And a couple of weeks ago I shut down my personal FaceBook page, severing all contact with family, friends and most of the outside world.
Some of you may be wondering where I have been.
The short answer is – nowhere good.
Let me tell you something about social anxiety and avoidant agoraphobia – they are an ever-tightening noose. Like quicksand, the more you struggle against them, the more they suck you down.
For someone who is terrified of being disapproved of, I have an awful lot of unpopular opinions. I am well aware of this. Painfully so. Hence why I get that nasty feeling in my gut when someone I respect displays annoyance at something I have said.
I can’t remember the last time I went to a party that was not for the benefit of an immediate family member. It was probably around the time that people from my high school group were turning 30yo. That was about eight years ago. I can remember only two occasions when I have gone to visit a friend for a chat and a cuppa.
Sometimes I try to arrange social events. Sometimes people say ‘hey we should catch up’, which strikes terror into my heart. While I find it incredibly hard to say no to people, I know that there is no way I can possibly go through with it.
Sometimes I have the sense to come up with a reason to cancel well ahead of time. Other times I work myself into such a state the day before that I am actually physically unwell and unable to go ahead with the plans. Every social arrangement is accompanied by dread. People ask ‘isn’t it worth it when you go and you have fun?’ The short answer is, no. Why put myself through all that fear and dread on the off chance that I might have a good time? Most likely afterwards I will spend hours going over things I should or shouldn’t have said, stupid comments I made, stupid things I did that will make people mad. The fear doesn’t end with the event.
These scenarios come with extreme guilt, loads of negative self-talk and a certainty that the other person now hates me and never wants to speak to me again. And as much as I rationally know that those things probably aren’t true, that doesn’t stop me from feeling like the lowest form of life on earth for a few days.
The last time I got invited to a party, I decided that it was far enough ahead not to worry about, and said I would go even though I had no intention of actually going. In the lead-up I was asked repeatedly if I was going to be there on the night. I said I wasn’t sure, that I had to make arrangements for my kids. In the end I got dressed, got in the car, drove past the venue twice and drove home. Then I sat in the garage and cried, thinking about what a pathetic loser I was and how I would have to face the people who invited me and how they would be mad at me for not turning up.
Sometimes I feel okay and think it would be fun to do something social. Sometimes I even arrange it. A couple of years ago I planned a birthday party for myself and invited a whole bunch of people. I knew nobody would actually come, so a couple of weeks later I made up a reason to cancel it.
Over the years you get to know yourself. You learn that there is no point making plans with someone or agreeing to attend a social event because you can’t possibly go. But even when you know this about yourself, you have moments where you think you can be a normal person. And then you feel even worse when you realise that you actually can’t.
It isn’t fun. I don’t really know what fun is. Fun is something you have with other people, and I am afraid of other people. I don’t need fun, it just gets in the way of all the other things I need to do.
The fact is, I don’t play well with others. And these days people don’t like what I have to say, it makes them uncomfortable. In recent years I have stopped trying to be like everyone else, and my distance from regular people has only widened in that time. I can smile and nod, but I can’t make small talk. I can answer your questions and I am happy to listen, but I assume that you don’t really care about what I have to say, and I have no right to make inquiries about your personal life.
I feel safer, more comfortable, when I don’t feel like I have to put on an act to be normal. When I don’t feel like I have to carry a conversation, say interesting things, maintain a logical train of thought or get my words out in the right order. When I am by myself, or in a familiar environment.
I don’t want to upset people, and it often seems like the only way to do that is to not say anything and not do anything.
So if you are wondering where I have been, this should give you an idea. This is where I live. I know it is not normal and probably not healthy, but I do my best with what I have. I don’t imagine it will get better over time, and I have come to accept that. This is my brain on anxiety.