"Don't you remember what it felt like? Feeling as though you'd never stop growing, like Alice in Wonderland when she ate the cake. Dreading being noticed and fearing you aren't visible at all." — Call the Midwife, 2012 Christmas Special
I've been watching Call the Midwife lately on the Netflix and, as I was making my way through the first season's Christmas special, this quote from dear Chummy (my favorite character) jumped out at me. Although the subject matter was slightly different in the episode, I thought that this was a perfect description of my own struggles with social anxiety: dreading being noticed and fearing you aren't visible at all. This paradoxical feeling—the desire to be seen and not be seen at the same time—is the core of my social anxiety. Most days I live with this feeling wrapped so tightly around my chest, it feels like a boa constrictor hugging me from the inside.
I want so badly to connect with others—deeply connect—but I'm plagued with this constant worry that people will judge me or reject me. So, instead of doing what I should be doing to make connections—reaching out, engaging in conversations—I hide in my own skin, putting up walls to protect myself from the pain of being rejected or judged. It just feels safer to keep to myself.
Recently, I went to an all-women's butchery camp in Michigan. It was amazing, but also incredibly intimidating, as I was staying under the same roof with 32 strangers (just two that I had briefly interacted with before) for an entire weekend. While I was excited to go to camp and learn new things and eat wonderful food, I was also overwhelmed by the prospect of interacting with all these people I had never met before. I felt so anxious about this in the days/nights before the camp that I would burst into tears and panic attacks. I told my boyfriend I didn't want to go anymore—it was too scary—and he tried to calm me down and reassure me the best he could. An overbooked flight to Detroit almost gave me the perfect out, until another passenger offered to sit in the jump seat (I didn't know this was even a thing). So, my hand was forced—I had no choice but to get on that plane.
After a red-eye flight from PDX > EWR > DTW, and then a long drive from Detroit to Northport, Michigan (thanks to an extremely kind fellow camper who offered to give me a ride), I finally arrived at camp. I opened the door of the house where we were staying and it was already bustling with women unpacking, making dinner, and orienting the newcomers to the lay of the land. Finding my room and getting settled was a good temporary distraction from my anxiety, but it only took up a small increment of time. Eventually, I had to leave my room to join the festivities, but I hadn't a flying clue what to do with myself. This was the part where I was supposed to be an extrovert, but I didn't feel like I could access my brain. All I could access was fear. I sent a text to my boyfriend telling him that I was scared, and I didn't think I could do this, and then I forced my legs to walk downstairs where everyone else was. Here goes nothing.
When you have social anxiety, every social interaction feels like a lose-lose game. You're afraid to speak up, because you fear that what you say will sound stupid and people will judge you. If you don't speak up, then you fear that people will think you're stupid or cold because you're not saying anything, and they'll avoid you and judge you. Every time I go to interact with someone, my brain goes through this lose-lose risk analysis and it starts getting overloaded. Then I start feeling like a robot. All of a sudden it's nearly impossible to open my mouth and make human sounds at other people. That's what I felt like when I walked down those stairs to join the group.
Usually when I'm in a social gathering, I'll try to curb the social anxiety by avoiding people. I'll seek out any other types of living creatures that might be around: animals, babies...I've even found tanks of fish to be suitable companions. But there were no children at meat camp, and no (living) animals. Dammit...I felt stuck. I felt like hiding. So my solution that weekend? I got out my knitting.
Instead of doing the scary work of initiating conversations with others in my down time, I plopped myself down in a comfy chair in the living room and worked on my latest knitting project. "I'm going to try to be okay with this," I told myself, "I'll be safer here". And, strangely, it did start to help. It might not have been the best plan, but it at least calmed my anxiety a little. There were even people who, for some reason, didn't seem totally freaked out by me and wanted to talk to me. They came over to me and asked what I was knitting and I was able to have pleasant conversations with them, which didn't end in them laughing at me or telling me I was stupid. There were people there that maybe, actually, wanted to be my friend. And, little by little, I started feeling more okay. Maybe a room full of 32 women (amazing, inspiring, badass women) didn't have to be scary. Maybe I didn't have to hide. Maybe I could feel safe there. Maybe it could even bring me a new kind of overwhelming feeling...joy. And it did. I left camp with new friendships, a new community, and the feeling that I actually belonged.
And now, the song of the week...