The Top Dog Scaredy Cat

The third largest mental health care problem in this country is Social Anxiety Disorder. It’s hard to believe isn’t it? How could there be THAT many of us out there? That many of us that are afraid to walk into a room so much so that we become nauseated, hot and sweaty, shaky, dizzy, and thoughts of total insecurity racing through our heads? Or worse, how many of us could there be that would rather stay at home than miss some of life’s greatest events? Family birthday parties and weddings, funerals of those loved dearly. How many is hard to count because we do hide. We hide at home, or we hide behind “cover-up” selves. 

It is estimated that there are 40 million of us over the age of 18 here in the United States alone. That’s 40 million people who feel their hearts beating out of their chests at the very thought of going to the grocery store, or their child’s Open House. 40 million of us that dread the thought of going to work each day, that is if we can even get to the point of securing employment. 40 million people that spend $22.84 billion in medical expenses seeking care for physical symptoms that our social anxiety mimic. 40 million of us that are six times more likely to be hospitalized in psychiatric facilities due to extreme anxiety.

We…we… Us… Us..That’s what I said there, over and over.

My name is Jules, and I suffer from social anxiety. A rather extreme case that has led to crippling agoraphobia. Of course this would be hard to believe if you only knew me online. Hard to believe that I leave the house only one day a week, and that is to see my therapist. Who would know that this person who, online, is authoritative and friendly, outgoing and chatty. Sometimes I am baudy and downright hilarious. You see, when one has social anxiety, we know that the problems we have intellectually: negative self-talk, our poor self-image, and reactions to being in public, are not accurate. We know when we look back on a situation that everyone was not staring at us, that the world was not crushing down on us at every turn, but at the time, it is very hard or impossible to internalize that.

Yet, I was somehow able, for fifteen years, to go to work each day. I travelled for my work and stood in front of large classes of people and at trade show booths talking to people for hours on end. It was my job, and I did it with great success for most of those years. It did not mean I was cured, It did not mean I found a way to not be afraid. I created a coping mechanism that worked well for a long time, and still works for me when I need it. It requires much of my energy, but I can do it. I have a “cover-up” personality. I have a way of behaving in public that creates a very large bubble of personal space around me, and I control that space as well as the space that immediately surrounds it. I do this by being the top dog in the room. The funniest, friendliest, smartest; whatever I have to be at the time.

You will catch me offering hugs (before they are offered to me, always on MY terms), at conventions with crowds around me “holding court”, even teaching courses in what was the topic of my 15 year career. Yes, I would have fits, I would cry, I would get so sick and want to cancel. I had some trips where I spent entire flights in the bathroom, sick to my stomach, or holding the barf bag while in my seat. Before going “ON”, my palms would sweat and I would forget all of my material, which I knew so well it was never written down. But, when the moment of truth would arrive and someone would have to introduce me, and something about hearing just a couple of nice things about me in the introduction would blow up that bubble and I could bounce myself onto the stage, up to the podium, and stay there for 6 hours (yes with a lunch break). My cover-up personality was one of control. If I was in control, if I was the top dog, there were far fewer things that could potentially hurt me.

I always was in control of the conversation, leading where the topic went, talking the most, laughing the loudest. Always on stage. Yet, I was always wondering if it was possible for some people to read my thoughts. Could they hear what I was thinking about them? And sometimes there were wacky thoughts. Thoughts about them that were either mean, sexual, judgemental etc. What if they knew what I was thinking?

Before I went into any situation I had to imagine every possible scenario that could happen, everything and anything that could possibly arise and how I would respond to it. Memorizing scripts of social scenarios to every kind of greeting, every kind of screw-up I may make, every question that may be asked of me. I had to be ready for anything. It was exhausting. And when I returned from the day, to the quiet safety of my hotel room, I would cry for hours, just to let out all of the fear and frustration. I would cry about how stupid I was when I said a certain thing. I would recall the entire day in word-for-word, movement-by-movement detail and figure out how I could have done it all better, been a better actor in the play I was producing. I would wonder if I passed, or did anyone notice that I really did not belong there, that I really was not the expert they thought I was, it was all a lie, a mistake. I was a fool, an idiot, someone who somehow made it to the top while no one was looking.

