Quarantine Quirks: Social Anxiety

We’re all so weird.

Universally. We’re bananas.

And that’s okay.

I used to look around and think “God, how do all these people have their shit so together, and I’m a mess?” But then I realized that they don’t. Have their shit together, that is. Everyone’s got stuff they’re muddling through. Some of us just do it with a little more finesse than others.

It took a long time for my social anxiety to kick up during quarantine. Because… hey, who is there to be social with? But, paradoxically, that’s actually what made it worse: isolation.

I mean, sure, I have contact with my family (and my best friend’s family). But they’re like a woobie–tried and true. There’s nothing they don’t know about me. They’ve chosen me. I’ve chosen them. We’re golden.

But adding one more person to the mix? B-a-n-a-n-a-s.

When the world is normal(ish), my social anxiety is kept largely at bay by the sheer number of fascinating people I come in contact with on the daily. I love people. And I value connection above all else. As an extrovert (mostly) and a bookstore owner, I have a constant stream of people coming through my world. I want every person I meet to feel valued, like I’ve paid attention to who they really are.

Sometimes I am a rock star at this. Sometimes I fail spectacularly. But I am always trying to bring my highest self to meet their highest self.

Being around more people allows me to stay in the moment, to focus on what’s in front of me. And that’s key for me in combatting my social anxiety: staying present.

But, truth be told, even in the glory of days filled with people and bookselling and chatting and connecting, when it’s time to sit down one-on-one with someone I admire, or am excited about knowing, or who I just think is hella cool, my social anxiety kicks in.

It’s like a reflex.

I spent so many years of my life (33) believing I was unworthy in every way that, when confronted with a connection I really want to deepen, my reflex is to pull away. Not just pull but bolt. To be extra-special clear: I physically have to keep myself from turning and running the other way.

When this happens, it’s almost always right before I walk into a social situation. Which means I only have to manage that feeling for a minute or two, push through it (I can’t let it win. That’s a very dangerous, dark place for me), and usually I’m fine. If I don’t feel fine, I just own it out loud: “I’m totally struggling with anxiety right now, so if I act a little weird that’s what’s up.” Saying it out loud robs the anxiety of its power. In AA they say “We’re only as sick as our secrets.” My anxiety can’t be a secret. It can’t have that power.

But quarantine has changed the playing field. I am alone a lot. And that has never been good for me. I get all up in my head. And I get stuck in these toxic thought cyclones. It’s pretty damn awful.

I can Care Bear Stare these toxic cyclones out of existence by engaging with the person or task right in front of me. Usually. But, when I’m alone for 5 to 6 hours a day, and the task isn’t changing, and there are no people to interact with…

Well, you get it.

Lately, I’ve experienced social anxiety in a way I haven’t since I was teaching (I once taught a class from the midst of a full-blown anxiety attack for an entire semester. It was like standing outside myself, in the back of a tunnel, teaching toward an opening that I couldn’t even see. The entire time I taught that class, I couldn’t feel my own body. This happened every Tuesday & Thursday at noon for an entire semester. It was god-awful. But pushing through that experience, exhausting as it was, made me believe I didn’t have to live a smaller, more circumscribed life because of my anxiety. I still believe that.) I’ve tried to fight it. Reason with it. Ignore it. Accept it.

Today, as I was choosing my morning Yoga with Adriene video, I found one entitled Yoga for Social Anxiety. And I almost didn’t pick it. Because that would mean an admission that, yep, this is what I’m dealing with right now. Which feels like defeat to me. But feeling seen won out over my pride. And I turned it on.

And slowly, as I moved through the heart-opening poses and reconnected with my body, I experienced a profound understanding that I am not alone. Other folks deal with this, too. And folks that don’t have social anxiety? They’ve got some other shit to deal with that challenges them, makes them tired, or scares the hell out of them.

We all have something.

But I also think we all have each other. And grace.

You are not alone. Neither am I.

We’re all weird as all get-out.

And that’s okay.

I’m Not Anxious. You’re Anxious.

I woke up on Monday so anxious that my arms were numb.

When I relayed this information to Simon later, he thought I was pretty nonchalant about what he was convinced may have been a fatal malady.

But this is not my first rodeo.

I know precisely how my anxiety manifests. And the cold, lack of feeling in my hands… yep. That’s just anxiety, showing up for the party.

