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.

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.

Self-Narratives

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.

Self-Loathing

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:
Feelings
A set of checkboxes. I’m supposed to say what
I’m feeling (anxious, sad, guilty, angry, …), and how intensely I feel it.
Situation
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?
Behaviors
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.