Monday, June 20, 2016

I am the champion.

...of the world!

Jk. But I am the champion of my lifelong social anxiety disorder! Which has drawn the confines of my world for me, defining what I can and can't do, keeping me from making friends, making jokes, being myself, feeling comfortable, feeling safe, feeling like I'm a person worth talking to. It has belittled me, held me back, made me lonely, kept me from doing what I longed to, made people perceive me in a certain way. I will struggle for it for the rest of my life because that's just the way I'm wired, but I have made some really big strides, which makes me so joyful and so proud.

I've put a lot of hard work and bravery over the years into trying to overcome my social anxiety. I don't think many people realize that, and I haven't either. Others (and myself) look at me and see everything I don't do that normal people should. But I'm learning to look at myself at see the things I didn't use to do but do now and the things that I have the courage to do that others don't have to have courage to do...so who's the stronger person? The one who just puts his/herself out there no problem and appears normal, or the one who makes hesitant, perhaps slightly awkward small talk but fought a racing heart, objecting mind, and whirl of anxious thoughts and emotions to do so? To me, it's the latter.

I used to get so overwhelmed by dates to meet new people, go to an event, or interview with a professor or potential employer that I would want to just curl up in the fetal position or rock back and forth as nervous adrenaline pulsed through me for hours before the meeting. My mind would be consumed for days beforehand anticipating the event, and I couldn't turn the thoughts off. Understandably, I sometimes just ended up cancelling because I couldn't stand the anxiety and physical reactions any more. Friends would judge me and I would hate myself for what I saw as cowardice because everyone else seemed to view it as such. But if you were in an electric chair having increasingly painful shocks go through your body and somebody gave you a button to push to stop it, would you press it?

The medical supplements I'm on, inositol and SamE, have helped with reducing the physical reactions to things a lot, which is a very welcome relief! They also help to reduce my involuntary anxious thoughts in general. I've also had a lot of chances now that I'm home and commuting to school to face many of my fears, such as ordering at restaurants, checking out at cashiers, meeting with professors, etc. But a big thing has been the medication, which is definitely a course I would recommend looking into if social anxiety has a big grip on your life. There's only so much you can overcome when your body is controlled by raging anxiety chemicals that are triggered by the smallest social unknown. Personally, I found out I was intolerant of SSRIs and antidepressants, which are typically used to treat anxiety. But I was able to find a solution that worked for me. There are forms of counseling also targeted towards treating social anxiety, but I found these intimidating because they make you systematically face your fears and engage in social behaviors you are intimidated by, which I felt overwhelmed and a bit demeaned by...It's not like I hadn't been trying to face my fears, after all.

But let me get to the reason why I am writing: today I finished my third volunteer training to be a historic house docent. Dinner was provided before each session for all the docents in training, which of course struck fear into my socially anxious soul. Well, it wasn't quite that melodramatic; it would have terrified me before, but now it just makes me a bit anxious and uncomfortable. I considered just skipping out and coming to the actual training; it was optional, after all, and there would probably be mostly old people. But I just had this gut feeling that I really should go. The first time, I sat with a group but barely talked except to answer some questions directed my way. I did make a bit of conversation, but mostly I listened to others talk. I've learned to accept this though; sometimes you just need to take baby steps and accept that you can't plunge into the deep end if you're just learning to swim.

The second time, I came in about the same time as another lady, who was elderly but very nice (I think old people are just swell), so I made conversation with her and asked some questions that aren't part of my usual safe and comfortable go-to small talk repertoire. And I got to talk to another woman who is actually my age. Boom. That's two good conversations. And I even considered going up to the museum curator afterwards and asking about her educational background to aid my grad school search. (I didn't but that's because she had left by the time our training ended so I had a good excuse. I was relieved though...)  This time I sat with more strangers, intending to just smile and nod, but ended up talking with another new person -- out of my comfort zone again and a bit awkward, but I think everyone felt a bit uncomfortable.

Tonight, I casually mentioned that I had talked to this person and my mom just stared at me for a moment, almost tearing up. "I'm so proud of you," she said. I was a little dumbfounded at first, but then I realized: this was all pretty big. I wouldn't have done most of this even six months ago. I would've skipped the dinner and conversations. I pushed myself. I stood up. I had courage to go to each and every dinner because each time I considered just bailing, but each time I decided to take the risk. And even though things were easier because of the medication, I had to be courageous to go on that medication too. I was scared out of my mind to go on anxiety meds when I started them two years ago. You read those black box warnings and reviews from people who have cycled through dozens of meds and you are like, "Okay, never mind. The horrible life I'm living with a crippling condition is fine." But I recognized that I needed help and could be living a much better quality of life if I had the courage to reach out for that assistance. So I took the plunge.

I couldn't have even imagined how awful things would end up being for me when I read those black box warnings while checking out during my Technology class sophomore year. It took over a year to find out that I was intolerant of the meds because of a rare genetic abnormality I happen to have, and even then my dumb psychiatrist kept me on the things for a while. I held on through the most turbulent year of my young life, cycling through I don't know how many meds, being judged for what people thought was laziness and over-emotionality when all along I was being poisoned. I would say the joke was on them but it was really on me. I'm the only one whose paid this entire time, apart from my immediate family who all suffered along with me, seeing my hurt. Finally, I went off of the medication and eventually went on the medical supplements I had mentioned before and started feeling much better.

But my point is that while some (including myself) might discredit my social accomplishments due to my being on a medication now, but the reality is that people have to exert courage, self-awareness, and self-advocacy in order to get help. It is scary going on a medication. It can be tumultuous, what with the side effects and dosage adjustments, especially in a culture where you feel like you have to keep quiet about it so you don't feel able to share, "Hey, I might not be myself these next few days as I'm adjusting to a new medication" or ask for time off, etc. I remember how uncomfortable I felt when I had to let my professors know that I needed to take some time off to go home when my condition became particularly acute junior year. Even more awkward (and ironic) was when my psychology professor said to me once I got back, "I hope you're doing better. You don't really look like anything is wrong." Hahahaha. Wow.

So take time today to be proud of what you have done and remember to cut yourself some slack when you find yourself overwhelmed with self-criticism for ways you aren't measuring up. You deserve credit for your victories, no matter how small. Even if it's just staying alive for another day when you just want to give up. That's a huge accomplishment, even if other people don't get it. Even if you judge yourself too because they've always judged you. You deserve some love, some recognition, some praise. Don't wait until the awards ceremony to give others recognition for their accomplishments, big or small. Let them know today. Same goes for you -- host your own awards ceremony.

Award for Best You...

....goes to YOU.

Sorry, I had to get a little cheesy.

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Read more posts about social anxiety disorder.

Read more posts regarding medication.

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