When I was a teenager I was the life of the party, the first on the dance floor, the one always arranging social events and trying to get everyone together. Very confident and comfortable with a solid group of friends and an extended group of friends a mile long. I would talk to anyone, I was up for almost anything and I LOVED being social and spending time with my family. But that was before my bipolar set in…..
These days when I am unwell I have trouble leaving the house, I am reclusive. Between my anxiety and my paranoia there is not much space for normal interaction with other people. On top of this, if I am depressed, I am internalising and it is as if there is a thick fog separating me from the rest of the world. If on the other hand I am manic, I am over-stimulated and I can’t focus on any one thing for very long. In a mixed state I am even more confused.
In any case, I am extremely self conscious, every little aspect of how I look and how I interact with people I assess and reassess, obsessively. I am extremely aware of being overweight and less attractive than I used to be and I am fidgeting and forever readjusting my clothes and my hair etc etc and, well, you get the picture. I also know that I don’t speak as eloquently or intelligently as I used to and I am forever regretting the words that come out of my mouth.
I’m trying to interact ‘properly’ with the people around me. If they are people I don’t know, I am trying to make the best first impression, or even better, no impression at all. That is to say, I would rather that they didn’t even remember me in ten minutes time. If it is people I know the stress is multiplied, trying to be recognisably me so that they can relate to me. In many cases this is impossible but I try to find ways to connect with them. I usually revert to the safety of reminiscing, but this is also difficult sometimes due to my memory.
With my memory problems from Electroconvulsive Therapy and Bipolar in general, it is impossible for me to remember every social interaction that I have and consequently I am repeatedly embarrassed when I have forgotten a conversation or interaction I had with someone. It makes me feel stupid and it makes me look like I don’t care enough to remember. This increases my social anxiety substantially. It must be extremely frustrating and tiresome for the people around me and I am extremely conscious of that fact and yet there is nothing I can do. I keep lists of important dates and things that need to be done or remembered, but I can’t write every detail down. And then comes my paranoia.
Being paranoid has cost me friendships, relationships with relatives and causes me great distress in daily interactions. I always feel people are staring at me and judging me negatively. I feel friends and family are judging me, for the way I manage my mental health and my life in general. I feel people are trying to take my husband away from me, or convince him he can do better. Plus the multitude of other ways I become paranoid on a daily basis. It can render me paralysed. For example, I often find myself seeking solace in my car when I have ventured out of the house, trying to hide from all the people that I am sure must be laughing or shaking their heads about me. My husband assures me regularly that no one is actually doing this, but I am paranoid and convinced nevertheless at the time.
So I have gone from being in the thick of the social circuit, to trying desperately not to be noticed, on the far outer edge of the circuit. But there is hope….part of my plan for wellness includes me challenging this anxiety and paranoia and pushing myself, little by little, to interact with people more and socialise. I know that everyday life is much nicer when you interact in a normal friendly manner with people you meet. I also know that when I spend quality time with friends and family, I feel better for it, in almost all instances. On that point, more than a few people have asked me what they can do to make me feel more comfortable, so here is a list of a few things that help me (in no particular order):
- Be positive, negativity only brings me down;
- Reminisce, talking about old times reminds me who I am and how much we care about one another; it makes me hopeful that the future will be as good as the old days were;
- Offer time out or quiet time every half hour or so, often I get tired and need a few minutes to myself;
- Talk about yourself not just me; I spend a lot of time talking about me, I would often rather talk about you and your life;
- Try not to be condescending, I may be sick but I am still an adult;
- Agree to disagree and talk about something else; if for some reason we are disagreeing on something, recognise that arguing is a waste of energy that I don’t have;
- If it’s not asking too much (and I really mean that), do a little bit of homework before you see me; if you have a basic understanding of Bipolar Disorder, you will be able to be even more thoughtful and understanding;
- Be aware of the people around us, shelter me a little from crowds or rowdy children for example;
- Most of all while doing all of the above, try to treat me as normally as possible; I realise the irony in that, but I think you know what I mean.
So that sums up my social anxiety and paranoia. Can anyone relate to this?