I got back from my niece’s wedding a few days ago, battered by airlines, a staph infection and a harsh look at how much I suffer from anxiety and how I do – and don’t – deal with it.
Before starting this post, I did a little research, Googling “social anxiety”. I came up with two different behavioral anomalies, Social Anxiety Disorder and Generalized Social Phobia, that I can’t really tell the difference between except that I have symptoms aplenty that seem to be common to both. I kind of like the idea of having a phobia but the description of Social Anxiety is so much more complete that for the purposes of writing today, I’ll stick to that.
Symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder come in three categories: physical manifestations (headaches, racing heart, sweaty palms, muscle aches, diarrhea, etc.), persistent thoughts of being judged or of embarrassing one’s self, and behavioral symptoms, a long list that includes avoiding and/or leaving social situations, having “safe” places one visits with “safe” people, continually apologizing, asking for reassurance, over-preparation for social situations, directing attention away from one’s self.
For further confirmation, I took the Psychology Today self-test for anxiety and came up with the following assessment: major signs of anxiety; very high level of general anxiety; very high level of existential anxiety; several somatic manifestations of anxiety; very high level of mood instability; strong tendency to ruminate.
I feel like an electrocuted cow.
When I looked at Google images for social anxiety, I found a lot of pictures of shy people or people who can't talk. I can talk. I can speak on nationally broadcast television shows. I can facilitate introductions, start a party, form a class in order to teach more effectively. But I pay the enormous price of an empty emotional gas tank for doing these things.
That's the back-text as I prepared for a six-day trip to my hometown and a gathering of the clan I love to distraction for what could be the last reunion of four generations. My depression is on low boil this summer as I actually anticipate several projects and increased income. Perhaps I was more naked for lacking my companion of the Black Dog.
If depression is the Black Dog, I think of its usual substitute mood of ennui as the Gray Dog. When I’m out of my mind with stress – anger, worry, an over-booked calendar (which is to say, more than no obligations in a day), broken routines, physical discomfort – the image that comes to mind is the Red Dog.
One website had the foresight to mention self-medication, referencing the use alcohol or drugs that impair judgment and driving. It did not, however, mention other forms of self-soothing such as food and smoking.
No matter what dog is snarling outside my cage, my food addiction is on high alert but staying with my 95-year-old father while on a course of heavy antibiotics and as many family functions to attend as there were days, I learned a hard lesson in how food talks to me.
What is significant in the paragraph above is that my routine was bashed to pieces, my father, who has macular degeneration, needs a lot of attention when he can get it, I couldn’t drink and I couldn’t take Klonopin because I was driving.
Add to that his idea that air conditioning means 80 degrees, a bedroom that faces the early mountain dawn, his dependence on loud audio devices, the lousy mush a senior facility calls food, only being able to shower half my body, and having to nearly yell to be heard by anyone except staff in the apartment complex.
I felt a constant drag and dread on my time in the days I stayed with my dad. He’d recently had a lot of his possessions shipped to his now permanent home in Montana and one of my tasks was to distribute them. He wanted me to make him a few treats he misses. He wanted me to attend dinner and social events at the complex in order to mitigate his own shyness and visual/auditory shortcomings. He wanted me.
On the days we were on our own I felt eaten alive by his needs, desires and, I was told by several people, his delight in having me there. I adore my father but I am used to being alone, on a work schedule, answerable to my hunger when it occurs rather than when a meal is served. My reaction to all of it was to sleep (partly due to being sick) and to eat sugar. A good day of visiting him was when I didn’t wake up in the middle of the night and eat all the cookies we’d just bought. Torture was knowing there was pie and ice cream on hand that he wanted to eat. To the fever and general malaise, I was sluggish and overheated from sugar, guilty about eating and about diving into books (I must have read over a thousand pages) instead of entertaining him, and shame that I couldn’t hobble through without Oreos.
Because I was being eaten by the situation. I felt a hole where my small life lives when I’m in Brooklyn. If I overate during the day, it was at 3 a.m. that I woke in a frenzy of getting back something that was missing. Cookies, pretzels, nuts, crackers were the only bricks I could find or knew how to use to plug the dike against everything pushing to get in me.
Then there were the wedding events. The rehearsal dinner was held at a pizzeria. We were late. It looked as if there wasn’t enough pizza to go around and what there was was miles away. I sat with people I’d never met. What if I didn’t get enough? I wasn’t very hungry but all I could think of was that if don’t get my share? The thought settled into my bones, into my brain stem. That strangers were witnessing an obese woman snarfing whatever pizza she could get did not matter as much as getting my share, getting enough.
And nothing was enough.
It happened again at the wedding dinner, which was a buffet. I sat with my father, who was one of the first to get a meal because my brother went through the line for him right after the wedding party. I watched the line snaking across the gym and waited. And waited. And the waiting turned into a fear that there wouldn’t be enough. I wanted to kill everyone in that line and even after I had my meal in front of me, plenteously stacked, I was stuck on whether there would be enough.
I was uncomfortable in my wedding dress, which I’d chosen (and blogged about) carefully. I was uncomfortable with a table of people I didn’t know, trying to bring my father into the party I didn’t feel. I wanted to sit with my nieces and nephews who I hadn’t seen in several years and listen to their hilarious banter. I wanted my brother to take care of my father so I could be free.
I wanted to go home. I wanted to take a bag of carbohydrates to bed with me where I wouldn’t be seen, wouldn’t have to share, wouldn’t have to share my self, could curl up with my third-rate novel and wait for the after-midnights sugar sweats to overtake me.
Is this selfishness, addiction or social anxiety? Any physical or emotional disorder, any negative emotion, any addiction, inevitably becomes selfishness. All of those things make us feel uncomfortable in our own skins. Healthy people somehow manage to make friends with their skins. The less healthy among us itch and scratch and claw and dream away our skins.
When I leave my house (which I soon must if I want to have dinner tonight), I feel naked and called upon. A stranger may judge me, a neighbor may want to chat with me. I don’t know how much I have to give or what will empty me out, making me feel as though I need some way to recover what has been blasted away from my self. I know that when I eat sugar I will have nightmares about my ex-bosses. In some way, I suspect, these women, who were extremely judgmental, who preyed upon weakness, are the most recent and life-threatening metaphors for a personality susceptible to judgment and the kind of naked emotion that made bullying easy. Certain nuns come to mind. Anonymous phone calls in high school from jocks whose football season was over echo as I think of this. Volatile relatives. Being given up for adoption. Post-trauma stress is in the web’s information on the whys of Social Anxiety Disorder, as are genetics and circumstances.
Addiction and social anxiety can stand alone but it’s easy to see how they complete each other as well. The first soothes the latter and the latter facilitates the isolation and loneliness that feeds the former. They rob life of space, or add too much space. As a child of the mountains, I feel breathless on the plains, but as an emigrant to sea level, I no longer breathe as easily at tree line as I once did, either.
Image provided with permission by dogwalla via DeviantART.