I am best in a one-to-one situation where other people are concerned. Once a group reaches critical mass, I start to unfurl like a badly-made flag, and can easily come apart at the seams.
…I suffer from social anxiety. Crippling at times: large groups of people I find completely overwhelming, and usually have to hide myself away after any gathering in order to recover my shape.
But it is more than this. I often fail to understand the nuances, the subtleties, the unspoken rules of social intercourse. Inclined to take things literally in this most-demanding of spheres, I am caught out time after time by social niceties which I take as promises or statements of intent. I assume that gushing statements like, ‘We’ll be in touch before such and such a date…’ are genuinely meant, and not, as it sometimes appears, throw-away lines used to deflect and distance.
I do not have the equipment to deal with this kind of social code. It is beyond me. I feel excluded by it most of the time.
If the event has a purpose, I can cope – usually; but unstructured time filled with social chit-chat drives me into silence and panic; I ‘disappear’ because I have nothing to add to these kinds of conversations. I do not get them, by and large, and feel isolated, weird and alone when surrounded by them.
Such formlessness (in my eyes) becomes rapidly unbearable, even threatening, to me – and I have had to walk out of such meetings on more than one occasion when a full-on panic attack has started. For this reason, I found meetings at school – whether full Staff or departmental – almost beyond belief awful and would, I am ashamed to say, disrupt proceedings simply to try and release the ghastly tension a bit, to try and move things on from the endless turgid maundering.
I now know, to my vast relief, that I am not alone in this; that several people I have befriended here in Glastonbury find socialising as enigmatic, painful and discombobulating as I do. I know, finally, that I am not a failure; that, however you define it or label me, I was born with this lack of social grace, confidence, awareness, ability – and that many of us are so disabled. Call it being on the Autistic Spectrum, if you wish (many have!), or socially clumsy or whatever pejorative term grabs you!
I am coming to terms with the permanent nature of this condition. No therapy has made a blind bit of difference. Not because I am stubborn, lazy or blind to my own faults, but because, like my asthma and, more recently, low-acting thyroid, it is a lifelong state of affairs; it is bred in the Alienora Browning genetic make-up, that is to say. I am not alone in my family: several distant relatives had more severe cases of this exact syndrome. I am, I suspect, relatively high-functioning in this regard, which is why others have always accused me of being difficult rather than considering a familial social dis-ease.
I have learnt ways to mask the depth of my anxiety. I have learnt behavioural tricks which enable me to join in as best I can. I spend a great deal of my time listening to others, which can disguise the problem to a certain extent.
There are other parts to this which I am not going to discuss today. Boundaries are an on-going problem for me – and I am having to set firms ones in place because my social persona has, not for the first time, given a wrong impression and encouraged an unwanted incursion into my private space.
I am learning new and lovely ways of self-soothing, however – and, once I have posted this, will return to the glory of making stewed apple (from the garden) and blackberry compote, and then sitting out in the garden surrounded by therapeutic warmth, earth, plant life and colour.