One of the most fun things about anxiety is the way it makes all of my relationships so interesting. I can’t imagine what it’d be like to meet people and feel secure if the knowledge that they either do or don’t like you and that either way it’s okay. Instead, if I get even the faintest whiff of the idea that someone doesn’t like me I am sent into a tailspin which convinces me that I’m the worst person in the whole world. Even with my friends I am plagued by worries that they don’t actually like me. When we’re together I am perpetually scared that they’re bored by my company, but if I don’t see them because I’m too anxious then I start worrying that they don’t want to be my friend any more. It’s a nightmare.
Whilst social anxiety is a bitch at any time of year, I think Christmas is the worst. Most of the time I can hide the fact that in large social groups my mind goes blank, I trip over my own tongue, and I go bright whenever I think anyone is paying attention to me by staying in or only meeting up with small groups of people I’m comfortable around. But at Christmas? You just can’t do that at Christmas.
Christmas is an entire month of parties, of carol concerts, of drinks, of going out with workmates and your partner’s workmates and meeting new people and walking home because all the taxis are busy and needing to go past loud drunk people who might shout things at you. I spend most of my life gearing up for or recovering from social interactions, but during Christmas there’s no time for that. I have to go, or I’ll worry that I’m being left out, but it means I spend most of December exhausted and permanently on the verge of a panic attack.
And that’s just the social aspect of it. There’s also having to go into shops and talk to sales assistants, the pressure of giving and receiving gifts (what if they don’t like it? Do I look grateful enough?), having to spend time with a family you may not otherwise be close to. I went for a casual dinner with friends last week and was presented with a beautiful gift from someone I hadn’t bought anything for in return and I’ve felt horribly guilty ever since.
Even though I’m desperate to join in the fun I end up hiding in the toilets and having a quiet cry before I can sneak off early on my own
The worst part of this isn’t even that I feel sad and anxious, but that I feel like I’m missing out. It seems my friends are dashing from party to party like Christmassy social butterflies whilst I’m hiding away like a timid Christmas mouse, and that doesn’t help with my feeling intimidated and panicky when I’m around them. Even though I’m desperate to join in the fun I end up hiding in the toilets and having a quiet cry before I can sneak off early on my own.
I’m not the only one that feels like this. In fact, one in ten people suffer with social anxiety. I did a quick call out on Twitter and got loads of messages from people who suffer similarly - Sarah, who loves Christmas but has had panic attacks in toilets because she was so overwhelmed by spending so much time with people, Ellie, who got so worked up at a work Christmas meal that she ate everything and threw it all back up again, and Emily, who ended up drinking too much to try and numb her fears.
Years of feeling like this have left us all with coping techniques, though. Sarah takes a few random afternoons off work so she can be alone to recharge, Emily makes sure that she arrives with friends so she’s never alone.
Ellie decided that she was just going to avoid any situation she didn’t feel comfortable in, which means spending Christmas Day on her own – but, in reality, that isn’t really coping at all. It’s merely the sobering reality for so many social phobia sufferers. From the outside, it might appear like shyness, rudeness, or being aloof: it’s not. Inside, it’s lonely and isolating and a serious mental health disorder that’s rarely spoken openly about. But it can be helped – by asking for support, and finding a treatment, like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or medication, that suits you and allows you to live your life without fear.
Right now for me, it’s become about making sure I feel in control all the time. I pick a few parties that I actually want to go to and I make sure that I know a few people who are going to be there, exactly what time I’m going to leave, and what excuse I’m going to give. I’ve opted out of gift-giving pressure by agreeing with friends to not give each other presents, and at the start of December I accept that I’m going to spend the month feeling a bit wobbly and I forgive myself for it.
There is no denying that social anxiety sucks, but it doesn’t have to ruin my Christmas. As long as I’m kind to myself and don’t try to be anything other than what I am then I can join in with Christmas fun in a way that feels safe and comfortable, and involves the smallest amount of crying in public toilets possible.