In the hell-in-a-handbasket environs of late, it’s not super surprising my anxiety reared its head. COVID-19 has made me reckon with the hard truth that I’m a bit of a hypochondriac (read: I’m always 85% sure I’m dying of something). I’ve managed my pandemic anxiety relatively well by simply being cautious. We’ve been social distancing since March 15th. Which is a fucking long time. I have a whole variety of masks to choose from, because I wear one any time I’m close to other humans. Hell, I go grocery shopping at 7am just to avoid other people.

But when we went to the LGBTQ+ March for Black Lives on Sunday, suddenly I was around a shit ton of people. And, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but some people really struggle with this mask thing. Like, for instance, wearing it over their mouths but below their nose.

Uh… NO.

Or–and this is my favorite–the folks who take off their masks to sneeze.

What the fuck, y’all? The mask says on. If we don’t all do it right, nobody is safe.

So, yeah, a large march both fed my soul & made me feel like I was actively participating in the Black Lives Matter movement—and scared the shit out of me. Cue the internal certainty I’m about to meet my ultimate demise because folks can’t wear a mask right.

And then, just for fun, my anxiety will grab on to every single thing I think I haven’t done right in, oh my entire life, and have a field day with it. And soon, I am petrified that I am in the midst of financial ruin (we’re not), that I’m going to lose the bookstore because I’m an idiot (I’m not), that my mistakes make me unredeemable and unworthy and just horrible (no, nope, nah).

The culmination? Waking up sweating, pinned to the bed in a panic, unable to feel my fingers.

Anxiety has been woven throughout my story since I was 8 years old. What does anxiety look like in an 8 year old? Begging to be able to order my own food at a restaurant (I wanted steak tips). Being met with sighs, insistence that I’d never be able to eat it all myself, that my mom and I should share food just like we had my entire life, that we’d be wasting money… and then getting my food and being seized with terror.

And not being able to eat a damn bite.

Fast forward to my second year of sobriety.

I’m 35 years old. Teaching First Year Writing at the University of South Florida–a job I adore. We’re trying to get pregnant. And every single day I’m seized with such anxiety I can barely breathe.

Not feeling my fingers was the least of my problems.

I often had to step out, mid-class (I was the teacher), just to breathe and talk myself into finishing the class. And I taught 4 or 5 classes–so this was a daily struggle. One class in particular stoked my anxiety to the point that I completely disassociated from my body. I’d feel myself receding, and suddenly it felt like someone else was talking, going through the motions, laughing with students.

I was gone.

I thought about quitting. Of course I did. It was emotionally wrenching just to make it through a day. But I also knew anxiety was a monster that wanted to take what was mine. And teaching was mine. I would not relenquish it. Period.

And so I fought through. With help from a good therapist. And Simon, who always nodded kindly when I explained my abject terror at… life. No matter how my anxiety manifested, he never got impatient. For several years, he knew where every single public restroom was in greater Tampa Bay. Because that was the only way I could manage to leave the house–if I knew I could find a public restroom in a flash.

Anxiety is weird.

But Simon never made me feel weird. To him, I was just a regular person dealing with this intense thing. I always felt like he saw my anxiety as separate from me. And, so, with his help, the therapist’s unwavering, gentle pushing at me to let go of all the bullshit I was holding on to, and little victories every day that I didn’t give in to my anxiety…

Well, it went away.

I know. That’s anticlimactic. As a storyteller, I want to give you this one big moment where I slayed the fire-breathing anxiety dragon.

But that’s not how it worked for me.

It was more like I wouldn’t play anxiety’s stupid, made-up games anymore, so it took it’s toys and went home in a huff.

Occasionally, it still rings the doorbell to see if I can come out and play. This time, though, it snuck in really quietly, so it could yell BOO! and try to frighten me out of going to the march.

But anxiety is just a bully. And the only way over is through.

So, I used my words to tell Simon I felt anxious. We went to the march anyway. I used my words to tell Simon I woke up so afraid I couldn’t feel my fingers. I got out of bed anyway. I did the things I always do: I had coffee, read, wrote. I left the house and delivered books… just life stuff.

And at some point, I took a deep breath and realized my anxiety was gone.

I know that, in part, its stay was short this time because I didn’t hold on to it, probe it, feed it, or give in to it. I just acknowledged it and let that shit go.

The only way over is through.

Anxiety & Parenting (What a Fun Mix!)

I get real quippy about my anxiety sometimes. Because it’s easier to be glib and light-hearted about anxiety than to admit that sometimes it threatens to suck all the air (and joy) out of my world.

