The unexpected thing that helped me cope with social anxiety
My most recent reading was supposed to begin at 7:30pm. It was 7:28 and no one had shown up yet. I knew one of my friends would show up first, right around the time the reading was supposed to begin and see the empty room. My plan had been to seem fine with it, to exude confidence, but when the first group of people showed up, I blurted out, “No one else is here yet.” I felt like I needed to tell them before they I saw, and in my anxious brain, I assumed they would judge me for not having drawn a crowd. I immediately regretted my outburst, even though my friends gave me some much-needed reassurance. At all my other readings up until that point, I’d been so good about seeming comfortable. I’d been so proud of myself. Even though every single moment, when my friends and family thought I was calm and happy, I was actually an anxious, sweaty mess.
At 7:40pm, I was in front of a very healthy crowd of about 20 people, and I hadn’t let my mask slip in front of anyone else. As I read into the microphone, my hand holding my book shook, but my voice was steady. Besides one or two friends, I managed to control my society anxiety and seem level-headed.
Since that reading, I’ve been thinking a lot about having so much anxiety that I couldn’t pretend I was okay, and now I’m anxious about having been anxious. That’s how my social anxiety works, it’s a feedback loop. And I can’t remember a time it hasn’t been with me, like an invisible Siamese twin stitched onto my body.
I went to kindergarten and junior high and high school with the same people. I made new friends over the years, but my core group stayed the same from the 6th grade through the 12th, and everyone new I met through them. I never really made a friend. I also got teased a lot in high school because I was an easy mark, meaning I’d have intense emotional reactions to the teasing, usually angry rather than upset. I got into terrible battles of will with several jackals of high school boys, and I always lost, because they didn’t care, and my anger burned from the pure heart of my being.
After I graduated high school, for some reason I decided it was a good idea to maroon myself alone at Oberlin College, in rural Ohio, with a student body consisting mostly of mostly arty kids from Manhattan. My first day was like an unpleasant dive into freezing cold water. I tried to find solace in my high school safe haven, the campus newspaper, only to realize I’d walked into a social situation where I’d be flanked on either side by sophomores who seemed impossibly cooler than me.
I made friends in college, really wonderful amazing friends, but even they couldn’t help me avoid something that was calcifying inside of me: a crippling social anxiety. My fear of other people was so strong that only desperation would knock it out of me long enough to establish a relationship with someone. A lack of friendship was enough to make me desperate, so I made friends, but for some reason a lack of romance didn’t do the same. Though I’d lost my virginity at the tail end of high school, I went my entire freshman year of college without having sex, sometimes abandoning promising situations because my anxiety actually made me dizzy. The first time I seriously hooked up with a girl I was interested in, I managed to sublimate my fear by never actually taking my clothes off.
I spent the morning after every single party in college going through everything I’d said and done the previous night, hyper-analyzing every interaction until I’d convinced myself everyone thought I was ugly or annoying. I often referred to my friendships as people I’d “tricked into liking me.” The problem is, someone who is so clearly uncomfortable around people, so obviously frozen, is actually quite difficult to be around. I wasn’t imaging all of negative responses I received. But when people really thought I was off-putting, it was my anxiety generating that response. The feedback loop.
By the time college ended, I was starting to get over myself a little bit, starting to regain the smart bitch thing I had during high school. After moving to Los Angeles, I unfroze myself piece by piece, and realized I was cute and fun and sometimes sexy. I started to meet people and, without all that fear making every conversation stilted, I started connecting with them quickly.
Although the low hum of social anxiety stayed with me (and may never leave me alone) I had learned to dull it out enough to really connect with people – but I was still playing in the minor leagues. As I got closer to completing the novel I had been working on for so many years, I knew that if I realized my ambitions, if The Ghost Network was put out by a prominent press and sold in bookstores all over the country, that I would have to speak at conferences and give readings at bookstores. I would have to stand in front of audiences, sometimes intoxicatingly large ones and sometimes awkwardly too small ones, and speak confidently, calmly. Not only would this be part of the job description, but it was something that I wanted, to connect in person with an audience of readers.
I am incredibly proud of my novel. Seven years after I started writing it, I’m still in love with my characters, still excited by the mystery plot, still impressed by my own ability to make it through the struggle to get it onto the page. When it was published, I wanted to soar with it, to stand next to it, to hold it up in front of people and claim it as mine. In publishing a novel, I wanted to start a conversation with a group of people who shared my fascinations and obsessions. I knew I could get some of that connection online, where I felt comfortable and safe, but I wanted to supplement the online conversations with face-to-face ones. For the first time in my life, I felt like it would be emotionally dangerous not to overcome my social anxiety.
Before anyone had even bought my novel, I started attacking this last strong tenant of my social anxiety with everything I had. The process slow, with many smell steps rather than one big push. I started going to a therapist, who continues to help me identify some of the roots of my society anxiety and understand why I held onto it for as long as I did. Whenever I would feel a spike of anxiety while thinking about reading in front of an audience, I would imagine the opposite, saying no to the opportunity, and hiding in my apartment. I knew any reading I skipped, I’d spend the whole night angry at myself and crying, frustrated and alone.
The biggest step I took was signing up for a literary event in Los Angeles. I curated one night of readings at a bar, invited three of my friends to read with me, and for the first time since I was in high school, I stood in front of a crowd and read my writing. Although I was terrified the whole time and spent the whole next morning in an anxious spiral, it was a significant first step. After doing it once, I knew I could do it again. I could survive the moment and survive the anxious aftermath. I knew that the second time I read, I’d feel slightly less anxiety than the first, and that it would continue to decrease slowly, until it was that dull buzz, present but not hurting me anymore.
So, at my last reading, when I slipped again into a very anxious place, I had a few moments of terror – what if I backslid? What if I couldn’t recover? My anxiety spiked – but then passed. I realized I’d come to far to reverse. I’ll always have moments of anxiety but I now know that while I can’t stop them from coming, they will always, always pass.
[Image courtesy Melville House]