For the first 29 years of my life, I heard people say that I was a very anxious person but I never knew what it meant for I had never known anything else than chronic anxiety. It’s also never really talked about as it has been considered as one of these “women issues”, the psychological problems they pretend to have whereas “real men have real (physical) suffering”.
Throughout the first 29 years of my life, I developed mechanisms to control it but never realised what they were as such. I have been doing many things on a daily basis, things that never feel forced or difficult because I chose to do them, I looked at the situation of discomfort or down right panic and found ways to go around and about them.
It’s by watching a video on Youtube (link below) from someone who is as anxious as I am that I finally became aware of it and it was just last January, three months before my 30th birthday. It took me more than 29 years to put all the pieces of the puzzle together, to understand that all the “weird” things I do, and people never understand or are annoyed by, are all linked to one thing: my anxiety and more precisely what we also call agoraphobia.
People say it’s strange for someone like me to be a teacher, to be the person everyone looks at. Also, when I am with my friend, I quite like to be the centre of attention…as long as I dictate the proceedings. As a teacher, everyone looks at me but I direct everything and I readied myself for it. I don’t mind running the show, I know how to talk, how to act, how to entertain. I can work a crowd because I spent so long looking at myself and others that I know what people expect. I constantly analyse myself to find out how to cope and how to always remain or feel in control, as well as analysing others so I can fit my needs in.
What I can’t deal with, and where I shut down, is when the attention is directed on me when I don’t want it.
I always thought as myself and other agoraphobics as “cat people” whose aloofness is mistaken for lack of interest, lack of feelings and downright arrogance when it is just a way to deal with the anxiety of social interactions. We are not easy-going and have a lesser social need. However, it doesn’t make us anti-social just more “independent”, like they like to call cats.
We tend to dislike pretence and gushiness more than anything so sometimes we will abide by these odd rules of social interactions and try to please people, but mostly we do things our way or we don’t, and people have to please us. “I am the controlling bitch in the house now shush and submit.”
You’d think it would be easy for people to deal with us then but no. We do have some social needs which makes us very high-maintenance. Like cats who generally like to be left alone, we also have many moments when we are done with standing on the side observing and need attention. We then feel in control and need the control so we go in the middle of the room and from now on, it will have to be about us. We will run the show, pushing the overly sociable “dog people” on the side, sitting in the middle, stopping conversations and genuinely hissing if things are not going our way.
My mother, who is a “dog person”, is deeply gregarious, has a very intense, smothering social need to be with surrounded, to be loved, embraced, talked to, listened to, cared for at all time. She is easy-going, she can fake it easily, is ready to bend over backwards for anyone and she doesn’t understand any of the following mechanisms. She is convinced I am making my life a living nightmare with all these difficult things I am doing when it’s not as it’s nothing that somebody else is forcing me to do. When I tell her I can easily spend a few days without talking to anyone in person, she just dismisses it. “It’s impossible!”
Here are the “weird” mechanisms I have developed over the years:
*I love big open spaces as long as I am alone. I love sitting down and looking at the horizons in the fields, I love being on the top of the Alps and looking ahead. I love astronomy and astrophysics and looking at the infinity of the universe. Weirdly, the bigger the space is, the smaller I feel. And the smaller I feel, the more enclosed I feel, the better I feel. But it’s a feeling I need to have alone, I hate looking at the infinite universe when with people. I will enjoy the scenery but not feel anything.
*When panicking, I need a small, close, dark space or a wide open space. I would just sit in silence or talk out loud about something else, think about the world and its issues…
*I never go to the toilets but always ask where they are when invited somewhere in case I need to pretend to go if I feel discomfort during dinner or a conversation with many people. I usually stay for a couple of minutes and just focus on the silence and the dark.
*In the absence of room, I also have been writing since I was 10-12 and greated a whole alternative universe that helped me escape the extreme bullying I was victim of. It grew with the years because this is where I lock myself into when facing with insecurities outside my house. I never share this world with anyone.
*When crossing the road, if I see a car coming, I stop before the crossing and pretend to be busy so the car does not have to stop and I don’t have to cross in front of it. If there are a lot of cars coming, I will carry on walking until the next crossing then walk back on the pavement across the street.
