Little steps

Over the last few days, I feel I’ve made at least a little progress in reducing my anxiety by doing various things.

Friday

I had to phone the dermatology department to make an appointment – apparently I’ve been using a potent corticosteroid for considerably longer than I should have (as it’s the only thing I’ve found that keeps my eczema under control) so they need to make sure I haven’t damaged my skin/ prescribe me something less potent. In the past, having to phone somewhere/ someone would fill me with complete dread, and I’d put it off for hours or even days. When I eventually HAD to phone, I’d rehearse everything that I needed to say multiple times in my head, effectively making a script for myself. I used to feel that there was no way I could phone somewhere without one. Nowadays, I try to phone before I even really have a chance to think about it too much or worry about every possible thing that could go wrong. I no longer create ‘scripts’ for myself but simply have a rough idea of what I’d like to say. Phoning the dermatology department was a bit awkward and I still worried a lot about my voice sounding strange or coming across as weird, but I did manage to do it without getting myself into a state of high anxiety. I think I have improved quite a bit in terms of speaking to people on the phone. Sometimes I will feel anxious even talking to a relative on the phone, and I can’t even imagine how much terror I’d feel talking to a prospective employer, for example, on the phone, but hopefully this is something that I will continue to work on and become better able to deal with over time.

Saturday

I went along to my second meetup with the SA group. I don’t think it went quite as well as the first one, but it was alright. I was worrying about it A LOT beforehand – about stupid things like: Will they think that what I’m wearing is okay? Will they think I look weird? Will they think I look really ugly? (It didn’t help that my brain was basically trying to convince me that I look uglier than Chewbacca before I left). Anyway, I again managed to go despite my anxiety. This time, we met in the city centre, which made things a lot more difficult for me. I frequently experience derealisation/ depersonalisation when my anxiety is high. This occurs most often in very busy places, when I have to go the supermarket on my own, often when I am in public, or sometimes even just if I leave the house.* For those of you who have never heard of it or don’t experience it, I can only really describe it as feeling as if you’re in a dream-like state and nothing is real. Sometimes it feels almost as if you aren’t even there. It can be very distressing, especially when you have to talk to people while in this state.

*I thought I should perhaps mention that my psychologist has said that as well as my SA, I also appear to be exhibiting signs of agoraphobia. I’m not sure about this – having a panic attack somewhere busy like the city centre or a supermarket where I wouldn’t be able to quickly get out of the situation/ hide from people does fill me with considerable terror, but if you remove the social aspect/ fear of judgement, I wouldn’t have a problem. When I have anxiety about leaving the house, it’s related more to the fact that I know I will come into contact with other people and worry about what they think of me/ if I’m coming across as weird.

There ended up being seven of us altogether. I was the first person there after the organiser. I didn’t manage to say as much to her as I did last time. I mostly just stood there  very awkwardly and in a state of very high anxiety while everyone else arrived and tried to talk to each other…I’m worried that I came across as rude/ uninterested because of this. We eventually just ended up walking around the city centre. I didn’t really manage to say much to anyone at first. I ended up walking next to the same woman for around 10 minutes and was trying to psyche myself up to talk to her the whole time. I finally managed it but it was a very short and awkward conversation…I never know what to to talk about. If someone asks me to talk about social anxiety/ depression/ mental illness, or about things I feel strongly about, I could talk for ages. But I’m about the world’s worst when it comes to small talk. I don’t even see the point in it or how other people can enjoy it, really. What’s so enjoyable about having a conversation about the weather for 10 minutes? I don’t get it… It just seems so mundane to me.

I ended up having the usual depressive, spiralling thoughts (as this meet did not appear to be going well) about how I’m never going to get better and should just kill myself because I will never experience friendship, a relationship, love, trust, or happiness with others, and because my SA prevents me from doing so many of the things I want to do. I’m at the point now where it seems that unless I overcome or dramatically reduce my social anxiety, the chances of me eventually taking my own life are astronomical. I don’t think I could even endure another decade of the pain that this condition – coupled with depression – has inflicted upon me so far. But now that I’ve realised (without meaning to sound dramatic) that overcoming this thing is literally a matter of life or death for me, I think I’m probably more determined than ever to put everything I have into fighting it. I just want to fight for a chance at a proper life.

