When can I honestly say my social anxiety started? Certainly, I needed to be hospitalised in 1995 at the age of 21 as I had had a severe breakdown that led to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. This began my recovery journey but social anxiety disorder was always walking with me too, adding to my challenges.
I have always been a creative, anxious person with a strong imagination that means that I rarely feel emotionally at peace, but my problems accelerated in my late teens. I was experiencing psychotic symptoms and had to be brought back from Brighton, where I was living at the time, and properly treated with lithium and given appropriate support. But what I tried to tell my doctors, and have been trying to tell people ever since, is how much social phobia also affects me, and the difficult experiences it has given me.
I’ve had to convince people the problem is real.
I’ve had to convince people the problem is real. Over a 20-year recovery period I’ve managed to work as a support worker, get married and have a good social life. I study writing and am able to contribute to the meetings and social events I attend, and love having fun with my friends. But there has been a hidden battle to do all this, mainly one of intense fear and anxiety symptoms that, if you look at me closely, you may get clues about what is happening.
In many past situations I have had to hold myself in check physically to hide the shaking, which sometimes has been so bad to be noticeable to other people. I often drink out of bottles when I can’t manage a glass. I sometimes only order meals that I can manage to eat with one hand if I can’t manage both. I go very quiet in many situations and might come across as aloof, when really I’m just terrified of speaking up. For many years I have avoided doing anything in front of an audience as my fear increases in direct proportion to the numbers of people present. I’ve filled notebook after notebook devising ways to tackle the problem, and talked to therapist after therapist about it. But at the end of the day, the thing that has helped me most has been to keep going, keep battling, and go towards the very things that terrify me most.
All these problems have been really helped by working in environments where I’m in constant contact with people. As my social skills have improved, which were really affected by becoming ill in my 20s, the fear rules my life less. Holding down meaningful paid employment in social care has helped me particularly. Caring for other people definitely, in some hard to define way, cares for me. For the past 3 years I have worked in mental health settings, and feel the understanding from the people around me helps me to overcome difficulties. I’m gaining confidence as an Educator on the campaign, and am trying to challenge the self-critical inner voice that in many ways can cause social phobia. The main thing is feeling able to talk about and be open about my anxieties, and this is really the route to recovery, along with the support of my family and friends.
The main thing is feeling able to talk about and be open about my anxieties, and this is really the route to recovery, along with the support of my family and friends.
I perhaps have a personality that makes me more vulnerable to the illness, plus triggering experiences in childhood and a surrounding bipolar condition. But this all feels like speculation that I feel unable to confirm positively or against; I simply do not know why I am scared of other people. What I do know is that becoming my own best friend is key and has helped others too, and that, at the end of the day, the good times and the intense happiness that being with other people brings, makes it worth it. And with research into the condition and recovery rates better than ever, I know I’m not alone on my journey either. I turned 40 recently and if I could talk to my 21- year old self now I would say that we made it OK and, you know, life begins . . .
By Cath Davies