“You’ve accomplished one of your goals. I think you can pretty much assume control of this area for yourself.”
No, no, no. That can’t be right, can it? I thought people going through counseling were supposed to be basket cases their whole lives. You know, make a little progress, suddenly go screaming off the rails, one step forward and two steps back, etc., etc. Are you telling me I’m actually doing a good job of thinking positively, and that you trust me enough to keep up efforts at doing this on my own? This feels very, very … weird.
It’s not like I’m 100 percent cured or anything. In fact, the new term for dysthymia (which I was diagnosed with) is now persistent depressive disorder, which, to me, is a much more accurate way of describing the types of feelings I’ve been having for years. They don’t just go away, which is a frustrating thing for a “check it off the list” kind of guy like myself. I want to be done with it and move on, but that’s not how it works. Fighting it will likely be something I’ll be doing for the rest of my days, so it’s sort of a shock to the system to hear someone say, “Yeah, let’s focus on something else now.”
This is where things begin to get complicated and, quite frankly, a little embarrassing. See, I like to focus in on a problem, deal with it, and file it away. Life doesn’t work that way, though. It seems as if no one has just one issue; it’s always one issue that’s the result of a thousand other issues feeding into it. Yeah, I’m depressed, but I’m also painfully shy and socially awkward. So now we move on to Phase II – social anxiety.
From time to time, I’ll read little surveys or sayings or comments from my friends on social media about how they’re really introverts, and I just chuckle to myself and think, “Aw, isn’t that cute? They think they’re shy.” The best way I ever heard social anxiety described is like this: People want to tell you to just get out there, put yourself in the middle of things, face your fears, and you want to say, “Look, the fact that I’m even here right now talking to you about this is me getting out there and facing my fear.”
In some ways, admitting to this problem is more difficult than telling people I suffer from depression. At least you can sort of limit the effects of depression to more of an internal struggle. If you’re good enough, most people won’t even know you’re dealing with it. When you’re socially awkward, though, everyone can see it. Even worse, they can see it and they don’t understand it. A depressed person who is outgoing will at least seem sort of mysterious or interesting. A depressed person with social anxiety just comes off as, well, odd.
If you can sympathize with what I’m saying, you’ve probably heard some of the following words used about you before – backwards, not aggressive enough, weird, awkward, strange, immature. I’d like to say everyone who uses words like that only say them because they don’t understand, but some of them don’t. People can just be plain cruel when you don’t fit the mold, and there are few things in life as unusual as someone who (at times) dreads social interaction. People need people, right?
In her amazing book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain recounts the story of an in-demand speaker who had such a problem with crowds that he would hide in a bathroom stall after his lectures just to get some recovery time. As odd as that sounds, I totally understood that story, as I have often sought the retreat of the nearest men’s room to escape my fears. To someone with social anxiety, mingling is akin to being sent back to the first day of elementary school all over again: You want so much to make everyone like you, but you’re terrified they’re all going to hate you.
I can’t explain any of this as well as I felt like I could describe depression. It all seems so irrational. Why can’t I just call someone on the telephone without having to psyche myself up for it? Why don’t I just say hello to everyone I know when I see them in public? Why do people older than me still intimidate me? Why do I stress out so much about going into new situations and meeting new people? Why? Why? Why?
Unfortunately, I have no answers to any of these questions. I can’t even begin to explain how difficult this has made things for me. All those buzz words I used earlier? I’ve said them all about myself at one time or another. What the heck is the matter with you? Why are you so afraid? I hate to even give this thing a name. At the same time, though, I’ve realized over the past several months if I don’t face these problems head-on they’re never going to get any better.
Let me just close with a positive story from what I now like to call Phase I. We had some cold days where I live this past month or so, and there were a few days when I would go out at work and start my truck to let the engine warm up before I went home. Somehow, I managed to lock my keys inside the running vehicle one day. I not only had to go back inside the building and call my wife so she could bring me another key, but I also had to tell my co-workers what I had done. It was the type of incident that, in the past, would have caused my shame and temper meters to overload.
On this day, though, I was thankful my wife was out shopping and not far away from where I work. I was glad I had enough gas in the tank to let the truck run until she arrived with her keys. I wasn’t embarrassed to use a little self-deprecating humor with my co-workers, which led to them sharing their own stories of vehicular mishaps. I didn’t get mad. I didn’t feel like God was out to get me. I just dealt with it and moved on … and it felt wonderful.
So bring on Phase II. And bring on the comments from those who know what I’m talking about. I’d love to hear from you!