Someone recently told me that they’ve enjoyed reading my NaBloPoMo posts where I respond to a daily prompt because it helps them get to know me better and makes them think.
That’s high praise. Inspiring people to think is pretty much the end goal for a blog (with occasional calls to action, of course.)
I’m wrapping up 3 consecutive months of daily blogging and in reviewing what I’ve written, I see I have put a lot of personal and difficult stuff out here along with blogging about things LGBTQ. Is that wise? Is it safe? Is it fair?
I don’t know. But while I’ve alluded to my disabled status and various elements associated with it, I haven’t really discussed my disability in great detail. I’m not going to do that now, but I am going to share one specific diagnosis that has emerged – social anxiety disorder.
In today’s Post-Gazette, reporter Mark Roth explores this stubborn, persistent diagnosis and the best practice treatment – exposure therapy:
If children don’t learn how to master their anxiety, it can have serious consequences later in life.
“People then build their lives around avoiding things that make them uncomfortable,” Columbia’s Dr. Schneier said. “They may choose a career that puts them in a back room and not in the forefront. They may be the helper or confidante rather than the leader, even though they might be more competent than that.
I was a very anxious child in a time when no one used that term. “What’s wrong with you?” is pretty much the way people responded to my random fears about everything from the dog being lonely to the car being haunted to the very real abuse I experienced at school. No one worried about the dog being lonely. They still went out to dinner.
Social situations are tough for me. I do worry about what can go wrong. And when something does go wrong – like a very unpleasant encounter with a server last night – it all comes flooding in to my mind. And if I don’t find a way to cut that off, I simply succumb to the anxiety and flee. Then it takes hours for my heart to stop pounding and the adrenaline to be reabsorbed. Exposure therapy isn’t easy by any means. And when you isolate yourself, you lose contact with the safe people and you get fewer invitations to do safe and comfortable things, things that build your resiliency to do other things. A vicious cycle.
I believe we have to talk about mental health, mental illness and our emotional well-being more openly. Or I should say *I* have to talk about it as part of my exposure therapy. For a long time, I just let people think I was generally nuts and irrational rather than talk about my actual diagnosis. I avoided (and continue to avoid) situations instead of asking people to do things that would be helpful to me.
I am disabled, but I am not incapable of making contributions to my family, friends and community. Even my nation. I am disabled, but I am not disturbed – I have an illness (or two) and I need accommodations to function and contribute, but I have something unique to contribute.
Social anxiety is hard to manage and painful even when managed. Here are a few tips on how you can be a supportive person to someone with SA:
- Make plans. If they say no, ask if an alternate plan is better. Dinner might be overwhelming, but perhaps coffee or a ice cream seems doable. If feels good to know you want to see me, not have me be your date on a preplanned outing.
- Assume the best. I will likely pull out my phone when I start to feel anxious and say something about waiting for an important text. I use my phone as a tool. Don’t assume I’m being rude.
- Maintain contact without pressure. If I don’t answer your phone call, send me an email or a text. If you need an answer for some reason, make that clear. If you are just saying “hi” I’ll respond, but perhaps not right away. Please don’t send me 10 FB messages if you see I’m online. I’ll just go off-line because that’s overwhelming.
- Ask. Part of exposure therapy is anticipating and planning my reactions. For example, I cannot stand for long periods of time in a crowd so when I attend a concert or performance, I make sure I get a seat. This might mean I need to arrive fairly early. If you tend to run late, this can cause some conflict. So ask if there’s anything you can do to support me. Another example is that I need water (for a different reason related to medication) so I will often ask the other person at the table to order a glass of water with their drink of choice so I don’t have to worry about running out. Ordering water and sliding the glass in my direction is a terrific way to support me without saying a word.
- Don’t give up.
So the spewing is part of the recovery process or the healing process or the get-through-the-damn-day process. The point of exposure therapy is not to cure the anxiety or the anxious feelings – it is to teach me that I can cope with them. I can go to a meeting and get past the awkward part to the part where I feel 100% in my zone if I use coping mechanisms for the awkward part. The awkward part never diminishes, it just becomes bearable.
“If an anxious person goes through treatment, instead of saying, ‘Oh no, I’m going to embarrass myself’ or ‘I’m going to faint,’ they say ‘This is what always happens and it’s uncomfortable but I know nothing bad is going to happen’ — so it encourages a cue to cope rather than to escape.”
We need to talk more openly about social anxiety and other disorders to help others have access to tools to cope.
I highly recommend this book “Anxiety Free” which you can purchase for about $12 or borrow from the library. It covers multiple types of anxiety disorders which can be very useful if you don’t neatly fit into one type of box (or try to understand the nuances of the DSM.) I find it useful to dip into when I need some reassurance and I find the tools simplistic which is actually very helpful.
Sometimes people use the term “differently abled” in lieu of “disabled.” I do have different abilities than many people, some related to my illness and some to my adaptive mechanisms, but I also think it is fine to acknowledge that I have some impairments. Mine are just invisible.
In 2014, I’ll be exploring this in more detail. I’ve already been called every slur-version of “crazy” over the past 8 years of blogging, most often by other LGBTQ people. I might as well put the truth out there to challenge that nasty conduct, conduct that hurts innocent people and bolsters a stereotype. The difference is that I finally see how I’ve been complicit it that by not challenging the bigotry and stigma.
Probably because I think I deserve it and that’s where I’ll pick up next year.