You are surrounded by people. You do not know these people. They are as much as a stranger to you as you are to them. Yet here they all are, a bewildering expression of contentment pasted across each of their faces.
They talk animatedly and almost in unison with each other. Now and then they cast you a cursory glance and perhaps even a benign smile before returning to their own conversations. It is only with some thought that it dawns on you that you are the only person not saying anything to anyone.
This bothers you. However there is something else about the scene that does more in getting under your skin…
They are very happy.
Perhaps they’re even too happy.
Their burst of chatter seems to infiltrate every pore of your being. Laughter echoes loudly from their oblong shaped mouths.Harsh. Rasping. Shrieking. Guttural even. It seems to come both unexpectedly and for no other reason other than it can .
Now you’re really paranoid. So much so that you begin to believe that the only person not getting the joke is you.
Could it be you? Could it be at your expense that everybody else seems so happy?
It’s a ridiculous notion, but it is one that I often cannot help but buy in to whenever I feel the onset of anxiety wash over me.
My chest tightens, my palms get all sweaty and, well, if you suffer with any kind of anxiety disorder, you know the rest…
In short, an experience such as this one paralyzes you. It makes you wish that you were on some remote, far flung island with waves of water rolling gently across your feet and a soft breeze brushing against your cheek. Being alone with nothing but the forces of nature to act as your guide and comfort. It’s such an idyllic feeling. Like how a mother might caress her new born child, who,upon observing some form of danger, reacts the only way it knows how. It cries. It screams. It bellows as loudly as its miniature pair of lungs will allow.
No matter how old or wizened we might get, I firmly believe that this inner child still lives inside each of us, ready to run at the first sign of the unfamiliar and the new. For some this is something that can be handled with relative ease. For many others, myself included, it is a battle on a daily basis.
A battle that only ends in one victor…
The moment of truth…
So it all unfolded at a house party I was at a few months back. The scene is almost identical to the one mentioned above in fact. It doesn’t help that I’m seated on the edge of a fabric worn sofa. Like the house pet whose presence is tolerated on the condition that it remains silent and its needs go unheeded, I perch uncomfortably on its arm as the people around me gossip amongst themselves.
It’s not all bad news however. Piles of booze and other paraphernalia line the table situated just off centre to my designated seating. Some bottles of spirits are already halfway through their expiration (at 8pm no less!) and it showed. A packet or two of cigarettes, misplaced bottle openers and numerous tacky looking party fliers indiscriminately muddy its already unkempt surface.
Usually any transgression against the laws of order and cleanliness would bother me. Yet on this single occasion I am actually grateful to be within arms reach of the drink – it is only because of the stuff that I am inebriated enough to be able to ignore my heart pound against my chest and the quiver of my hands every time someone new walks in the room. I even manage to initiate conversation with a few of these people. Something that is almost unheard of for me in other circumstances.
But then it started.
That seeping, ugly feeling rises in my chest and makes my stomach curdle as the physical processes of my body are thrown into turmoil. This makes both my previous sense of calm and my resolve to stay in that room even weaker. It’s the sensation that are you sinking beneath it’s tumultuous throes and the feeling of utter futility that accompanies fighting against it that is the clincher.
Something was wrong with me. I had to get out. I needed to get out.
Like a mantra that would not cease , it banged repeatedly against the walls of my mind…
Then something unexpected happened.
You see, in between my internal bouts of panic, a small, yet determined voice cuts through this noise in my head like a hot knife does through butter. Imagine a stout looking professor who effortlessly projects his voice towards the back of the lecture hall despite his small stature. There is no strain to the voice. It is untainted by any excess emotion, bias and it has no hidden agenda to speak of.
It told me something important. Something very simple too. Do you know what it said?
‘It’s not you. It’s them. Look.’
You see, despite being unsuccessful at my attempts at social interaction, it was only when this rational side of me prevailed (a rare feat) that I realised a very simple truth – conversations really are a two way street!
It dawned on me that nobody in that room had really bothered to make the effort with me for the duration of the evening.
-The person who sat next to me was friendly enough. But not so friendly as to follow his friends outside for a smoke mid way through a conversation.
-Another decided that, as they were trying to speak to their friend with only me sat between the two, she’d (this was after a couple of unsuccessful attempts of initiating a conversation with said person myself) bypass me and sit on the chair perpendicular to her friend, treating me as indifferently as she would a piece of furniture that happens to be blocking the view of her a favourite daytime soap.
These are but a couple of examples of anti social behaviour that I experienced that evening.
So here’s the thing…
Just because a promising outing does not go according to plan, does not always make a bad social experience your fault. In fact, on a purely rational basis, a bad social experience that is a direct or indirect result of your anxiety can never be your fault, seeing as it is an illness.
Yet, I would be a massive hypocrite if I insisted that I always have this mindset.
I blame myself a lot for things that are beyond my control. Chances are that you do too.
This is a revelation that has been a long time coming. I am sure you would agree that enjoying a social event depends to some extent on the company you spend that time with. However, what if you don’t know a lot most the people there? On one hand, it could be a great opportunity for trying and testing your limits when it comes to socialising. On the other, just what can you do when all you get in return for your efforts are closed off answers and reluctant nods of acknowledgement?
This is a rather simple lesson I wish I had learnt a lot earlier. Sometimes I am so focused on the battle raging on in my mind that I neglect the fact that external factors play a role too. Namely, in this case, people who show little to no interest in making conversation with others outside their own friendship group.
Can I particularly fault them for that? Not really. I’d probably do the same thing in their shoes. Unless by some miracle I was feeling particularly anxious that night! Who knows. Perhaps some of them suffered with some anxiety issues themselves.
So this entry is not meant to be a witch hunt aimed at the sort of people I have referred to. Rather, it is meant to be a (if slightly overlong) reminder that it takes more than one person to make or break a social experience. A good one certainly does not happen when only one party is not fully invested in the conversation, regardless of what reasons lie behind their behaviour.
So I think it’s fair to say that for as much as anxiety can effect our lives in a myriad of incalculable ways, sometimes bad social experiences cannot be pinned down to just you and you alone.
After all, don’t we anxiety sufferers blame ourselves for enough?
Emotional support helplines:
Samaritans :116 123
Rethink Mental Illness advice line 0300 5000 927 (Monday to Friday 09:30-16:00; local rate)
Sane Line:0845 767 8000
Mind also has a useful guide of support and services, which can be found by clicking the link right here