My Experience With Social Anxiety Disorder
I forgot about the coat I used to wear. I was brushing my teeth one morning when the memories came rushing back. I was in eighth grade, and it was too hot for a coat.
I wore it anyway, because I needed protection.
I felt awkward inside, embarrassed, like at any minute people (specifically, my friends) would find out something about me and start laughing. Like the fact that my breasts were under-developed, or maybe my clothes weren’t keeping up with the latest trends.
That awkwardness is the same reason I took my hair down out of the beautiful bun my Mama spent an hour creating for me one morning, and why I didn’t give out the class presents she and I both stayed up late at night to work on. I always felt like my contributions were somehow not “enough,” and someone might point that out.
I wanted to hide so no one could see my flaws.
Somehow I must have gotten it into my head that I needed to be perfect. I wanted to be like everyone else, or at least not stand out as something other than what they were! I was smart, and kids made fun of me for it. I heard things like “teacher’s pet” and other descriptive names that didn’t sound the way I saw myself.
Kids will be kids.
I wasn’t bullied, at least I don’t remember it that way. These kids were my friends. But it was hard for me to put my feelings into sentences. I didn’t know how to blend into the crowd, and I was afraid to just be myself.
My homemade dresses were a half-inch longer than the other girls’ dresses, and I thought that mattered. I believed my hair made me look too different to be accepted. There wasn’t much about me that I was comfortable with, and THAT was the real problem. I didn’t want to be noticed–to be set apart for any reason.
So I wore the coat.
I also knew that I was getting to “that age.” I was actually LATE getting to it. Other girls would ask me all the time, “Did you start yet?” and I hadn’t, but knew I would soon, and what if there was blood on me and someone saw it?
Protection. But I forgot.
So when Mikey wore his leather jacket in the summer, it never crossed my mind. I didn’t remember the girl who was so awkward–so socially impaired and afraid that I needed something to cover me so I’d feel better.
I was the one person who should’ve understood, and I didn’t. He wore it everywhere, and it was hot, and it made me angry. He didn’t just wear a coat though. He wore a knit cap too.
He needed protection even more than I did.
I passed down generations of fear to my child, just like it was passed to me. I could have stopped the cycle, but I didn’t recognize the patterns. The reality was right there in front of me, and I missed it. I failed him. Now that leather jacket hangs in the closet as a reminder of the protection that I didn’t give. He doesn’t need it anymore, but I always will.
Social Anxiety is a very real and crippling thing.
It can cause you to make choices that you ordinarily wouldn’t. The toughest person in the world might be too afraid to go into a grocery store and talk to a cashier for fear of embarrassing himself. That is a classic, identifiable symptom of the disorder.
I didn’t know. I finally did some research when I started to notice patterns in my life and in my family of things we were failing to do that most people took for granted. Some of us have pretty much beat it. Many others never will.
Shame and Withdrawal
I forgot about the coat, but I never forgot that I didn’t take my ACT test for college because I was afraid that I wouldn’t know where to sharpen my pencils. There’s a lot of shame that goes along with the crippling fear.
People who don’t understand (which is most of the general population including people inflicted with the social anxiety themselves) hurl judgment at you, like, “Why doesn’t the boy get a job like everybody else?” and other perfectly reasonable questions that don’t have reasonable answers from someone who couldn’t even ask where to sharpen her pencils.
The Catalyst for Change
I don’t have the solution, but I know this is a real thing. I’ve watched many members of my family struggle with it through the years. The turning point for me was knowing I didn’t take that test, and I had to lie to Mama for the first time in my life. I couldn’t find a way to just skirt the truth.
I looked at what my future would be like if I kept denying myself opportunities because I was afraid. I decided I was more afraid to get to the end of my life having not done all the things than to go ahead and try.
I can’t say that the anxiety doesn’t still win a battle or two, but I know it will never win the war. I don’t consider this courage–just the other side of fear. They call it “doing it scared.” To me it’s like closing your eyes and backing up. Whatever happens, happens.
I can’t go back and change anything–not my past as a child nor my past with my child. I can only go forward and try to do better. I know that I will be watching more closely to see if someone is needing protection. Hopefully I will be able to share my story with them and maybe give them some hope that it doesn’t always have to be this way.
As for my son, I take comfort in the fact that he lived his life on his own terms, even though he was afraid. He was a writer (something else I passed down), and I found an accurate description of his struggle in one of his notebooks.
First, a whole page of the words “I’m sorry….I’m sorry…I’m sorry…”, as if apologizing for all the ways he thought he didn’t measure up. Then he wrote the best description of himself that anyone ever could. Whether the world finds it appropriate or not, in the end, we put it on his headstone.
“I’m not sorry, I’m Mikey.”
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