I started writing a personal diary/ journal a couple of months into my last year at high school, with the encouragement of my psychiatrist. She knew how difficult it was for me to communicate verbally, and it allowed me to give her a clear insight into how I felt and how SA and depression affected my life at the time. I’d like to share a few extracts from it because they describe very well how I felt at the time and how I very frequently still feel.
“I feel so alone in this. My family will never understand about the self harm or suicidal thoughts, and I don’t want to hurt them. My love for them is about the only reason I can think of as to why I’m still alive. The fact that I don’t want my family to feel the misery I feel. Even when I don’t actively think about suicide, it’s always there in the background. I don’t think I really want to die but I’m not exactly enjoying life either. I think I have just come to accept the fact that I will never have any friends, a boyfriend, or a decent job, or amount to anything in life. I already feel like such a failure as a human being. Right now, I just feel I have to try and sort myself out but it’s so hard. Sometimes I wish my parents did know the extent of my depression, but knowing my mum, she’d probably never let me out of her sight again, and I am sick of being overprotected. With regards to my life, I feel like I am never doing any better than just surviving. Seeing other people my age socialising with friends, doing foolish teenage things, and having the best years of their lives always feels to me like a slap in the face because I can’t do any of it myself.”
“The best way to describe how I generally feel in life is like a 60 year old inside a 16 year old’s body, with the social skills of a 4 year old.”
“I don’t know…maybe it’s not the never having a boyfriend thing that bothers me. It’s the living my whole life alone and depressed and never having anyone to truly confide in and speak my mind with that does. I just picture myself in a few decades’ time (provided I even decide to stick around for that long) in a nursing home somewhere, with looking out the window at the sunset and wondering how long it’ll be ’til I die being the highlight of my day. That’s my biggest regret – putting my whole life to waste, even though it feels like I have wasted so much of it already. I want to make a positive change in the world – no mater how small – and help people who are suffering so much worse than me, but I can’t even sort myself out.”
The one positive thing that happened in my last year was that 2 separate groups of people in my year invited me to sit with them at lunchtimes. I think it was because no one really knew anything about me and they wanted to make me feel included because it was the last year, and everyone else was getting to know each other more and more. But at the time, I was so distrustful of them. It was a really (and surprisingly) nice thing of them to do for me but I still feel that they were just doing it out of sheer pity. It just felt so strange and incredulous that people would actually want to spend time with me. All the previous experience I’d had with people my age seemed to tell me that there were somehow malicious undertones to this. It sounds really stupid, crazy and paranoid but I was almost convinced that it was a set-up or joke of some sort. And of course – as anyone else with SA will know all too well – eating in front of others was extremely anxiety-provoking. I’d feel nauseous all morning just thinking about the prospect of having to eat in front of a group. When I did, I’d shake like mad and had to put all my effort into trying to control myself/ make it less obvious to people. I never really said anything when I sat with them unless they specifically asked me about something. I never knew what to say and would always hate it when they asked what I’d done that weekend – nothing. I’d often end up avoiding eating with them by trying to hide in a quiet corner of the main dining hall or going home for lunch when I had a study period directly before the lunch break. I must have come across as extremely rude or antisocial when I did this. I wish I could have shown them how much I appreciated their trying to include me.
To my complete astonishment, one of the girls in the group I sat with at lunch invited me to the house party she was having for Hogmanay. I had been dreading going since the moment I found out but since this was the first and only time anything like this ever happened, I wanted to do my best to not let anxiety get the better of me this one time. I had a panic attack before going and was still incredibly anxious when I first got there, but luckily there was only a small group of girls there to begin with (the party hadn’t really started at this point) so I managed to calm down and just about enjoy myself. There were eventually about 15 other people there. I didn’t have a clue how to act or what to do because this was the first (and only) time I’d been invited to someone’s party. It was the only time I’d ever been around any of my classmates outside of school. Eventually, most people were drunk, which strangely made me less anxious (probably because it meant most people were making social faux pas in their intoxicated state and might not remember the next day if I’d happened to do something stupid). I don’t drink and have never been drunk myself. Luckily, no one pressured me to do so. Despite the very intense anxiety I felt throughout the night, it was overall a very positive experience. It’s the one good thing that happened to me in my entire time at high school and I’m glad I decided to go.
