I always knew socializing was harder for me than it was to others. But I didn’t realize something was actually wrong with me until my late teens.
I had won a photography contest and had to go pick up my prize. I said yes, but regretted my answer as soon as it passed my lips. I started hyperventilating and my parents noticed something was wrong. As I explained what was causing me to freak out I got a rather angry reaction. As it turned out, my behavior wasn’t ‘normal’. I reminded them of an old friend with autism. We concluded that my puberty was to blame. Sadly, it wasn’t.
Social anxiety, for me, it’s not so much about a fear for strangers. Phone calls, speaking in public, basically anything that causes attention to shift to me sets me off. I can get a panic attack just for meeting up with some of my best friends. Sometimes it’s five minutes before we meet, sometimes waves of panic torture me 24 hours beforehand. I’ve got my tricks to calm me down and usually the anxiety is mild.
But last Wednesday was different…
First, I got noticed in the train. I take the train every day and sit with a bunch of strangers. I’ve convinced myself that I’m invisible and no one notices me. The thought of people actually seeing me, makes my heart race.
My stop came up. An elderly man got up to get off the train but stopped at my seat. He looked at me and signaled for me to get up. “You go first. I’m not the fastest and I know you have to get off here too”.
The thought of him recognizing me and having observed my habits gave me my first spook of the day.
Later that day, my colleagues and I had to get our picture taken. It was no quick snap. You had to pass the make-up artist for some touch ups. Everyone just got a little powder and got to leave the seat of torture. I had to sit there for nearly 15 minutes. Eyeliner, mascara, eyeshadow, foundation, blush and a snarky comment about me not wearing mascara. My colleagues laughed, so did I. But inside I was stewing in panic.
The day ended by my train being canceled. I know my way around public transport so I quickly found an alternative route. I sat on the train for nearly an hour (because we all enjoy our 20 minute stops in the middle of nowhere). I was texting with some friends and colleagues in order to pass the time. I was unwinding until one of them texted me that they were in my hometown, asking to grab a bite.
The thought of seeing a colleague out of their work context caused me to go full apeshit. My heart started racing, I was hyperventilating, sweat dripped down my face. I was just about to regurgitate my lunch as another colleague texted me. We’re pretty close so I sent him a panicky SOS. He calmed me down with the simple message: “you’re overthinking it”.
I don’t know if he has an idea of the severity of my panic at that moment. But he just might have saved me from a heart attack.
Since Wednesday, I feel like I relapsed a bit. Some of my progress has been undone. Now, more than ever, I fear the mere possibility of getting another panic attack. I need new ways to cope. Oddly enough, back in my teens theatre taught me how to handle myself and my anxiety. Portraying another person enabled me to step into the spotlight.
Strange how spotlights soothed my fear of getting attention.