Monday, February 27, 2012

I Have a Confession to Make

Guess what. I'm an introvert. Interacting with people exhausts me. Actually, many folks know this about me, but just in case you don't--I have social anxiety disorder. You'll often see this with extreme introverts. We come off as supremely shy. Others might call it a lack of confidence. Still others might call it really, really bad stage fright. The truth, though, is this: we have a phobia about being judged unfairly.

Now, phobias are irrational, and I know my anxiety is irrational, but no amount of self-talk can make a phobia go away. I could engage in extreme cognitive-behaviorial therapy (example, a person afraid of flying forces himself to fly an airplane), but not too many, me included, can handle the extreme anxiety (and the expense) that comes from facing a phobia head on. It's not unlike jumping off a cliff to cure yourself of a fear of heights. Psychiatrists find it easier to talk about the things in your life that may have led to your phobia, and then they give you medication to correct the chemical imbalance in your brain that impacts your phobia. I take three: Cymbalta, Ativan, and Propranolol. They all do different things. The Cymbalta eases my generalized anxiety, and it stays in my system around the clock. The Ativan (like a mild valium) I take a half hour before class (when I teach, up there in front of a room, with all those pairs of eyes staring at me), and it burns off in 4 hours. The propranolol I also take a half hour before class. It's a beta blocker. The Ativan keeps me from the mental anguish I tend to put myself through, and the beta blocker blocks the physical adrenaline response (so I don't sweat or shake or stammer). These also lose their effect after 4 hours. These medications have enabled me to continue my life as a normal person. People never know I have an anxiety disorder unless I tell them. And usually they're quite surprised.

A phobia can be a debilitating thing, and it's a genuine disability. Phobias that aren't treated also wind up leading to worse problems; for example, unchecked social phobia or panic disorder can lead to agoraphobia, in which a person is afraid to even leave their own house. So I'm glad my anxiety disorder is under control. But I'm still an introvert, and when I'm done teaching for the day, I usually have to de-stress a bit when I get home (I used to drink. That is no longer an option. Lately I paint or I play guitar or I read or meditate).

So here's how I am in reality: in face-to-face contact, if I know you really well and I'm comfortable with you and feel reasonably sure you won't judge me unfairly, I act like I truly am. I yap, I reveal my thoughts, I banter, I don't feel crushed when you disagree with me (I don't take it personally or as an insult). But if I don't know you, I am quite reserved. I'll be pleasant and make small chit-chat, but I won't be showing you my soul. I certainly won't do anything to invite confrontation. And I will probably leave the party early, because I'm an introvert: chit-chat is boring and interacting with people is exhausting. It's just how I am.

But then there's Facebook. Facebook is a different ball of wax altogether. On Facebook, I chatter on and off all day, freely posting tidbits I find funny, often criticizing political candidates, often engaging in conversations about issues, and sometimes, well..... sometimes, people fight. I've taken posts down before when the dialogue turned ugly (that has only happened a couple of times). And sometimes I swear I invite argument because I genuinely am interested in hearing how the opposing side views the situation. I may not end up being convinced, but at least then I can see where they're coming from. I am pretty damned gregarious on Facebook (and on this blog). What's the difference? I don't know. I guess there's enough distance between me and the people on the other end that my phobia doesn't rear its ugly head. Many are people I don't even know; they're people I simply play Facebook games with. And they're not really looking directly at me: they're looking at my WORDS. Even though I use my real name on Facebook, there is still an element of anonymity to it. So, I yabber away quite comfortably. What you see is what you get. I seem like a real extrovert. To some, I am funny; I'm a smart ass; I'm obnoxious; I'm witty; I'm snarky; I'm opinionated; I'm smart; I'm a bully; I'm intimidating; I'm a total asshole. I think it all depends on the person actually reading the WORDS. Their response is THEIRS. It has nothing to do with me.

Why I can't translate that over into my real life I couldn't say. Thus is the total irrationality of phobias.