In March 2011, I was tested for high functioning autism and was found to indeed be presenting on the HFA scale. I’m still not quite sure why I was tested for this but my then psychiatrist told me that it was because she suspected it might be to blame for my difficulties with social interaction (despite me telling her for months about my SA). I won’t go into detail but the assessment was a complete joke – I was treated like a toddler despite them claiming it was “very age appropriate”. The psychiatrist who led the assessment also seemed to twist a lot of what my parents and I said to fit a diagnosis of autism and frequently chose to not listen to us. He was completely incompetent. My parents and I disagreed with the diagnosis because there wasn’t anything they mentioned that couldn’t be explained by social anxiety. When I tried to explain my social anxiety, the psychiatrist simply said, in the most patronising way, “Well you can call it whatever you want, Gemma”. Despite me asking many times, no one could give me a clear explanation of the difference between the two or how someone with social anxiety would present differently on the test to someone with HFA. They didn’t have a clue and they wouldn’t listen. I can’t even begin to explain how much anger I have over the way I was treated on this occasion and many others by supposed ‘professionals’. Needless to say, my parents and I were not happy and decided we’d seek a second opinion at a later time.
I graduated from high school at the end of May that year. I was very regretful that my anxiety had prevented me from getting to know people there and doing so many other things, but I was mostly just extremely relieved to finally be free of the constant bullying and from the place that felt like hell to me. I didn’t do quite as well as I’d hoped to in my exams but still good enough to be accepted into the uni course I wanted to do. It just annoyed me that I felt I could have done a lot better if I’d been mentally healthier.
I attended summer school over the holidays as an introduction to what university would be like. It was very useful to me academically but it made my mood worse than ever. I’d left school but I was still the outcast with no friends who couldn’t even have a simple conversation with anyone. Thinking about this and how I felt that my future would be much the same led to my mood rapidly spiralling downwards. One day I sat in my room with a cocktail of fluoxetine and other things while my family were out. I didn’t see things ever getting any better and wanted to end it all so badly but I knew that I couldn’t do that to my family, as little as they seemed to understand. I ended up only having about 100mg of the stuff. I had some pretty awful side effects for a few days afterwards but it subsided after that. I threw the pills out afterwards and no one ever found out about what I’d contemplated. Sometimes I wish I had killed myself then. It sounds awful but sometimes I wish my family hated me since it would make dying a lot easier.
Just three days after I’d came close to attempting suicide, I had to do a group presentation in front of over 50 people at summer school. It was probably the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done in my life, as pathetic as that might sound to people who don’t have SA. I was by this time a complete mental and emotional wreck, incapable of remembering anything or thinking straight. I told myself that there was no way I could do this. I’d been dreading it as soon as I’d found out about it. I was on the verge of throwing up with anxiety. And so began my most horrendous panic attack to date. By the time my group was called to the front of the lecture theatre, I could barely even walk down the steps. My legs felt like they were gelatinous and about to collapse underneath me. Both my chest and stomach felt ready to explode. In the next twenty minutes or so, I experienced pretty much every feature of anxiety imaginable. By time my group started the talk, I was shaking and trembling so badly that it’s hard to believe that even a single person in the room didn’t notice. It felt like everyone could see how panicked I was. When it came to my turn to speak, my voice shook so badly. I probably sounded to everyone like I was about to burst out crying or something. I thought I might. I got very bad tunnel vision and it felt like I was using all of my energy to merely remain concious. My heart beat faster than in my entire life. This was completely insane. Why had I even bothered showing up? Why hadn’t I just stayed at home? How could I actually be doing this? I was making a complete idiot of myself in front of everyone. My greatest weakness was completely transparent to all of them. And yet, in some strange way, I realised that in comparison I didn’t care if anyone was judging me or made negative remarks afterwards because I was already experiencing the most terrifying thing I possibly could. I sort of did it for my own benefit, not for their approval. Amazingly, no one said anything negative about it afterwards, which I couldn’t really get my head around. Of course, the panic attack continued for ages and I had to go to the toilets afterwards to try and calm myself down, but overall, I felt a massive sense of achievement. I felt like I could do anything after that. I wish that feeling could have stayed with me. Despite having faced my biggest fear, my SA only improved slightly at the time, and eventually got even worse. However, this is probably because my avoidance worsened as my depression did, and although I perhaps had some of the courage required to face my anxiety at the time, I didn’t really have the tools needed to deal with/ reduce it.
If I take anything from doing that presentation (and if anyone reading this takes anything from it), it’s that I think we often don’t realise what we’re capable of until we actually do it. If you’d asked me then and if you asked me now if I ever thought I would be capable of giving a presentation in front of over 50 people, I’d say that I’d never be able to do it in a million years, even if my SA reduced. Even though I’ve done it before, I still think of it as being completely impossible in my mind. It feels hard to believe it even happened. And yet I did it when my SA was about as bad as it is now…It’s bizarre… But I think that many people with social anxiety are often a lot stronger and able to cope than they believe themselves to be.
Anyway, I somehow got through summer school, which included even more exposure to things such as the graduation ceremony that everyone had to go to. Although it was stressful and my mood was low for most of it, I found it a very useful experience both academically and in terms of personal development. I recovered from my depression over what was left of the summer holidays and enjoyed myself. I was extremely nervous but also excited about starting uni that September. Unfortunately, my depression would only get even worse…