Social Anxiety with a Twist of Self-Kindness
People fluttered about the rooftop restaurant-bar like giant butterflies, smiling and laughing and flapping their wings. My stud-muffin Ted leaned on the bar, his back to me, chatting away with friends and colleagues.
I watched in awe as streaks of sunbeams skipped along the ocean’s surface and floated through the tall, clean windows all around us. The Light waltzed effortlessly across the alabaster bar, swaying with shiny bottles of liquid, and dipping in and out of the room’s frosty-white leather booths, their natural warmth softening the stiffness.
Such a beautiful day, I smiled, gazing out at the crowd.
I spied a young woman, a friend, heading toward me. The Light kept on dancing. But in my head a record needle had already screeched.
So here’s where I have to confess: I have an illness. An illness inside my head that can seize my body. I’ve been riding this crazy beast since my early teens, long before it had a name. Ugh, even now it’s so hard to write the words that describe this thing that threatens my confidence and joy: “Social . . . Anxiety . . . Disorder.” SAD.
I’m not a shy person nor a recluse. So for me to be afflicted with something like this is extra painful. I’ve tried years of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), tapping, meditation, psychic readings, acupuncture, mystic healings, hell, you name it.
When I was a young girl, I used to think I was the only one who felt this way. I was angry at my suffering and filled with humiliation and shame. In the United States alone some 15 million people have SAD. When I close my eyes and imagine millions of others with the same affliction it makes me feel better. At least I feel slightly less of a freak, less alone. That gives me hope. And it makes me want to be kinder . . . to me.
Social Anxiety Disorder often strikes people who grew up in highly critical, abusive childhoods. Check. There’s so much shame around SAD. Check. I can be kind to others all day and night. Check. But me? No way. I used to think I had to somehow “earn” it first. But that’s such an impossible quest, right? How can you be kind to yourself – when you’re too busy judging yourself – for feeling like others are judging you?
As she approached, my heart pounded faster, my palms oozed sweat. The voices around me grew louder; yet at the same time, I couldn’t grasp their words.
Just then Ted turned around from the bar: “Hey babe!” His bright, boyish smile cutting through the din of clicking glasses and competing voices, his crisp pink shirt sleeves rolled up, holding two cold martinis – one in each slender hand, love in his chocolate-brown eyes, he nodded and waited for me to take mine. Only two feet between me and that damn glass, but I tell you, it felt like a mile. I froze.
He couldn’t see that my body was being sucked into some strange frightening vortex. Suddenly, all the dancing sunbeams vanished and the room turned dark. Just take the glass. Hurry up. People are watching. Don’t embarrass him. It’s just a glass for Christ’s sake. But my hands had already started to tremble – an early warning that the “big one” was about to hit.
The room spun and I forgot how to breathe. Terror had me by the throat. How could he forget? Doesn’t he see? Anger and shame and fear circled me like a pack of starving wolves. I swear if someone had pulled out an Uzi just then and waved it across the crowd, I’d be the one to tackle the shooter myself. I’d rather risk a bullet and at least appear brave.
It felt like all eyes were on me. The glass still in his hand. Nowhere to run. Too late to pop a Xanax. Caught in the crosshairs, I forced a smile and reluctantly took the filled-to-the-brim drink, trying to hide my shaking hands while I kept talking with my friend. Shit. Another business colleague and friend of Ted’s popped into our circle – a really sweet, older, bright English gentleman with a crooked-tooth smile that made you trust him completely, and the dorkiest socks you’ve ever seen. Breathe, CJ, breathe. He’s such a nice man; don’t be an idiot. I kept nodding and smiling and trying to form the right words. Breathe, breathe, dammit. Shit. I searched my radius, somewhere to put my glass down. Shit again. No table to sit at and too far from the bar. My hands. Can’t control them. I’m going to drop this damn drink.
Then I spied a tiny bar cart off to my left. It took both hands to hold onto the glass and set it down. Whew. That’s better. I started to breathe again. I realized the bathroom was just around the corner. I kept eyeing the full glass on the wobbly bar cart. Finally my friend noticed it too. I could tell she was wondering. A couple of waiters shot me annoyed looks for putting it there. Finally, one of them said: “Ma’am, I need you to move your drink. We need the cart.” I nearly burst into tears. What’s wrong with me?
I felt cornered, a terrified animal about to be slaughtered. Again I had no choice but to pick up the damn drink, the liquid sloshing over the edge as I pressed it more tightly to my chest. I screamed at my “inner will” to keep it together. Couldn’t breathe. Again.
“Are you alright?” my friend asked.
“No. Can you hold my drink?” A plea for mercy.
She nodded as I fled to the bathroom and popped a small Xanax. Tears of shame filled my eyes. Why can’t I be normal? I cleaned up my face and went back out there. She was still holding my glass, her face somber, concerned.
“I had a panic attack,” I confessed. “Sometimes it happens.”
She put her hand on mine. “It’s okay,” she whispered. “I just had one this morning. They were drawing my blood, and I just freaked out and ran from the room screaming.” Really? I couldn’t believe it. She seemed so normal, so together. We laughed and I nervously gulped down my cocktail.
Kindness is such a strange, wondrous word. What does it mean? Going out of your way to be nice, to show you care. After this latest beautiful day of mine had turned quickly dark, I realized: I had to stop beating me up. I had to hold myself closer. I had to start being kind…to myself.
Maybe kindness – like goodness, mercy, love, compassion and grace – all these powerful energies withheld from me in my most formative years are still within my reach.
After all, I’m the same feisty blast of power and Light and Love I always was from the very beginning – little Carrie Jo, aka CJ, a fairy warrior and Champion of the Weary and the Brave. That’s me! And maybe I recharge my sword of Light and Love and Strength with the potent magical ingredient…called Kindness.