I had my first panic attack when I was 17. I was at freshman orientation for the University of Texas, standing in line waiting for my roomate assignment. There were approximately 8 million other freshmen there waiting in the same lines, with the same doubt, and the same questions. But I was the only one who started trembling, sweating, and hyperventilating. Back then, there were no commercials every other hour detailing social anxiety disorder, so my mom thought I was just being dramatic and encouraged me ever so gently to get over it. I made a good show of doing so, but my brain was still my worst enemy.
It whispered in my ear that everyone else knew what was going on, and I didn’t. I was walking the wrong way, carrying my backpack incorrectly, not taking the most efficient path to my classes. I worried about being underdressed or overdressed, or not taking enough notes, or not eating the right thing. Sometimes I felt like I actually forgot how to walk. Each step was more labored than the last and I felt the weight of 8 million people watching me lift my feet with the grace of a toddler. They were on to me, they knew I was an imposter, that I didn’t belong. They would out me soon enough. So I left UT after only 3 weeks.
My panic never really left, but I learned more about it. I learned that it was genetic, and that my dad suffered from it. (Which probably explains the rampant drug and alcohol use that eventually took his life.) I learned that my manifestation was an atypical one. Typically, social phobia is equated to stage fright. But I had no problem performing on stage. I was active in choir and drama growing up, and joined a dance company in my early 20’s. Performing was easy. All eyes were supposed to be on me then. Performing complicated dance routines in front of thousands of people sounded like fun. Walking to the bathroom in an unfamiliar restaurant sounded like torture.
My younger sister developed the same (irrational) fears that I had, so we became each other’s crutch. When we used to go out and party, pre-mommy days, we at least had the safety of the other’s neuroses with which to comfort ourselves. We knew that we would enter a place, make a bee line for the bathroom to releive what we came to dub the “shitter jitters” (aren’t we delicate little flowers). En route to the bathroom, we would mentally catalogue which corner looked the emptiest, so that we could hunker down in the corner booth/upstairs lounge/shade of artificial ficus tree until we could have a vodka tonic or 2 to numb those fears at least a little bit.
I abhor talking to people and would die happily if I could just cart along a laptop and write to everyone in my life. The only reason I do have such a large social network is because I was able to meet them online so that the “real me” came through in my writing. And honestly, I don’t think Ron would have been as interested in me just based on how I present myself in real life. He saw the “real me” here on my blog.
In real life, I’m the snobby looking bitch in the corner and people assume that I’m just too good to talk to them. Really, I’m too terrified and wish that I didn’t attract so much attention. When I’m in a crowd of people, I wish I could get over it and be the happy outgoing person whom everybody likes. I wish I could just open my mouth, apologize for who I appear to be, and explain that’s not really who I am. Instead, I’m struck mute and paralyzed and everyone thinks I hate them. I wish people knew that I’m scared of them. That they intimidate me and I don’t talk for fear of saying the wrong thing.
So please, the next time you see someone and are ready to write her off as a stuck up bitch, stop for a moment and consider that she might just be crying on the inside and not sure how to join in the fun. Go talk to her and help her come out instead of assuming the worst. You’ll both be happier for it, I promise.