As promised, in the next 2 or 3 posts, I’m going to write about how social anxiety disorder – and later depression – have affected me and my life, and factors which may have contributed to both problems. This post will cover my childhood (1994-2005).
I was born in January of 1994, delivered by ventouse after a failed trial of forceps (I’ll write a post about why this may or may not be important later). According to my mum, I was always shy and unsure of people as a young child. At nursery (I believe it’s called ‘Reception’ if you live in other areas of the UK, or ‘Kindergarten/ preschool’ in some other countries), I always preferred solitary activities to group ones and apparently seemed happy to just do my own thing. When I did play with the other kids, I was apparently quite unsure and submissive – my mum has told me that if another child took the toy I was playing with, for example, I’d just let them take it rather than making a fuss. The nursery nurses believed that it might be beneficial for me to stay at nursery for a second year to improve my social skills, but my parents thought it would be better if I just started school and developed my social skills there.
So I started Primary school at the age of four. I remember feeling anxious literally from day one. It was at this age that I first remember having what I now realise were physical symptoms of anxiety and panic – I’d frequently experience shakiness, chest pains, a sore stomach and nausea. I remember that in the very first week of primary one, I told the school nurse that I was ill so that she’d call my mum to pick me up and I could go home. I don’t know whether or not this was because I interpreted my physical symptoms as a sign of being ill. All I know is that I was so anxious that I just wanted to get out of the place as soon as possible. I was fine once I got home and had calmed down a bit. I remember wetting myself once because I was too afraid to simply ask the teacher if I could go to the toilet. With regards to the other kids, I felt like an outsider from the start. I didn’t know how to interact with them and was too afraid to approach any of them. I’d continue to spend the majority of break and lunch times alone, just randomly going about the playground on my own and using my imagination/ thinking, pretty much for the remainder of my primary school days. Sometimes I was lucky and my friends would play with or talk to me, but I was too afraid to join in with a larger group (and I don’t think I was really welcome anyway), so I usually went off on my own if they played with others instead. Sometimes I played with one of my sisters and their friends, which I enjoyed more because I was less anxious around younger kids and obviously didn’t have anxiety around my sisters.
I wasn’t really bullied as such in primary school, although I do remember a few events that hurt me at the time – such as when I fell in the playground and grazed my legs and a group of older boys started mocking and laughing at me and I went off crying, too scared and ashamed to do anything other than hide behind a tree and cry. I’ve always been afraid/ ashamed of crying in front of others.
It wasn’t anywhere near as bad as high school but I still remember sweating, feeling nauseous and full of dread and anxiety at the start of every school morning. This would last for about half an hour and then I’d usually have calmed down somewhat. Eating lunch with others often made me feel sick so I usually ate alone or sometimes with my younger siblings.
My parents were quite overprotective of me when I was younger, which may have contributed to my SA, I don’t know… My dad always seemed to enjoy doing his best to embarrass me at school parents nights and things, although this was more at secondary than primary school. I remember him reading my diary and announcing the contents of it (I think I’d just written down things like which boys I fancied and things) at the dinner table when I was about 9 or 10, which in hindsight wasn’t really that bad, but it made me feel very embarrassed and ashamed at the time. Or I think it was more the way he and the rest of the family mocked/ teased me about it for weeks afterwards and made me feel ashamed about it that bothered me. It’s maybe why I feel too embarrassed and awkward to talk to anyone about who I find attractive now, even though I’m 18.
Another thing (I imagine it’s very common in people with social anxiety) is that I’d always seem to be embarrassed or ashamed of things that no one else seemed that bothered about. A large number of my memories from my younger years are of events in which I’d perceived myself or someone else to have done something embarrassing/ made a social ‘mistake’ of some sort. It seems very strange to me. Most of these are things that probably wouldn’t really bother me so much now but I felt very embarrassed about them at the time.
Every school report I received (both at primary and secondary school) never failed to mention how shy and quiet I was, and my teachers would often make comments about me needing to ‘come out of my shell’ a bit more or something along those lines. In primary three, I had a very good teacher who came up with the idea of me telling a joke in front of the class (I used to be quite interested in jokes at the time for some reason) every day before reading time, in an attempt to reduce my shyness and build my confidence. Although I was very anxious and found standing in front of everyone very difficult at first, I think it did build my confidence around others quite a bit. I found group work a bit easier for a while. However, I had a pretty awful (and at times very critical) teacher for the next three years afterwards and I ended up being even more anxious and unsure of myself than I had been before.
I was fortunate to have a best friend during my primary years, and we’d go round to each other’s houses and things all the time. Though I do remember that I would still sometimes go off and do my own thing if she had been round at my house for a while and she’d play with my sisters instead. This seems strange to me and I don’t know why I did this– perhaps the social interaction just burned me out or something, I’m not sure.
Primary 7 (the last year of primary school) was probably the best year of my life. I had a new teacher who helped me to feel more confident in myself, and I had a small group of friends who I would spend most break and lunch times with. It felt great being in the oldest year group and having no older kids to intimidate me. I was even more confident with talking to adults and I could talk to others in my class as long as they started the conversation. I could join in and laugh with people. It was the most comfortable I’ve ever felt in a school. I actually began to enjoy school somewhat for the first time. In a few months’ time, I’d be going to high school and I could make new friends and hopefully get over my shyness, like everyone said I would. I was happy.
Little did I know that once I started high school, things would go rapidly downhill for me…