I have written a lot about my experience with depression, but I also suffer from various forms of anxiety including social anxiety. Yesterday I attended a four hour training that will lead to my becoming a public speaker for Stop Stigma Sacramento. I'd love to tell you it was a powerful experience and I felt so connected and empowered to be around other people who understand and experience mental illness. I was surrounded by people who understand, but I did not feel connected and empowered. I participated, but it was difficult.. I actually left feeling a bit down and disconnected.
It often amazes me that even though I've lived with major depression and anxiety for over 25 years that I continue to grow and learn new things about my illnesses and how to manage them all the time. Sometimes in social situations, and almost always when I am in a new situation, I feel very anxious. My heart beats fast, I worry what others are thinking, and I can't fully relax. I also tend to think that other people there don't like me and that I don't fit in. This was all going on yesterday at the training. I never really realized until recently that these symptoms are common for people with social anxiety and that I'm not the only one who experiences them.
There is great power for me in knowing I'm not alone. And in simply acknowledging this experience exists for me. In the past I would have tried to hide this and push away and hide the feelings, all the while berating myself for not being able to "be like everyone else". But yesterday I just rolled with it for the most part. It was still unpleasant at times, but I had the awareness that it was just a part of how I experience things and that it would pass. I noticed the feelings and participated when I could. I also allowed myself not to participate when I didn't feel up to it, and to just listen. Most of the time without judgment. That is huge progress for me.
Knowing all of this now it doesn't surprise me that I've historically avoided things that bring me anxiety. I don't like making phone calls, returning items to a store, making small talk with strangers, and many other social situations. It's a part of my anxiety, and it's not a reflection of who I am as a person. There's nothing wrong with me, I have social anxiety. Thankfully, between the hard work in therapy and my medication the symptoms are pretty manageable. And once I'm comfortable somewhere, such as work, the anxiety does not interfere with my functioning much at all. You would think that with all of this that I prefer to be alone, but that's not the case. I'm an extremely social person and love connecting with others, it usually energizes me.
Having said all that, I still wonder if it's a good idea for me to take on a volunteer position as a public speaker about very personal things as someone living with social anxiety. This is sort of an experiment I guess. I believe I can do it, but if for whatever reason it doesn't work out I will be okay with that. I'm going to just take it one step at a time and allow myself to move very slowly and feel awkward and vulnerable. I will be going the next two Fridays to "practice sessions" where I get to practice my speech and get feedback and help from the leader. I'm excited, and I'm not going to let my social anxiety stop me from doing this important work.