The complexities of social anxiety

Social anxiety
Social anxiety is a complex psychological disorder of overwhelming fear of social situations, it can be very distressing and have a huge impact on your life

Nobody realises that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.

Albert Camus

The unwanted guest moved in with me around three years ago; at first, I thought she would stay for a couple of hours and then leave, but several months later she was still there.  Occasionally she would leave, but then return unannounced just like that first time and make bizarre demands.  She would tell me I was useless and that nobody loved me, I didn’t believe her at first, but then it all started to make sense.

I told my then-boyfriend about it, but, having an unwanted guest in a world where such guests are not discussed openly was not only stormy but downright turbulent.  You see, my boyfriend and I are from Kenya and we have no word in our languages to describe this guest.  Most of our family and friends would not understand because such guests are labelled ‘white people’s made up problems’ and have no place in our lives.  The struggle is real.

The first time I realised the guest had no intention of leaving was when she told me she was my only companion.  I felt like running around naked or pulling my hair off. Once, when having an episode, I overheard my boyfriend tell someone on the phone, “she is seeking attention by behaving like a lunatic!”  He sounded angry about it.  I, therefore, decided not to share my feelings with him, instead, I walked around with an unsettling smile and pained eyes. 

A friend of ours was getting married and the idea of mingling and making small talk at the wedding filled me with dread.  Thank God for tequila – I had started carrying a bottle in my bag just in case my unwanted companion latched on, which was often.  On days when she didn’t latch on, she would be by my side all day long whispering all sorts of crazy things and tequila helped block most of the chatter.

The first appearance was full on, I thought I was going to die.  I literally lost my voice for several weeks – I got it back though whenever I knocked back a few shots of tequila.  There were no warnings or signs that she was about to become part of my life.  She gate-crashed into my life in the middle of a social gathering leaving a trail of destruction and confusion.  If only there’d be some warning I would have prepared, but I didn’t even know what was happening or why. 

For the next few months, I spent my days braced for impact.  Sometimes the appearances were short-lived and would be in the morning just before I left my bed. However, this would instantaneously destroy all hope and no amount of meditation or prayer would chase her away.  Other times, she’d stay for days controlling my every thought, intensifying any fears by making them bigger than they were, and constantly reminding me I was a hopeless loser.  I felt underwater the whole time and my subconscious stirred and brought to the surface crazy dreads and horrible thoughts.  Sometimes I tried reasoning with her, but that made me appear insane and out of it.  In these instances, all I could do was beg her to ‘get out of my life’, but she wasn’t having it.  She was here to stay.  I constantly thought the world would be better off without me (and her).

Our friend’s wedding was a disaster: the crowd was huge and intimidating and everyone was talking about me.  The air was thick and tangible, I couldn’t breathe properly.  The food tasted like sawdust, luckily there was plenty of wine and it was divine – I took copious amounts and got lost in a world of confusion.

Conversations with the judgemental crowd was overwhelming and I retreated into a shell.  Then, without warning, every ounce of air left my lungs and I dropped to the floor.  As I writhed on the floor in mental anguish and agony, a small group of people gathered around me.  From my vantage point the people looked like overstretched alien forms looming large above my head and talking incoherently.  I caught a glimpse of my boyfriend – he was indignant, I knew then it was over between us. My constant companion assured me it was for the best – “we are better off without him!”  A few minutes later an ambulance took me away and my companion and I receded to the abyss of unconsciousness. 

My boyfriend broke up with me, officially, shortly after I left hospital – he was “too fragile to deal with a fragmented soul like you”: I later found out that his mother asked him to break up with me or she would disown him – stories for another day. 

After a series of doctor’s visits and a stint in a mental health ward, I was diagnosed with unexplained psychosis, social anxiety and apparently had suffered a panic attack.  I was given a ton of tablets which I took while in hospital, and my companion vacated my damn mind – peace at least, no more chatter.

Later that month, I felt ‘healed’ and stopped the medication only for my companion to return with a vengeance – it was like she was mad at me for abandoning her.  I was at a crossroad – take the tablets for the rest of my life and live in a fog or flush them down the toilets and live an isolated life with my unwanted companion. 

I locked myself away as I deliberated.  Then, my only remaining friend texted to ask how I was and if there was anything he could do to help.  I texted back after several hours with a ‘no thanks’ and a smiley emoji.  He texted back immediately, “I’m here if you need me.”  I didn’t text back.  A few hours later he texted me a link to a website – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – it was the lifeline I needed.

I found a CBT therapist and after a few sessions, I decided my companion had overstayed her ‘welcome’ and needed eviction.  I had let her consume and confuse me by catering to her needs.  I became resilient and openly defiance: in the past I would cancel plans to accommodate her needs; I would block every other sound so hers was the only one heard; I let her creep in bed with me and listen to her lullabies instead of Louise Hayes’s affirmations.  Enough was enough and CBT helped.

My resilience grew by the day and I was able to distance myself from her false reality, convincing stories, and mind games.  My whole being trembled with fear and normal people’s anxiety as I peeled her away layer by layer.

The good news was that CBT helped me a great deal to cope with every episode, and every wave of anxiety or panic came decorated with clarity and hope.  I was happy and hopeful for the first time in years.  Visiting the local market became fun once again.  Piece by piece I unpacked the unwanted guest from my mind into a metaphorical suitcase, it took tremendous effort.

Recovery is a process that has to start with baby steps, and I realised that to be fully self-reliant and strong I had to map my recovery like a ladder.  Step one being in the stuck stage and not knowing what to do; moving up steps to believing I can make it work and seeking help when needed.  Further steps in learning how to implement change and take on board tools and resources from CBT, and finally to being self-reliant – by recognising triggers and stressors and learning how to combat them.  And most importantly learning the difference between normal anxiety hardwired to enhance performance versus debilitating anxiety that undermine existence.

I still get the occasional knock on the door from the unwanted companion, but I am strong enough to say no to destructive invasion and tainted reality without panic attacks. On rare occasions she forces her way in, but I am powerful enough to push her out without much talking. 

Day by day I am learning to socialise again and enjoy the beauty the world has to offer.  Tequila left with her too.


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