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Curing versus Healing

October 11, 2010 1 comment

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.