To say that being without hope is a strange feeling would be an understatement. To be without hope makes me feel hollow, that something important is missing from my soul. I feel empty. Lost. A little confused. Being without hope is not something I would recommend. It’s painful, disconcerting and altogether mystifying. Yet it’s one of those things that’s easily lost, yet interminably difficult to replace once it’s disappeared from your life.
In this series of posts I am dissecting what is preventing me from navigating further down the road to recovery; all the things that have created roadblocks and zapped the hope from my being. Hopefully, I will be able to shine a light on what I need to do to rekindle hope, and with it, myself.
Social Anxiety Disorder
It’s not all bad. Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing—they are not all bad. Those devils have been my angels. Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me.
~ Stephen Fry ~
It’s true that social anxiety disorder has provided me with several positives in life. My love of writing, reading and literature. My love of movies, television and the moving image. Even my love of photography, a gloriously intimate act that can be performed quite beautifully in solitude. But for the most part, social anxiety disorder has been the devil that has destroyed me.
Since it’s onset in my teenage years, it has had a profound effect on my ability to make friends and retain relationships, to the point that I now find myself an isolated individual incapable of even talking to people, let alone making friends with them. Social anxiety disorder was also instrumental in destroying my educational career, affecting my A-level choices, ability to cope with examinations and my return to college in 2007 was also hampered by social anxiety, to the point I lost that course within weeks of returning (although glandular fever and abuse also played a large role in the loss of that particular course, it would be plain wrong to suggest social anxiety had nothing to do with it). Even now, as I contemplate returning to university, I find social anxiety rearing its ugly head as it convinces me I would be unable to perform the course or survive around so many other people. Social anxiety disorder plays havoc with the view that I have of my own body, feeding into preexisting body dysmorphic issues that have plagued me my whole life. It also renders simple, day-to-day activities, almost impossible to perform. For example, going to the supermarket has become a strenuous action that shouldn’t be anywhere near as complicated as it is. I have to go at a certain time of the day (early afternoon, when the supermarket isn’t as busy) and I have to go to specific supermarkets, ones which have self-service checkouts, so I don’t have to make ‘small talk’ with the checkout operators as they scan my food.
Everything in my life is controlled around my social anxiety. From walking down the street to the actions I perform whilst there, everything is ordered so as to keep my anxiety as low as possible; no communicating with people, no socializing under any circumstances, no pushing myself into situations that I deem uncomfortable. Activities that I used to enjoy, that I used to garner so much pleasure from, have become no-go areas; for example, I can no longer go to the cinema due to the number of people present, I can no longer attend munches, which in 2013, were one of my few lifelines of social interaction. Even blogging, an activity I used to relish, has become super-difficult for me to perform. I worry continuously over people judging the words I have written, stress endlessly about commenting, even on my own blog, let alone other peoples and find myself censoring myself for the first time in eight years out of pure stress over what people may think of my output.
Although social anxiety has always played a tremendous role in my life, I’ve found that since my hospitalization earlier this year, it has only become worse. Since coming out of hospital I have been isolating myself more and more, refusing to go out unless I absolutely (unequivocally) need to. I have become, for want of a better word, a recluse. A hermit. Someone who refuses all social interaction due to the worry over panic attack, due to the worry over what other people may think of me, due to the possibility of making a complete and utter fool of myself. I don’t know why being in hospital escalated the symptoms of my abuse. Perhaps it was being forced to share a ward with other individuals. Perhaps it was the control being taken from my life. Perhaps it had nothing to do with hospital, and that’s just become a convenient excuse. All I know is that over the last few months, my social anxiety has been so out of control, so impossible to contend with, that it has become (even more so than it used to be) a serious illness that has a profound (and monumental) debilitating impact on my life.
It is holding me back. It is preventing me from living. It is sucking the hope from my being on a daily basis. It is destroying what belief I have left.
So what can be done? What possible avenues can I explore to try to fix this particular, debilitating aspect of my mental health? Well:
Firstly, there is talk therapy. I have spent very little time in my life talking about social anxiety. Psychiatrists have been uninterested in this aspect of my mental health, preferring to focus on the (perceived) more serious illness that is bipolar affective disorder. Psychologists, equally, have ignored this part of my illness. Instead choosing to focus on my moods and blaming my ineptitude (and lack of effort) for my isolation and inability to communicate and/or make friends. What I need, more than anything, is a psychologist who understands what social anxiety is, how it impacts on someone’s life and the damage that it can cause if left unchecked. I’m hoping that the psychologist I am planning to see will have this understanding, but only time will tell on that.
Secondly, there is exposure therapy. Of all my readings on social anxiety disorder, this form of therapy seems to have a particularly positive effect. For those not in the know, exposure therapy is when someone is slowly exposed to the source of their anxiety and/or trauma in the hope it will lessen the impact and help the individual cope with what is causing the pain. In the sense of my social anxiety, this means exposing myself to situations where other people are present, where I am forced to socialize and communicate with strangers, in the hope it will lessen the control social anxiety has on my life. Perhaps this means attending psychosocial rehabilitation groups again, perhaps it means forcing myself to go to the cinema (under controlled circumstances), perhaps it means just going to the supermarket during the busiest time of the day. Whatever I decide, exposure therapy could work.
Thirdly, there is CBT and DBT, which I’ve heard can work wonders for people with anxiety disorders. As I have attempted to self-teach myself these practices, to little or no effect, I feel that I need to work through these treatments with another individual – perhaps a psychologist – who understands them better than I.
Fourthly, there is simply being more kind to myself. I am immensely hard on myself in all walks and manners of life. In fact, it would be fair to say that I hold everything I do up to intense scrutiny. From the blog posts I publish, through to the meals I cook, and the speed in which I walk, everything is criticized, analyzed and torn apart by my perfection seeking mind. I need to learn to be kinder to myself, to understand that not everything I do needs to be perfect, that nothing anyone does is ever perfect. I need to find a way to look at my body with acceptance rather than revulsion; I need to find a way to blog without tearing myself apart; I need to find a way to act without criticizing myself into oblivion. I need to be kinder to myself; for if you can’t accept yourself, how can you expect anyone else to accept you? If you can’t love yourself, then other people cannot love you. It’s as simple as that.
Fifthly, there is seeking advice from people who are either living with their own battles with social anxiety, or those people who have successfully managed to control the impact it has on their life. But for that I need to get past my own insecurities over commenting and emailing and teach myself, once again, how to communicate with strangers. For the knowledge of other people is often the greatest knowledge of all – or at least, that’s what I’m led to believe.
Sixthly, well, I can’t think of a sixthly at this time, so these five goals will have to suffice for now.
Whatever happens with my attempt to manage social anxiety disorder, I know that I will not be able to live the life I deserve (see, starting to be kind to myself already) until I have learnt to control my anxiety. It is, without question, one of the biggest (and most severe) roadblocks on my recovery journey – and one I need to tackle quickly and definitively.