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…the anatomy of social panic…

November 12, 2010

Like many other people, I suffer from a social anxiety problem.  For many this is simply a discomfort in social situations, a desire to not be in crowds.  For me, it can go well beyond that.

It has gotten worse as I’ve gotten older, though my ability to deal with it has improved.  I make choices about when and where I will put myself into situations that could trigger an episode, I prepare by making sure I take care of myself leading up to the situation and spend a lot of time alone.  I care for myself after as well, by giving myself time to recover.

I have also turned to pharmaceutical help, in the form of Xanax.  I take a low dosage, just enough to rub the edges off the anxiety, just before subjecting myself to a crowded situation.

However, despite all of that, it can still happen.  I can find myself in a crowd, unable to think, unable to breathe, sweating, faint, frozen…and when  it does happen, there is nothing more terrifying.

I can’t tell you why or where it comes from.  I just know that certain things can trigger it and I know that the only way to get past it is to get out.

I can tell you how it starts.  Usually well before I am in a crowd.  I get anxious about who will be there.  I get sick to my stomach about the idea of that many people (and that number can vary, depending on where I’m going to be and how well I know the people).

This is a reason I arrive early to events.  If I get there first, or when there are only a few people, I can convince myself it isn’t so bad, and as people start arriving, I can function.

I can tell you the next step is nervousness over space.  I start positioning people and things to give me space.  I start breathing in a more focused manner and I start to sweat.   The heat can lead to more nausea which leads to more controlled breathing.

This is why I am almost always dressed in sleeveless shirts when I go “out”…and yes, I may wear a jacket or something, but I will always end up in just the tank top (or whatever).  It is also a contributing factor to the hat you will usually see me in.  For one thing, a fedora makes a decent fan, and for another, it hides the mess my hair becomes once I start to sweat.

I can tell you what doesn’t help.  People who think they’re being helpful by crowding in to ask if I’m okay, or to cover me with their jacket/cloak/whatever because they think I must be cold.  People touching me…unless you are one of a very few trusted friends who know how/when/where it is okay to touch me.  Particularly off limits is the back, it reminds me that there are people behind me that I can not see, which only makes the crowd feel that much more crushing.

This is why I prefer to place myself in a position where I control at least one direction, preferably in front of me.  Again, this plays to getting to a place/event/venue first, getting front row tickets, etc.  This is especially true when I’m seeing live music in a small club venue.  If I can stand at the stage, I have the illusion of having an empty space in front of me, at least until the act comes on, and by then I will have other things to focus on.

And, if I have friends around me who can create the illusion of a bubble of space, all the better.

This also explains the camera to a degree.  When I have the camera, it acts like a buffer between me and the crowd, and it gives me something to focus on.

Still, there are times, when all the prep and the Xanax and the careful positioning aren’t enough, and panic creeps up.  It’s pretty easy to spot when it happens.  My body goes rigid, I hyper-ventilate, I sweat, my face gets either very, very red or very, very white…and I may say things that make no sense, or at least are out of context.  I can be vulgar and mean without even realizing that I’m doing it…and I won’t remember it later unless someone tells me (and even then, I won’t so much remember it as believe that I said/did the thing).

Sometimes it is over quickly and I’m dumped back into the pre-panic phases until I ramp up again.  Sometimes it can take an hour or more to fully come out of it.

Despite all of this, I refuse to give in to it and become a recluse hiding in my apartment.  It does, however, take a lot out of me to go to shows, conventions, parties and the like…and sometimes I just can not do it.

…so, if I’m ever rude, mean or vulgar to you in a crowd, please don’t take it personally…come see me when it isn’t so crowded, and let me have the opportunity to apologize and prove to you I’m a nice person…when I’m not gripped by an inexplicable panic.

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