My last post turned into a bit of an introduction to me, explaining about my past with cancer and my current feelings of depression.
One thing I didn’t go into detail about was my anxiety.
When my doctor gave me my diagnosis with depression, he also added the extra bonus of anxiety, an illness(?)/disorder(?)/personality trait(?) that tends to go hand-in-hand with low mood.
I admit, I’d never really taken anxiety particularly seriously as I suppose I’d never really been able to distinguish between that and nervousness. It had always felt to me like something I would only understand if I were to experience it.
A quick catch-up
I think the first time I actually began to notice my anxiety was when I spoke with a friend of mine last year who had been battling depression for quite some time up until then.
During a normal coffee shop lunch/catch-up session, out of sheer curiosity, I popped the question “how did you know that you had depression?”.
She went on explaining about the symptoms that made her realise something was wrong: the random days of feeling like crap, feeling worthless, feeling like your life is going nowhere. It was in this same conversation she mentioned that she was also diagnosed with anxiety.
She explained to me that sometimes she would just feel nervous about situations she used to find perfectly normal – meeting up with friends, going to events like parties and sometimes even having a constant feeling of something going horribly wrong for no reason at any given time.
It started to make me think. I had always been pretty scared of big social gatherings. I would’ve had to have had at least 2 or 3 people I really knew well for me to even consider going to an event…
But, like (presumably) most people, I shrugged it off as a bit of paranoia. That common feeling of “yeh, that’s how I feel!” when actually, you’re just trying to empathise with someone.
My friend went on explaining about her sister also struggling with anxiety issues: specifically social anxiety. This was something I’d heard about but never really bothered to look into. Purely out of a lack of research, I figured it was just having a fear of crowded events…
The conversation stuck with me for some time. Weeks would go by where I would start to contemplate whether I was in fact feeling the same way.
Let me quickly take you back a few years, back when I was 18.
I used to have quite a big friend group – around 10 or so who would meet up at the pub every few months for a quiz and a catch-up.
Initially I had no problem. I was always “up for it” and would just go along and have a few laughs with my pals.
But slowly I started to give excuses for not going. One week I’d have a migraine (which I do actually get every now and then) and the next week I’d have the family round. It got to the point that I’d only be seeing my friends every month or so for our usual catch-ups.
This was when I was 18 and was yet to go off to uni so once that came around, we automatically saw a lot less of each other anyway. And this was just what happened in life right? You start to pave your own ways, pursuing different careers and gradually seeing less of each other anyway. But I always figured it would return back to normal.
So with each meeting I would get this almost crippling sensation of nervousness, as if I’d go there and say something stupid and everyone would laugh at me, and with each meeting, the feeling would get worse. Weird I know – as these were my closest mates so why would it matter about making a fool of myself?
Unfortunately, I’d let my feelings get the best of me and I’d choose to sit indoors and play video games rather than see my mates.
Part of my anxiety for going along to these gatherings was to do with my cancer diagnosis. I was diagnosed with lymphoma at the age of 21 – right at the end of my time at university – and had only told those very close to me about it. Because I had only told a few of the 10 or so that I used to hang out with, I would always have that feeling at the back of my mind that they had told the rest of the group and that they were silently judging me for not telling all of them at once. Like I was pretending to be their friend but didn’t trust them enough to tell them about such a big thing.
My anxiety slowly grew with each gathering I missed during my treatment time – this time because I was legitimately feeling too tired or sick to go.
That was almost 5 years ago. Now I see them maybe once a year, if that. Although some of those friends have now left my life, my anxiety hasn’t.
Nowadays I have a completely different friend group. I still have a couple of my old friends from school but I now also have a huge group of acquaintances (it takes a lot for me to consider someone a friend) that I’ve met through my girlfriend. Unfortunately for me, my girlfriend’s friends are from a musical theatre background. They’re each into their ultra-friendly-hugs-and-kisses-on-the-cheek hellos and being centre of attention i.e. completely the opposite of me. They’re all also heavily into their social media – something I find hard to use because of the constant feeling of someone judging anything I post.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being like that and I like the majority of them – but I’m much more of a chat-to-people-individually kind of guy to properly get to know them than a constantly-struggling-for-the-limelight person.
There’s part of me that thinks that it is attending events with these people that makes me a lot more aware of my own social interaction with others. It makes me think that they’re the template I should be trying to be rather than the socially anxious/awkward person that I feel I am.
Over the years, I have picked up more and more things about myself that point to anxiety.
I can’t take phone calls in front of anyone and have to leave the room (something which would seriously impact how I’d take a phone call at work in a cramped office) because I feel like people are listening and will make a joke about what I had said. If I see an old friend from school walking towards me, I will put in a conscious effort to either cross the road, take the next turn or keep my head down and hope they don’t recognise me. I still get this huge feeling of dread when I know there’s an event happening on the weekend and I still get that urge to cancel and give some tired excuse.
I’m certain that my present-day anxiety is a lot to do with events that have happened over the years.
I don’t like taking phone calls in front of people because there have actually been instances where a person listening has jokingly said something like “well that was awkward” or “you sound strange when you talk on the phone”.
I try to avoid talking to old acquaintances because I have had conversations with some before where I have struggled to put together coherent answers to simple questions like “what have you been up to?”.
I feel a sense of dread when I know there’s a social event on a coming weekend because I’ve had moments in the past where I have made an idiot out of myself or, to use an example that happened to me about 3 weeks ago, was actually called “awkward” straight to my face (needless to say, I’m happy I don’t talk to that person anymore).
College Humour published some cartoons a while back that visualise EXACTLY how normal events feel to me. They helped me realise that actually I can relate to them and that maybe what I was feeling was in fact social anxiety all along:
I know that most people experience some of these feelings too and it’s not just me. But I can’t help but feel that I’m not normal because I experience them. Like I must be a bit of a weirdo because I don’t actually want to talk to people a lot of the time.
Maybe I’m just a miserable bastard. Maybe I put too much pressure on myself to interact with people and that actually (like my mum has always told me) it’s ok to not want to go to a social event.
Or maybe it’s something deeper.