“I’m having some girlfriends over for a wine and cheese evening. Would you like to come?”
I was touched to be included in this recent texted invite from a client. Part of me really wanted to go, especially since she’s a lovely person and the majority of my social interaction right now is with my preschooler. But the thought of walking into a group of people I didn’t know and making small talk was overwhelming.
“Thank you so much for the invitation, but I have plans that night,” I fibbed. At the time I justified it to myself (she didn’t need to know my plans were watching Netflix ― alone), but I still feel terrible about lying. I’m convinced the guilt will be written across my face the next time I see her.
Many people get excited when they receive an invitation to an event; I get nauseous. Not because of the people involved (usually), but because there are people involved. Although I didn’t learn to identify it as such until the past several years, I have suffered from social anxiety my entire life.
As a teen and young adult, I used to force myself into uncomfortable social situations even if I was overwhelmed, because I assumed my “shyness” was something I needed to get over. I told myself that the cold sweat, shaking hands, pounding heart, tightened throat, foggy thinking and embarrassingly obvious flushing would surely subside once the ice was broken. Sometimes it did, but more often than not it didn’t, and still doesn’t.
I’m comfortable with several close friends, but the moment a group grows beyond the borders of my trusted circle, I can feel the anxiety monster stirring to life, rekindling all my deep-seated fears of being judged (and falling short). When this happens, my survival strategy is withdrawing: watching, listening, hugging the periphery of a room and forming lasting bonds with household pets.
People often mistake my relative silence in groups as aloofness, but I’m quiet because I’m weighing every word before I utter it, considering how my contribution to the conversation will be received, terrified it will expose me as the fraud I convince myself that I am.
Even if I seem at ease during an interaction, I will spend days afterward, weeks even, dissecting it, fixating on what I’ve convinced myself were social gaffes ― basically, torturing myself. It’s exhausting.
Like many people with anxiety, I am high-functioning, and my unease isn’t usually obvious to others (my teaching colleagues used to remark on how calm and serene I always appeared, even though inside I was a roiling mess of angst). I will attend events or enter situations that make me uncomfortable, either for professional reasons, wanting to see friends, or the overwhelming desire to not disappoint or offend others. But I do it at a cost.
You see, social anxiety can trigger and feed more generalized anxiety for me.
I’ve “managed” this by forcing myself to ignore it as much as possible and just get on with things. Not a good strategy.
Over the past several years, a lot of “life” happened, with lots of unexpected challenges. Eventually, anxiety consumed me to a point where I couldn’t ignore it anymore and I found myself peering into a dark abyss that chilled me to my soul. I don’t ever, EVER, want to find myself on that precipice again. This experience has taught me that my mental health has to be a priority. It’s not a cost I’m prepared to pay any longer.
I don’t shun all get-togethers and social interaction. When I’m feeling good, I enjoy connecting with others. I cherish my friendships and appreciate the possibility of new ones. It’s just that some types of interactions are more stressful for me and sometimes, depending on other factors in my life at the time, I need to avoid them in order to continue feeling good. Ninety-nine percent of the time it has nothing to do with the person whose invitation I decline ― a real honest-to-goodness case of, “It’s not you, it’s me.”
So, why the guilt?
I don’t feel guilty for declining invitations if I’m physically sick or injured. So why do I feel ashamed to admit that I’m feeling mentally fragile? When I visited my doctor last year, blubbering out apologies for my uncontrollable panic and weepiness and the fact that I wanted to try anti-anxiety meds, she asked if I would feel bad asking for help with an injured leg. Of course not!
It feels like there is a tacit misconception in our society that mental illness is something that can be soldiered through. Many people do successfully hide it when it could potentially hurt feelings or inconvenience others (like I tried to do for most of my life). But even if an illness is made invisible, it’s still there; it needs to be attended to just as much as a broken bone or disease, or there are consequences.
Thanks to recent public awareness campaigns and more people sharing their personal stories, mental illness is becoming a less taboo topic in general conversation, and I’ve “outed” myself as an anxiety sufferer in several publications. Complete strangers know my mental health status, and yet … I’m still not ready to say to someone, in real life, “Thank you so much for including me in the invite, but social gatherings are a trigger for my anxiety and it’s been a challenge lately, so I’m going to pass.”
Let’s be real here. If you are not someone touched by anxiety, would a small part of you not be thinking: Wow, that seems extreme. It’s just wine and cheese! You might feel a little offended, or wonder if you had done something to offend me.
Whereas, if a person declines an invite because they have a physical injury or illness, you probably wouldn’t give it a second thought. You certainly wouldn’t take it personally. I fib sometimes and say I’m busy because the last thing I want to do by avoiding one trigger of social anxiety is to cause another one and potentially damage a relationship.
Is this a lasting solution? No. I value honesty and it creates a lot of dissonance within me to not be fully honest with people, especially people I care about. But, at least in my mind, this is the best way for dealing right now. Writing about it helps me be braver, inching the general conversation about anxiety ever-closer to my personal relationships.
I hope that someday soon, declining an invitation for mental health reasons will be as acceptable to others (and me) as saying, “Sorry; can’t make it — I have the flu.”