There aren’t many things that scare me. I’m not afraid of bugs or snakes, flying, spiders, unsteady bridges, towering heights… Even the idea of death doesn’t faze me. The one thing that frightens me, that shakes me to my core, is social interaction.
I am terrified of making “mom friends” — or any friends, for that matter.
Of course, many individuals are uncomfortable with new people and new situations. From generalized agitation and discomfort to a fear of the unknown, socialization can be hard. But for people like me, people who live with panic disorder and an anxiety disorder, it isn’t just tough; it’s exhausting. Scratch that: Anxiety makes socialization damn near impossible.
You see, anxiety tells me I am not good enough or smart enough. It makes my voice small and causes my words to waver. Insecurity dictates my thoughts and swallows my sentences. Anxiety makes my stomach turn. I feel unbearably nauseous, like I’ve just consumed a ton of ice cream, pizza, and cheap beer.
Anxiety causes me to feel distant. I feel as though I am walking in a rainstorm or looking at the world through a double-paned window or a fogged-up glass. Anxiety causes my body to tense. The muscles in my back and shoulders spasm. I feel like I just ran for four hours or lifted 50-pound weights.
But the unconscious chatter is the worst. Anxiety makes me believe everyone is talking about me and judging me. I believe everything I say or do is wrong. She’s too thin. She’s too fat. Do you see what she is wearing? God, is she talking? Is she still talking? Doesn’t she realize how stupid she sounds? Doesn’t she realize no one cares?
And yes, all of this happens within the first five seconds of an introduction. I panic before I’ve even managed to say “Hi, I’m Kim, Amelia’s mom.”
So what do I do? How do I cope? Well, if I’m being honest, I don’t. I avoid social situations — and that means most situations, period. When my daughter is invited to parties and playdates, I drop her off, but rarely stay. I blame my work schedule, or my youngest’s sleep schedule. When my daughter makes new friends at the park, I hide behind oversized sunglasses and my phone. I sit on the furthest bench. And I keep conversations to a minimum.
We engage in the usual “Hi, how are you? How old are your kids?” sort of small talk — which, by the way, is anxiety-inducing in and of itself, because I immediately forget both names and faces — but nothing more.
I rarely say anything more, because I can’t. The thoughts come too rapidly. The words get stuck in my throat.
That said, it’s not all bad. Having children has forced me to confront my illness. To deal with my illness. And while, sure, my coping strategies need improvement, I get out — for my sake and my daughter’s. She is a social butterfly, one who makes friends everywhere we go, and I can’t stop that — or avoid it. I cannot allow my fears and insecurities to affect her. I’ve also made a few friends, by fate and luck: Two of my daughter’s playmates happen to have very sweet, like-minded moms.
But keeping said friends may be harder than making them, because anxiety makes me doubt our relationship. I question why they like me — and if they like me. Anxiety makes me slow to trust. I worry our friendship is rooted in necessity, and nothing more. I doubt their commitment and need constant reassurance that they’re there, and that they care. And because I am anxious, I am always guarded.
I fear letting them in and letting them see the “real me,” because I worry that then, they won’t like me — and will then, of course, leave me. The closer they get, the closer I am to pain, disappointment, and hurt.
But I’m trying. Every day that I sit up and get out of bed, I’m trying. I see my therapist weekly, as I have for many years. Does that mean I’m cured? No. I constantly struggle to keep my friends close and my mental illness (and inner critic) at bay. I’ve also accepted the fact I will never be very social, and that’s okay. What matters is that I push on. For me, my friends, and for my outgoing, social, carefree, and confident little girl.
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