Trigger warning for detailed descriptions of anxiety-inducing social situations.
I went to the play alone, and that was probably my mistake. There are reasons I don’t like going to movies or plays by myself. But my friend was in the production, and I really wanted to see her and support her endeavour, so I dragged myself out to the small (but thankfully not crowded) theatre and thoroughly enjoyed the performance. It wasn’t until near the very end that I started feeling … off. The curtain came down on the final bows, the house lights came up--and suddenly, all I wanted to do was get out.
But first I had to run the gauntlet. The actors lined the exit into the lobby. I wanted to stop, say hello to my friend, tell her how much I had liked the show and her role in it. But I couldn’t. I could only keep my head down, rush through, and escape into the chilly night air. Only when I was back in my car, body moulded to the seat, music playing through the speakers, did I start to feel better, and I wasn’t really myself again until I was safely ensconced at home. Then I sent an apologetic message to my friend.
This event sticks in my mind because it’s one of the few times in recent memory that I’ve felt close to an actual anxiety attack. I knew that if I didn’t get out of that situation, I would have gotten worse. Luckily, I was able to leave very easily. But I still have no idea what triggered it.
Anxiety is a strange beast. For some it is a constant spectre that accompanies them throughout their day. For others it is an intermittent visitor, regular or inconstant, dropping in on them, unannounced and unwelcome, and then leaving just as rudely and violently as it comes. Anxiety can be debilitating precisely because it can be unpredictable, uncontrollable, sometimes seemingly unfathomable.
I suspect few would describe me as an anxious person. Even I probably wouldn’t describe myself that way. I would like to describe myself as mellow, calm, and even together. Because that’s how I present myself to the outside world; that’s the mask I wear, if you will, and it’s how I strive to be.
But the monster is there, usually as this low-level thrum of discomfort when I’m in a social setting with more people than I like (as in, greater than 3 or 4). And it’s not something I can control or predict--I can be in massive crowds for hours and be fine, and then one day I’ll be in a room of 10 people and feel overwhelmed. It’s a complex feeling, linked to how exhausted I am, to how introverted I’m feeling.
But Ben, you say, you’re a teacher! You’re literally in front of people almost your entire work day! True, and I can’t entirely explain what makes teaching different. Perhaps it’s simply that I’m so passionate about it that this overrides my anxiety. I don’t actually mind public speaking either. Anxiety, for me, is not linked to the attention (though I don’t enjoy being the centre of attention) but to my comfort within a group. A classroom can have a lot of people within it, but it is also a very structured space, with well-defined and predictable interactions, making it very different from many other social gatherings.
I consider myself lucky, because anxiety seldom interferes in a way that prevents me from doing the work I love or going where I want to go. But I would be lying if I said it didn’t affect my life at all, if I said I didn’t limit myself sometimes to prevent or reduce my anxiety, if I said it didn’t affect my interactions or friendships. Some of this limiting is a healthy thing--stress reduction and management can be good. Sometimes it’s like I’m poisoning the well.
Several months ago, I made tentative plans to have a friend come over and hang out in the evening. When the evening rolled around, I anticipated a text asking when she should come over. None was forthcoming. At this point, the reasonable thing to do would be to text her myself, right? Of course it would. So I didn’t, telling myself that if she really wanted to spend the time with me, she’d text me. If she was busy, I didn’t want to bother her! I had a lovely little evening to myself, watching a movie and knitting.
And then 11 o’clock rolls around, and I get a text from her asking if I’m OK, because I hadn’t responded to her earlier text. Yes, her earlier text, sent around 6 pm, which for some reason I had totally missed, but which I would have seen if I had actually gone to text her like I should have.
Now, that was an extreme case. I think I’ve become better since then, with this particular friend and with my friends in general. Yet I still encounter the occasional twinge of anxiety and insecurity when it comes to planned socializing--do they actually want to spend time with me? Are they running late or are they dreading seeing me? Am I being too extra? Am I not being extra enough?
If you’re sitting here reading this and saying, “But Ben, those sound like totally normal worries for a person to have. I feel like that myself sometimes. That doesn’t sound like a big anxiety problem!” then you’re absolutely right. That’s my point. Anxiety, self-doubt, and insecurity are pernicious because they are normal. Mental health issues are a normal, everyday part of life. Yet there is a temptation to treat people whose issues are more visible as Other, to say, “Oh, I’m not like them.” And therein lies the problem.
We accept that some amount of physical illness, degradation, and injury is normal in our lifetimes. But when it comes to mental health, we are still bombarded by the message that somehow it might be our fault.
Many people are well-meaning when they champion positivity (hell, even I wrote a post about that at the end of last year) and resilience. But we have to take care that when we champion these attributes we don’t imply that a lack of either is a personal failing.
We will know we’ve made progress as a society on this problem when talking about and seeking treatment for our mental health becomes every bit as commonplace as talking about and seeking treatment for our physical health. If we want to destigmatize mental health issues, we need to start by acknowledging that everyone struggles with their mental health, in some way and to some degree, at some point in their lifetime. Mental health is like physical health: issues can be acute or chronic; they can flare up and then subside and then come back again; they can change over time as your situation changes. You can cope, you can treat, you can even prevent--but only to a point. But no one can maintain perfect physical health for their entire lifetime. It's impossible to dodge every cold, and all too often even the most careful people will end up with a cut, scrape, or broken limb. Why would we ever expect otherwise for our mental wellbeing?