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Intervention

September 30, 2010 Leave a comment

One of my children just recently started middle school. That’s the same age where my troubles really started, so I was already somewhat on edge watching what would happen.

What watching it brought back frankly surprised me.

Deep down, I’ve always believed that my real problems stem from the things that happened to me in school. And I also believe that there was no reason for any of it to happen. That if someone, anyone in a position of responsibility had bothered to do anything, if anyone had cared the slightest bit, that all of the torture I endured could have been stopped before it ever really started.

And watching my kid, that appears to be true.

The first week of school, one nasty kid started abusing mine. We contacted a guidance counselor at school. His reaction was to immediately say “That kind of behavior not tolerated at our school”, and to start taking action in multiple ways. The offending kid was disciplined; a group of children including (but not limited to) the kids who were passive participants were contacted gently and spoken to; my kid was brought in to talk to the counselor, who’s working with her on how to respond when someone acts like that.

The school’s new principal also gave a short introductory talk at the back-to-school night where we went to meet the teachers. In it, he said something like “As I see it, my job is to ensure that this school is a place where you children can come to learn. That means that when they come here, it’s my job to ensure that they’re safe – both from threats that come from outside the school and threats that come from inside the school.”

It impressive just how little effort it takes. This kind of trouble needs to be taken seriously – but if you really are serious about it, if you actually care, it doesn’t take much effort.

Watching this makes me really, really angry. Not that my kid is getting taken good care of. But because it proves that I was right all along. That if someone had cared, if someone had been willing to spend just a little bit of time doing their job, that I could have been spared so much pain, so many years of disfunction.

Why couldn’t any of the schools that I went to have thought about something like that? Why didn’t anyone ever stand up and say “We can’t let children in our school be beaten and abused”? Why didn’t anyone in authority ever both to try to protect me?

Here it is, 25 years after I graduated from high school – and I still have flashbacks of what was done to me. And it all could have been stopped right where it started, if only anyone had cared. But no one did. And the only one who was actually hurt by their lack of concern was me.

Categories: Retrospective Tags: , ,

Bravery

September 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Before I started getting treatment, I talked to some on-line friends about what I should do.

I’ve suffered from social anxiety for a really long time. It’s something around thirty years that I’ve been dealing with it. Even if you distinguish between my experiences as a kid, and my trouble as an adult, it’s been twenty years since I graduated from college, and this anxiety trouble has plagued me in every job, every interaction in those years.

Once I finally decided to try to get treatment, people keep telling me about how brave I am to admit that I have this problem, and to do something about it.

I hate that.

The main reason I hate that probably isn’t what you’d expect. Like a lot of people with emotional troubles, I don’t take compliments very well. I’ve got a very negative self-image, and it’s very hard for me to reconcile nice things that people say about me with what I believe about myself. My gut reaction to most compliments is to believe that the complimenter is either deluded or lying.

But that’s not why I dislike it when people say that I’m brave to get treatment.

I’m not brave, I’m desperate. That might not seem like a big difference, but it really is. If people had told me that I need to be brave in order to get treatment, I never would have been able to do it. As it was, I was barely able to call the doctor to make an appointment the first time. The only way that I managed to do it was literally to program the doctors number into my phone through my Gmail contacts, so that I didn’t actually have to dial it! I just had to press one button.

Facing up to doing something about a problem like this, about something that has been a dominant factor in my life for so long – it’s hard. It’s painful. And it’s frightening. It’s really, really scary.

I don’t feel brave. I feel scared, and sad, and frustrated. I feel like a coward who’s been hiding from the world for most of my life. It doesn’t matter whether or not that’s true. What matters is that that’s what I feel, and that those feelings are what I needed to fight through in order to try to get help.

When you say that someone who does manage to ask for help is brave, I can’t help but think that you’re making it more scary. When you tell me that I’m brave, I think that you’re telling other people who see/hear the conversation, who have the same problem, but who haven’t yet taken the step of getting treatment that if they want to get help, that they are going to need to be brave in order to do it. And that’s just raising the barrier, making it harder for them to take the first step.  At least for me, there’s a huge element of self-loathing to my social anxiety. I don’t have a good opinion of myself. When I think about a positive attribute like bravery, I just can’t make myself believe that I’ve got anything like that. It’s part of the problem that I need help with.