And, also…

I’m fortunate that, over the years, people (qualified, professional people) have given me tools to cope with my anxiety, to reign it in, to flourish in spite of it. Sometimes, it’s relegated to the dark recesses of my mind. And, sometimes, my anxiety lives much closer to the surface. Close enough to remind me what it felt like to exist under it’s really shitty, tyrannical rule.

Because, let’s face it: anxiety is an asshole.

And anxiety really likes to harp on one particular topic: Jane. Which is some unmitigated bullshit.

Parenting is hard enough as it is, without anxiety getting all irrational. But that’s what it does–plays on your darkest fears, destroys your peace of mind, robs you of your joy.

Unless you say, unequivocally, unwaveringly, NO.

When I was pregnant with Jane, I coexisted–decidedly unpeacefully–with the fear of stillbirth. I’d miscarried once. And it had taken us TWO years to conceive Jane (doctors visits, shots, blood draws, inseminations). And now I was absolutely terrified of losing her. My therapist knew these things. But she also believed something I didn’t–that I deserved joy. And that Jane deserved a mother who was ruled by love, not fear. She gave me this brilliant piece of advice that I’ve carried with me since:

“You are afraid of stillbirth. Then she’ll be born, and you’ll be afraid of SIDS, cancer, accidents… When will it stop? How are you ever going to feel the joy of being a parent, if you live in constant fear?”

And in that moment, it became clear as day to me: fear is the death of joy.

But she wasn’t finished yet: “Our children aren’t really ours. They are on their own journey, entrusted into our care. Our job is simply to help them grow toward who they were meant to be. The job of a parent is to start letting go the minute they are born. Because they are only loaned to us for a short time.”

Every time my anxiety tries to keep Jane locked down, without enough freedom, too close to me for her own independent nature, I remember that she isn’t mine. It would be tragic for my fears to impede her journey. Wildly unfair. And I won’t let it happen.

I’m letting Jane go on an adventure with one of her friends this coming weekend. And I’m hella anxious about it. Like my brain keeps screaming, “HOLY SHIT! I CAN’T LET HER DO THAT.” But I can. And I will. Because she deserves great adventures and joy. And so do I.

“The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It’s our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows.” 

― Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

Bad things happen every day in this world. I am not naive. But I also know that fearing pain and loss don’t keep them at bay. Instead, they take the joy out of the NOW. Which is all we really have, isn’t it?

So, I’m gonna suck-it-up-buttercup & let Jane have a big adventure with her buddy. I’ll feel the way I feel. And I’ll let that shit go. I’ll keep my anxiety in its own lane, and let Jane navigate the world free from its fetters.

She’s so very worth it.

There Is Nothing to Apologize For

I’ve been pondering a bit more how my anxiety manifests itself on the daily. It’s been a companion of mine since I was 8 years old. And, truth is, we’ve settled into our own kind of peace, my anxiety & I. I’ve developed workarounds and strategies. Sometimes I just tell it to STFU. But it’s rarely just not there. 

So, when I read this piece by Discovering Your Happiness, I got smacked with overwhelming gratitude for the way Simon has helped me move through my anxiety. He’s really the reason I was able to adopt the whole “my-anxiety-doesn’t-define-me” mantra.

What does that look like in our every day world?

It looks like him finally corralling everyone for an excursion (after shoes have to be put on and phones have to be found and lights have to be turned off) only to have me make it all the way to the door, then turn back around to check that the toaster oven & the coffee pot are unplugged, that the gas burners are in the off position, that the dog’s crate is snapped shut–and then watch me do it again… and again.

Or his always knowing where the closest bathroom is. (It’s a huge anxiety trigger for me to have to pee & not know where a bathroom is)

Last Saturday, it looked like driving me by Jane’s friend’s house on the way home (where Jane was sleeping over), to make sure they’d made it home okay from the pool. They didn’t answer when I texted or called, and I just needed to know their car was there. That everyone was safe.

Sometimes, I don’t experience anxiety for weeks on end. Then BAM! And Simon never says a word about it. He doesn’t try to dig down to why I’m feeling anxious. (Often there’s no real reason) He doesn’t even flinch when I start checking and double checking things. Or when I flip out about money (another big anxiety trigger for me). He just carries on like there’s nothing going on. And I love him for it.

He never treats me like I need to be fixed.

He never acts put out.

He never blows off my concerns.

He just rolls with it.

I used to apologize profusely when these things would happen. I mean, I KNOW it’s my anxiety causing me to worry & kicking me into fear-mode. But the knowing doesn’t always mean I can turn it off.

