Chatting with Chapman: social anxiety in a social society

Chapman W.

The world is honestly a very stressful and terrifying place.

Okay, that’s not completely true. The world is actually really beautiful and full of amazing things. It’s people that stress me out. People are unpredictable, judgmental and simply horrible to be around. Or is that just my disorder talking?

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According to the Internet, social anxiety disorder (SAD) is “a chronic mental health condition in which social interactions cause irrational anxiety.” 10 to 20 percent of American adults experience SAD, and it is the most common anxiety disorder as well as one of the most common mental disorders. What this means is that, on average, one in every five to 10 people you meet is actually, at some level, freaking out internally at the prospect of daily social interaction. And, let me tell you, that’s quite the life to lead in such a social society.

Around a year ago, I was going through a pretty rough patch, and so I started seeing a counselor. During my first session, I was describing things about my life that I had always considered normal and yet found frustrating, and my counselor pointed out that I showed some signs of having mild SAD. We talked about it for a while, and then I went home and did some research. Have you ever had one of those moments where you learn something and the entire world seems to fall into place around it? That was me realizing that practically every aspect of my life growing up had been shaped by my anxiety. And to be totally frank, it made me feel so much better about myself.

Finally, I understood why the idea of talking on the phone made me sick to my stomach. Finally, I had evidence that explained why making simple, embarrassing mistakes brought me to tears when other people could shrug it of. Finally, I understood so many aspects of my life that had made me the weird, sensitive kid in elementary school. I was able to shift the blame I felt for all of my fear away from myself and understand the deeper roots of why I was the way that I was. Most importantly, I was able to finally seek help.

For those wondering what it’s like to have social anxiety, for me it means overthinking every single thing that I hear people say and every single look that I just happen to catch. It also means that I would rather do quite a few unpleasant things than have someone publicly point out a mistake I made. It means that personal relationships can be really frustrating when not with someone who is willing to work with or understand your disorder.

For my friend Clarissa, it’s “feeling like you’re drowning when you’re walking in a crowd alone.” She describes feeling like you’re always tired because your heart is always beating so hard. For her, “having social anxiety isn’t freaking out about grades or anything like that, I think — it’s freaking out about your relationships with people.”

For other people, it’s different. The thing about mental illness is that it hits everybody in their own unique way, and everyone handles it in their own way as well.

I’m also very fortunate to say that my disorder is usually pretty manageable, and two decades have left me pretty good at hiding it. Which has led to a lot of “oh, I had no idea you had social anxiety.” And, while I appreciate the compliment you’re trying to make, and I do agree that I’ve gotten very good at making sure my screaming is (mostly) internal, I just don’t feel it’s very cool to disregard someone’s mental disorder just because they’re okay at passing as neurotypical. It’s led to a lot of people not understanding why I won’t talk to a pretty person at a party, or go to a party, or why I’m in a terrible mood because of a response I got to an article or an off-handed comment someone made. Clarissa made the point that “people fail to understand that it’s a super limiting thing to struggle with.”

I can still be a pretty normal member of society with my disorder. I can write articles that go out on the Internet for everyone to see. My friends don’t think I’m too weird. I can even try new things sometimes. Some days are worse than others, but I feel like that’s true for everyone. I just appreciate those people in my life who ask how I’m doing and are understanding when I tell them I just can’t do the social thing today.

And to all of the people out there who live with a chronic illness, mental or not, I just want you to know you are very important and very loved.

Collegian Reporter Chapman W. Croskell can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com and on Twitter @Nescwick.

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