It doesn’t take bravery to get help. It takes need. If you need the help, you can find a way to work around your fear, and get it. It doesn’t take bravery.

Like I said, I had trouble calling the doctor to schedule an appointment. I literally couldn’t dial the number. I couldn’t get through it. I couldn’t push the correct 10 digits on my cellphone. So I took the email where my internist sent me  the name and number of the therapist, and cut-and-pasted them into a contact in gmail. Then I synced the contacts with my phone. And then the number was there – and all I needed to do was tap the doctors name in my contact list, and the phone dialed.

Even so – the first time I got the doctors answering machine, and managed to leave a message without including my phone number.  It wasn’t consciously deliberate, but I think that sub-consciously, that I didn’t want to leave my number, because that made it inevitable that she’d call me back. I had to call again the next day to actually leave a message with my number.

That’s not the behavior of a brave person. That’s the behavior of someone who’s desperate for some help. You don’t need to be brave to get help – you just need to understand that you need the help.  Adding bravery into the equation, making that into something necessary to be able to get help, it just makes it that much harder – because it makes you need to not just overcome your fear, but it also takes the self-loathing, and props it up as yet another barrier to be overcome.

What it feels like

September 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Two posts in one day, amazing.

I was just sitting and musing on this stuff, when I realized that there’s a great way of describing just how I feel.

For me, anxiety is focused on initiating contact. Once I’m talking to someone, I’m mostly OK. If you ask me a question, I can respond without any problem. And once you’ve started talking to me, you probably wouldn’t notice that my behavior is at all unusual. But initiating contact is what kills me.

So… to get a sense of what it feels like…  you’re watching a horror movie. And the hero,  for some incredibly stupid reason, decides  that instead of doing something smart like calling the polices, he’s going to go, alone and unarmed, into the dark basement where the killer is hiding. And the camera follows him down the stairs, tension building, the music playing a dissonant thrumming chord ever louder, and you know that at any moment, the killer is going to jump out of the shadows with a knife? You know that tense feeling, that horrible, anxious, sensation where all of your muscles are tensing up, because you know what’s coming?

That is exactly the feeling I get when I need to start talking to someone. Except that I don’t have the distance that it’s happening to someone else, someone imaginary on the screen. Even though intellectually, I know that nothing bad is going to happen, that tension, that wiring of the nerves, that anxiety, that certainty that something awful is about to happen, that the idiot needs to get the hell out of there – that’s what I’m feeling.

Categories: Social Anxiety

Working with Social Anxiety

September 21, 2010 Leave a comment

I’m going to try to stop being quite so whiny here.

Working through therapy for social anxiety is really difficult. And it seems like it gets worse before it gets better. Part of the therapy is just becoming aware of the fear, and how it affects me in my daily life. The bad side of that is that it forces me to recognize just how much it’s affected pretty much every aspect of my life. There’s virtually nothing that I do, from the time I get up in the morning, until I go to sleep at night that isn’t affected. In fact, even sleep isn’t immune: even in my dreams, the anxiety affects me. I knew that my anxiety had a huge effect on my life – but even I wasn’t really aware of just how huge that effect was. And now, I’m becoming conscious of it – and feelings of anxiety that were bubbling beneath the surface are now getting my attention – and my attention makes me feel them more intensely.

A big part of the reason that I’ve been freaking out so much lately is, as I said, it seems like things get worse before they get better. That’s difficult. But it’s had a serious effect on my work – which just adds an additional stressor.

I’ve always tended to work by myself. In my last job, I ended up gravitating towards projects where I could mostly do things by myself. I always blamed that on the fact that my area of specialization was something that was very highly valued by management, but wasn’t particularly well-respected by my coworkers. That’s true, but I think that I also was finding ways of being even more withdrawn and solitary than can be explained by that.

In my current job, being solitary isn’t an option. It’s just not the way that we do things in my company.

I was the technical lead of my last project, and it crashed and burned. I don’t think that that was my fault: there were problems in the project that pre-dated my involvement, and I don’t think that even if I had the best social skills in the world, that there’s anything I could have done to salvage it. But I think that my lack of social skills did have an effect on the aftermath. I think I wound up catching a lot of the blame, simply because my side of the story never got heard. People didn’t know what I did; they weren’t aware of how hard I worked to try to fix things – because I never talked to anyone except my immediate coworkers.

In the aftermath of that, my manager’s manager basically said that my performance was lousy, and that he couldn’t justify asking any other project to take me on. This was a total shock to me, because up until then, I thought that I had a pretty decent track record. Sure, the last project was a mess: but I’d done some great, important, valuable work on my previous projects! Except that, once again, no one knew that I’d done it. I built a tool that was used by hundreds of other engineers. But the tool had been promoted by my coworker, who’d been mentoring me on the project – and so this manager had assumed that he did it.

So I was very lucky to get the chance to move into my current project, and I came on board under a shadow. And it’s a very tough job. We’ve got a huge and critically important codebase, which we took over from another group. We need to refactor it – to take what is currently one large, highly interconnected system, and split it into two smaller, independent systems with a well-defined interface. And we don’t have time to understand all of the details of how it works! So we need to treat parts of it as black boxes, and do the refactoring around the edges of those boxes. It’s the kind of software development and maintenance task that gets very little attention, no glamour, but which is incredibly important and highly challenging. (And, frankly, it’s actually fun, precisely because it’s so challenging.)

Alas, nothing is ever simple when you’ve got severe anxiety trouble. I tend to spend a lot of time puzzling through things where just asking a coworker for help would be much, much faster. We each know parts of the system pretty well – when I get caught dealing with one of the parts I know less well, what I should do is just talk to the guy in the next desk over. But to do that, I’d have to interrupt him and ask him a question. And for me, that’s terrifying. Even though I know him; even though most days I eat lunch with him; even though we talk comfortably when he initiates a conversation; when I need to ask something, I’m crippled by fear.

And so, I don’t ask. I just take three times as long to do anything as I should.

Frankly, this is the biggest thing that I need to work on. It’s a lot more important than talking to clerks in a store. And it should be easier, because it’s someone I know. But it isn’t, and I think I need to understand why that is.

What if I can’t?

September 17, 2010 1 comment

The further I get into my therapy, the more hopeless I feel. I want to get past this horrible fear that’s dominated so much of my life. But I can’t do it. The things that my therapist is asking me to do are so simple, so trivial – and yet, I’m absolutely paralyzed at the thought of doing them.

It’s not that she’s pushing me too hard. We spent a total of a couple of hours over the span of multiple sessions working out a ladder – that is, a list, from easy to hard, of the different kinds of situation that trigger my fears. And we’re starting with the easiest one that I could come up with. There’s no easier first step. And yet, I can’t do it.

In my last post, one commenter asked something about what kind of example I’d be setting for my children if I give up.

I don’t know. I don’t want to teach my kids to give up when things get hard. But I also really believe that there are some things that we can change, and some things that we can’t. No matter what happens with my therapy, I’m never going to stop being shy or introverted. Those are just basic parts of how I’m put together as a person. I can’t decide to stop being introverted. It’s a fact, not a choice.

I want my children to understand that we don’t get everything we want. That to got through life, you need to be able to be realistic, set realistic goals, and be happy with what you can achieve.

I’m not arguing against being ambitious. But we don’t always get to decide how things will turn out. We don’t gain anything by denying the existence of the limits that reality puts on us. If my son were to decide that he wants to be a professional linebacker in the NFL, he’s going to be disappointed. It doesn’t matter how much he wants to do it – he doesn’t have the right sort of body for it.

I don’t want to teach my children that they need to aspire to some kind of arbitrary goal, and torture themselves if they can’t get there.

All that my therapist is asking me to do is to find an excuse to walk into a couple of stores on my way to work, and ask someone who works there a question. Just a simple question, like “where can I find the toothpaste?”

And I’m absolutely sick at the thought of doing that every day. I can’t face it. It’s pathetic, but I can’t. And when I say sick, I’m not being figurative. I’m giving myself migraines every day from the stress of it.

And if I can’t even do something that small, that simple – how is it remotely possible that I’ll ever defeat this wretched anxiety?

Is this just an inescapable part of who I am? How long do I keep doing this to myself before I can conclude that it’s not going to work?

Why fight?

September 12, 2010 2 comments

Right now, I’m sitting inside my house hiding, while the neighborhood block party happens on the street in front.

I hear the children shouting. I hear the adults talking and laughing. I smell the food cooking. And I would love, so much to be a part of that.

But I can’t. I can’t even walk out the door. And so I sit here, writing a blog that no one reads, missing something I’ve never really had. How pathetic is that?

Human beings are social animals. We’re wired by evolution to need to be part of a group. We build communities, not just because we want them, but because we need them. But what about someone like me, who doesn’t know how to join a community? Who’s afraid of it?

I’ve spent almost my entire life on the outside looking in. I’m jealous, so very jealous, of virtually everyone else. It seems like everyone but me knows how to find a community, to find friends, to find people that they can connect with. I just sit and watch, and feel horribly jealous.

Am I ever going to get better than this? I really doubt it. I can’t even imagine it. And after a couple of months of therapy, what progress have I made? None that I can see. I’m fighting, but it seems like I’m losing the battle. Why keep pissing away time money and pain on fighting this? It’s not going to change. I’m not going to change. Maybe it’s just time to give up fighting, and accept that this is what I am. I hate it, but if it’s the truth, what good is fighting it? What can it possibly bring  me except even more pain?

Don’t be a “nice guy”

September 4, 2010 1 comment

When I went to college, for the first time, I actually had friends. In fact, for my last two years, I had one group of friends who were the first, and frankly only group of people where I’ve ever really felt like I fit in. Of course I still had my awkward moments – but they accepted me. I can’t say how much that meant to me. I’d never had that before, and I’ve never really had it since.

And then, a new girl joined the group. And I thought that I’d fallen for her. This began something that I’m now terribly ashamed of. But I think it’s worth talking about.

See, I was a “nice guy”. And I did all of the “nice guy” things. And let me tell you – “nice guys” are not nice guys. Knowing what I know about what was going through my head, and what I said about it at the time, I now look at people who claim to be “nice guys” but who can’t get dates, and I despise them. Because I know what’s going through their heads. I’ve been there. I thought those things, and I said those things, and Ibelieved those things. But the problem is, what you think, what you say, and what you believe don’t matter if they don’t match what you do.

I became absolutely obsessed with her. I was convinced that we were meant for each other. I did all sorts of crazy stuff for her. Multiple all-nighters helping her finish her assignments – even though I’d never done an all-nighter for myself. Buying her things she needed, driving her ridiculous places, just because I wanted to do things for her. Cooking meals for her. Writing really bad poetry. And so on.

We were absolutely inseperable. Except that she refused to date me. And I was so upset. Damn it, I was doing all of this stuff for her! I was spending money I didn’t have to do things for her! I was letting my own schoolwork slide to help her!

So I got angry, and we had a huge fight, and she didn’t want to have anything to do with me anymore. But I couldn’t accept that. I kept trying to see her, sending her letters, calling her, talking to her friends, etc.

Here’s the problem with all of that. I wasn’t doing things for her because I really cared about her and wanted to help her. I was doing things for her because deep down, my view of her was as a thing that I was buying with my efforts, not as a person who I was helping. I didn’t know what was going on in her head, and I didn’t really care. I believed that I cared. But… belief isn’t reality. I didn’t really care. I was upset because I thought that she owed me something. She was like a candy machine: I’d put in my money, and now, damn it, I wanted my candy bar. I didn’t think of it that way, of course. In my mind, I was a nice guy who was crazy about her, and who’d done so much for her, and it just wasn’t fair that she was interested in other guys, but not in me.

That’s the truth behind the facade of the “nice guy”. A “nice guy” is a man who believes that deserves something from women, regardless of what they think or feel. Women owe him because he’s been so nice to them.

So she cut me off. Completely. And I was almost hysterical for a while. How could she do that? To me, who’d done so much for her?

Some mutual friends sat me down and gave me a good talking to. I was being crazy, I was practically stalking her, I needed to pull back, get my shit together, and move on with my life. This talk accomplished absolutely nothing at the time, except that it planted a seed in the back of my mind.

The school year ended, I graduated, and left for grad school. A year passed, and I gradually gave up on getting her to talk to me again. The next year, my next door neighbor in my grad-school apartment was dating a guy that I got to be friends with. He was a really nice guy. But I couldn’t quite figure out his relationship with my neighbor. They were together a lot, but… he’d say things about her when she wasn’t around that just didn’t make sense. I mean, I’m this pathetically shy guy who barely talks to anyone… but I knew things about his girlfriend that he didn’t! He didn’t know much of anything about her! How could that make any sense?

She eventually dumped him, and he did start stalking her. And the things he was saying as he was stalking her? They were exactly the same things that I’d said a year or two earlier. (Except, thank goodness, I’d never reached quite his level of insanity.)

Seeing that, frankly, scared the crap out of me. And the seed that had been planted by my old friends started to sprout. I realized how awful I’d been. I realized how much I’d objectified her. I realized how much I’d tormented her.

I wanted to apologize. But how could I? She’d made it absolutely clear that she never wanted to hear from me again. And if I forced a contact – by whatever means – I’d be doing to her exactly what I was trying to apologize for doing. So I made a decision to respect her choice, and I didn’t get back in touch.

Another year later, she died, of aplastic anemia.

She’d been sick when I knew her. I knew she had anemia, but I didn’t know what kind, or how bad it was. She’d never volunteered it, and I’d never asked. Our mutual friends got in touch with me to ask if I wanted to go to her funeral. And they’d all known what she had. Even back when I was following her around, they’d known, and they’d assumed that I’d known. But I’d never actually listened to her enough to actually understand what was wrong, or how serious it was.

That’s how badly I’d treated her. She was deathly sick. She didn’t know if she’d live to finish college. And I didn’t know! I’d believed that I was head-over-heels in love with her, and I’d never actually paid enough attention to her to realize just how scared she was. And now that I knew that, so many things about the way she acted, the way she carried herself, the way she talked – they all started to make sense. And so it really hit me what I’d done. How I’d turned her into nothing more than an object, instead of a person.

For a long time, I argued that she’d used me. And when we first fought, she’d admitted that she’d used me. I held that memory like a shield up until she’d died: whatever I’d done wrong, she’d used me. She’d admitted it. She owed me!

But what I came to realize was that in a situation like that, someone can’t use you without your permission. She wasn’t asking for things; I was volunteering them. She accepted, knowing at least partially what it was costing me. In that sense, she used me. But I did volunteer for it. I made the offer, claiming that it was being made out of nothing but affection and friendship, when in reality, I was doing it with the expectation of getting paid back. Yeah, she used me… but I was trying to get her to use me, so that she’d owe me something in return.

I didn’t go to the funeral. I really wanted to. But… she’d made it absolutely clear when she was alive that she never wanted to see or hear from me, ever again. Going to her funeral, being there with her mourners – it would have been a violation of her wishes. It would have been a purely selfish gesture – going to the funeral to say goodbye, in a way that she wouldn’t have tolerated when she was alive.

So what brought this whole thing on?

The other day, I was google-chatting with one of my online friends. She mentioned that an old ex of hers, one who’d followed her around moping obsessively for years, had just tried to get back in touch with her. I had two reactions: I got really angry, and I got really depressed. Angry, because I know what’s behind that kind of behavior, and it really upset me. Here’s someone who’s kind enough to actually be friends with a monster like me, and look what’s happening to her! Look what’s being done by someone just like I used to be. And depressed because… my friend is being hurt, and it’s being done by someone who’s just like I used to be. I know how acting like that can hurt the target of your “affections”. I know, because I’ve done it. I’ve seen the pain in can inflict on its target; i’m responsible for doing that to someone.

I didn’t mean to. But that’s no excuse.

So… any “nice guys” out there who see this? If you’re obsessing over a woman, you need to take a look deep inside yourself, and think about the target of your obsession. How well do you really know her? Are you really, truly doing things because you care about her, or are you doing them because you want something in return? If your really care about someone, and they don’t want to see you anymore – if you really care, you should care enough to respect their wishes. Grow the fuck up, and don’t be an asshole like me.