ugly animal can be killed. I’ve seen three therapists (so far) to make this happen. The first therapist diagnosed the social anxiety disorder about seven years ago, which gave my enemy a name … and gave me something specific to fight, which was actually pretty helpful. But that’s as far as she seemed to be able to take me. The second therapist just didn’t click with me, but I stuck with her for a while because she was in my network. And the third therapist was the one I needed. He asked simple questions and offered logical insights and maintained a bemused, judgment-free demeanor that let me voice all the crap in my head and hear just how ridiculous—how staggeringly fucking ridiculous—my fears were when they left my brain through my mouth and came back in through my ears.

I started seeing him in January 2006, and by May I considered myself reliably functional in polite society. I can now go places that have historically been nothing but a sea of panic triggers—parties, bars, street fairs, networking events, actually anywhere large groups of people congregate socially—and I can walk around and socialize and laugh and leave and spend hours without it even occurring to me to have an attack. It’s a whole new world … and all it cost me was a lifetime of frustration and loneliness, five months of intense conversations and terrifying real-life practice, and a couple thousand dollars in out-of-network co-pays.

Looking back, it’s also driven almost every major choice I’ve made in life: I majored in English literature (four years of reading—minimal human interaction required), I built a career as a writer (but not a reporter, because that would involve talking to people out in the real world), I studied piano (no time to talk when you’re trying to master Debussy), I became a six-day-a-week gym rat (lifting requires no human contact—and it helps grow muscles that might work as an ice breaker when a simple hello is too terrifying), I started running marathons (exercise, fresh air, physical proximity to other runners at times, but no human interaction required), I built up a mildly popular blog (all typing, no talking) … see a pattern?

This journey has also made me acutely aware of other people suffering through the same bullshit. I recognize the signs. I see the terror. I often step up and say hi when I see someone cringing helplessly against a wall in a crowded setting.

But I don’t try to forge friendships. These people represent what I hate the most about myself. At least my old self. I don’t want to be dragged down by their stupid problems, which I fear are still on the verge of re-becoming my stupid problems. Call me insensitive, but I look at my calculated distance as self-preservation.

Facebook has been both an ally and an enemy for me in this adventure. It’s obviously great for building friendships out of casual encounters and staying in touch and making plans with people. And for putting my always-trying-to-be-clever self out there for people to see and maybe like. But every once in a while I’ll be scrolling through the news feed and I’ll stumble on pictures of parties or dinners or roadtrips populated by lots of people I know. People who obviously didn’t invite me to join them. And the rush of rejection and despair and frustration sometimes hits me so hard and so fast it crushes my chest and literally sucks my breath away.

Yes, it’s irrational. Stupidly, retardedly*, even arrogantly irrational. Especially because I do get invited to do stuff. But in my mind I’ve worked so hard to meet people … to build organic, genuine friendships that don’t come from me being too eager or pushy … to not go to that place in my head that says the people I meet all hate me and I should just give up … that I feel I somehow deserve the payoff of a whirlwind social life and an exhausting social calendar. And when I see tangible proof that I’m not on everyone’s radar when they plan their get-togethers … well … let’s just say this adventure out of my stupid retarded* (last time! I promise!) problem is still more of a journey than a destination.


If you’ve read this far you’ve concluded that I’m at worst a mess or at best a writer in dire need of a filter. Or maybe that I’m just as screwed up as everyone else, only I have a bigger platform to broadcast my problems to the world. But if my endless blather helps one person see there’s an escape from his or her anxiety prison—or if it helps you guys on the outside understand that pathologically quiet people are not always the unapproachable snobs they seem to be—then maybe I’ve embarrassed myself here for a good reason.

In the mean time, I’m still getting a huge kick out of my new skill: walking up to strangers and saying hello. Even better: walking into social settings and looking at strangers as potential new friends instead of obvious-to-nobody-but-me Ninja assassins. And if you need proof, I’m totally free to come to your parties and show you.

* I know retarded is a horribly offensive word in most contexts. My domestic partner’s brother is clinically retarded. And since he came to live with us I’ve stopped using the word entirely … except in extremely appropriate circumstances. Like describing a brain that’s terrified of friendly people. Or dismissing the rationalizations for denying equality to gay families.

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