Just as all moms like to do, mine loves to tell stories of me as a baby. She describes me as a generally happy baby who loved everyone, even strangers. I don’t know what happened between my infancy and the first grade. By the time I was six years old, I was no longer that friendly, extroverted kid. Instead, I would keep to myself in class and hide out of sight from the playground at recess.
Maybe it was because of all the bullying throughout elementary school, but somewhere along the way I became increasingly withdrawn and self-conscious. It wasn’t until my tweens when I finally learned to walk into a room and not imagine that everyone was staring at me, whispering about me. By then, I was on my school’s dance team and chorus. I had been in the school orchestra. I was in honors classes and received special attention from my teachers for my writing. Finally, I grew out of a shell I had constructed around myself between the ages of six and eleven.
After that, I cannot recall feeling panicky when I had to stand up in front of a room full of people. I continued to perform in school orchestras, continued to dance, and even aced the required public speaking skills prerequisite in college. To this day, I am perfectly comfortable doing all of that (well, except for perhaps playing the violin because I’ve been out of practice).
About two years ago, when I was 29, I noticed that my hands started shaking, I would break out in a sweat right, and my heart started racing whenever I had to enter a room full of people. Right before I attended events that other people organized, the panicky feeling would overcome me days in advance. Do they really want me there? What if I’m not good enough to be their friend? Are they really my friends or do they want something from me? When I planned parties and gatherings, I would panic weeks in advance that no one would show up. There were the normal party-planning concerns: Do I have enough food? Do I have enough of a variety of beverages? And then there are the irrational questions: What if everyone cancels? What if they don’t have fun? Will they leave early? I even started Googling “What if no one comes to my party?” The irrational thoughts go on and on.
I remember so vividly how I got a panic attack at an after-party in September 2014 (the impromptu after-party followed a gala I had a large role in organizing and running). I was sitting at a restaurant bar, trying to chat with my husband’s coworker/classmate when all of sudden, just like that, the negative thoughts rushed through me. Why aren’t my friends talking to me? Not a single one of them greeted me when I walked in. Are they talking about me? My chest tightened up and I couldn’t breathe. I grabbed my clutch and my husband, running out of there as fast as I could in my heels, the panic attack making my legs unsteady and weak. When I was outside, I wondered if anyone had even noticed that I left. Did they even care?
In recent months, that panic and anxiety have completely demobilized me. I planned a gathering in October that I had been preparing for since July. I sent out invitations a month in advance to give everyone time to respond and to make their plans. As the date drew closer, especially in the two weeks leading up to it, my panic attacks started. I started getting heart palpitations. What if no one shows up? What if only two people show up and think I’m a loser because I have no real friends? It was supposed to be a small gathering with just my female friends and I had invited about 25 ladies. I got a very small, disappointing turnout of only four. The planning, fretting, and disappointment completely wiped me out. Ultimately, it was the fact that people I considered friends validated my worst fears. From then on, I had little to no energy for socializing, for making plans with friends, and even for reaching out to my best friend.
As the holiday season is now upon us and the party invites are flooding in, I’m weighing each one with a new scrutiny I didn’t exercise before. In addition to the initial question of “Am I free that day/night/date?”, it’s followed by: Which events deserve my effort and energy? More importantly, who do I want to spend time with? Who will truly miss my presence if I’m not at their party? Which party and group of friends are less likely to cause a nausea-inducing panic attack and nasty, negative, paralyzing thoughts from arising?
Those negative thoughts and insecurities don’t just come up in large crowds and social settings, but also in smaller groups, especially groups of three because I always feel like the third wheel. Maybe in some cases, it was intentional. But when I think about it rationally, I’m sure that most of the time it’s all in my head. For instance, for my 30th birthday, I celebrated in Miami with two of my closest girlfriends from college. For most of the weekend, I felt like they were making sure they were always walking a part from me. Their heads always bowed together, whispering, conspiring, intentionally leaving me out of the conversations. To combat these negative thoughts, I tried to focus on the positives—two of my friends took time off to fly down to Miami in order to celebrate my birthday with me. Although I had invited others, they were the only two who made the effort because they cared that much.
I’ve written a lot about my clinical depression, but I’ve never written about my anxiety before. I’m not sharing this to garner pity and sympathy. In fact, I’m downright scared that people will read this and think that I’m a freak.
My hope is that people would understand me better. People who know me well might be surprised to learn this about me because I’m so outspoken about—well, pretty much everything because I don’t normally worry about what others think about me and my opinions. Plus, I’m comfortable in crowds and I enjoy networking events and spending time with friends. I also love doing things on my own that some might find strange, such as eating dinner out by myself or going to the theater by myself; I’m never worried about others judging me in many cases. So why the social anxiety? I’m trying to figure that out myself.
I also hope that if there are others out there with the same condition, so they can tell me how they’ve learned to either overcome social anxiety or learned to cope with it. So far, I’m treating it like I do with my depression: I embrace the feelings—no matter how horrible and terrifying they are, and then I breathe.