Social anxiety. It’s a term that we hear quite frequently these days. People who are scared of large groups of people. It’s also something that I’ve blogged about before, like the time I famously threw my popcorn in the trash at a cinema.
The thing is that I’ve been fighting a battle with social anxiety (or anxiety in general) my entire life. The first time that I can really remember is when I was five years old and got invited to a birthday party. The moment I got there I was panic stricken by the large crowd of other kids and I spent most of the party in the kitchen with the little girl’s mother. She was a medical nurse who fortunately realized that I was showing the early signs of childhood depression and that she needed to keep me calm. After all the other kids had gone home, I finally got onto the jumping castle. My friend and I had only been jumping for a little while when it started to rain. I still remember going home and sobbing in the car because I knew that something was wrong with me. And somehow I knew that it wasn’t going away. It was a leech that wouldn’t let go.
I could go on and on and recall various situations in my life when my anxiety got in the way and ruined things, but I could also probably fill a book with that. Instead I decided to tell you what a relatively normal day in my life is like:
I started writing this long, winding piece about how I went to the mall and was so anxious that I could die, but it became so long and tedious that no one would want to read it. So, I decided to rather tell you what anxiety is to me and what experiencing a panic attack is like. To me, of course. Every person has different experiences, so if you don’t agree just go ahead and start your own fucking blog. Anyway:
People tend to assume that when someone is having a panic attack they will start screaming and crawling up against the walls like a demon on ecstasy. While this cab happen (both demon possession and loud panic attacks), the truth is that most panic attacks take place without most of the people around you even noticing it. I tried to break it down for you:
To me, a panic attack usually happens like this. I find myself in some sort of social situation or a large crowd of people. My breathing becomes shallow. I am aware that my breathing is becoming shallow and start to do all the little anti-anxiety exercises that I’ve been taught. I focus on breathing properly, deep and slowly. I imagine myself standing on a beach with my feet buried in the sand, making me grounded like a deeply rooted tree. I know that this sounds stupid, but it keeps me from running out of the situation. They say that in fear you choose “fight or flight”. This is my “fight” mode. Sometimes I’m fortunate enough to get it under control, but not always. My breathing continues to become more shallow, to the point where I feel light-headed. I find myself having to hold on to things, because I feel like I’m about to fall. At this point, it goes downhill very quickly. I search for a quiet place, usually a bookstore. When I get there, I suddenly take a keen interest in classic literature, which tends to be the least busy area in the shop. Sometimes I even sit down with a book and stare at it in an attempt to regain sanity. Once I feel like I can go back into the jungle, I leave the bookstore. Sometimes I can’t even find the bookstore, because my sense of direction is one of the first things that melt away in these situations. I then stand behind pillars, try anything I can to try and stay calm. By this time, I become so tense that I become acutely aware of my pounding heartbeat. My heart feels strange, almost as if it is shaking, and I begin to fear that I am having a heart attack at the age of 23. My legs feel weak. My eyes feel they are about to roll back in my head and I am about to collapse. And then comes the nausea. The nausea is the worst part. I become certain that I am about to violently vomit in the middle of wherever I am. For a moment I begin to think about what an awesome blog post it would make, but not even the world’s greatest blog post is worth that kind of humiliation.
In the end one of two things happen: I either keep it together long enough to do what I need to do, or I leave it because I forgot why I came in the first place or I feel like I’m dying. Because that is what it feels like. You literally feel like your body is failing you and you are about to die. That is the reality of it all. My friends often joke about how awkward I am, and I laugh along because a lot of the time the situations are funny, if only in hindsight. In that moment it isn’t funny at all though. Anxiety has robbed me of a lot of things in my life. I often see jumping castles and wish that I had been able to jump on them when I was little. Now I’m too heavy. That’s why I fight so hard against my anxiety. I studied drama and became an actor, despite the fact that I knew my disorder wouldn’t agree with it. I go to the shops when I need to, because I’m not going to let it hold me back from doing that. Sometimes it subsides and I feel like I’ve conquered it, but whenever the seasons change or a depression bout strikes, I know that my anxiety isn’t far behind. The last while it’s been the worst it’s been in a long time, but I also believe that it goes hand in hand with grief.
I have my coping mechanisms. I rehearse conversations beforehand (maybe that’s why I love theatre so much) I try to show up early at auditions and meetings, even it’s only to have my panic attack in my car before I go in. My car is my safe place, which is funny because I was terrified of driving when I got my license. But that shows me that I am progressing. And that’s what I tell myself each time some well-meaning idiot tells me to “relax” or “stop being so shy”. I’m stronger than I use to be, and I will continue to grow.
You don’t know me.