I struggle with social anxiety daily. Some days are better than others, but it always there—right below the surface of my forced smile—struggling to strangle me.
It has been there my entire life. It has cost me friendships, stopped me from meeting nice girls, caused me to leave (or avoid) family functions, and played a major role in every social interaction I have ever had.
I took it all in stride and never talked about it with anyone. When I was younger it didn’t have a name and as I got older the sheer embarrassment kept me from speaking about it.
Now it is a problem though. Now I have a fifteen-year-old daughter (who has issues of her own) that I am desperately trying to connect with. That situation is hard in the best of circumstances but the anxiety interferes with how close I can be to her. She always thinks I am angry but I am not. She thinks I don’t find her funny because she tells a joke or acts playful and the fucking anxiety has me focused on a million things other than the moment I am sharing with her. I try to think of ways to spend time with her and the fear of being out in the world always forces me to the old standby—”want to watch a movie sweetie?”
It is not right. It is not okay. It is crippling and I need to find a way to fix it—for her.
Panic attacks are like the first blustery wind of an unexpected storm. They come from nowhere, with no warning, and no indication of how long they will last, or how severe they will be. It can happen anywhere, or anytime. You can be in the worst of moods, or the best—it does not matter.
When it happens it is like somebody flicked the lights off and then used the cover of darkness to punch you in the gut. I understand that’s an odd analogy, but it is exactly how it feels.
Wrong Without Warning
Imagine you are moving along through your day and (without warning) everything is suddenly wrong. You can’t move forward. You can’t move backward. All you can do is stand there and wonder what happened. You feel nauseous because you cannot put your finger on it, and you know the people around you can see something is wrong. You know that someone will ask you if you are okay—and you will say “yes”. You are not, but it does not matter because you couldn’t explain what was wrong if you wanted to.
The feeling of helplessness is vicious and feeds upon itself. Your heart rate increases, palms start to sweat, your chest tightens up, and a little voice in the back of your head tells you that you’re having a heart attack. The rational side of you says you’re not, but the truth is there’s no way to be sure. The lack of certainty sends your thoughts spinning. Should you go to the hospital? If it is a heart attack would you make it in time? If it’s not will the doctor’s laugh at you? Does your daughter know how much you love her? Will she be okay when you’re gone?
Each thought cripples you a little more. It’s a cascade of irrationality fueled by the reality that all of the things you are thinking—while maybe not true in this exact moment—are completely plausible possibilities. People die of sudden, massive, heart attacks every day. Why not you? Why not today?
My Panic, Not Yours
This is what a panic attack usually feels like to me. If you see me standing stuck in a moment this is what’s going on in my head. I do not know if it is the same for everyone. For me the attacks vary by degrees—sometimes they are small and last seconds, other times they are massive and consume my day. They were less severe when I was younger, and have grown exponentially over the past couple of years.
Oddly enough, the heart attack scenario represents the best case for me. Arguing with myself whether or not I am having a heart attack is at least tangible. Sometimes, the attacks do not present a reason for attacking. Sometimes they are just a sudden onset of terror and an inexplicable surety that everything is not okay. There is no discernible cause—just a hopelessly empty feeling and sudden desire to be anywhere other than where I am. I have left family events, work, even dates when one of these empty moments struck. I have had times when even the company of the person I love most in this world—my daughter—was not enough to make me feel anything other than lost.
Bubble, Bubble, Toil, and Trouble
I do not exist in a bubble. I deal with these panic attacks much like you might deal with a sinus infection or a broken arm. I adjust and power through it. If you know me then you have most definitely spoken to me while I was in the midst of one of them. Ninety percent of the time you will never know. The other ten percent? Those are the times when I inexplicably disappear. Maybe I told you the truth. Maybe I made up an excuse. Either way, it was necessary to remove myself from whatever situation I was in and deal with the darkness that had descended upon me.
I am grateful that I understand what is happening now. Like so many others I suffered for years in silence. Now that I know it is real I can deal with it. One of the ways I deal with it is by writing. If you are dealing with the panic attacks please share how you deal with them below if you are so inclined. If you need someone to talk to but do not want to do it publicly you can reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I cannot give you answers, but I can listen—and sometimes that helps.