When I was about 6 or 7 my grandmother fainted in the bathroom of Honest Ed’s. I remember it so vividly because I was so afraid that when I opened my mouth to yell for help no sound came out. For years I found comfort in a morse code warning system my brother made up for my bedroom wall in case I needed help and couldn’t say so. I think he got sick of me sneaking in to sleep on his bedroom floor when I was scared or having an anxiety attack. It often eased my mind just to know I could summon help even if I lost my voice. Unfortunately I still lose my voice sometimes. Anytime I have to use the phone, or go to a social function.
Many friends wonder how someone that was the lead in several plays, performed singing telegrams and stand up comedy for years and delivered workshops and speeches to audiences of almost a thousand could be paralyzed by the thought of dialing a phone number or engaging in small talk. There are differences…One is me delivering material…whether it is lines or a song or a joke. It is me speaking about self-esteem or mental health or compassion in healthcare. I know what I want to say or do and can do it. A phone conversation or social situation is completely different. When faced with having to talk one on one I feel sick to my stomach, on the verge of tears, anxious. I have to try to say something from my own mind that doesn’t sound too stupid or isn’t too wrong. I inevitably say or do something that I wish I hadn’t or spend the next few days replaying the conversation to pick it apart. I can be looking forward to something and at the thought of being face to face with someone trying to have a conversation I panic and end up hiding from the world. I physically can’t get myself to leave the house or dial the phone. It isn’t that I don’t like people. I just don’t like how I feel around people.
They say Public Speaking is the most common phobia in the world. To me every one on one conversation is a public speaking engagement. I can talk to a room full of people about just about any topic, as long as I don’t have to talk about me. I can laugh and carry on with clients all day, or run workshops for teens on leadership but have literally thrown up at the thought of attending a church service or birthday party where people will want to talk with me.
It took me many years to realize….that’s ok. I am the way I am and that’s ok. I have a happy life, I am at peace when I don’t try to force myself to be something I’m not. I accept that I can answer the phone at work and get awards for my people skills but be unable to have a conversation in a social situation. I have accepted that I will work tirelessly to take care of the needs and wants of clients, family or those in need but be in a fetal position for days over having to make a phone call where I have to think of something to say or speak for myself.
I have learned to accept that I am a good hearted person who truly means well but I am unreliable and anti social at times…not because I want to be, I often wish I was different and could be social but I am at peace when I am alone. I don’t have to try and figure out what others are thinking or worry about letting them down or saying something I am judged for. I don’t have to feel panicked about whether I will embarrass my loved ones or be considered an idiot.
Don’t get me wrong. I like myself. It took me years to get there but I genuinely think I am a good person and for that reason I have started to let myself off the hook. I used to have compassion for everyone but me.
A friend recently posted an article entitled “You’re not running late, you are selfish and rude.” I thought of how harsh this title is. I know it can be frustrating to be kept waiting. And people who are always on time don’t understand that sometimes it isn’t about selfishness and being rude…. sometimes it is about being paralyzed with fear, it is about trying not to pass out at the thought of having to socially interact. Sometimes it is about trying to stop ones self from crying or shaking with fear or just getting the courage to walk out the door.
I have let many people down in my life. Not on purpose, and not without great personal sadness and consequence for doing so. I spent years punishing my mind and body because I let myself and others down by being late or missing commitments I agonized trying to get to.
A few years ago I was asked by a friend what I would say or do if they were the one struggling with panic attacks and anxiety. Would I punish them for a panic attack that stopped them from meeting me? Would I force them to do things they hated or try to find a way for them to be happy and feel peace? Would I judge them for their struggle or compassionately love and support them through it? My life is so much happier. I have adapted for the most part so I can live a fulfilled, happy life that is enriched with friends and loved ones. I may have most of my contact through Facebook and email but it is a more joyful relationship because I am not filled with days of anxiety before a social engagement and personal judgement afterwards. I found ways to share my love and serve others yet still be compassionate to my own spirit and needs. There are still times I let myself or others down because I am unable to keep a commitment due to paralyzing anxiety but I no longer feel like I’m drowning all the time. For decades I constantly felt anxiety and guilty. Now I take a deep breath and ask myself “what would I say to a loved one or a youth I was working with that faced a similar situation? How would I love them through it?