I've been waiting to tell this story for about four months. I wrote most of it in November and decided to not post just to be sure it was really happening. And I think it is.
I've had social anxiety disorder for at least 17 years. I remember the first time it affected me. I can remember a couple other major incidents where I had huge panic attacks from it. And I can remember the last attack I had. The last attack helped me finally define what it was and get the help I needed.
The first instance that I remember was right after I graduated from college. I had quickly changed my career field (from pilot to intelligence) and got orders to move to Texas in about 10 days. Everything was fine and I rolled out of town happy about my decision to not be a pilot. I arrived in Texas not really knowing who was at the base but that I was one of the last Air Force Academy grads to arrive for training. I ran into someone I knew from the Academy, but wasn't really friends with, and they invited me to a birthday party for someone else I knew, but wasn't really friends with. I said I'd go. I was looking forward to seeing who was at intel school and meeting new people. But I didn't go. I was ready to go out the door and I couldn't. I went to bed and probably didn't get out of it until Monday morning for class. I chalked it up as stress from moving, thinking I'd made the wrong decision (like every single person I talked to told me).
From time to time since that day in November of 1995 I've struggled with going out in public. I don't think I ever used alcohol to cope with it, but going out drinking was what most of my friends did and after I had a drink or two I seemed to feel better about being out in public and meeting/talking to people. I don't think I had any other major instances until New Years Eve 2003. There were plenty of times I had problems speaking in public, being on committees with people I didn't know, and even going to work, but for the most part I was able to live a normal life. I had great friends that I'd known for a while and felt comfortable going out with them. I don't think I thought anything was wrong. New Years Eve I went out with my roommate and his girlfriend, and another friend of ours. We had dinner reservations at a place that would later turn into one of the places to be for New Years Eve. At some point I found myself alone without anyone to talk to. Brian was off hitting on someone and the roommate and his girlfriend were off dancing or something. I was standing at the bar and someone offered to buy me a drink. I panicked and ran into the bathroom and started crying. I was crying because I knew my reaction was crazy and I didn't know what to do about that. I ended up leaving the restaurant soon after that and taking a taxi home. I think I told my friends I was feeling sick and was going home. The next day everything was back to normal.
During this time I would frequently go out in large groups and met a lot of people. I never met anyone without a friend introducing them to me. I never realized my aversion to talking to people I didn't know. Time ticked on and everything seemed normal. I started to dread going out to run errands. There were times I didn't eat lunch because of anxiety of having to talk to people I didn't know (I didn't realize this was the case for a long time). I struggled with getting to work on time and I stopped working out unless I knew I wouldn't have to talk to people. I knew something was wrong and went to see a doctor. I was diagnosed with depression. I tried a lot of different things but nothing worked. Therapy & medications. This issue is what caused me to leave the AF, I couldn't work to my potential. When I got out of the AF I got a job and eventually left because I knew I wasn't working the way my resume portrayed I would work. I chalked it up to being a bad fit and not really enjoying the job. This happened 2-3 more times.
During this time my social anxiety got worse. I planned my trips out of my house at times when nobody else was out in the neighborhood. I knew this was strange and convinced myself I was an introvert and/or that I just thought I was better than other people (which really stressed me out because I knew I didn't think that and was angry at myself for acting that way). I struggled with thinking I was an introvert because deep down I knew that was not the case. I had a couple good friends and would do things with them, but also bailed on them many times. I reached out to some friends explaining I had depression and wanted some help from friends dealing with it. People came through for me, but after a while I started bailing on them and I blamed them for not checking up on me, but the truth was they tried to and I just quit responding. It's a joke in my family that we all hate talking on the phone. That was the excuse I used.
At this point it's 2010 or so, and I was trying to train and race and go to school and have a job. All of which were way outside my comfort level of social interaction. There were times I forced myself to do things with people, even meet new people (some through the blog) and I did these things, but in the days and weeks after it I was exhausted. My work suffered, my school work was complete crap and done last minute. I hated training, but really wanted to because I knew it was something that made me feel better. I signed up for races. Many times I got up in the morning planning on going to them, but never did. I had so many excuses. Most of these were partially true, but they were things I could have easily overcome if I wasn't panicking about being out of my house.