But I do think there's an element of caring about another's judgment of me that is a piece of the puzzle. With my students, for example, I do care very much that they like me or at least respect me and that I'm being effective as a teacher. (With friends, that's not a worry: I know they already do, or at least would give me a fair hearing if our wires got crossed.) And that's where the "judged unfairly" part comes in, the part the psychiatrist who diagnosed me zeroed in on. My childhood was a series of unfortunate events I had no control over, and many of those things I was judged for (and judged unfairly, in my little child's mind). My mother killed herself; my father was cheating on her; some of the neighbors and members of our church judged our family harshly for that. Then my dad married my stepmother, who had her own psychological issues and was impossible to please (you know the type: I'd bring home all As and one B and be punished for the B. She could find fault in everything, even in little drawings I made to try to please her. Once she told me a drawing of mine was "a waste of good crayons.") We were also poor, so my brother and I wore unfashionable polyester pants from K-Mart and we weren't allowed to wear fresh clothing every day--I had to wear the same pants and same blouse several days in a row before I was allowed to put on fresh clothing. Naturally I became the target of bullies and "mean girls" at school. Even a friend once put a sticker on my back that said "You smell." I was mortified. And so on. I guess the criticism just piled up over the years, and I became afraid of everything. At least, that's what it felt like. I always felt like whatever I did, it would be wrong.

I was afraid to call Mass Transit for a bus schedule. I was afraid the operator would think I was stupid for having to ask. When I got my first car, I was afraid to pump gas. I was afraid the other people out there pumping theirs would think I was doing it wrong. You get the idea.

Then I turned 18, and there was alcohol. You can imagine the blessing it was. I could have a drink or two and then my fears would dissolve. I could speak my mind and not be afraid of what people thought. Under the influence, I didn't care what people thought. But I couldn't stay buzzed around the clock. (Though in later life, as I became more addicted to alcohol, I certainly made a good effort to do that.)

I came to be diagnosed because one day, I was approaching class and was suddenly hit with the worst panic attack I'd ever had. There was no particular reason this happened on that day; I was prepared for class and it was the middle of the semester, so I'd taught this group numerous times. But there it was, out of the blue. I couldn't catch my breath; I was perspiring; I felt like a big foot was pressing down on my chest. "I can't, I can't, I can't," kept running through my head. I went into class and told them I wasn't feeling well so class was canceled.

Teaching is my livelihood. I needed help. I was a graduate student at San Francisco State at the time, so I availed myself of the college's health center, and, after meeting with a psychologist for a few sessions, he sent me to the school's psychiatrist, who made the diagnosis fairly easily. They warned me about alcohol at the time since they could see I was abusing it, but that advice went in one ear and out the other. I was put on Paxil, which did nothing to help, so then I was switched to Ativan and Propranolol. That worked. Later on the Cymbalta was added to take off the edge over the course of the day and to even out my emotions.

I did have to sink more deeply into alcoholism before giving that up. The funny thing about alcohol is that, even though it served me many years as a social lubricant, once I crossed the line into consuming too much, that substance turned on me. Alcohol itself--particularly alcohol withdrawal--causes anxiety. So do the resulting blood sugar crashes. I can remember some truly awful hangovers where I would lie balled up in a fetal position in bed, under the covers, just wishing for death.

So, now, I'm finally alcohol-free, interacting with friends on Facebook, dealing with my social anxiety disorder in a healthier way, and pouring out my heart here. It's all good. But in some ways, I think I'm just now learning as an adult what extroverted people learn when they are young. I can speak my mind without being obnoxious about it. I can be forthright without taking off someone's head. And I need to become better aware of what my buttons are so that when someone inadvertently pushes one, I don't whip out the Word-Scythe and slash them down to size. Sometimes sarcasm isn't becoming, and it's not nice to make someone else look like an idiot.

If I have hurt you or offended you, I apologize. I'm still growing. I'm not actually an asshole; sometimes I'm just a child.

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