Mental health disorders in children aren’t something that are talked about a great deal. Probably because we don’t like to think that our innocent children can have a disorder that can lead to, among other things, the stigma that they’re “crazy” or result in the ultimate of tragedies, suicide.
But this post isn’t about suicide awareness or childhood depression. It’s about a struggle of mine that started when I was a child and continues to this day: social anxiety disorder.
I’m not sure what you might be thinking right now about what social anxiety disorder is, but I can tell you what it isn’t. It isn’t being shy. It isn’t being a loner. It isn’t being afraid of people.
Social anxiety is an extremely common mental health disorder; it has recently been ranked as the third largest psychological disorder in the United States, following depression and alcoholism. Formerly known as social phobia, social anxiety is a multifaceted diagnosis in which the following are present:
- A fear of interacting with others that brings on feelings of self-consciousness and being negatively judged and evaluated. This leads to avoidance.
- Fear of being judged and negatively evaluated by others, which leads to feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression.
Courtesy of the Social Anxiety Institute, individuals with social anxiety experience significant emotional distress in the following situations:
- Being introduced to other people
- Being teased or criticized
- Being the center of attention
- Being watched while doing something
- Meeting people in authority (“important people”)
- Most social encounters, especially with strangers
- Going around the room (or table) in a circle and having to say something
- Interpersonal relationships, whether friendships or romantic
So how does this play into my life? I’m fairly certain most people who know me don’t think that this is something that could possibly affect me personally. I grew up onstage. I’ve had lead roles in musicals in which I’ve had to sing alone in front of hundreds to thousands of people. But affect me it does. I have social anxiety disorder.
I wasn’t really a very shy kid. My mom sometimes tells me the story of one time when I was very young and we were waiting in line to get soft pretzels. By the time we got our pretzels, myself and a random little boy I had been talking to in line, who I had never met before, had planned a trip to Disney World. And I had been the one to initiate the conversation. I had no problem making friends. I was the only little girl at a table of little boys who had crushes on me in pre-school. I was a pretty popular kid.
So what happened? When I was about 9, I was moved into a ballet class where I was one of the youngest by several years because the ballet teacher determined that I was able to keep up with 11 and 12 year olds. And I was indeed able to keep up just fine. But it wasn’t long before kids started being kids and the whispers started. Not only by the older students, but their mothers, too. “She’s too young.” “She’s too little.” “She doesn’t belong in that class with my daughter.” I was a very observant child. I saw and heard it all.
And this continued for several years. My mom saw my talent and asked the head dance instructor if I could be in the big finale number with the senior company when I was in 5th grade. Also recognizing my talent, the head dance instructor reluctantly agreed, so I found myself dressed as a jester (the theme that year was Mardi Gras) dancing to Gloria Estefan’s”Party Time” at the age of 11 with the mostly 14-18 years olds. I didn’t realize what a rare and privileged thing that was until I myself was in high school; never once did we have anyone younger than 14 or 15 dancing in those numbers.
But it never stopped. Unfortunately, myself and my fellow dancers were eventually at that cruel age when it’s a rite of passage to talk about others behind their backs. I’ll never forget the time I was most humiliated. I was in 5th grade, so I was 10 or 11. Before class, one of my chief tormentors surprised me and asked if I would like a Skittle from the bag she was eating from. Almost too shocked that I was being spoken to, I blubbered out some stupid response about being on a diet, which I certainly wasn’t at that young age, but it was the only thing my surprised mind could spit out, because what else would you say if you were refusing junk food? All was forgotten until we were partway through class. I was on one side of the room, most everyone else on the other, and they were all whispering amongst themselves. Suddenly our teacher spoke out, “Who is on a diet?”
Our teacher then went into a brief lecture on how we were too young to be thinking about such things as diets and we were all healthy and fine the way we were.
I was absolutely mortified. Not only did I have obvious proof that the others had been talking about me, but it got to the point that our teacher got involved. From then on, I developed this phobia that if I heard anybody whispering, if I couldn’t hear what they were saying, I automatically assumed it was about me. And this became an incredibly pathological thing. Sadly, this continued all the way up until my senior year of high school, because that was finally the year when those who had been involved with my tormenting since the age of 9 had finally graduated. I had one year in which I truly enjoyed going to dance class and I felt free to be me.
But by this point I was already conditioned. I had so many of the above symptoms: I hated being teased or criticized (but then again, who doesn’t?) Social encounters with strangers were particularly traumatizing. However, growing up on stage, I didn’t really mind being the center of attention as long as I was performing; it probably had to do with that invisible “fourth wall” that is the audience giving a sense of protection. I didn’t mind being watched while doing something as long as it was performance-related, such as my ballet teacher watching me work at the barre and making corrections to my technique.
My problems continued once I got into college. In fact, it wasn’t until my fourth year of college that I really realized I had a problem. The previous summer, I had worked as a pharmacy intern at a retail store at home in New York. I found being criticized for doing things wrong and having to interact with unpredictable customers so traumatizing that I quit the job at the end of summer; one day I just basically had a mental breakdown and never returned to work after that. During the school year, if my roommates, who I honestly didn’t know very well, had company over that I didn’t know, I wouldn’t even leave my room; I once spent a whole day in my room starving because I was so terrified to walk into the kitchen with someone I didn’t know in the apartment. That was when I realized I really had a problem. I saw my physician when I was home over Thanksgiving break and she diagnosed me with social anxiety and put me on medication to help. I tried four different medications before finally settling on Zoloft, which worked the best.
My problems continued when I started my career. Even being given constructive criticism by my coworkers as I was training felt like a direct attack. But it didn’t take me long to realize that I was in the big leagues now; patient’s lives were in my hands. If I made a recommendation to a doctor, they would do it. Could I live with accidentally recommending something harmful? So eventually I was able to adjust. Once I had been working for over a year, I felt comfortable enough with my job that I weaned myself off the Zoloft and did fine for five years until this past December when I went back on it for my depression. But that’s another story (see Love Me Til I’m Me Again and How to Save a Life).
Social anxiety has been a part of my life for a long time and it still is. I doubt I will ever be comfortable in some of the situations mentioned here, like being watched while doing something or interacting with strangers. But at least I know I’m not alone.