Facing Down Our Social Unease - Is It Possible?

John McManamy Health Guide
  • HeyJude writes:

    If I had the choice to rid myself of either bipolar or social anxiety, social anxiety would win hands down.  No question about it.

    HeyJude comes in loud and clear: The mood swings may play havoc with her life, but it’s her fear of people that is cutting herself off from the real world. Practically all of us with bipolar experience crippling isolation in one form or another. It may be a full-blown clinical condition such as the social anxiety experienced by HeyJude. It may be our depressed minds telling us to stay in bed. It may be our legitimate fear of having to negotiate an unpredictable world with an unpredictable brain.

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    HeyJude relates how her mom informed her she would grow out of her shyness. I hear you, HeyJude. It brings back old memories, lots of them. It’s like those dreams everyone has of showing up in public in just their underwear, only it’s real - you are living that dream, exposed, having to face your peers every day - day in, day out - in nothing more than the equivalent of your dream underwear.

    HeyJude was responding to last week’s Question of the Week, Overcoming Your Social Unease. In my lead-in to the question, I mentioned how the night before I acted as quizmaster to a quiz night I put together as part of our local NAMI annual holiday pot luck. My performance was extremely incongruent in a life that has involved long periods of isolation. In a memoir I am working on, I ask the question: “Who am I? Am I the six-year-old kid who wasn't afraid to ride a bull (okay, a steer), or that skinny nerdy 12-year-old dreading to get on the school bus?”

    These days, I am able to tap into my inner six-year-old, but, trust me, that fearful 12-year-old is my true baseline. As HeyJude reports:

    In high school, I made deals with my teachers to avoid speaking in front of class. One example: Five written reports instead of one oral report. If I couldn't deal, I'd simply skip class or take a failing grade. A while back, a friend encouraged me to join Toastmasters.  After three weeks, when it way my turn to give a presentation, I dropped out and never went back. My social anxiety was speaking loud and clear.

    HeyJude’s breakthrough occurred when she joined a bipolar support group. Her first month was extremely uncomfortable, then she began interacting with the people around her. I had a similar sense of being an outsider when I walked into my first support group back in 1999, though I was decidedly less hesitant about joining in. The big breakthrough for me came three years later when I started facilitating a support group. There I was in the hot seat, 17 or 18 pairs of eyes pointed in my direction.

    My first 10 or 12 sessions wrung me dry. But the sink-or-swim nature of my weekly ordeals forced me to pick up new people skills. With my new skills, I became more relaxed, less fearful. After awhile, it was as if the group were running itself. I was on my way.

    My next big breakthrough came when I did a series of speaking and media engagements when my book, Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder, came out four years ago. Take my word for it, once you stand up in a strange room in front of 100 strangers who have turned out for no other reason than to hear you talk - trust, me, everything else after that is easy.

  • It’s the simple things, the small things, the things the whole rest of the world takes for granted, I find most satisfying. Things such as: Ordering a medium black coffee to go without my throat constricting into paroxysms of fear as I place my order. Things such as: Smiling to the person taking my coffee order. Things such as: Wishing the person who took my coffee order a very nice day, in a voice that sounds like I mean it.

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    The small things: Being able to introduce myself to the stranger next to me without my voice going up two octaves, making the stranger feel comfortable, finishing our conversation no longer strangers.

    Over time, the small things add up to big things - meaningful connections, a sense of belonging. But I don’t kid myself. I’m still that scared 12-year-old, and any day, any second, I know, that fearful but very brave boy may reassert himself. Occasionally, he does, and it’s a very useful reminder - of how far I’ve come, and how far, still, I have to go ... 

Published On: December 11, 2010