Amy asked why I felt that I wanted to meet with her. I answered, “I wanted to meet with you because I do not want to meet with you.”
I didn’t know it then, but I have social anxiety. I am not sure how it feels for other people I can only relay how it feels for me. It does feel like I was going crazy because I get upset over conflicting fears. I get overwhelmed with fears of missing out but I am also afraid of people. I dislike interacting with people. Some of my friends find it hard to get on board with the idea; maybe I did too at the start. I can be loud. I can be fun. I am the guy you can expect to call for the waiter at the restaurant or to ask for the manager if we had complaints in a venue. I love dancing in the clubs. I am not the least bit shy, so social anxiety seemed like the least of my problems.
But I was also very flaky. I would agree to go to events and I would be ready but I would cancel at the last minute. The idea of interacting with other people made me uncomfortable. At work, when people come to my desk with requests, I would ask them to go back to their desks to send me an email instead; I have made up a very real and valid excuse that I am forgetful and that if I were busy, I can queue their requests on my inbox. But I did not want to be talking with my co-workers. It got so bad that some of my friends have stopped asking me out because there was no point; I was not going to arrive. I am often late for work because I need to build up the courage to interact with other people.
The desperation to seek help finally arrived when the UP Feb Fair was going to be held a few blocks from my workplace and the idea of tens of thousands of people freaked me out to the point of indigestion and sleeplessness. Amy is a psychiatrist and she was going to be my therapist for the next 8. My first session was spent making introductions and instructions on how to maintain a mood diary where I was going to track my anxiety events, thoughts during the event, feelings during the event, and most importantly, I had to write down physiological observations as I went through the event, like if I was short of breath, or physically agitated in any other way.
I pace. I probably could have walked from SM North to UP Diliman with the pacing I do in the parking lot over a week. I don’t keep a pedometer because I am sure I can knock any step goals out of the park. But in staffing ours, my away-from-desk time is not looking admirable. In an exercise, Amy asked me to report about a moment of extreme stress and what could go wrong. I was like “Talaga lang? (Oh,really?) Are you challenging me?” So I spent an entire hour telling her how horrible malls were and how I imagine stuff like fires, martilyo (hammer) gang attacks, terrorist bombings that would result in zombie-apocalypse-level stampedes. I transitioned into an actual zombie apocalypse scenario because I was soon explaining how I spent most of my time in malls imagining how to escape from zombies. At some point after, I talked about disease transmission by droplets, bodily contact, or by air. Malls are death traps. Near the end of our eight sessions, Amy gave a bit of advice and I wrote it down word for word because I knew it was going to change my life: Avoidance causes anxiety because it keeps you from the position to create positive change whereas, even with failure, action is anchored on hope.
I have become paralyzed by things that I should do right. I have expectations of how to behave to impress my friends when they never verbalized those expectations of me. So I end up flaking out on opportunities to be a friend to them. I have this idealized self that presented himself as a distinguished co-worker that I can never live up to so I just gave up and stopped interacting with my officemates. Malls are still death traps.
Does interacting with people still freak me out? You bet. I hate it! But now I do my best to follow through because I want to have hope. I had lost hope in myself and I had to regain that. Do I still flake out? Yes. Do I still panic in public? Yes. But do I hope to get better?
Yes. I sought help.
Text by Joel Donato Ching Jacob
Illustrations by Isaac Brines