Wide-eyed stare. Head shake.
It’s like I’ve just told them that I enjoy burning orphanages on my spare time but I’ve just told them that I’m scared to death of parties.
I thought that out of all the mental health buzzwords thrown around, social anxiety would be one of the easiest for a person unaffected of the said concept to understand. Seems like that it’s the opposite. I usually get a very understanding response when I tell people about my PTSD.
It seems like that as long as something is very much out of your understanding of reality, it’s easier to accept. Like a faraway country you’ve never visited. A native to said land can say pretty much anything and it can be accepted on face value.
But when you take an experience that is familiar, as well as positive, to them and turn it on its head things start getting difficult to understand.
I guess it sounds like an oxymoron: ‘I don’t like having fun.’
It’s true though. Social anxiety comes in different forms. Somebody is afraid of leaving the house. Someone dreads making a phone call. My particular fear is parties, basically outings of any kind where there is an expectation of having fun.
I was bullied in school from age eight to fifteen. Basically the entire time from childhood well into my teens. I’d switch schools and the bullying would continue, just in a different packaging. I was very much the weird girl who’d never get invited to parties or to drink beer at the nearby park.
Did I want to go? Not really, it wasn’t really my sort of thing. Did not being invited have an effect on me? Of course it did. Nobody wants to be left out, even when the girls at school are just plain disgusting people you’d never choose to spend time with. They are your peers and your only mirror at an age where everything revolves around the self to begin with.
Someone who hasn’t been bullied has no idea what it’s like to be bullied. My saving grace was that I always had one friend, another weird girl and it would be us against the world. My heart goes out to anyone who didn’t even have that.
I did catch a break though. At fifteen I switched schools for the final time and for the first time in my life found a large group of similar-minded people. For the first time in my life I was part of a group of girls and even though I was afraid that one morning they’d decided they didn’t want to be friends with me anymore, it never happened. I began to trust.
During my final three years in the Finnish education system I flourished. I took up a role in my friendship group of eight girls as the entertainer. Soon making others laugh became like a drug. I couldn’t wait them to stop laughing at the previous joke when I came up with another one. I’d do anything to hear that sound again. For the first time in my life a group of my peers were laughing with me, not at me.
“Ida, you’re funny”, one of my friends said once while wiping tears of laughter from her face.
I still remember that moment so clearly.
It’s completely down to those girls that I became confident enough to apply for a university abroad. 13 or 14-year-old Ida wouldn’t had even dreamt of it.
Unfortunately I then met a person who made it into his life’s purpose to tear down all that I had built.
The stream of criticism was endless. My stories were boring, my jokes weren’t funny, nobody wants to hear them, nobody wants me there, no wonder I didn’t have any friends because I had such bad social skills. All my school bullies had made a return in the body of someone I thought I loved. He carefully, delicately learnt my paths of insecurity, built a map he could soon follow without thinking and jab at where it hurt the most.
It didn’t matter if his words didn’t have the desired effect. He could always try again. And again.
Thinking back I was vulnerable to this exact kind of abuse. What else was this than a school bully who now followed me home?
By the time we broke up, I was too terrified to speak in a group of people. Not that being quiet went without criticism either. How can I expect anybody to want to spend time with me when I don’t even make any effort?
Finally I thought that one wrong move would detonate me.
I remember one moment really well. I had made a joke for the first time since forever and the few people I was hanging out with laughed. It was like someone had lit a tiny tealight inside my chest.
Then he walked in and the light was blown out. I went quiet again and wouldn’t say anything for the rest of the evening.
I have a very quiet voice. I’ve thought more than once would I still be soft-spoken if I didn’t come from this background or would I be able to speak clearly, without having to repeat myself over and over.
I think in my voice there’s always a tiny unrealised hope that the other person doesn’t hear.
Maybe against this backdrop it’s easier to understand why I’m so afraid of groups. I’ve steadily gotten worse over time. Even though I don’t have a bully scolding me anymore, I have another master which is CPTSD. I haven’t felt joy, or any other positive emotion, in years. I basically have three moods: angry, sad or content. Contentment is different from joy. It’s lack of distress, which isn’t anything that adds to something but a lack thereof.
Apparently it’s a part of my condition to feel isolated and different from others. I am different from others. Others are laughing around me, having fun and I’m not. Joining them would be dishonest because I don’t feel anything. Like an actor I’d be able to fake the emotion based on my previous experiences but I don’t have the energy.
I’m also terrified of ruining the fun. The pressure to have fun, the awareness that everyone else except you is having fun is so crushing that I can hardly breathe. I become so aware of myself that it’s like a super zoom image, so close that you can’t even see what it is anymore. All I know is that I’m not having fun and that’s not normal because everyone else is having fun look at those other people what the fuck is wrong with you.
The best way I can describe it is that all of your settings have been turned to the max. You can hear everything, incredibly clearly. When I’m really anxious I can hear every individual sound from what otherwise would be just a mass of background noise and it feels like you’ve been given an auditory walk through hell.
You also hear everything said extremely clearly. So clearly that you start reading into it, what does this person mean when they’re saying that, they must be meaning this, oh god they must be saying this because of this. While you’re trying to interpret these messages the speech mercilessly continues and soon you’re helplessly out of loop. The conversation goes on further away from you and you can soon see it only as a little dot in the distance.
Speaking of seeing. You can also see everything incredibly clearly, even me who’s blind without my glasses. I’m so aware of the people around me, their gestures and smiles and joy. Other people’s joy is so hard for me to deal with because for the life of me I can’t join in. It’s like watching telly in HD. It’s so lifelike but unreachable.
But you can see yourself even better. Oh how well you can see yourself. You’re aware of the existence of your every single crevice and pore and in your head you think, either rightly or falsely, that they’re open game. I was hyper aware to begin with but then I gained half of my original body weight because of antidepressants and now every shiny surface is a reminder that who I am inside and outside my head are not the same person anymore.
Yesterday I went for my first night out in five years. I’ll tell about that in a separate post.
I’ll leave you with this moment from that evening.
We’re about to eat some birthday cake. It’s not self-evident that I have gotten this far. I made a panicked phone call to my bestie the moment I stepped out of the bus, almost vomited on my way to the restaurant, have been outside three times to get some air after I’d get a little overwhelmed. I’ve walked to count stuffed animals in the window of a neighbouring toy shop. I shake so much and walk so carefully that I must seem drunk to the passersby.
There is a massive clock right in front of me so I’m aware that I have managed to do this outing for almost two hours. Two hours more than I ever thought I could do. I’m so pleased with myself that the feeling resembles joy more than any shadow of an emotion I’ve felt in a long time. I’m doing this. I’m really doing this!
A girl next to me, skinny and beautiful who has spent the past fifteen minutes talking about her weight and how she’s so fat, puts her hand on mine with exaggerated concern and looks at my cake.
“Don’t worry about it Ida, just enjoy yourself.”
My every bully in her smile.