Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Mind Games

One of the most tormenting things about social anxiety is how it can make you obsess over the most insignificant of details. It's now 1:00 am, and I've been beating myself up for about four hours over a comment I made on a friend's Facebook profile; something that has absolutely no consequence in terms of its affect on my life. It was nothing more than an observation about his profile picture, meant to be taken in a joking tone, and yet I'm losing sleep over it.

The problem is, once that seed of doubt about something you've said or done gets planted in your head, you're then hypersensitive to anything that might confirm the suspicion that you did something to merit yourself a total jackass. In this case, the fact that this friend replied to another friend's comment but not to mine was, to me, a sure indication that I sounded as idiotic as I fear. I've even checked my account two or three times since then in the hopes that he would at least acknowledge my joke with a 'lol' or even tell me it was lame; anything to silence my own doubt.

As of yet, I haven't been able to figure out a way to turn off these mental self-beatings, as unproductive, destructive and juvenile as they are. I understand - as a somewhat rational person - that even if I did make a comment that was lacking in insight or humor, it isn't anything to feel like less of a person over. Still, right now, my brain is stuck in humiliation mode and has no idea how to turn off the switch.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Alcoholic Autonomous

From the time I started drinking at age 14, I truly believed that if alcohol ever became a problem in my life, I would see the signs and stop before things got out of hand. My father's alcoholism and the accompanying emotional battering toward my sisters, mother and myself left me with a strong impression of what booze could do to a person and everyone they were supposed to be caring about.

I enjoyed several years of tipping the bottle without any major life consequences; the worst being, perhaps, an occasional two-day hangover or waking up next to someone whose name I only vaguely remembered. I saw drinking first as a means of fitting in with my oh-so-mature friends (some of whom, sadly, could name 10 brands of beer before they could do fractions), then as an outlet for social spontaneity. Finally, liquor became a regular fixture in whatever the weekend brought; whether a night at the clubs, a house party or a camping trip. Everyone I grew up with drank, and any consequences it incurred equalled either a day's worth of lamentation or a funny story to tell.

Since that fateful 14th birthday when I downed my first "half-pint" or so of vodka (straight, no less), I've graduated high school, moved out on my own, achieved a bachelor's degree, had a serious relationship, moved to the other side of the country and am close to achieving a Master's. Despite this, my drinking pattern has scarcely changed. 

I suppose I could reason that, if I've come this far, drinking must not have given me that much trouble. The problem, though, is that I sense liquor is slowly morphing from the reliable, foolproof friend it once was into a testy, unstable foe. Getting drunk still gives me that wonderful, free feeling of not caring what I do or say. But now, more often than not, it also strips me of all emotional control. 

This became poignantly evident during one of my latest binges, when I accused the guy I had been dating of being unfaithful based on the mere fact that I ran into him at a club when I didn't expect him there. Not surprisingly, he hasn't called since. I've tried placing some of the blame on him by reasoning that, up until that last nasty encounter, our relationship had been quite good, so his fucking off must have a deeper context than my one drunken slip-up. In reality, I acted like a complete idiot, showing him just how insecure and emotionally infantile I really am.

I haven't stopped drinking since that night, but I've tried pacing myself in the hopes that less alcohol consumption will equal less embarrassment. If I were courageous, I'd call it a day and quit altogether...Guess I'm not ready to give up my old friend just yet.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Knock on Wood...

...but I feel good this week.

Perhaps a minor detail for most but, for me, it signifies the possible end to several weeks of feeling miserable. Since I returned to school in September, I have been out of sorts and mildly depressed, mostly over school itself. I couldn't seem to get myself motivated and the anxiety wasn't helping anything. I quickly got into a pattern of sleeping until noon and, since I only had class two days a week, working mostly from home because I usually felt too anxious about seeing certain, "anxiety-provoking" people in our grad-school building. 

As the weeks went on, my apathetic funk got worse and, for some reason, my social anxiety peaked about 3 weeks ago. I went from feeling mildly nervous about seeing and talking to certain people to coming home shaken and borderline hysterical because I couldn't stop going over every detail of every conversation I'd had with anyone that day. For the past couple of weeks I'd been nearing that breaking point where the humiliation and hopelessness are almost too much to stand and I have a mini-breakdown.

At the beginning of this week, though, I suddenly felt more positive. I had my assessment at the anxiety clinic on Monday, which I'm sure had something to do with it. But I also decided to give working at school one more chance and started going to my office, which I share with 3 girls in my program, each morning to study for my upcoming psychology exam (which I wrote tonight and, by all estimates, passed).

I was so afraid to work in my office because I didn't know exactly who would be coming and going (i.e. who I'd have to talk to). My specific fear when it comes to making conversation is that everything I say will sound stupid or naive and that I'll either alienate or bore whoever I'm speaking with. What helped me this week, though, was that one of the girls I actually trust not to judge me studied with me all day Monday. Having an ally allowed me to talk more comfortably with others who stopped by, and by today I was able to study in the office without my friend while a colleague I don't know very well worked across from me. I even chatted and joked around with her and others comfortably; a rarity for me, especially after the last few weeks.