Things eventually got better when I started talking to one of the new people. I managed to have a pretty long conversation with him and he seemed very understanding and sympathetic when I told him that I was suffering from derealisation/ depersonalisation. Again, we just talked about social anxiety and depression, and the ways in which both conditions affect us, as well as things that have and haven’t helped. I also managed to talk to the organiser a little bit more. She said that if/when I ever feel ready to go to Toastmasters, she’d be happy to go along with me. Right now, it seems WAAAAY too much into the deep end to attempt but hopefully I can eventually work my way up to something that big. I never imagined that I’d actually be able to go along to an SA meet, and yet I’ve been to two now, so who knows…?

Although I had many awkward moments, I generally came away from the meet feeling much better than when I first arrived. I’m slowly learning to give myself credit for anything I do which involves fighting against my anxiety. Just showing up to an SA meet – never mind anything else – is one of those things.

Sunday

My brother needed new school trousers and I had to return a top that I bought online (it was too big), so my mum drove us both to the shops. She actually offered to return it for me or at least go up to the checkout with me to return it, but I have long since realised that  this is actually more damaging than anything – as I don’t learn/ work up the courage to do it myself, and whenever she does anything for me because of my anxiety, it usually just makes me feel even less confident/ less able to do these things myself – and I have to do all of these things on my own in order to have any chance of getting better. It’s actually rather embarrassing at times – I’m an adult now and feel that I should really be doing all these things by myself anyway. I know that my mum is just trying to help me to feel less anxious – as she has always done – but this is ultimately what will (with any luck) make me feel less anxious in the long term, even if it involves a few panic attacks beforehand.

So I told my mum that I needed to do this on my own, and she went up to the next floor with my brother and left me to my own devices. I somehow managed to look around the shop and try something on, all without having a panic attack. Most of the time, just BEING in a clothes shop for more than a couple of minutes triggers a panic attack. Usually when we go clothes shopping (I never go alone – hence the online shopping), I tend to follow either my mum or one of my sisters around like a lost puppy because I’m too afraid to actually go off and look at things on my own. I can’t really even explain why this is – I suppose it’s mostly about being judged based on my appearance (I get this far more in clothes shops that anywhere else, as clothes shops are obviously centred around appearance), and I generally think very lowly of my own appearance. There’s also a sense of being judged based on what clothes I’m browsing/ what I pick out, and possibly being mocked because of this.*

*I realise that in reality, probably no one pays much attention to this or even cares, but it feels very much as if this is the case. It sounds ridiculous when I write it down like this but yes, this is what I fear. For anyone who hasn’t realised yet, social anxiety disorder – and anxiety disorders in general – are anything but logical. But fear generally beats logic any day.

I felt my anxiety building as I waited in the queue to return the top, but still no panic attack. Returning it was awkward and I had to sign a few things in front of the woman at the checkout (writing in front of people is something that makes me quite anxious) but it was no where near as bad as I had built it up to be in my head. I know that this sort of thing probably seems like absolutely nothing to most people but it’s actually quite a major thing for me and I’m glad that I managed to do it.

Monday and Tuesday

I sold some of my old things on ebay so I needed to go to Tescos to buy envelopes. I even managed to go out without my ipod. (I’m a big music fan but I find that I use music as a coping/ avoidance technique to block out other people and make me feel less anxious. Public transport would probably be a lot more difficult for me to deal with if I didn’t have my earphones in). I felt very anxious but, again, I didn’t have a panic attack or even come close. I hung around a bit after finding the envelopes in an attempt to reduce my anxiety further, but I was too afraid to go into the busier grocery section of the shop (hopefully I will be able to do this eventually). I used the self-service checkout – I get points taken off for that – and was just thinking how this had actually been too easy and I should have challenged myself more, when someone approached me on my way out of the shop and asked me to take part in a customer service survey. It’s kind of funny how these opportunities just seem to present themselves to me sometimes. It was quite awkward and mostly just ‘yes’ or ‘no’ type questions, but I think that little things like that have and will continue to slowly build my confidence.