*I cannot walk in the streets or in the shops or any crowed place, be in the library or the museum alone without listening to music. I need to wear a headset to make obvious to people who always seem to want to talk to me and it needs to be loud enough for me to block the noise from the outside.
*This is also why I loathe cinemas because I cannot isolate myself with music. In the restaurant, I tend to go for the table in the corner or outside.
*I avoid eye contact with strangers during meetings and trainings but always maintain it with the speaker until he/she looks away. They usually like that and think I am the most attentive person in the room.
*In a classroom, a meeting, a training, a festive occasion, when volunteers are encouraged to talk about anything, or give an opinion, I have always been the first one to speak up for the past 15 years. I understood that people who mock are actually trying to hide their deep self-consciousness and feeling of inferiority. I understood that when you’re the first one to go, you’ll be setting the tone. Everyone else will be judged against you when you can now just relax because you had your go already.
*As I said, I never actually go to the toilets because I taught my body to only need the toilets in the morning and the evening when at home because I can never go anywhere else. Even when desperate, it will not…work.
*I am 30 minutes early – at least – everywhere I have an appointment or am invited to in case there is a problem even if it means waiting a few yards away in the nearest bus shelter for the exact time. I don’t mind, I always have a book to read or things to do. That’s because I know I will not be able to deal with being the last one to arrive, having to go to everyone in risk of being rude, and say Hello to everyone who is already here. I need to be the first one so people come to me.
*The only moment where I never panic or feel anxious is when I suck my thumb.
*Up to 14, I never fell asleep without listening to music or recorded radio and rocking myself in my bed. Today, I never go to sleep without my laptop where I have a selection of random videos I leave to play hushly so I can fall asleep because once in bed, my brain seems to be wanting to review every single thing I said and did wrong on my life, every conversation where I could not say what I wanted, and develop endless theories and ideologies to make the world a better place. The voices on the videos are helping distract him – so I like t think.
*I cannot stand people who do not pay attention and make others wait because I always look at and notice and prepare everything in advance. When the underground comes to my station, I stand up at the announcement because I know that if I wait, I will be getting off against the tide of getting in. Also through the windows, I already look at the signs to know where to go so I don’t just stand there in the middle.
*Public transport, I am always 30 to 60 minutes early anywhere so I can set up properly because:
If I arrived on the platform at the same time of any kind of rail transport or any new station, I will not go in it, although I could. Rather I will stand back, observe where most people are going and position myself where the emptiest coach was.
In stations I know, I have learnt where the emptiest coaches are and the ones closer to the exit so I don’t have to be in the crowd so I always position myself at the same place everytime. I also have back-up in case there are too many people.
For the buses, I do the same and observe where the bus is stopping so I can wait exactly where the doors are opening and choose a seat where I have to interact with strangers the least.
I need to settle down so I am ready to get the bus where I can sit for once, even if the journey is 1 hour longer, than having to change trains three times.
If I feel I cannot deal with the public transport for whatever reasons, I am prepared to spent money in a taxi, not matter how expensive it may be. Again, I don’t mind, I read the seven Harry Potter books in two months in the bus.
All of the above are good news, it shows it gets better because, as I cannot afford the £80/hour psychiatrist at the moment, there are mechanisms I have developed that help me to cope. And since they are mechanism, I don’t think about them anymore. They have become as natural as tying my laces.
It used to be really bad. In highschool, I was so anxious about going to the canteen that I spent three years eating only when coming back home. That’s three years of having to work hard between 8.15am and 5:30 or even 6:30pm without having eaten or drunk anything. Also I was so anxious about public transport that I was walking more than 3 kilometres morning and night instead of taking the bus for 5-10 minutes.
The first year, people kept asking me why I would not go to the canteen , thought I was poor and started buying me food. I couldn’t take it anymore so I left the school at lunch, sat in the nearby cemetery for the whole lunchbreak and would come back after, saying I went home. I chose the cemetery because I knew it was the only place the students, the ones who actually went home for lunch, would never wander in.
It took me almost three decades to understand that all of it was linked to the same disorder. It gets better.
Now that I know, I am also starting to understand many things as to why I am like this. The extreme bullying I have had to go through between 10 and 16 is one the main reason, I know now. It gets better.
The video that helped me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ty74fmcNUFE