Archive for August, 2010

Pain? No, it’s just a joke.

There’s a lot to hate about being me. But ignore that for the moment. Let me focus on my big problem – this wretched social anxiety thing.

I’ve said before that I hate the term social anxiety. I hate more than the term. I hate the problem. I hate how people look at it. I hate how it’s a joke.

Any kind of psychological or psychiatric illness suffers from a huge stigma. If you’ve got something in that family, it’s because you’re weak, or foolish, or stupid.

Social anxiety suffers from that in spades.

People hear “social anxiety”, and… they see it, at best, as a manufactured illness. It’s just shyness. It’s not a real illness. It was invented by drug companies to sell happy pills!

No matter where you turn, if you hear a mention of social anxiety, it’s always either a joke, or a rant about how pathetic people are nowadays  – they can’t even cope with being shy without needing to see a doctor!

Even among geeks… there are a lot of people with social anxiety among geeks. But no one will actually admit it. I’m hiding behind a pseudonym here! But even in this community where so many of us suffer from it… Look at artists who come from the community. Take Jonathan Coulton. He’s got a song about pill popping, and yup, social anxiety is one of the punchlines.

I’m struggling to try to overcome this illness. And it’s so damned hard, and it hurts so damned much. And to nearly everyone else, to nearly everyone who hasn’t been in a miserable pit of despair like this, to people who’ve never been trapped in this cage, it’s just a joke.



For a long time, I completely denied the reality of my problem. I insisted that I was just shy. Nothing wrong with me, nothing! I really convinced myself of that.

Now, after finally admitting that I’ve got this problem, and that it’s something real, when I look back at some things from my past, I realize that many of the stories I told myself, the things that I believed about myself, are completely wrong.

I believed that my whole social anxiety thing was better when I was in college. It really wasn’t. But I made excuses for some of the things that it caused. What’s strange about that is that the excuses are a whole lot worse than the reality.

When I first started college, I was an engineering major. I flunked out.

The story that I’ve believed for so many years is that the reason I flunked out was because I don’t think like an engineer.

But… looking back honestly? That’s not why I flunked out. It was a contributing factor… but the real cause? I skipped labs – because I was afraid of being in the lab with a bunch of strangers. I didn’t go to professors office hours – because I was afraid of interacting with the professors. I skipped the small-group recitations in the large-section classes, because in those sessions, I would have had to interact with my classmates.

Even in my non-major classes, I was getting terrible grades. Why did I nearly flunk a course in Arthurian Romance, when I’d already read every text we looked at in class? Because at my undergrad school, I had to take a bus from to get from my previous class to the lecture hall where that class was. And that bus frequently wasn’t fast enough to get me there on time – I’d be five minutes late to class. The professor was used to that, and generally didn’t even start on time, because so many people were straggling in. (It was the last normal class session of the day, so it was easy for him to just finish a few minutes late.) But… if I showed up five minutes late, I’d be the focus of attention from the other students when I walked in. So I just wouldn’t. If I couldn’t make it on time, I’d skip it. I ended up skipping two thirds of the lectures.

But I completely ignored that, and blamed my failure on my not being smart enough, not being good enough, not having what it took to be an engineer.

Part of that was the culture of the school. When I did flunk out, I was called into a meeting with the head-freshman dean of the engineering school, who literally gave me a lecture about how I was a failure who wasn’t good enough. He said engineers are special, they’re an elite group of really smart, really talented people – and I just wasn’t good enough to be one of them. No shame in that, you’re just not good enough.

Lovely guy, him.

But I thought he was an idiot even before that lecture. So I really can’t blame anything about what I believe on that. He certainly wasn’t a big influence on me or my beliefs. I believed it because it gave me cover for what I really didn’t want to admit.

Which is that, when it came to interacting with other people, I’m broken.

Back then, I was still someone who believed that people with psychological or psychiatric problems were weak. And I’d rather be a moron than admit to myself that I have that kind of weakness.

Looking back at it now, it seems so stupid. But that’s what I thought then, and that laid a crazy foundation for a lot of what I built into my image of myself.


Deep down, I don’t really believe that I’m ever going to get better.

The hell of it is that I’ve internalized so much of the pain and so much of the blame for the pain, that I blame myself for everything wrong with me. I really genuinely hate the person that I am. Every time something bad happens, it’s like there’s a little voice in my head saying “Ha! You deserved that, you rotten bastard!”

Intellectually, I can say that that’s ridiculous. I can say that I try to be a good person; that I’m loyal and kind to my friends; that I’m smart and successful at work. But that’s all intellectual. On an emotional level, I don’t really believe that.