In the afternoon, I had to go the post office to buy stamps and post everything, so had to talk to the cashier there. It’s hard to explain how difficult even something as seemingly simple and mundane as this is when you have social anxiety disorder. It’s near impossible to explain all the little things about that sort of situation which make one anxious and how they all add up to high anxiety. It might sound pathetic to many people, but I was actually quite proud of myself afterwards for actually managing to do it. I used to not give myself recognition for these little things, thinking that “I only did what everyone else can do without any trouble at all, and everyone could have handled it much better than I did, so why should I feel any sense of achievement?” But I’ve come to learn that everyone is different and just because most other people can do something with ease does not mean that you should not give yourself credit for managing to achieve it. For example, for most people, managing to eat an entire slice of pizza generally wouldn’t be considered an achievement in any sense. But for someone with anorexia, managing to eat an entire slice of pizza is a major achievement. Just because everyone else can do it without really even thinking about it, that does not take away from what that person would have achieved by doing it, as most other people have not faced the struggles or pain which that person has. So it is with social anxiety. It’s not really even the act itself , but the intensity of fear which we put ourselves through in order to do it, that we should be proud of. The fact is that most people experience nowhere near the level of fear and terror which we do on a daily basis. I don’t think that many of them could take it for even a few weeks if they did. If you have social anxiety disorder – and unless you live in a hermitage somewhere – the chances are that you (at least to a small extent) face your fears almost everyday. Social interaction is pretty much impossible to avoid. It’s a constant and a given if you wish to survive in this world. It’s kind of like someone with an intense fear of dogs being forced to work at an animal shelter, or someone with a fear of heights being forced to cross a bridge most days. I think that those of us with SA need to give ourselves much more credit for what we are constantly putting ourselves through just to get by in life.

Anyway…I’ve gone off on a tangent again. I went to the post office again yesterday to post the things that my sister had sold for her. The good sign is that I felt less anxious the second time I went there.

Wednesday

I’m updating this blog. For some stupid reason, I still feel very anxious about posting on here most of the time. I worry about stupid things like: Will the person/people reading this think that I’m crap at writing? Will they think I’m pathetic? Is what I’ve written boring? Is everything too jumbled? Do I go off on a tangent too much? And so on and so forth ad infinitum. This is similar to how I feel when writing essays for uni, which is what usually makes it so difficult. It’s the annoying, negative thoughts such as this that probably most get on my nerves. I’m not really sure how to get rid of those. I really hope that I will some day. I’ll probably write a post about negative beliefs/ core beliefs at some point in the near future, as well as trying to address those. I’m also hoping that the progress – however small that may be – will continue, and is not just temporary.

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7 Responses to Little steps

  1. I don’t think these are little steps at all. They are huge. Plus you took so many of them in quick succession. There’s something to be said for momentum. I’m proud of you, and incredibly impressed — because I’ve been where you are and I know how hard all of the things you described are to do.

    I especially love this bit:

    “The fact is that most people experience nowhere near the level of fear and terror which we do on a daily basis. I don’t think that many of them could take it for even a few weeks if they did. If you have social anxiety disorder – and unless you live in a hermitage somewhere – the chances are that you (at least to a small extent) face your fears almost everyday. Social interaction is pretty much impossible to avoid. It’s and constant and a given if you wish to survive in this world. It’s kind of like someone with an intense fear of dogs being forced to work at an animal shelter, or someone with a fear of heights being forced to cross a bridge most days. I think that those of us with SA need to give ourselves much more credit for what we are constantly putting ourselves through just to get by in life.”

    You nailed it, right there.

    Keep going. It takes courage to go out and face these terrifying interactions. But success tends to give you more courage, and in a few months you’ll be amazed at where you are. I don’t know if this helps, but I still experience that mind-going-blank-what-do-I-say? sensation when walking with someone I don’t know. I have learned to accept the silence and not take responsibility for filling it. If it goes on for too long I’ll ask them a question about themselves, such as “What do you like to do for fun?” That usually gets the conversation rolling.

