I’ve always been an anxious person. I like to think I wasn’t an anxious child but then I remember why I’m awful at hugs. My mother told me one day that it all added up, she sort of figured out why something like an embrace gave me such anxiety, made me so visibly uncomfortable. When I was a child I had panic attacks often. I remember them vividly. I would be as young as five years old and be completely convinced my heart was going to stop and I was going to die right then and there and no one could save me. I would hyperventilate and in an attempt to calm me down my mother would sit me in her lap and squeeze me tight until I slowly started to breathe properly again. Now I suppose I associate hugs and tight embraces with this panicked, claustrophobic feeling. It feels pathetic and robotic to be unable to give a hug. I hate how I seem cold and standoffish when someone decides to try to hug me. I try to explain the reasoning for it and I’m met with the ever familiar look of pity.
I like living above a busy street, the kind lined with bars and open signs that stay lit long into the night. They keep me company, like little ghosts just outside my window. I can rely on them to be there, for them to fill with the screams and loud conversations of the people who flock to them every night. It’s friday evening, so naturally the nightly ritual has begun. I like living above a busy street because there is hardly silence. There is always a car driving by, a giggle, a laugh or the murmur of a conversation just outside my window. It makes me feel connected to the outside world without having to interact with it. I don’t have to see them to know they’re there. Sometimes just the sound of a presence outside yourself can help keep your busy mind calm. Make it seem like you’re not alone. It’s like vicariously living through a television set. The people are there, same time, same nights. So close I can practically hear their conversations as I sit in bed, all while safely avoiding their company. I like it where I am, I like the giant window that keeps me safe. The wall between their existence and mine. I like having no obligation to speak to anyone, to interact or pretend to be the type of person who is happy talking to people outside of a bar.
The thing is, I’m not so good at being those people outside my window. I’m bad at awkwardly talking about anything but myself, which comes off as vain but in all honestly is a defense mechanism. I’m awful at asking questions that I don’t feel come off as creepy or weird – and these are normal questions. The socially acceptable ones that people ask me all the time. I’m exhausted every time I’m asked them. I feel exhausted interacting with people, especially in settings like bars, where everyone seems to be “on”.
Being in these environments just makes me feel more alone, more abnormal and more detached. These days I have no desire to wander out into the dark night to spend money on drinks I know will only end in trouble. I used to. But my heart grew weary and my body responded angrily in the mornings after such evenings, sweating and shaking me awake. I finally saw my ill fated nights out for what they were: an overpriced way to feel normal that failed every time.
But I can’t be normal. It doesn’t matter how many pills I take or how many people I try to carry on normal pleasant conversations with, my anxiety will always catch me off guard and cripple me with the sickening self doubt and self consciousness I keep trying to silence. The cruelty of social anxiety is that it doesn’t have to make sense. You can be afraid of anything, feel unworthy of anything involving other people. Sometimes just standing in a line at a grocery store will give me this overwhelming need to just leave.
The feeling that I’m not worth being looked at, acknowledged, interacted with or be there at all can be crippling. It hit me today — just for a moment — but it was enough to remind me anxiety still has control. It fought for its moment, and despite my constant effort to stifle the negative self judgement with medications and therapeutic tricks to think of something else, it got me. For a moment I was suffocated by the familiar feeling that I didn’t deserve to be there, I was shocked when people acknowledged my existence. I couldn’t respond to the shopgirl except for an awkward mumble and giggle as I walked away in a desperate attempt to find somewhere in the store that no one could see me. I felt insecure, inadequate and hideous. I was surrounded by people who could probably see it, see exactly how ugly I felt, judging my every move. At the very least it felt that way. I tried clumsily to hold myself together, walking along the walls of merchandise, half aware of what I was even looking at. I tried to focus on the textures of the fabrics, run my fingers along them, to feel something solid to distract myself from this attack in my mind.
Sometimes I wonder if other people experience this, if we’re all just really good at pretending — mimicking the social behaviors of well put together individuals. The smiles and “how are you’s”.
I’m great, I just had a small anxiety attack in the pillow aisle. Debit, please.