Social Anxiety, Social Awkwardness & Depression - A Devastating Combination
For mental health awareness week, the youth wing of my political party asked us to share our stories & experiences of mental health issues, if we feel comfortable doing so. As I've said multiple times in the past, I firmly believe that the best way to tackle the stigma around mental health is simply by talking about it. So, after wrestling with the idea in my head for a few days - and despite the fact that that I said in my last post I didn't want to turn this blog into some kind of personal diary - I've decided to open up about my experiences with mental illness throughout my life. I'll be covering the topics of social anxiety/social awkwardness, depression, suicidal ideation, and negative body image. In doing so, I hope that anybody reading this who is experiencing any of these issues will know that they are not alone; that although these things may not necessarily go away, they do get better. And often, the best thing to do is to reach out - trust me when I say the worst thing you can do is to suffer alone.
Logically, I suppose it makes sense to go back to the start. It's probably a strange thing to say, but I don't actually remember too much about my childhood. When I was a kid, I was always shy and quiet. I would often prefer to stay indoors than go outside to play with my friends, much to the annoyance of my parents. In primary school, my report cards would always be along the lines of "Steven is a pleasure to teach, but needs to work on his confidence." I had some pretty good friends in my class, although I found it easier to make friends with girls than boys. Most of the boys in my class were crazy about football, whereas I couldn't stand it. If I ever did try to join in, I got put in the goals, and got told not to kick the ball. I thought that it was just because I was bad at football, although a good few years later I remember seeing a social media meme with thousands of likes talking about 'Always putting the fat kid in goals', which in hindsight, was exactly what they were doing.
I've always struggled with my weight, and in fact it's still an ongoing problem. As a kid, it's probably not an exaggeration to say I was verging on obese. I remember being about 11 years old when I properly started feeling ashamed of the way I looked. In the P.E. changing rooms, I would try and hide my body as I got changed. I developed stretch marks on my belly and shoulders, and although I desperately wanted to lose weight, I still continued eating excess junk food. At the end of Primary 7, I moved to another primary school, leaving behind the life I'd known, and was suddenly faced with the daunting reality of being in a brand new environment, having to make a bunch of new friends, which was incredibly stressful for me. This exaggerated my already deepening issues, and as I moved into high school, things took a nosedive.
I was only 12 years old when I first started experiencing panic attacks. They would just come on suddenly, often in school, which was incredibly embarrassing. One time it was so bad, the school actually had to phone an ambulance. When it came to P.E., I stopped taking my top off in the changing room altogether, instead wearing my gym t-shirt underneath my school clothes.
I'll come back to my body image issues later on, however now I move onto the main crux of this post - Social Anxiety & Depression. Nowadays, it's actually a very common thing, and although there are still misconceptions about them, I think most people have at least a vague understanding of what they are. When I was in my teenage years however, I'd never heard of either of them. All I knew was that I struggled with pretty much any social situation, and everybody else seemed... happier than me.
I can't pinpoint exactly when or how I first developed these. All I can say is that it meant a majority of my time at high school was difficult. As I got older, things actually got progressively worse. I hated the way I looked, I hated the sound of my voice, I hated the fact that every conversation was a struggle to me. I hated that I didn't feel like a normal teenager. I retreated into a corner, and although I had some friends, I largely kept to myself. I've often told the story of the time that a girl who had been in some of my classes for 3 years came up to me and asked, in all seriousness, if I was new. There was another time in 3rd year that I went away on a school trip, and the next week, when a teacher in one of my classes was handing out work to the people who had been away, she didn't give me any. When I asked her why, she stifled a laugh and said that she didn't realise I'd been gone.
Obviously these are kinda funny, but at the same time they highlight just how quiet and forgettable I was. In my head though, it was anything but quiet. I had started slipping into a bad place, where thoughts of self-harm and even suicide were becoming more and more common. Things would be so much easier, I sometimes thought, if I wasn't around. Nobody would even notice I was gone. Because I was so socially anxious/awkward, that made it even more difficult for me to speak out, hence the title of this post. I did eventually talk to a couple of friends, but I never properly revealed the extent of it. There was one friend who I kinda mentioned stuff to, and what she said back to me is something I'll never forget - "What do you have to be sad about?"
She kinda had a point - on the outside, my life seemed pretty good. I was getting decent grades at school, I lived in a financially stable household, had some pretty good friends, and by 17 I had a part-time job and was doing driving lessons. Because of this, I actually felt incredibly guilty - "there are so many people worse off than me", I thought, "and I have the audacity to go around feeling sorry for myself?" As I've already mentioned, however, inside my head was turmoil, and things started to collapse around me. After suffering a particularly bad panic attack behind the wheel, I had to give up my driving lessons, something which I've never picked back up. For various reasons I won't get into, I also walked out of my job halfway through a shift and never went back. Rather than relieving the stress though, these things made me feel like a total failure.