It was a big downward spiral. I knew I didn't like going out in public and that made me angry because I knew it wasn't me. I never used the term anxiety and neither did my therapist and/or the psychiatrist I saw 1-2 times a year. The therapist suggested weekly meetings, but I just couldn't. I settled on every other week, and sometimes bailed on those. The one thing that everyone told me was that it was obvious I had hope that I would figure it all out. In the last three years I told doctors that nothing was working. That it would get better for a day or a week, but nothing would really change. Sometime in the last five years my medical records from when I was in the Air Force showed up in the National Archives. When I left the Air Force I filed a claim with the VA for my foot problems and depression, but they were never looked at because my records were missing. By the time the records were found I was miserable. I was called in to see a doctor so they could review my claims and give the VA information about how bad each was. The doctor I saw told me to go to the psychiatrist and ask for a different medication. I did this, and my doctor just doubled the dose. At this point I pretty much stopped working with therapists and psychiatrist because nothing was working.
The VA pinned me as having PTSD. I didn't think that was the case, but I was tired of fighting. With that diagnosis my medical treatment was guaranteed for life at no charge to me. But I was still getting worse. I would walk into a store to buy something and see there was a line of people and leave. I told myself I was just impatient. If I had to wait somewhere I made sure I looked busy so nobody would want to strike up a conversation. I tried to actually be busy by reading, but I was so out of my comfort zone I couldn't focus on doing anything. As soon as I could I went home. If I ever managed to do 2-3 errands in a row I felt successful. I realized how absurd this sounded, that I was proud of myself for doing errands, but that's the truth. And it frustrated and embarrassed me, adding to my issues. All of which just created more anxiety.
And then I moved. I really thought change was good for me. And it helped. I was around family for the first couple of months and felt like I was social. I went to a couple races and met and stayed with people I didn't know. But then I'd go home and be so emotionally spent that I was unable to do anything for a few days.
Then I had another panic attack. I was at the doctor for a walk-in appointment for some fire ant bites. I knew I had to wait but they couldn't tell me how long. They refused to give me a guess. I was in the waiting room and it started to fill up. I started feeling panicked (which I interpreted as anger from being impatient) and got up and walked around. When I got back there was only one seat left. I sat down and within 10 minutes I was having a full blown anxiety/panic attack. I hadn't had a panic attack since that New Years eve 10 years ago. I'd always been able to escape before it got bad. But this time I was having one. I went to the admin desk and again asked how longer it would be. The staff told me they had no idea. I was angry at their incompetence. One of the ladies was frustrated with me and made a smart comment and told me I could go see the patient advocate. I did. He was out of the office for a bit. I stood in the hallway shaking and crying and finally someone went to find him. He could see I was having a panic attack and had great anxiety. I thought it was mostly about not knowing when I'd see a doctor but as soon as I was in his office I was a little better. I explained to him my issue and said I was just having anxiety having to be in the waiting room full of people. This was the first time I ever defined my problem/feeling/emotion as anxiety despite years of having my blood pressure go up when I was in social situations. He was able to get me in to see my doctor, who immediately yelled at me and told me I wasn't special just because I had anxiety. This set me off and I told the doctor off and after the appointment I switched doctors. I happened to have an appointment with a new psychiatrist the next week and she asked why I had requested a change in the General Practitioner. I relayed the story to her and once again used the word anxiety.
It was right then that both she and I realized I wasn't having anxiety because of depression, I was depressed because of the social anxiety I had. I started thinking of my problems in terms of having anxiety in public and doing my best to shield myself from that through isolation. Just like that (with the help of Trazadone) I got better. I guess it wasn't really just like that. I noticed it slowly, but there were times I'd strike up a conversation with someone in the elevator. Later in the day I'd think about that and realize how it wasn't the norm for me. I ran my errands and managed to go to the pool to swim after. I didn't have a problem leaving my house with my neighbors were in the yard. Things were just better. I've generally been much happier. I have been able to train more. I did cut back on classes this semester because I really struggled last semester with them and in January I wasn't sure if I really was better or if I'd sink back into it again. I didn't want to set myself up for failure.
And then on Saturday I ran a race. I hung out after waiting for the awards. I approached a bunch of guys I didn't know and invited myself to ride with them. I spent Sunday wondering if I would have done that six months ago. I don't know if I would have or not. I really think I would have been too tired after being in public for three hours to even think about riding and probably would have gone home and hibernated the rest of the weekend. And that's when I realized I was back to being myself again. The self that I hadn't really been for a very long time. So I decided to post this post.
I'm sure there will still be ups and downs along the way, but for the first time in a long time I'm not just hopeful about the future, but I know it will be better sooner rather than later.