I think that that’s a big part of my problem. I hate me. I see myself as some sort of monstrous freak. And so I expect everyone else to. I’m terrified of every encounter with people, because I’m scared that they’re going to figure out what I really am.

I know that that’s stupid. But knowing that it’s stupid doesn’t change its reality.

If that’s really what’s going on – if that self-hatred is really the root of the problem – then how can I get better?

And I wonder where it came from. I was abused, terribly, in high school. Beaten, mocked, humiliated, on a daily basis. Every day, year in, year out. Did I learn to accept the mockery and humiliation as truth? I didn’t think so at the time, but now I wonder. That’s how it seems. The things that I blame myself for, the bits of myself that I hate, the things I do, the things I think, the things I see that trigger the worst of that self-hatred – they’re all things that I was tormented about in those terrible times.

How do I go about getting that out of my brain? I wish I knew. I wish I believed that I could.

But I’m a geek. And the way I understand this whole phenomenon is in terms of debugging. We’re trying to debug my mind. But as a geek, I know that some programs are so screwed up that they can’t be debugged. When you’ve got one of those, you either have to live with it and all of its bugs, or you have to throw it away and start from scratch to replace it. I can’t throw away my mind.

A Subway Thought Study

August 24, 2010 1 comment
One of the main things that I’m doing as a part of my therapy right now is an exercise. I’m learning to analyze my own reactions to the social situations that make me uncomfortable. My doctor has a worksheet that I’m supposed to fill out as soon as possible after an incident. I don’t try to do it every time I feel any kind of anxiety; I’d be spending all of my time doing nothing but filling them out! But I try to do at least one each day.
The form has four sections:
A set of checkboxes. I’m supposed to say what
I’m feeling (anxious, sad, guilty, angry, …), and how intensely I feel it.
A quick in-the-moment description of the situation. No judgements here:
just the facts.
Automatic Thought
Exactly what was I thinking? Here I’m supposed to start by just
writing, in the moment, what I was feeling. Then I’m supposed to pick
it apart: how much did I really believe what I was thinking at the time,
and now, looking back at it after, how much do I believe it?
What did I do? What were the results of what I did?
We’re very early in the process, so that’s all we’re doing now. I assume that we’ll eventually get into something like attempting to think about alternative things I could have done, or something like that.

For example, yesterday, I was riding the subway on my way home from work. I was wearing a very geeky shirt. It said /(bb|[^b]^{2})/. That’s a geek joke; it’s “To be or not to be” written in a programming language. Some guy on the subway saw my shirt, and complimented me on the shirt, and said something about “I bet not many people outside of your office understand that!” He was being friendly. There was nothing mocking about it – just another geek sharing the joke.

  • So how did I feel?
The main thing? fear; not terribly severe fear, but definitely frightened. On a 1-100 scale, probably between 30 and 40. After the fact, sadness; again, somewhere in the mid thirties in intensity. After all, this guy was trying to be friendly, and I didn’t know how to respond in a way that would show that I appreciated the gesture.
  • What was I thinking?
How am I supposed to answer? What am I supposed to say? What does he expect from me? Should I just say “yeah, true”? Is that enough? If I say the wrong thing, what will he think of me? If I say anything, I <em>know</em> it will be the wrong thing. Anything I do is going to be the wrong thing. I’m absolutely, 100% sure that I’m going to do the wrong thing.
  • What did I do?
Initially, I froze. All of those thoughts were running through my head, and that took up pretty much all of my brainpower at the time. So I froze, with a blank stare on my face for a couple of seconds. He definitely noticed that weird blank stare – he had a sort-of concerned look on his face. And then I sort of nodded my head and smiled, said I was OK, and then turned away in embarrassment. Basically, I made myself look like an idiot. Not really because of anything I actually chose to do, but because of the way that I didn’t react because my mind was so busy racing with panic about needing to decide how to react. I created a self-fulfilling prediction about my own behavior.

Dreaming of Normality

August 22, 2010 3 comments

Having severe social anxiety (god, how I hate that term!) has caused me all sorts of problems. But the one that really upsets me most is that I have no friends, and no social life.

I  would dearly love to be someone who actually had friends that I could actually spend time with.  In real life, I don’t. There are people that I know online who I really value, but there is a difference between a friendship that only exists through the mediation of a computer screen, and a friendship that exists in real life. Some of my best online friends, I don’t even know their real names. I wouldn’t be able to identify them if I walked past them on the street.

And, most importantly, the sad fact is, if the people who I consider my friends online were to meet me in real life, not only would they not become my friends in the flesh, they’d most likely wind up not even being my friends online.

That’s not because there’s anything wrong with them. I don’t mean to suggest that they’d turn out to be awful people. They’re people who I genuinely care about deeply, and who I fully believe are terrific people.