By this point, I was approaching the end of high school, and though most of my peers were excited to leave, I was terrified. Don't get me wrong, I know it was an absolutely toxic environment, but to me it was almost like a safety net. It was all I'd ever really known, and the thought of going into the 'big bad world' was too much for me to handle. I was having frequent panic attacks, I had moments both in school and at home where I would burst into tears for no apparent reason. I was miserable. Although I had eventually told some of my inner circle of friends & family what had been going on, again I never really went into the extent of it. This all culminated in a pretty serious incident which I'm not mentally prepared to talk about, but it gave everybody around me a pretty serious shock.
At this point, I want to skip ahead a few years and talk about what things are like at the moment. I can confidently say that I am no longer depressed. I still have my moments of course, who doesn't? A quick piece of advice - if you're ever feeling sad or down, let yourself feel sad or down. In this world, I think it's normal to feel a bit depressed sometimes - to quote Meredith Grey from my favourite TV show Grey's Anatomy:
Nonetheless, the anxiety is most certainly still there. Don't get me wrong, I'm certainly better than I used to be: I've not long finished my last exam at university, I have better relationships with the people around me (especially my family, who I think I pushed away for a while), and I have some pretty amazing friends. In fact, when I think about it, I have friends from a wide range of different places - university, high school, my political party (vote in the EU elections on the 23rd of May people!), and so many other sources. Even a couple of years ago, it's something I wouldn't have thought possible.
That's not to say I'm totally better, of course. I still consider my social anxiety quite bad, and to be honest that's something I think will never go away. I still have very low self-esteem, and again I don't feel like that's going to change anytime soon. If someone doesn't explicitly tell me that they like me, for example, I assume that they don't. I've accepted that to an extent, I'm always going to be awkward and anxious.
It has lead to a lot of difficulties throughout my life that a lot of people don't think about - for example, I once found a suspicious mole on my body which I should've got checked right away. Instead, I put off calling my GP for over a year (they have a weird system where you have to call, tell a receptionist what is wrong, then hang around and wait for a doctor to call you back. Oh, and if you're over 18, nobody else can make the appointment for you. Amazing, eh?). On top of that, I've never had a romantic relationship - in fact, I've never even been on a date. There are multiple reasons for this, which I may explore in a future post, but the social anxiety/awkwardness plays a massive role - if anyone has ever asked me out in the past, I always, without fail, assume that it's some kind of joke, and they're just trying to play with my mind. The following is a picture that a friend sent me to a few years ago. I imagine it was supposed to be funny, but you can see how it kinda hurt:
(Also worth mentioning I've been compared to Sheldon Cooper by many people in my life - oh how I loathe the token awkward character in TV shows. Always portrays the awkwardness as being funny, whereas in real life it's actually a horrible feeling. But I digress.)
Finally, although I've shifted a few pounds, my relationship with my body is still toxic. I have days where I near-enough starve myself, then I have other days where I eat far, far too much. No matter how much other people tell me I look fine, good, smart, handsome etc (not to sound cocky - it's mainly from my Mum ngl), I simply can't believe it. I'll leave body image for now, but I fully intend to do a full post at some point specifically talking about male body image.
We're coming to the end of this post (I'm aware that I've been rambling a fair bit, whilst also managing to not go into masses of detail - quite the talent eh?), but not before I go into what the whole point of this was:
This wasn't just for me to pour my heart out - I want to help people who are going through similar experiences to realise that they're not alone. Never ever feel ashamed of who you are or the way that you feel. We are all different, and we are all wonderful in our own ways. Despite the self-depricating humour that is so prevalent in this country, it is important to acknowledge our own strengths -particularly if we're in a dark place - and we must realise that it is not cocky or self-absorbed to do so. Allow me to demonstrate - and I invite you to join in, by either typing, speaking out loud, or even just thinking about what makes you a great person:
Despite being socially awkward, I know that I am a nice person. I care about the people around me, and that is often reflected in the fact that people often feel like they can open up to me, sometimes after only knowing me for a short period of time. The silver lining in going through what I went through means that I am now really good at empathising with people. Academically, I have done very well throughout my life, and I have completed 4 years of university, which is a massive achievement. I also really like my hair!
(That is not me in this GIF - This is in fact global superstar Rihanna)
So, there we have it. I hope this hasn't bored you too much. To anybody who has me on social media etc, if you ever want a bit of a chat about this kinda thing, please drop me a message. I will be more than happy to talk to you, no matter how well or how little we know each other. To those who are going through any kind of mental health issue (though in line with this post, particularly anxiety or depression), know that you are loved. If there are times you want to be by yourself, that's absolutely fine, we all enjoy a bit of time to ourselves. But please, do not close yourself off for days, weeks, or months on end. And whatever you do, do not give up. I am living proof that things get better - it will take time, it will likely be a long, bumpy ride, and it may never fully go away. But please, trust me - life is absolutely worth living.