I’ve always been an anxious person.
Socially, the ostensive self-assurance of my friends was something I had neither the facility nor resolve to comprehend. Girls were a nightmare. Football and rugby coaches couldn’t understand why I performed reasonably admirably in training yet appeared to laugh in the face of hand-eye co-ordination at game time. Idle conversations with people I wasn’t absolutely comfortable with often stumbled into tortuous exchanges of forced pleasantry, loosely strung together by distressing attempts at anecdotes and vaguely related observations. A catastrophism of conversation – or until recently, probably what I would call “a nice chat”.
Attempting to explain this mindset is almost impossible to non-sufferers. Sympathy is limited; in fact it is regularly met with hostility and suspicion. This is particularly true, in my experience, for a man. In a gathered social situation people will often venture to actively draw attention to your lack of contribution, and make it a point of wider discussion:
“Why aren’t you talking? You’re not saying anything…” as if the fact that this is now the lead item on the collective agenda will somehow initiate a kind of cerebral paradigm shift and free you of the cognitive behavioural patterns you have followed since childhood. And what are you expected to say?
“Oh, sorry. I forgot.”
But pity and commiseration is not necessary, nor asked for. Merely understanding. Which, ironically given the supposed social acuity of those most audibly announced in such situations, seems out of reach a lot of the time. Of course, social anxiety can be a burden. It can lead to avoidance, withdrawal and a distinct lack of enough confidence in a lull in conversation to finally drop that one-liner you’ve been perfecting for just this very moment. A quick trawl of YouTube or Google throws up a plethora of psychosomatic symptoms waiting to be acquired, often peddled by the worst kind of unscrupulous charlatan who for “a reasonable fee” can cure all the ills you blame yourself for in the first place. But speaking as a recovered agoraphobic, writing this from a hotel room in Marbella, it will get better.
Time is, truly, a great healer. Many who suffer from anxiety or panic of any form will have been told this a thousand times, which in the throws of an attack is about as helpful as trying to play the guitar with your feet. But it works. In my teens and early twenties, meeting anybody outside my immediate social circle was a chore to be endured, not a normal human pleasure or opportunity. Much in the same way getting on a train ten minutes down the road feels for an agoraphobic. How can I get out of this? What can I say that sounds plausible? Jesus, you can’t get on a train, don’t be so stupid – what if you have another attack?
Nobody should be forced to live like that. For me, those were my processes of thought every time I had to leave the house further than my “safe area”. Thinking back it is very difficult to understand why or how you were ever in that situation. Much of the immediate medical research says basically the same thing – a chemical imbalance, or repression of some childhood trauma. Whatever the root, the first step to recovery is acceptance. Six months ago the idea of going to an airport, never mind a foreign country, filled me with such panic my skin would turn yellow. Now, on a balcony in Puerto Banus, it is lobster red. I know which I prefer.