What follows is a post that I wrote a couple of years ago now, for another site, but was never published. I’ve decided to post it on here while I’m working on mega-updates on everything that has happened in my life (SA-related and otherwise) since the last time I updated my blog regularly. It’s amazing to see how much things have changed for the better since I wrote this post.
“This isn’t so bad”, I say to myself as I sit eating lunch in my university’s canteen. My hands are shaking, and I’m sitting alone while almost everyone else in the room seems to sitting with friends, but at least now I can actually stay in the canteen without having a panic attack. I would never have been able to do this way back during my first year of university. I look around the canteen and see other students talking and laughing with their friends and classmates. There seem to be hundreds of indecipherable conversations going on all around me. But I don’t need to decipher them to know that all of those students can do what I cannot. A wave of sadness and acceptance washes over me. “Try not to think about it”, I tell myself, “Think of the progress you’ve made. Things are better now”. Yet the progress seems like nothing at all compared to the misery, anxiety, and loneliness that I still feel on a daily basis.
I am 21 years old and about to go into my final year of university. It has taken me a year longer than most to get to this point, due to how difficult my mental health issues have made university for me. Everyone always says that these will be the best years of your life. So why have my university years been one of the most lonely and miserable periods of my life? I feel like an alien compared to other students. I have never been to a nightclub or student party, and my social life is almost non-existent. I spend my entire weekend at home. Even the thought of going out socially with a group of other students is enough to make me feel sick with anxiety. I have not managed to make a single friend at university, despite having been there for four years now. At least I do have a small number of friends now. I didn’t have any friends at all (except one online friend) until about a year ago. The friends I do have are still not close friends, though. I only see each of them about once every 2 or 3 months, so I am still very lonely and isolated. Making friends has always been difficult for me. I’d love nothing more than to have a group of close friends to spend time with and talk to, but my anxiety prevents this from happening. I don’t even have anyone that I chat with at university, so university is an extremely isolating experience for me. My anxiety has also prevented me from ever being in a relationship. Much like friendships, this is something which I long for intensely, but it is still an impossibility for me. I can’t even have a basic conversation with a member of the opposite sex without suffering from intense anxiety.
I have had social anxiety disorder for as long as I can remember. It has made life difficult in a lot of ways, throughout every stage of my life so far. Throughout my time at university, my anxiety has gotten in the way so much. Just sitting with other students in a lecture theatre is enough to make me anxious. I almost always sit on my own, as I am too afraid to sit with other students. I worry that they wouldn’t like me. I worry that they would take one look at me and then wonder why the socially awkward loner is disturbing them. Tutorials are even worse. I hate group work, because this usually involves me awkwardly having to go up to another group of students (if I can manage this without a panic attack) and ask them if I can join their group. I’m usually too anxious to contribute anything to the conversation. I used to have panic attacks during classes, and had to leave the room. I was convinced that my classmates and tutors could all see what a freak I was, and that they all thought I was pathetic. Group presentations were even worse, and would have been completely impossible without the aid of propranolol.
In addition to the anxiety, I have also suffered from episodes of severe depression since I was 14 years old. I believe that the depression results from all the ways in which social anxiety disorder limits my life. When I was 17, not long after starting my first year of university, I had the worst depressive episode of my life. I would get back from university each day and cry because I could not even have a simple conversation with anyone. I could not make friends. I was alone and miserable, and no one seemed to even notice me. I would cry myself to sleep most nights, until eventually I was no longer even able to cry. I thought about suicide a lot. One day, I decided that I could cope no longer. I had a really bad panic attack at university, left, and then decided that I would commit suicide by jumping from a suspension bridge (something I had been thinking about for months). Thankfully, despite my intense anxiety, I do have one good friend (who I met through the internet), and they, with the help of someone else, managed to talk me out of suicide. I continued to feel the same for months afterwards, but was somehow able to get through it. In some ways, that part of my life feels unreal to me, made real only by the scars on my arm. Yet in other ways, in spite of all my progress, I am still alone, still have no close friends or any chance of being in a relationship, and anxiety still pervades my life.
I am brought back to the present moment as I notice the girl sitting diagonally across the table from me. She sits alone, with her head down, shoulders hunched, and earphones in. She looks like a first year. I wonder if she too has social anxiety disorder, and if she is in the same personal hell that I am in. I wonder how many other people have to go through this loneliness, anxiety, and misery on a daily basis, longing for friends and human connection, but unable to obtain them. Social anxiety disorder is the third most common mental health problem, thought to affect 7-13% (Bryce and Saeed, 1999; Furmark, 2002) of the population in western countries. Yet the condition is almost unheard of among the general public. In my experience, the vast majority of mental health professionals do not know how to treat it, and many have never even heard of it, and refuse to accept that it a serious, life destroying disorder which can lead to depression and suicide. That’s why I’m writing this article. I want there to be more awareness of this crippling anxiety disorder. I want there to be more help and support available, and therapy that actually works. I don’t want anyone else to go through all of the pain, loneliness and misery that I have been through, and continue to go through.
A guy comes over to my table and asks if I’m interested in a gym membership. I manage to surprise myself by actually being able to make eye contact and not stumble over my words. I reply that I’m not interested. It’s not that I don’t like to exercise; it’s that my anxiety prevents me from exercising in front of other people. I still haven’t been able to face this fear. “Try not to focus on it”, I once again tell myself, “Focus on all the progress you’ve made”. While social anxiety continues to control my life, it is true that I have made considerable progress over the last couple of years. To give just a few examples, I passed my driving test, went along to some social groups, went along to a couple of job interviews, and even managed to get myself a job in a supermarket (a socially anxious person’s idea of Hell). While working there has been very difficult for me, it has also helped me a lot with my anxiety. I feel a lot less anxious in shops and other public places now. I just hope the progress can continue and that I won’t be lost to social anxiety disorder.
I remind myself that despite all the pain that comes with having depression and an anxiety disorder, despite all the times I felt I couldn’t go on with life and that suicide was my only option, I am still here. And I wouldn’t still be alive if I didn’t have hope that things can get better. If you’re struggling with social anxiety disorder or depression, I just want you to know that you’re not alone. I want you to know that you are stronger and braver than you know. You have to be to live with these conditions. I hope that someday, mental illnesses will receive as much care and attention and physical illnesses, and everyone who suffers from social anxiety disorder will be able to get the treatment they need, and go on to live a life that they can be content with, free from chronic misery and loneliness. I have decided that even if I achieve nothing else with my life, it will not be for nothing if I can raise awareness of social anxiety disorder in some way.
Bryce, T.J. and Saeed, S.A. (1999). Social Anxiety Disorder: A Common, Underrecognized Mental Disorder. American Family Physician. 60(8): 2311-2320.
Furmark, T. (2002). Social phobia: overview of community surveys. Acta Psychiatricia Scandinavica. 105(2): 84-93.