    Lastly, I wanted to share that my recovery from social anxiety has not progressed in a smooth, upward pattern. It’s more like a sawtooth, with ups and downs in terms of confidence and progress. You’ll have inevitable setbacks, where something you thought you’d “fixed” goes wrong again. Try not to let it throw you. It takes a long time to change maladaptive thinking and behavior. But you can.

  2. Oh, I forgot to add: the fact that you were able to tell someone in your SA meetup that you were experiencing depersonalization is very important, I think. You exposed a part of yourself that was very vulnerable, and trusted someone with that. That is also extremely hard to do.

    Also (yes, I have a lot to say this evening), you might consider something a little lower-key than Toastmasters for public speaking. I had good luck with a storytelling class — it was small and most of the people were not performers. Very supportive and even fun. Plus it was a creative outlet and felt like it had more of a purpose than a generic public speaking class, at least for me. Sometimes you can find groups/courses whose focus isn’t so much “learning to speak effectively” (which is Toastmasters’ mission) but “getting over terror of public speaking” — there’s a big difference between the two! Also, I have an acquaintance who had terrible social anxiety disorder and who got over it largely through doing improv for about a year. It might sound unfathomable, but you can get there if you want. I now perform storytelling and stand-up comedy, just 2.5 years after I started on this journey.

    • Gemma says:

      Thanks again for your kind words. I did find it quite difficult to tell someone in the SA group that I was experiencing this but I was pleasantly surprised by how understanding he was and how much he could relate to the same thing.

      I think it probably would be easier if I could find a group where the main purpose is overcoming the fear of public speaking/ building confidence. One of the things which worries me most about Toastmasters is that it’s all about becoming skilled at public speaking, so I’d feel – even more than usual – like everyone would be judging every tiny aspect of my performance. The organiser of the meet did say that they also do very short improv. speaking – i.e. everyone takes it in turn to speak about a topic for only around 20-30 seconds – so maybe one day I’ll be able to give that a try. It does sound unfathomable, but then I’ve faced quite a few things that I never imagined I’d be able to do.

      By the way, kudos to you for managing to overcome social anxiety to such a large extent, and in such a short space of time.

  3. Blue says:

    While I was reading this entry, I just felt so happy for you. A fuzzy feeling. I can tell you’re still dealing with anxiety, but it seems like you’re getting a lot better. This entry felt so much different than your other ones — much more light-hearted. I think is the first time I remember you using humour, too. I definitely chuckled at that Chewbacca comment.
    I don’t know if the change in yourself is as obvious to you, but you honestly sound like a different person. I’m going to therapy in a few weeks time, and this entry gave me hope that I’ll make progress too. 🙂
    Also, I think I’ve said before that you’re a lovely writer, and I still mean it. If there’s one thing you don’t have to be worried about, it’s your writing. I’m sure you could make even the most mundane things pleasurable to read.

    • Gemma says:

      Thank you. 🙂 Though I unfortunately have to apologise in advance for the depressive rant which I will shortly be dumping here.

  4. fellowsocphob says:

    I totally agree with your statement:

    “Social interaction is pretty much impossible to avoid. It’s and constant and a given if you wish to survive in this world. It’s kind of like someone with an intense fear of dogs being forced to work at an animal shelter, or someone with a fear of heights being forced to cross a bridge most days. I think that those of us with SA need to give ourselves much more credit for what we are constantly putting ourselves through just to get by in life.”

    I’ve so often thought this too.

    I have a suggestion, which I have only just discovered. I do an online course and I get very little interaction with my lecturer etc. I completed a module which I didn’t really enjoy but I worked hard on and I received excellent and encouraging comments back from my lecturer. I don’t know how much feedback you get from your lecturers when u complete an assignment, but if you feel comfortable enough about it, ask for some more feedback about your assignments? Perhaps it could reduce your anxiety about starting a subject to know what your strengths are. Sounds like you do really well at Uni anyway.

    • Gemma says:

      The amount of feedback I get seems to vary a lot between lecturers. I may try asking student support if it would be possible to include getting more detailed feedback in my learning profile. As part of last term’s coursework, everyone had to do a ‘reflective essay’ in which to write about something significant that they’d learned from the module. I chose to write about what I’d learned about my own personal strengths and weaknesses when it comes to approaching a new/ unfamiliar task, which I found very helpful.

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