It’s like there’s a tiny chink in your armor and the anxiety seeps in through it. It makes it hard to breathe and hard to rest. It makes it hard to live.
Sometimes it’s just brewing quietly in the background. You wake up and feel the squeeze in your chest, familiar and annoying. You go to the shop and the cashier asks you a question you weren’t anticipating. You had a whole list in your head of what would be asked of you at the till. Need a bag? Cash, debit or credit? Do you have the loyalty card? What is this unexpected question? Is there a problem? The grip on your heart tightens. You ask them to repeat. “Do you want the receipt?” “Oh, no thanks.” And you walk out. And you feel stupid and lame.
Sometimes it gets bad. It boils over and comes out in thirty-or-so-minute bouts of crying and gasping and snotting up everything in sight. You’re four years old, helpless and you know you can’t make it in the world. It’s scary, it’s huge and you’re alone. When you step out of the house, you can never be yourself and it’s eating at you. It will never get better. Even if you manage to force yourself out there, you will never be a natural at it. You will never be normal. You will have to go through life faking it.
I’ve just had a phone interview. A bad one. I rambled on, searched for my words and couldn’t find them, and ended up saying stuff I didn’t even mean, just so that stuff would come out of my mouth. Just to avoid the awkward silence. I’m beating myself up pretty bad about it of course. Thoughts like “you’re stupid”, “what must they think of you now” and “no one would ever hire you to do anything” are swirling about in the old overcooked noodle.
Then, my uncle calls, wants to know how it went. Well, not great. I sigh. I was having a panic attack all the way through. I was so, so nervous. My uncle, meaning well, replies the worst possible thing he could reply in that particular moment. “Well, you didn’t tell them that, did you?” Did you? Like telling them how I felt, like being myself would have been a terrible, unforgiving mistake. Like surely I’m not stupid enough to admit to such a flaw, such a defect, during an interview.
Now. It seems to me that the struggle inside, more often than not, comes from outside. That chink in your armor? Something made it. And I’m pretty sure a big part of the problem is this taboo we have on social phobia. Nobody is supposed to admit to being scared of people. Not when it matters. You can say it in your own home, in private. A select few can know about it, but you can never tell a stranger. You can never tell your boss, your colleagues, your interviewer. Social inadequacy is shameful and unprofessional.
A few weeks later I’m called in for another interview, another job. I go in and meet the owners of the shop, a lovely couple. They’re nice and encouraging and it makes me want to open up. It makes me want to be honest. So I tell them. They ask me if I would be okay working in a shop. Understandably, they worry that I won’t be able to pro-actively welcome the customers. I do my best to reassure them, thinking maybe I shouldn’t have told them. Maybe I just ruined my chances.
And then the man says something that really takes me by surprise. “Let’s say you have a flaw, and it’s not social anxiety. Because I think that’s more of a character trait than a flaw. What would your flaw be?”
Social anxiety, not a flaw, but a character trait?
I stammer and hesitate and can’t think of anything else. It’s odd. I’m usually good at introspecting. Obsessing egotistically about myself is what I do best. But I’m stumped because now I’m thinking of something else. What if he’s right? What if it is in fact just part of who I am? What if, instead of fighting it, I’m allowed to embrace it?
Of course it doesn’t come all at once after a big revelation moment. It takes time and work and it’s too soon to tell if I will permanently take this new perspective on board.
What I do know is this: when asked to describe myself, social phobia is one of the first things that come to mind. I’m a writer. I’m asexual. I have social phobia. It’s right up there. It’s important. And yet, I hesitate. I look for a way around it. I try to phrase it in such a fashion that it doesn’t seem so bad.
“Shy” is a word I’ve been throwing around a lot. Sometimes it’s “a little bit shy”. Shy is okay. Shy is endearing. But shy isn’t it. Sobbing for fifteen minutes after making an official phone call isn’t shyness. Crossing the street to avoid having to say hello to an acquaintance isn’t shyness. It’s embarrassing, is what it is. It’s shameful. And because of the shame, “it” becomes “It” with a capital “I”. It becomes a monster that we each have to fight on our own in secret.
But what if we decided to come out of hiding? What if we all started embracing our social fears? Because if you’re scared and I’m scared, then we have something in common and maybe we can be less scared together. Maybe we can repair the chink in the armor and set the monster back quite a few HPs in only one throw of the dice.
This second interview ended with the lovely owners telling me that my anxiety doesn’t show that much, and that I probably shouldn’t even mention it in the future. You know what, though? If this is who I am, then I want people to know.