A wee while ago, I stopped having social anxiety. I don’t know exactly when that happened; hell, I couldn’t even tell you whether it left me by increments or all of a sudden. All I know is that one day I waited for it to show up and piss in my porridge, and it didn’t.
I cannot begin to express my surprise at its absence. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have social anxiety. I know that I was probably not born with it, but I remember it chewing at me before I hit kindergarten. By the time I started school, it was affecting every aspect of my life. It peaked in junior high and ebbed after University, but it has been with me for as long as I can remember. Now it’s gone, and I don’t know what to do with myself, because its absence has affected all the equations in my life.
Let me try and explain this. When I had social anxiety, every social interaction, however minor, caused me a significant level of distress. If the interaction went positively, that positive value was added to the negative value inherent in the interaction. If the final result was a positive, then that interaction added quality to my life, but that only happened rarely. Most superficial interactions just didn’t hold enough value to be able to offset the initial negative. Deeper interactions carried a higher potential value, but they also carried a larger initial negative because the stakes were higher, so they didn’t necessarily fare any better. In fact, when deeper interactions went wrong, the final results could be crushing. That was was why in school I avoided like the plague all the people I had a crush on: they were simply too dangerous to me. I was only willing to date people I didn’t really like, which went about as well as could be expected.
Things eased up a little when I hit university, but not enough to make me enjoy the company of all but a handful of people. Essentially, I lived in a world where interacting with people constantly took more than it added – which, incidentally, is why I genuinely can’t tell whether I’m an introvert or an extrovert. I honestly don’t think that those labels make any sense when applied to someone like me. Or someone like the person I was, anyway.
Now my social anxiety is gone, and its absence has left me a stranger to myself. So much of what I know about myself is built upon false premises. I can’t anticipate how certain situations will affect me, so I don’t know how to decide what to do. What kind of interactions do I want to make room in my life for? Do I want to try and get closer to some of the people I really like, but may not like me back? Do I want to expand my social circle to include people I’m not likely to ever be close to, because I might now be able to enjoy their company? Do I want to maintain turbulent relationships, even though the low points upset me? How will I react if things go wrong? Hell, is my concept of “wrong” still valid? It’s an interesting position to be in, and I’m not complaining, but it’s definitely weird. The weirdest thing has been realizing how much my anxiety has skewed every aspect of my past; or, rather, that “normal” people don’t live like that.
I’m tempted to look back at my life and count all the things I’ve missed out on, and I don’t mean just the things I didn’t do. I actually did quite a bit, all considering: I’ve lived on four continents, I’ve studied, I’ve worked, I’ve engaged in hobbies, and I’ve had relationships of all shapes and sizes. I did all of that while hurting, though. I had the experiences, but much of the enjoyment was lost. It’s the difference between walking up a mountain wearing well-fitting hiking boots and concrete shoes: in the latter case, you might still make it to the top, but I can guarantee that you won’t enjoy the trip half as much.
You’re also probably going to stumble a lot more. If people don’t realize what the problem is, they might wonder what the hell is wrong with you. Why do you turn everything into an issue? Why can’t you just get on with things, same as everyone else? Why are you so reactive? Do you gotta be such a fucking chore?
I recently read a post by an autistic person in which they made the distinction between “high-functioning” and “high-passing.” Before anyone decides to jump down my throat, I am not trying to compare autism with social anxiety. Similar issues around being “high-functioning” apply, though, and they also apply to depression, PTSD, chronic pain, and a whole host of other issues. You’re often evaluated as to whether you can perform to the satisfaction of “normal” people, regardless of how much that costs you. You Did The Thing! Hence, you are capable of Doing The Thing. The fact that you might have experienced huge levels of discomfort all the way through, or that Doing The Thing today means that you’re gonna be fucked for days, is utterly discounted: you’re evaluated for your performance in the moment – or, rather, for whether your performance in the moment inconvenienced any passing normies.
If you can Do The Thing, that often means that you won’t get any help or consideration. What do you mean, you need a day off today because of what happened yesterday? What do you mean, you don’t want to Do The Thing again? What do you mean, you can’t Do The Thing? I just watched you Do It! And you did great, which means that you can do it all the time! Or, conversely, you did really badly, and you ought to be punished for that, because I just know that you can do better.
I pushed myself to do so much in my life, even though I suffered through much of it, and I’m increasingly unsure as to whether that was a good thing. Maybe if I’d fucked up more visibly I might have gotten help a long time ago, and have lived a better life. Maybe I would have been left to fester with my problems in private, instead of festering with them in public. Who knows? The world has changed so much since I was a kid that I honestly can’t tell. What I’m fairly sure of, though, is that if I’d been given the right words to self-describe, I might have been kinder to myself. Maybe I wouldn’t have “achieved” so much, but I might have actually enjoyed myself in the process. For me, that matters.