All that I am, all that I ever was…

I am more than my mental health. I am more than my homelessness. I am more than any one aspect of me. I am Addy. And this is…


Social anxiety disorder and its impact on building relationships

The reason that I have no friends is simple.

I’m just not a good enough human being to have people in my life. I am, amongst other things; selfish, ungrateful, narcissistic, uncaring, weak, worthless, grotesque, uncompassionate and evil. My voice inflicts pain on everyone I talk to. My body makes people want to vomit. My mind is that of a repulsive freak that brings pain and terror to people’s lives.

Or at least this is what my abuser convinced myself, and others, was the reason I should live an isolated life.

The real reason that I have no friends is slightly more complicated.

I suffer from social anxiety disorder; arguably the least understood anxiety disorder.

Social Anxiety Disorder (in a nutshell)

“Social anxiety is the fear of social situations and the interaction with other people that can automatically bring on feelings of self-consciousness, judgment, evaluation, and inferiority.

Put another way, social anxiety is the fear and anxiety of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people, leading to feelings of inadequacy, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression.”

Source: The Social Anxiety Network

The most common feature of social anxiety is a constant, intense anxiety that does not go away. An anxiety that manifests itself physiologically with symptoms including: intense fear, racing heart, turning red or blushing, excessive sweating, dry throat and mouth, trembling, swallowing with difficulty, and muscle twitches.

Like most people who suffer from anxiety disorders, someone suffering from social anxiety knows their anxiety is irrational. But knowing something is very different from believing it. Deep in my heart I know I’m none of the things my abuser called me, but her relentless, repetitive abuse made me believe that everything I listed above is who I am. Her words persist in my mind regardless of what I do to counteract them, in much the same way that social anxiety persists, despite facing the fears on a daily basis.

There are seven situations in which someone suffering from social anxiety will experience significant emotional distress. I have, throughout my life, experienced each of these on multiple occasions – each leading to a reduced level of functioning, especially in the arena of building friendships and relationships.

1. Being introduced to other people

Any childhood memories of being introduced to new people have dissolved into the sands of time, but when I was a teenager – when meeting new people is a prerequisite to be accepted – it was immensely difficult for me. When I joined my new school after moving from Scotland to Wales it took me a long time to start talking to people, with the difficulty increasing to the point of avoidance after my mental health issues took hold.

A similar situation arose when I began backpacking in 1999, with many evenings spent quietly observing the other residents of the hostel, both envious of their ability to engage and angry at my own insecurities. Only when they started talking to me did I begin to communicate, for as with every friend and relationship I’ve ever had, I’ve never had enough control of my anxiety to make the first move.

As with many areas of social anxiety, this inability to communicate often translates to those who don’t understand as a form of snobbish behavior, with many people deciding I thought myself ‘too good’ to be talking to such ‘peasants’ – when in reality it’s the exact opposite. My anxiety drives me to believe I’m not good enough as a person to be around such vibrant, wonderful individuals.

All throughout my life – being introduced to Louise’s friends upon arriving in Australia, various parties attended throughout those years, having to meet new contacts or prospective employees in various jobs, joining social networking sites in the hope to make new friends, contacting organisations to assist in mental health and/or homelessness issues – whenever there is the threat or reality of meeting new people I withdraw into my shell like a terrified turtle.

2. Being teased or criticized

Ever since being bullied at school, which I believe to be a fundamental cause of my anxiety, this is my second biggest fear in the world. I know only too well that words can hurt – at times, far more than sticks and stones.

Although it is something we all fear – being social creatures, we want people to like us – this becomes a major issue when someone actively avoids communication over fear of the perceived inevitable criticism. With this in mind, it shouldn’t be too difficult to realize how it can affect building friendships and relationships.

Unfortunately, as has been written many times in the past, just as I was beginning to get a handle on this irrational fear and open up to both friends and strangers, I ended up in an emotionally abusive relationship.

And that is the worst thing that can happen to someone with social anxiety disorder!

3. Being the center of attention

Given that I’m a rather pointless human being who has achieved virtually nothing of note this has never been a huge issue for me. The thought of being the center of attention scares me to the point that I tend to deflect, play down or hide my achievements.

For example:

One of my few moments of pride was the work I produced managing a backpacker hostel many years ago. Although my abuser erased that pride with numerous vicious comments regarding this period (and what I believed to be achievements) I’ve always remembered being the center of attention at my leaving BBQ and the increasing panic that grew in the lead up to my inevitable speech. My words became muddled, my mouth dried and I made myself look like a twat in front of management and staff.

Also, when I had my short story and opinion piece published in 2009 I wrote both under a pseudonym and sent copies to only one person. I never told anyone else for fear of, momentarily, being the center of attention.

