Last week, I shared a bit about my scoial anxiety and a particular example of how it manifested while I was at a large gathering. But, my social anxiety doesn't just come up in these "typical" social situations, it comes up everywhere. When I'm feeling anxious, any situation where I'm around other humans can raise my anxiety: grocery shopping, the lunch room at work, or even walking down the street. When I feel anxious, people don't feel safe to me. And, since I live in a sizeable city, there are a lot of people around, which means I spend a lot of time afraid. On the "better" days, I'm afraid that the people I encounter will judge me or think that I'm stupid. On my worst days, I'm afraid that people will hurt me. It's completely irrational, but so hard to turn off. The following is a small slice of what it's like for me on a typical day when I'm feeling anxious.
I'm in Portland, Oregon riding the MAX yellow line train home. It's crowded. I sit in the seat next to the window and, unavoidably, a large man sits next to me, locking me in. I squish a little further toward the window. Please don't look at me, please don't talk to me. I put my earbuds in and fidget with my phone to play some music. This is my first line of defense.
I try to hold my body still and keep it confined inside an invisible box I've drawn around myself. You better stay on your side. In the background of my brain, I'm running possible scenarios in which he talks to me, and going through my catalogue of my defense systems, trying to ready an appropriate response. Pretend to be deaf. Pretend to speak another language. Offer a minimal series of "mmhmms" and pretend I have something really important to do with my phone. This space feels uncomfortable and confining. I can't relax.
I'm sitting in my seat and I feel the people around me. I feel their pain and disappointment and fear and sadness. I overhear their stories. Stories of struggle and failure and injustice. My empathy goes into overdrive. My heart twists into knots. I want to say something to these people. I'm a terrible person for not saying anything. I want to do something to help. I'm a terrible person for not doing anything to help. I'm selfish for sitting here with my fancy phone and my fancy shoes. I have everything I need and I'm doing nothing to help. This space feels sad and everyone's hurting. I can't relax.
The train approaches my stop...finally...20 whole minutes of over-analyzing and scenario running. 20 whole minutes of saddness and guilt trips. 20 whole minutes of practically holding my breath. I make a small gesture toward the aisle. "This is my stop," I mutter. The large man gets up and steps out of the way. No crisis here. Phew. I'm able to maneuver my body through the crowd. Excuse me. Sorry. Pardon me. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. I exit the train and breathe in the fresh air. My feet feel firm on the ground, but my commute isn't over yet. Just a few blocks to walk and then I'll be home.
I step forward and survey the streets around me. How many people are near me? Where are they going? Is that person watching me? Is that person following me? Please, keep your distance. I pick up my pace and move my body forward. I'm constantly scanning they periphery for things out of the ordinary—things that may harm me. Who is that person? Why are they lingering there? Are they armed? What if they run up behind me and stab me? Better not make eye contact. Keep your head down and walk faster.
I near the sketchy hotel that I walk by every day, where I'm pretty sure sketchy things happen. There's a man smoking in the parking lot. Oh shit. I wore a skirt today. Please don't look at me. Please don't yell at me. Please don't think that I'm a prostitute. I look down at my phone, pretending to check something important. I rehearse potential responses in my head, should he say anything. I pray a thousand prayers for an invisiblity super power. He slurs a mumble at me, "Hey girl, nice boots!" But I'm not able to say anything. Rehearsal didn't help at all. I just keep walking. I don't feel safe out here. I can't relax.
Just a bit more walking and I'm home. Thank god I made it safely. I enter my apartment and am greeted by a happy dog bringing me all his toys and jumping at my face to give me kisses. I take off my purse and my coat and my shoes and I flop down on the couch. I'm back in my own space. It's safe here, but I'm not calm. The last 30 minutes replays itself in my brain, and I feel overwhelmed. I can't relax. My dog jumps on me, alerting me it's time to go for our walk. Dammit, I have to go back out there again.
Don't think I forgot...here's the song of the week: