I stopped writing this blog about six months ago. The reason why is, unfortunately, something all too common. My boss found out that I was getting treated for social anxiety – and he decided that that was sufficient evidence to conclude that I was a crazy, untrustworthy person, and that everything I did must, inevitably, be inexcusably wrong.
For me, this kind of thing is horribly frustrating. But I’m lucky. For a lot of other people, this would be tragic. I don’t need this job. Up until this shit started, I really liked it – but I don’t need it. I’ve got other options: I can (and in fact, I did) leave it, and find something else. I didn’t want to do that, but the fact is, we’re not going to starve.
What I learned from this, among other things, is that the stigma of mental illness remains incredibly strong. Even as someone who’s written about it, and dealt with its repercussions before, it still manages to surprise me. As a person with this illness, once people like my ex-manager find out, my skills, my knowledge, my history, and my experience no longer matter. The illness outweighs everything everything else.
One brief mention of it, in the context of scheduling, and my career at the company was over.
The whole thing was, at times, downright comic. My manager believes that mental illness means that I can’t be trusted, that I’m irrational, and that I’m incapable of intellectual reasoning. Essentially, because I have this illness, I’m an idiot, and I can’t possibly do anything right. And proving otherwise was impossible.
A typical example of my work-life once this came out: a few months back, I’d finished one part of our system, and was ready to move on to the next. My manager, coworkers, and I discussed possible strategies for that next step, and concluded that there were two possible approaches: A and B. I spent a day analyzing things, and concluded that A was the better approach. So I went and built A.
When it was done, my boss threw a fit. A was ridiculous! How could I possibly think that A was the right approach? How could someone as senior as me possibly be so ridiculously ignorant?
So I went back to the drawing board, and did B. Finished it, and you can probably guess what’s coming: B is ridiculous! Inexcusable! No competent engineer would ever dream that B is the right way of doing it! Any idiot could see that A was the right approach.
I pointed out: I’d already done A, and been berated for it, and instructed in very clear terms to do B.
His response was, basically, “I never said that, and I never told you to do that.” But I had it in email – he’d specifically sent me an email berating me after doing it in person. So I said: “Look, I’ve got this email where you specifically say A is wrong, and I should go do B”.
His response? “In addition to being incompetent, you’re insubordinate, and if you don’t straighten up, you’re going to get fired”.
In other words: you’re just a crazy freak, so don’t you dare question anything I say.
Things continued in this vein for months. No matter what I do, it’s wrong. Even if I do exactly what I’m instructed to do, it will be wrong. After months of this, it’s completely obvious that there’s absolutely no chance of succeeding here. No matter what I do, I will lose.
So I quit. And that means that I no longer need to worry about what would happen if he were to discover the stuff I write here.
Sorry for the lack of posting lately. Writing this stuff is really hard, so I don’t write it unless I really have something to say.
My therapy progresses. And I’ve learned some things, which are simultaneously informative, helpful, and very painful. I have to say that I am not enjoying this process, not at all.
I’ve realized, as I get further into this, is just what success means when you’re fighting social anxiety. Success isn’t a cure. There is no cure – it’s not an illness like an infection, where you take some medicine and it goes away. At least in my case, it’s more like an injury. You can help it heal, make it less crippling, but the damage will never completely go away. Iwent through years of abuse, and that left scars. Those scars are a part of me that I can’t get rid of. I can learn to change the role that those scars play in my life, to reduce their impact on my day-to-day interactions with other people, but I can’t eliminate that impact.
In one sense, realizing that is a good thing. Part of what had me feeling so hopeless for a while was the fact that I thought that what I needed to do was erase those scars – and I didn’t believe that I couldpossibly do that. So understanding that I’m not really trying to do that? It makes it much easier to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
But in another sense, it’s awful. It makes me so angry, so angry that I don’t really know how to put it into words… These bastards who abused me, who tortured me for their own pleasure – I will never be completely free of them. The things they did to me will always be an unescapable part of my life.
Another recent development in my therapy is flashbacks. Or, I guess, to be precise, awareness of flashbacks.
I mentioned a couple of posts back that my daughter just started middle school. My wife and I went to the back-to-school night at her school to meet her teachers. While we were in the math classroom, something happened which literally put me, in my own head, back in my seventh grade math classroom.
I’m not going to go into details, because I don’t want to say anything that could give away who I am. But someone, meaning well, did something that reminded me of what people used to do to let me know that I was going to be beaten up after class. And.. well, it’s a very hard thing to describe. I wasn’t hallucinating – it’s not like I didn’t know where I was. But simultaneously, like it was superimposed in my imagination over the real classroom that I was seeing, I could see, perfectly clearly, that seventh grade classroom, and the people in it, and the people who’d abused me.
It was a horrible, terrifying moment.
Talking to my doctor about that, and then thinking about it afterwards – I’ve realized that there is a strong element of flashback to a lot of my anxiety. It’s not at a conscious level, and it’s nowhere nearly as vivid as that night at my daughter’s school. But it’s there.
For example, I was at work, sitting in a lounge in my office, and a former coworker who I was friends with walked by, and said “Hey! Haven’t seen you in a while!” My immediate reaction was terror. Why? In my head… back in school, every time anyone said those words, “haven’t seen you in a while”, it was immediately followed by getting hit, or tripped, or banged into a wall. Again, I haven’t consciously thought about that in many years, but that’s been behind my reactions all along.
It scares me. It really does. That all of these things are still inside my head, still affecting me in such a direct way. Things that I really honestly believed I hadn’t remembered, things that I desperately tried to forget – they’re all there, they’re not forgotten, and they’re still affecting me.
Which, I guess, brings this post full circle. I’m never going to escape from the influence of these things. There is no cure. But, hopefully, I can heal, at least a little bit. My hope is that by understanding these influences, by understanding where my fear comes from, I can learn to at least reduce their ability to continue to warp my life. That, if I can’t be cured, I can at least recover some of who I could have been.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?