4. Being watched while doing something

My first girlfriend became increasingly frustrated that I’d never write when she was around. She thought I was being elusive and hiding something sinister, where in actual fact, I just can’t write when people are watching me.

The same goes for other areas of my life. I wrote recently of how my fear of being watched on stage ultimately led to me turning down Theatre at A-Level. When I was at a college, I would often head to the darkroom outside of hours as I functioned much better when alone. Even work I undertook at the hostel was easier when people weren’t watching me.

The downside to this is that it leads to all sorts of problems when trying to form relationships. Such behavior makes me appear to be a weird loner, secretive, unable to work as part of a team, and untrustworthy – whereas in reality, the opposite applies.

5. Meeting people in authority (“important people”)

Meeting or being in situations involving important people are guaranteed to freak me out. The usual suspects apply:

Police: although I have never committed a crime nor been arrested in any way shape or form.
Judiciary: again, despite never having encountered them, anyone associated with the law freaks me out.
Management: I will explore this in more detail in a later entry to the series.
David Tennant: never met him – would probably pass out if I did!

But in my mind, there are others:

Librarians: being the guardians of knowledge, librarians have always been intimidating and prone to cause me anxiety.
Academics: a recent comment on The Conversation stated that an interview from an academic was less ferocious than an interview from a journalist. Personally, I would choose an interview from a journalist any day of the year, as I fear whip-smart academics far more than journalists!
Psychiatrists: Arg! Why can’t they just understand I get tongue-tied and confused because I’m being placed in a vulnerable, potentially humiliating situation? If they did, I might not be insane as I am!
Doctors: see psychiatrists above!
Dentists: ditto.
Editors: perhaps because my grasp of grammar would most likely cause even the most kind-natured of editors to spank and send me to the naughty corner, perhaps because I simply envy them, editors are the supreme authority figure to this aspiring writer and therefore…runaway!

6. Most social encounters, especially with strangers

When most people think of social encounters they think of parties, or meeting up with friends, few take it the next logical step to be any encounter where social interaction may occur.

There have been times in my life where I have deliberately starved myself rather than walk to the supermarket to buy food.

One time, whilst homeless, I saved for months to secure a motel room but, because I couldn’t bear speaking to the receptionist on that particular day, lost my money by simply not arriving.

As for pre-arranged social encounters, nothing compares to the anxiety surrounding these. If I go I usually end up being so anxious I can’t tell the difference between a Bordeaux and a Claret and spend the entire evening saying nothing but the occasional, incoherent, gargle. If I don’t go, it’s because the anxiety has become so severe I suffer a crippling panic attack and spend the evening flagellating myself for being so weak and worthless. Either way, the chances of meeting new people, are non-existent.

7. Going around the room (or table) in a circle and having to say something

I hated this at school. I hated it at work experience. I hated it at training seminars. I hated it at first aid classes. I hated it at college. I don’t think I will ever not hate it.

When I had to do it at school I’d become tongue-tied and confused; the resulting mumble, oft ridiculed for months afterwards. At work experience (at the age of 15) I was so nervous I admitted – long before Eccleston, Tennant and Smith made the show must-see television – that I was a Doctor Who fan; the laughter still haunts me to this day.

By the time I began training seminars I hated this moment so much I would ‘accidentally’ miss my train or ‘accidentally’ get a flat tyre purely to arrive late and avoid this cruel hell. Ditto for first aid classes.

As for college, I tried for days to talk to my girlfriend about my fear of this moment in the hope I would receive some understanding, but whenever I did she attacked, knocking my self-esteem so much that on the first night I fumbled my way through my introduction, mixed the names of my favourite film directors (annoyingly, David Fincher and David Mackenzie became Fincher Mackenzie and David David) and accidentally told the class my name was Mitchell. I still don’t know where that came from!

In a world where first impressions are the only thing that matters, fudging this moment immediately puts me on the back foot. Rather than making an impression that creates ‘I want to get to know this guy’ feelings it becomes the other way around.

This, for the most part, is the story of my life.

No matter what effort I make to overcome this aspect of my life I never seem to be able to get a proper handle on it. It is possible to overcome social anxiety disorder – as I mentioned, I would have got there had it not been for an abusive relationship – but the surest way of doing so is through cognitive behavioral therapy.

Unfortunately I’ve never been able to access this particular holy grail of anxiety therapy. My aversion to psychiatrists (I have yet to meet one who seems to grasp the impact this anxiety has on me) means I am left fighting this without support; my anxiety too severe and my life too isolated to navigate the system to obtain effective treatment.

This isn’t to say I’ve given up.

However hopeless and difficult social anxiety may be – it is beatable!

Previous articles in this series:

Tomorrow: Anxiety and its impact on employment >>>