It's no wonder I feel tired, I've been running for 20 years.
1989: I'm sitting in a classroom, one of my first university seminars. As the only person in my family to continue education after the age of 16, I've always felt uncomfortable in these surroundings. There is little common ground and few shared experiences between my unskilled working class background and my more affluent peers. I'm a little out of my depth, a lot out of my place.
But today is somehow different.
One at a time, the professor is asking each class member to give feedback on their assignments. I've done the work and to make sure everyone knows it, I have it resting on my lap, title page up. But I still feel uneasy. It's a strange sensation. My mouth is dry, my palms are sweaty, and I'm blushing...
... (the BLUSHING! I remember another time several years later, while working one of many surreal survival jobs -- minting souvenir Viking coins for American tourists -- how the coin stuck in the press. A crowd gathered around me, intensely watching my failure. In the middle of this humiliation, as I torpedoed from pink to red to purple, it felt as if my head was going to explode!)
As each student completes their talk and my turn draws closer, my breathing gets shallower and faster, my body tightens and my heart pounds heavier. I'm swallowing, wiping my hands, looking down but feeling all eyes on me -- more than anything, I feel trapped.
"I can't do this," I mumble and leave the room: Relief and Guilt in hot pursuit.
Some time later I learned that this was my first panic attack, but my introduction to anxiety came years before. As an adolescent, I remember how difficult it was "going to town." The main street, with no more than a few hundred people, made me feel uneasy, as if I was on show, and if I ever had the misfortune to have to queue I'd visibly shake. My world was in flux, becoming less certain, more complex, more critical.
My search for solutions led down predictable pathways, but prescriptions remained unfilled, advice unheeded. Avoidance and self-medication were easier -- and more fun. The "wilderness years" spanned time away from university, eventual graduation and a hokey-dokey of welfare and crap jobs.
Over time, I accepted the role of passive observer rather than active participant, of being on the sidelines looking on, of everyday things being out of my reach. Events as mundane as speaking on the telephone, socializing, talking in a group, driving and even expressing an opinion can be perversely difficult, markers of this exclusion. Simple acts such as saying "hi" as I pass colleagues in the corridor become personal Mount Everests to climb and overcome.
Avoidance becomes a way of life, a means of survival from one day to the next.
In the words of a television announcer, "those of a nervous disposition should look away." But before you know it, you've been looking away for 20 years. Time passes quickly. Approaching middle age, a life half-lived in every sense. "Shyness," "nervousness," "neuroses" -- there are many names, but eventually I found one that fits: social anxiety.
Research suggests that social anxiety is one of the most common anxiety disorders, affecting around 10 per cent of the population. Fearing they will act in a way that is humiliating or embarrassing, people facing social anxiety disorders pass through life feeling extremely uncomfortable in social settings. Rather than endure the extreme discomfort which results, they expend great energy trying to avoid anxiety-provoking situations. Avoidance becomes a way of life, a means of survival from one day to the next.
Although many individuals recognize that their fears are unreasonable, they exert a damaging impact on almost every aspect of their lives. It is no surprise then that those with social anxiety typically have lower educational attainment and reduced likelihood of employment, lower income, increased reliance on welfare and increased social isolation. For all of these reasons, social anxiety is considered "an illness of lost opportunities."
Opening doors, listening to people's stories and finding different ways for them to participate can help people to find their voices and to bring them in from the margins.
While there have been many lost opportunities, I've also been incredibly fortunate. A volunteer placement provided an unexpected ladder of opportunity to return to education and to break the work-welfare cycle. Several years later, with a life enriched by a loving wife and children, my anxiety is manageable in many areas.
But it remains stubbornly persistent in others. Casual conversations with co-workers can turn clumsy as my attention wanders, worrying what to say next. Speaking in a meeting can flow naturally or be reminiscent of a child's first walk to the grocery store, the sing-song rehearsal -- "eggs, milk, cheese, eggs, milk, cheese" -- building the courage to speak. So, while supportive colleagues are helpful, the chief strategy continues to be avoidance: "I'd love to but... I'm busy that day, I have a prior engagement, I'll be out of town."
Twenty years on, when things turn full circle and I'm considered for a university position, it's no surprise to find myself back in that classroom. The powerful presentation mapped out in my mind cannot compete with the sharpening anxiety which each day brings. Feeling trapped and out of my depth, I run: "I'd love to but... I'm busy that day, I have a prior engagement, I'll be out of town."
By definition, those who are socially anxious find it hard to reach out. Cycles of anxiety and avoidance can wear them down and make them voiceless. Some self-medicate, slip into depression or hide in the background, finding spaces where life doesn't bother them. Too often the root causes of their marginalization -- irrational fears of "normal" life -- go overlooked and untreated.
Opening doors, listening to people's stories and finding different ways for them to participate can help people to find their voices and to bring them in from the margins -- and when they are able to reach out, they may help someone else to find their way.
Frame Of Mind is a new series inspired by The Maddie Project that focuses on teens and mental health. The series will aim to raise awareness and spark a conversation by speaking directly to teens who are going through a tough time, as well as their families, teachers and community leaders. We want to ensure that teens who are struggling with mental illness get the help, support and compassion they need. If you would like to contribute a blog to this series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
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