I know how it looks.
After school, as parents gather outside the classrooms, chatting casually in groups or waving and smiling to each other, I’m the weirdo hiding behind sunglasses, busily tapping away at my phone like a workaholic, wearing a slight frown of concentration on my face that I hope will discourage anyone from approaching me.
It’s not that I don’t like people. It’s just that when they talk to me, my body goes haywire. Some unsuspecting person says, “Hi, how are you?” and suddenly inside the control room in my head, there’s chaos. Tiny people in headsets shouting to each other, screens flashing situation updates, sirens blaring. It’s Def Con 1, folks! THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
This is what a random friendly encounter is like if you have social anxiety. Which I do. I’ve been at parties talking to people I love and enjoy when suddenly, I begin sweating so profusely I can feel drops of sweat running down my neck and pooling in my bra, as if rather than asking me about my kids, these people are grilling me for government secrets. It's tough to focus on pleasant banter when, like, 75% of your brain is concerned with whether or not the boob sweat will begin to show through your dress, so I often end up saying something like, “I have to go to the bathroom right now” and then bailing.
If I didn’t know me, I’d think: 1) that chick is antisocial, 2) she may have a bladder problem, and 3) it’s possible she ingested some sort of mind-altering fungus prior to coming here.
Social anxiety goes beyond the usual nervousness or excitement your average person experiences when meeting new people. This isn’t shyness. It is a condition that causes you to react to social interactions with abnormally high levels of anxiety. And here’s the weird thing – sometimes your brain isn’t even thinking about it. Your brain is totally cool, but your body thinks there’s a five-alarm fire happening somewhere and it’s pumping out life-saving levels of adrenaline. For no damn reason.
I've been to therapy, and I know all the nifty cognitive exercises to use to shepherd myself through such painful situations like talking to store clerks, attending meetings, and (ack!) phone calls. I even know that most people are not judging me and my giant sunglasses and my defensive phone-tapping because they are not thinking about me at all. Perhaps they are preoccupied with what to have for dinner, or their own boob sweat issues. Acknowledging this, though, does not change the fact that this is part of who I am and how I move through the world.
What helps is remembering not to condemn my twitchy self for the way I am wired.