This is the seventh instalment. I will discuss social anxiety.
I’ve had social anxiety since I was young on and off. I struggled with school at times, and crowded places. As my stomach issues got worse before my Crohn’s diagnosis I struggled being anywhere overly crowded or away from a toilet. I had a very social life despite times where I really struggled socially. I wanted to be normal. I wanted to be a social butterfly. I went to church every Sunday and would do volunteer projects with the church. This felt safe because it was doing God’s work. I would pray if I felt anxious and I would feel better. During my teen years and early to mid 20s I performed on stage in pantomimes, operatic shows and in musicals. I was so social and even when I was younger I use to visit nursing homes and sing with my friends. I went on trips and holidays and had parties. To everyone who didn’t know about my anxiety I looked super confident.
Since the OCD hit rock bottom in December I experienced a social withdrawal like I never have before. I couldn’t see anyone other than my husband and health care professionals. I couldn’t speak on the phone, I deleted social media, and couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks. I struggled going to appointments. I couldn’t wait in any waiting rooms. There was a point I couldn’t leave the house. Doctors came to our house because the thought of stepping out into the world while I felt like I was going mad or must be an evil person stopped me from doing anything. I had thoughts such as, ‘If people know what I am thinking they’ll think I am crazy, What if they think I’m a threat? What if they know I am mentally ill? What if I have other thoughts? What if I get triggered? What if I have a panic attack? What if I’m judged?’. I had it in my head that people might just ‘know’ that I was seeking help for mental illness and the thought of people being afraid of me terrified me. I couldn’t see friends. I couldn’t say my thoughts out loud to myself, so I couldn’t say them to my friends. I wanted to confess everything to all my friends, I felt so guilty about my thoughts and wanted to tell them everything but knew I couldn’t so I withdrew and distanced myself from friends and family. I told my close friend about the first harm thought I had as it was about her and I was hysterical and just needed to confess I had this thought about her because I felt so awful, ashamed, guilty. I felt like I was hiding something by not telling her but then I felt like I was admitting something by saying it out loud. It was just a lose lose situation but I reasoned that if I didn’t tell her then I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. So I told her.
Once my thoughts moved from harm OCD to sexual OCD, I hit a new low I didn’t even know was possible. Just when I thought it couldn’t possibly get worse, OCD found a fear that was so distressing to me, it broke me. I couldn’t even say it out loud to my counsellor. I couldn’t say it to myself. I still now haven’t written it or talked about it in any detail yet, only to my counsellor and husband. Once I was able to come off the sedatives, I could sit in the armchair but I couldn’t move. I would only move to go to the bathroom that was it. I was stuck. I wanted to be around my family but also alone all at the same time. My counsellor said it was because I felt safe in the chair. Not a threat to anyone and less likely to be triggered if I didn’t engage in life. She’s right. The armchair became my safe zone. I knew if I stayed still in the armchair then I wasn’t a threat and triggers were less likely to happen. It took, I think three counselling sessions before I could move. From there I began engaging in life again.
I still struggle socially. I needed to take two of my sons to two different doctors appointments on the same day, one in the morning then back again in the afternoon. That was a lot of exposure in one day. At first it felt okay but as the doctor ran late, the waiting room filled up and I started getting increasingly more anxious. I could feel myself getting restless, and starting to sweat and kept looking at the clock counting the seconds, begging the screen to show my son’s name so we get out of this heaving waiting room. I also feel paranoid when I am out that people are looking at me and laughing or talking about me. I feel like maybe I am showing how anxious I am so I try to look as calm as possible. That evening I did have a panic attack. I felt overwhelmed by the day. I felt forced to have to be out in public in a busy waiting area twice before I was ready to do that, so I felt stressed and upset that it felt so difficult to just go out. Instead of looking at how well I did, at how calm I was despite the anxiety kicking in, to have taken my sons all by myself to their doctors appointments, even at one point having a conversation with a lady in the toilets while I changed my youngest, all I could focus on was the fact I was still anxious.
Last week I saw one of my closest friends in hospital. I knew I had to go. I had missed so much and couldn’t keep letting her down. I felt so nervous, I couldn’t sleep the night before and felt jittery all the way in. But I went. I went and I sat by her side and supported her. For the first time since this started in December I was there for my friend. That weekend I did a 5km run (Well mostly a run with walking at times to). I am not fit at all and I always said ‘I would never do a 5km run’. I needed to do something that I could control because I was sick of OCD controlling my life. I read that running was good for the mind and I was willing to give it a try. I struggled to keep eye contact with friends we knew there that were taking part to. At one point I had to lean forward to try and catch my breath as the crowds of runners gathered. My husband stayed by my side the whole time and at one point I wanted to quit. Through some tears I said to my husband, ‘I want to quit this but I won’t. I can’t control that I have OCD right now, but I can control whether I finish this 5km. I am in control of my body and I am going to finish this’. I finished it not quite last and was shocked I actually did it and in the snow. The Monday after the 5km (so last Monday), I broke my ankle walking in the woods and I had strangers holding my hands, comforting me, wrapping blankets around me and my OCD took a back seat during that time. Later that day a friend I haven’t seen in months dropped some beautiful flowers off, my favourites, and a card and stood in the hallway and had a chat before going. Then a massive step, the biggest step really, I had a close friend over for a play date and opened up to her about it all. I actually said the fear out loud and for the first time I didn’t cry or feel sick. I felt nervous yes, but I just said it. She didn’t judge me, she didn’t run away thinking I’m a monster. She understood. She knows about OCD and she really heard me and was so kind. How blessed I am to have such beautiful understanding friends with the biggest hearts and the kindest souls. Then today I had my other close friend over for a short while and again, I was met with nothing but love and compassion. I’m actually tearing up writing this because every time I let a friend in to what’s been going on, every time I say my fearful thoughts out loud, every time I write more about my OCD, every time I tell myself, ‘It’s not me – it’s OCD, these thoughts and feelings are a symptom of OCD…I feel this bothered by it so much because it’s a chemical imbalance in my brain that’s sending false messages and so I am going to do something else and I am going to revalue these thoughts and feelings as nothing but the nonsense they are, they are not real and I will work around them’…every time I do all these things I am stripping OCD’s power. I am winning. I am getting stronger. I still cannot be without my husband for long, I still cannot go to public places without feeling anxious, I still cannot go to the dentist even though I need to. There is still so much I need to work on but for now I am making steps and each time I do I am giving the finger to OCD!