I guess what I've been describing is nothing more than exposure - part of the cognitive-behavioral therapy that's touted so enthusiastically by all these self-help books I've been reading. The basic idea is to gradually expose yourself to the situations and/or people that cause you anxiety, thus proving to your brain that there's really nothing to be afraid of.

Call it what you will. I just know that, for the first time in a long time, I feel something akin to contentment.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Baby Steps

This morning I had an appointment with two counsellors at the hospital so they could assess whether I should attend their next social anxiety group workshop. One of the counsellors, Gary, had been calling me for months, letting me know any time a new group session was starting. My school schedule had always prevented me from going, but the workshop starting in January actually fits with my classes.

There's something about walking into a psychiatric ward that makes you wish things had gone drastically different during the course of your life. Especially unnerving is the ever-so-slight note of condescension in the psychiatrist's voice as they hand you a slew of questionnaires meant to assess your mental/emotional stability. Although I normally enjoy surveys, the titles of these ones didn't quite entice me: "Worry Scale", "Aptitude for Anxiety" and "Depression Assessment" to name a few.

I knew before the appointment that I would be an ideal candidate for their group. If this were a job interview, my "shattered self-esteem, keen eye for scrutiny and constant sense of impending doom" would be listed as assets on my resume. During our meeting, Gary and another counsellor asked me a few questions about why I wanted to take part in the workshop and what I hope to get out of it. I think I answered somewhere along the lines of, "I want to be able to have normal conversations with people without feeling inferior to them, and to actually enjoy life again." 

It was an honest response, and they acted as if the sessions would be a realistic solution to my problems. I'm hopeful that they will be, but can't help being a little skeptical. It's just that I've had anxiety - both social and, by all indications, generalized - for about 8 years. Unfortunately, the social anxiety seems to only have gotten worse within this timeframe. 

Then again, have I really been trying hard enough to remedy myself? I worked through one self-help book, the famous, "Feeling Good" by Dr. David D. Burns. It helped a bit, but by no means brought my anxiety to a manageable level. I decided I needed a treatment that was specifically suited to social anxiety, so I'm currently slogging my way through "Dying of Embarrassment" by a bunch of doctors. It's not a bad book, and simply knowing how many others go through this is comforting in itself. But I still feel something is missing.

I need more than just tools for teaching myself how to function in social situations: I need someone to teach me how to think of myself as a worthwhile person again, to gain the self-confidence that, I feel, has so much to do with why I can't carry on a two-minute conversation with someone without feeling as if I'm saying all the wrong things and coming across as a complete jackass. 

So, if these sessions are the answer, bring them on. If not, I guess I'll be no worse off than I am now.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out

If a stranger were to see me on the street, on the bus or sitting in a restaurant, they wouldn't perceive anything wrong with me. They would just see me as a twenty-something, modestly attractive girl going about her day. Like so many others with social anxiety disorder, there are no outward signs - at least, before you speak with me - to indicate that I am anything other than a "normal," fully-functioning person like anybody else.

In my opinion, one of the toughest things about SAD is that, without the stereotypically obvious signs that someone has a mental disorder (like talking to oneself or poor hygiene) it is very difficult for others to understand what's wrong, or to even believe something could be wrong. I have told a select few people about my disorder and have been met with either mild disbelief or misunderstanding, for the most part. (Actually, when I told my mother about my feelings of anxiety and low self-confidence in social situations, she said she had felt the same way for the better part of her life. The range of emotions this aroused in me is something better left for another post.)

While the knowledge that neither strangers nor friends and family really "get" what's going on with me is disheartening in itself, it has led to a much scarier question, at least in my mind: If the people around me think that the Lucy I've been portraying all this time is my true self, what opinion must they have of me? It's hard to explain, but I feel that the self I show publicly to others - and that means to immediate family, close friends, colleagues, the works - is far removed from the individual I was meant to be, and most likely used to be before this disorder got into full swing some years back.

I perceive my "real" self as being articulate, funny, warm and creative, as well as slightly perfectionistic and neurotic. This, as I remember, is the child I grew up as. During junior high school and beyond, I felt this self slipping away, not disappearing but receding into a deep space inside that I can see from afar but can't seem to bring to the surface again. Thus, I perceive that the self I show to the world now is limited; characterized by timidness, blandness and distanced relationships that bear no resemblance to what I think intimacy should be.

It is horrible and depressing to know - even if no one else has actually caught on - that what you are giving to those you care about is a stifled and incomplete version of yourself. That maybe no one will ever truly know who you are again and, even worse, that what you lost is gone forever and this half-self is here to stay.

~This is my first post and obviously I am venting some of the darker, more intense thoughts that SAD has caused me. Honestly, there's just so much I could say about what this disorder has done to my life that I'm afraid this blog will be nothing more than a depressing rant. However, while this is partly meant to be a means for getting these things off my chest, I hope that others who suffer from SAD will take something from it and know that they are far from alone.~