Being that this is one dudes’ blog and there’s no reason I can’t post personal stuff on here if I want to from time to time, I figured this was a good place to tell a bit of a story.
Just now I was out getting some lunch, wearing my American Eagle jeans with exaggerated ripping and patches. I like these jeans. They fit nicely, they’re comfortable, and I just feel like me when I’m wearing them.
As I headed back to my car, some neatly-dressed accountant-looking guy muttered to his friend, quietly but just loud enough for me to hear as I walked past, an unmistakably sarcastic “Nice jeans.” My honest, reflexive response was to chuckle out loud and think “Haha, I bet that guy’s life and my life are waaaay different.” What I’m wearing today is probably as alien to his life as what he’s wearing is to mine. No big deal.
The reason I’m writing about this is that if that interaction had happened in October 2004 instead of October 2015, my initial thought would have been something along the lines of “What’s wrong with me? Is everyone looking at me? Oh god, what are they all thinking?”, followed by a quick rush home to pace back and forth in my room in the grips of an intense panic attack. It’d probably end with me tearing at the jeans in frustration, irreparably ripping them (in ways the manufacturer didn’t intend) and dumping them in the trash.
But in October 2004 I visited my doctor to check on a bad cold. At the end of the consultation she asked “Is there anything else?” and it was like a voice outside of me blurted out “I have a panic attack every time I try to leave the house and I’m really scared.”
Over a few visits we determined that I was suffering from social phobia. It’d been simmering away for a very long time. I remember feeling that way even in first grade, but it became worse and worse. I was late for work every day because I couldn’t work up the strength to leave the house. I would cancel every chance to meet up with friends because I just couldn’t do it. Or if I worked up the strength to go to a party or work drinks I’d feel completely out of place, like I was an unwelcome gatecrasher in someone else’s party. And that’s how I felt pretty much all the time: I felt guilty for existing alongside everybody else’s healthy sense of social connection.
With the help of my doctor I went through a program of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy which helped me to retrain my brain to not instantly default to the most crushing possible negative interpretation of every sentence or action of others. It was really hard. I was fighting against a voice that had always been there. Sometimes I still hear that voice. It visited me in the lobby of the Sheraton hotel in Anaheim this year when I went to catch up with some friends. I felt so out of place that I had to leave. It sometimes visits when I arrive too early to pick up my son from school and I have to stand around with the other parents.
But I know that what I’m really experiencing is an internal voice of doubt, not an external voice of disapproval. Because I know now that when I do actually encounter an external voice of disapproval – like the dude saying “Nice jeans” – I now naturally default to the most appropriate way to process the information: “That guy doesn’t know me, these jeans do look a little weird if you’re not used to that sort of thing, and it’s not a big deal anyway.”
If you think you need help with social phobia, talking to your doctor about it could change your life. I know it did for me. I think it’s interesting that I didn’t intend to ask my doctor for help but it was almost like my subconscious – the part of me that was most tightly connected to the issue of social phobia – took that opportunity to ask for help in coping with itself.
Thanks for listening. Here’s a picture of a guitar.