The problem is all mine. Not that I’m a terrible person.  But because I’m so damned scared when I meet people that I manage to appear to be either distant, cold, and unfriendly; or manically insane. If I’m really me, I can’t even talk. I just fade in the background. Why would anyone want to hang out with someone who’d just spends their time hiding from the person they’re supposed to be hanging out with? But if I don’t hide, the only way I can cope is by basically pretending not to be me. And because that’s so damned hard, I wind up acting like a crazy person. I just don’t even know how to be normal.

I recently had two different online friends try to make arrangements to do something together in person. I turned both of them down. Not because I don’t want to meet them. I really do. But I know myself well enough to know that if I were to take them up on the offer, I’d end up regretting it.

I’m going through this painful process of therapy to try to get over this. But honestly, I have a very hard time believing that there’s any real chance it will work.

I don’t know who I’d be without this. This problem is such a part of me, it’s so deeply ingrained, that I can’t imagine what it would be like to live without it. I’m trying, I really am. It’s hard, and it’s painful – but I’m trying. But when I stop and honestly look at myself, and ask: do I really believe that I’m going to be able to change, to become a person who’s capable of having friends, of having a happy social life? No. I don’t really. I don’t really believe that it can happen.

A Slice of Life

It’s hard for me to talk about the things that are so difficult for me in everyday life. It often seems like utterly trivial of things are insurmountable barriers. I don’t understand how normal people do things. To me, they’re both terrifying and utterly impossible.

Today at work, I went to run an errand. On my way back, I stopped off at the kitchen to get a cup of coffee. All of the other members of my group were there having coffee and talking.

These are the people who I see and interact with every day. And if I had been at my desk when they went, they probably would have invited me to come along. But there they all were, chatting and laughing. I grabbed my coffee and slinked away.

I wasn’t invited. Even if they probably would have invited me, I couldn’t just push myself into their group. They didn’t invite me. And while I knew that that wasn’t personal, I still couldn’t do it. Because they didn’t. And because they didn’t, just the thought of joining them, even now, hours later, is enough to make me feel sick.

I don’t understand this at all. But understand or no, it’s part of my life, and I’m stuck with it.

I really hate being me.

Blame, Responsibility, and Guilt

As anyone reading this has doubtlessly figured out by now, guilt is a major issue for me. I’ve got my problems, and it’s bad enough that they hurt me. But they reach out beyond me, and manage to hurt people I care about, too, like my wife and my kids. And I sometimes have a really hard time coping with that. It’s really awful when I see the effects that my screwups have on them. They’re innocent; they had no part in anything that happened to me; they have no reason to be stuck dealing with my trouble. But they do get stuck with it.  It’s a constant cause of pain and concern – and most of all, of guilt.

But as I work on trying to fix myself, as I get treated for my troubles, one of the things that I’m being forced to do is confront my fears, to face up to them. I have to learn to not just react in the moment, but to dig into myself, and see why I react that way. I need to understand what makes me fear, what causes my anxiety. And that has led me to wondering about causes and responsibility, whether or not they really exist, and whether or not they really matter. Are my troubles my fault? Are they someone else’s fault? Does it really even matter?

Life sometimes intervenes in ways that help make things clearer.

I got an email yesterday. I don’t know how the sender found my address. But it was a guy I went to high school with. He heard about where I work, and wanted to know if I’d help him get an interview. It’s a very friendly email. He calls me “old buddy”, and reminisces about the good times we had together in high school.

Good times? Is he serious? Good  times??

This is a guy who tackled me on the way to a football field in gym class – just for the fun of being able to hit me. In the fall, I sprained my wrist – and for the duration of the time I needed to wear a brace, he proudly referred to it as his brace, because I was wearing it because of what he did to me. He was really proud of it: Hurrah! he’d injured a geek!

Yeah, good times.

I feel guilty about the indirect harm I do to my family because of my anxiety. But there is a reason that I’m like this. And there are people to blame for it. And… they don’t care. They either don’t remember it, or they think that torturing another person, deliberately, for fun, is such a trivial unimportant thing that it just doesn’t matter: “Sure, I used to beat you up. Sure I used to torment you on a regular basis. But it was all in good fun! Now help me get a job!”

In the long run, it doesn’t matter. Whether or not my problems were caused by what others did to me is ultimately unimportant. Because they can’t fix it. There’s only one person in the world who can fix me – and that’s me. I don’t know if I can, but I’m trying. But damn it, I wish that the tormentors could, at the very least, feel a little bit guilty. That someone who abused me could acknowledge that what they did to me was wrong. It wouldn’t undo any of the damage; it wouldn’t make it any easier to work through the process of trying to mend my scars. But it might just do a little bit to restore my faith in humanity.

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