When I lost that job, someone took an ax to that bubble. Now, when I need to use it, I have to use one hand to hold it shut while the other hand works the magical illusion of “I am not afraid of you, I am normal!” This is twice as exhausting as it was before. Not to mention that I am doing something new, something I have never done before. There is a difference however. The difference is the passion I have for my work. This passion has allowed me to let amazing people very close to my bubble. Shaking hands and even hugging state senators and people who before I had only heard of because their names were on lists in magazines like Fortune. Now, all of the defects that run through me, the illness and the anxiety, well frankly they are my trump card. I can be in a conversation with someone about Chronically Awesome, I can explain what we do, and I can tell them that because of Chronically Awesome I am able to be where I am, talking to them. A walking billboard that is on the verge of vomiting in their lap.

It’s the very worst thing I struggle with, and I have had it the longest. I can remember it from way way back.

When I was in middle school, I remember the whole thing starting. This idea that people were staring at me, judging me. I liked dressing up in skirts and nicer clothes for school. That got me “looks”. I don’t know if they were looks of being mocked, or jealousy or what, but I was looked at. One day I was wearing my white corduroy knickers (short pants popular in the 80’s, not underwear), a vest and white blouse. I spilled grape juice on my white pants. I INSISTED on being let out of school to go home. There was NO WAY I was going through the day like that and no way I was wearing my gym shorts for the day as they suggested. I would not be starred at. Another day, my friend Vicki and I were in a fight and there were words and she pushed me and I landed on my ass in a puddle of mud in the middle of the main courtyard of the school. Everyone laughed and I was covered in mud. Again, I insisted in tears that I must go home to change. Both of these events kicked off my fear of being stared at, laughed at. I won’t even go into the things they said when I dressed as a Saturday Night Live “Conehead” for Halloween one year. It was mortifying. 

It was sometime at this period that I felt as though my life was like a sitcom. It was a little strange, sometimes fun, sometimes horrid. I would be in my bedroom at night with the curtains of my rather large bedroom window open to the blackness that was my backyard. I started imagining that I WAS on television, all of the time. This was before reality TV, but I created my own reality TV and very much felt that I was always “ON” and must always behave perfectly. I even started using the techniques I had learned in drama to turn out to the camera. I never spoke out loud, but I narrated my life in my head. And when I needed a break, I closed the curtains.

It was exhausting.

I did this off and on. I did a lot of things. Narrating my days, all through high school, in class and at work as though this television show was being shot. Had I known that “The Truman Show” would come out years later, I’d say I had “The Juli Show” (I went by Juli then.) This blog could go on and on. I started hearing very negative self talk that told me terrible things about myself. I felt very alone even in a very large crowd of my friends. To avoid the feelings of fear that I was “doing it wrong” (“it” being life) I started becoming that big person, that wild personality. I got into a lot of trouble.

When I think of my family, when I think of the signs, well just wow. Mom knew something but she didn’t know what. Therapy started and stopped and started again. Then I went to college and the shit hit the fan.

If we all knew then what we know now.

Once, when I was going to therapy while in college, something I chose to do on my own, I accidentally walked into the wrong building. It was a private psychiatric facility. I wondered what would happen if I had just asked them to keep me.

Now I leave the house one day a week. Walking the dogs in the park is an amazing triumph. When I am able to go someplace with Brian he is very supportive, very helpful. He knows when I have had enough and he knows how to support and praise me for being confident. He knows that sending certain emails, opening emails, answering the phone are all things that need support doing.

I have touched a mailbox one time in the last decade or more. I had to do that while talking on the phone with @LALupusLady. It was a really big deal.

I am working with my therapist now to leave the house and go some place for no reason, just to go someplace for fun. To go to the park or the harbor or the club. Just go to the club and use the gym, to go to the park and read a book.

I could use your support. If you need mine, maybe we can work together. It’s hard. It’s embarrassing. It’s horribly frightening.

I am Jules, I have social anxiety, I am moulding a place on this sofa in the shape of my ass. I want to go outside.

I am Jules, and I want to go outside.