For almost 15 years, he’s said the same thing: “There is nothing to apologize for.”

He said it so much that I started to believe it.

And now I do. Believe it, that is.

 

 

Photo by Eric BARBEAU on Unsplash

What Did I Do Over the Memorial Day Weekend? Told My Anxiety to Suck It.

7 years ago, I couldn’t even manage to go out and get COFFEE with my friend who visited this weekend. I mean, it’s true that she’s kind of infinitely cool. I’m totally not. But anxiety is more than being afraid someone won’t like you… it’s a fear of being seen that is so deep, and so horrifying, that running away feels like the only answer, even when what you desire most is connection.

On Friday afternoon, I kept getting texts:

“I’ll be there at 1:00”

“Dead standstill on 75. Looking more like 1:30”

“Alrighty. 6 minutes away according to Waze.”

When she finally peeked her head around the corner in the elementary school cafeteria, the two kids were right in the middle of a dance number. Or was it a song? Maybe it was a mashup. Sometimes its hard to tell in a first grade talent show.

When I saw her, I jumped out of my seat (among all the other amused and (relatively) proud parents), stifled a squeal, and ran over for a hug. Was I a spectacle? Eh. Maybe. Did I care? Nope. After hugs, I drug her back to my place in the crowd to watch Jane sing (and dance. Turns out first graders rarely do one with out the other).

 

 

It was all remarkably normal. For other people. For me, inviting a friend to share my space for a long weekend is remarkable. Because it means being seen–really seen–for days on end.

I spent all of my 20s and the first part of my 30s hiding behind a bunch of bravado and too much Miller Lite. Most of what I did and said was a red herring, anything to distract people from how anxious I became when I had to be honest, vulnerable, real.

Even 7 years into being sober, I struggled to connect one-on-one with people. I was terrified, way deep down where the fear feels cold and makes it hard to breathe, that I had nothing to offer. That if people really saw me, they’d be… what?… bored?… maybe. I don’t really know.

7 years ago, I couldn’t even manage to go out and get COFFEE with my friend who visited this weekend. I mean, it’s true that she’s kind of infinitely cool. I’m totally not. But anxiety is more than being afraid someone won’t like you… it’s a fear of being seen that is so deep, and so horrifying, that running away feels like the only answer, even when what you desire most is connection.

So, how did Captain Anxiouspants end up inviting a friend to stay for a long weekend?

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I did the simplest (and most difficult) thing: I just let life happen.

When circumstances pushed me toward friendship, I stopped talking myself out of coffee dates, hanging out, opening up. When I felt nudged by the universe to befriend someone, I began to honor that as a higher calling (ignoring my anxiety completely). When I was in a one-on-one situation and felt the onset of a panic attack, I owned it, by giving voice to my anxiety. Anxiety doesn’t like to be spoken, I found. The light of day makes it haul-ass. For me, at least.

I began to choose for myself the power anxiety got to have in my life. The answer for me: none. It’s not that it’s never there. It’s just that I address it the same way I address all the other parts of me: my lack of height, my nearsightedness, my flat feet. None of these things stops me from living my life. I just mentally stuck my anxiety in the category of things that sometimes require a workaround.

So far so good.

One Sunday, I texted my dear Florida friend to tell her how much I miss her. She responded by searching her calendar for a long weekend she could come visit us in Atlanta. Excellent! I love a woman of action! But, truly, it didn’t even occur to me to be nervous about her being here all weekend. We’ve been friends for several years now. We don’t see each other much, but she’s part of my tribe. So, of course she could share my house–and my life–for three days.

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I didn’t panic until the morning that she was supposed to show up. Fortunately, I didn’t have much time to panic, because there was book fair, and a talent show, and the last day of school (read: I was living my life instead of pandering to my anxiety). But sure enough, by the time we were an hour away from her arrival, I was teetering on losing my shit. Why? Dunno. Anxiety isn’t logical. It’s just destructive. So, yeah, I thought I was totally going to puke. I was fidgety. But, notably lacking was any real desire to run away.

Which is nothing short of miraculous.

She arrived in time to see Jane’s performance. I did not puke. She blended right into our family for three days. And, yeah, I felt seen. Girl kept me up til 1:00 a.m. talking about, well, ALL the things. But I’m okay with being seen. It’s worth it to love & be loved back.

Because I may not ever be all that cool. But I am pretty damn worthwhile.