You might see me on the school run, head down, face set, eyes resolutely avoiding contact.
You may notice that if we cross paths in town, I will take out my phone and busy myself rather than stopping for a chat.
If you do happen to engage me in conversation, you will likely pick up on the fact that I will just about answer your questions but rarely ask how you are in return.
Socially, you may note that I look unapproachable and like I would really rather be anywhere else than where I am, even if it happens to be your birthday/hen party/some other celebration.
You will realise that sometimes I just won’t show up if you invite me out. I won’t always even give you advanced warning.
Quite quickly, you will get the sense that I am, simply, astonishingly rude.
It’s fine; you won’t be the first person to have thought this.
But you, like they, will be wrong.
Attitude doesn’t come into it; I’m far too busy trying to temper the anxiety that is coursing through me, turning my brain to mulch so that I am unable to hold a coherent conversation even when I try.
If I go out of my way to avoid you, it’s almost always because I really want you to like me but I am useless at interaction and avoidance is preferable to actual humiliation.
When we talk, I will be spending the majority of the time wracking my brains for something intelligent to say whilst simultaneously trying to stop myself passing out as my heart attempts to break out through my chest at my sheer audacity of trying to make a friend. My failure to ask how you are or anything else is merely due to the invasion of social anxiety on all my vital organs, squishing them, restricting blood flow to them. As soon as we part, be assured that a thousand questions will immediately fill my brain to bursting and I will realise just how rude I must have appeared, to not have thought to ask one of them whilst you were actually beside me.
Socially, yes, I will doubtless be having a terrible time. I will have spent the preceding days (or weeks, depending on the occasion) in a higher-than-usual state of anxiety at the prospect of having to leave the safety of my house to go and be sociable. Any hint of formality will increase my anxiety tenfold as will knowing people I’ve yet to meet will also be in attendance and therefore a whole new group of individuals will be on hand to witness my startling ineptitude at being alive. It doesn’t matter that it’s your special occasion – social anxiety does not, in my (sadly vast) experience, discriminate. After a few drinks, I will mellow to the point where I will be able to enter and exit the room without succumbing to a panic attack and I may even try to engage you in conversation, if I am not so wracked with guilt that I have to rely on vast quantities of vodka to be able to function socially.
I will often duck out of social events, that’s just how it is at the moment. I have hope that this will change, if I find the magical combination of meds and CBT that works for me. I will turn things down and back out at the last minute but I will always beat myself up about it for a long time afterwards. I still feel physically sick about an event I couldn’t force myself to go to last summer. And I will always worry about the effect my refusal to partake in social situations has on potential friendships.
If, on the behalf of all social anxiety sufferers, I can ask one thing of our friends and acquaintances it is this: please be patient and please be persistent. We realise that we are hard work but, generally, we want to do better.