My apology comes on two fronts. First, I’m sorry to people who ask me this question.
You don’t really know me and you’re trying to maintain conversation through the inevitable lull. You pull out the old faithful “so, what do you do?” expecting a good fifteen minutes where you can just coast on me nattering about how being a vet or a lawyer or a real estate agent or whatever is just great and is really taking off for me right now and blah blah blah. You probably feel a bit good about yourself for offering me a hefty turn in the conversational spotlight.
But it doesn’t go that way. Because I’m not a vet or a lawyer or a real estate agent. I’m not even a whatever.
And even if you have the guts (and I love these people, please have the guts) to keep the conversational ball rolling without changing the subject or jumping out the nearest window (and even though I don’t love the people who do this, I can sympathise), it doesn’t get any better.
Because I end up sad-bombing the conversation.
Second, I am sorry for asking that question.
Because I know it’s bad. And I can see it in a person’s face when that was the wrong question. They go very still while they mentally navigate the minefield ahead, looking for the best route, or they give me this quick, sad look like I’ve betrayed them in some unforgivable way. It’s the same look our pet Jack Russel gave us whenever we filled the plastic baby’s bath and got out the dog-shampoo.
Maybe because they are worried that I won’t think what they do is good enough. Maybe they think they should be doing more. Maybe they just don’t want to sad-bomb me.
And I always want to fix it.
But I just met the person, or don’t know them very well, and maybe if I was a charismatic extravert I could go back on it, derail that train I just set in motion. But I can’t. I don’t know how. I ride it to the end of the line because I’m an introvert with social anxiety disorder and terrible at small talk.
So I’m sorry.
But I think the world would be better and people would be happier if “so, what’s your favourite dinosaur?” was an acceptable conversation starter, and “so, what do you do?” wasn’t.
“Where have you been these last few months? We’ve been suffering without regular posts filled with your sparkling wit and hilarious cartoons!”
I know. I know, guys. I’m so sorry for abandoning you to several dull, me-less months. But I’ve had stuff on.
“What important stuff could someone who has chronic fatigue syndrome, who barely leaves the house, who doesn’t have a job and who continually tells us she’s terrified of her social life possibly have on?” I hear you say. “I mean, you’re actually inventing a conversation with imaginary fans you don’t really have. Surely, that’s rock bottom.”
… All true, but too harsh, guys.
“Oh … We’re sorry.”
Don’t worry about it. Let’s just say we’ve found the line and we’ll try not to cross it again.
What stuff have I had on? Well, a couple of weeks ago I proposed to my partner.
I wrote a Choose Your Own Adventure story about my partner arriving home to find me gone. The first page was clipped to the front door for him to find, and then he had to make choices which would lead him to other pages. I organised a number of perils for him to face, including dinosaurs, the Loch Ness Monster, a severed arm, a Furby* and a ballerina zombie. All pathways of the story converged on finding me and the last page, which had the final decision of the story: “Will you marry me?”
I know. SO ROMANTIC. Who wouldn’t want to marry me after having their hand imaginarily bitten off by the spinosaurus that was hiding in the fridge? I should write romance novels. He said yes. Everything was downright magical for about a day until people started asking what our wedding plans were, and then I came to an awful realisation.
I don’t like weddings.
Oh, marriage I’m ok with. Sure, it’s not for everyone, but I think it can nice if you and your partner have an equal, supportive relationship. (In fact, I like the idea so much that I think more people should be able to get married; can I get a hell yeah for achieving marriage equality in Australia by the end of 2015?)
There’s so much stuff in weddings that people think they need because that’s just how weddings are, but all you actually need to achieve with a wedding is a) get married, and optionally, b) celebrate with family and friends. Everything else is frosting. Which is fine if you like frosting (and are rich enough to pay for it), but we don’t (and aren’t).
We want cake and celebration. We don’t want fuss and glitz, and under no circumstances will I be put on speaker-phone. But ultimately as long we’re married by the end of it I think we’ll call it a win.
* If you don’t know what a Furby is, then you can read what Wikipedia has to say about them, but I find their account unsatisfactory as it completely ignores the saccharine, demonic horror of the toys. Think Funzo from the Simpsons.
But first a confession. I had a really hard time writing this, but an easy time drawing the pictures. In fact, I had more fun drawing these pictures than I did drawing myself being ripped apart by a bear (here), and I giggled continuously while doing that one. But the words were difficult. So this is how it turned out.
There’s this awful thing that follows me around wherever I go. Other people can’t see it, but I can. It’s always there in some guise. Maybe it’s not bothering me right now, but I can see it lurking and I know that it can attack me whenever it wants.
It’s called anxiety. Maybe you have your own version of this monster. A lot of people do.
When it comes for me I’m usually the only one who notices, but you could tell if you were paying attention. When it happens, I experience:
And a few other things which aren’t as easy to draw. Plus, lists of three are neat and the racing heart one is definitely the punchline. So we’ll just skip over hot flushes, hyperventilation and feelings of impending doom. Lists of six suck.
Actually … let’s quickly do a superficial interpretation of feelings of impending of doom, because that phrasing makes me giggle.
Lists of panic attack symptoms tend to refer to it this way. I’ve always found the terminology hilarious, but the experience is horrifying and (for me, anyway) it’s the worst part of a panic attack. But more detail later.
Even with these symptoms, I can fight it. But it isn’t easy.
If you cut off one head, another one grows back.
I used to be very shy and afraid of talking to people. Over the last few years I have fought this and it has become much easier. I am still shy, but I can talk to strangers and I am able to make new friends. I cut off that head, and my multi-headed anxiety monster grew another.
This one makes me afraid of being in crowds.
This is a problem. Basically, it makes it difficult to be anywhere other people also want to be, which covers most places worth going. So I rarely go to concerts, clubs or popular restaurants (especially the ones that won’t let you book but they’re always so busy that you have to queue to get a seat). And going Christmas shopping or travelling on public transport in peak hour are like personalised versions of burning in hell.
… saying ‘personalised versions of burning in hell’ makes me want to go on a picture tangent. And I will. Because it’s my blog and I can if I want to.
And now back to anxiety.
The place I have to fight the anxiety monster the most is the supermarket. Because you have to go all the time or you run out of food and toilet paper. And you need those.
When I can, I try to go to the supermarket with my partner so that I don’t have to face it alone. It’s important that I do face it, because this is the best way to teach myself that there isn’t really anything to be afraid of. But of course I am afraid. I shuffle around, looking at my feet, trying to remain calm. It only takes one extra little thing for the monster to attack. A decision.
That’s all it takes for my brain to break.
I remember when I was a kid riding my bike and the bike chain popped off. I spun the pedals, but they felt strange and loose and I couldn’t get any traction. The bike slowed down and wobbled. I tried pedalling faster and faster, but the bike didn’t respond.
It’s like that. You put some information into your brain. It spins, but nothing comes out the other side. You’ve lost a brain-cog. So you spin it faster. And faster. People are looking at you. They expect you to say something. Your silence is getting weirder and weirder. The bike is wobbling.
I always think the crash is going to go something like:
But that’s never actually happened.
And that’s feelings of impending doom. You feel like something’s broken, either in your mind or your body, and you’re about to die or go mad or experience other doom-like fates. And, sure, it may not be everyone’s vision of doom, but screaming in public and having my head explode feels pretty doom-y to me.
Mostly, I’m proud to say, I cope. I may not see many concerts, but I catch public transport and buy my friends and family gifts for Christmas. I buy food. I keep myself alive and my home in stock of toilet paper.
There are days when it’s too much and it feels like there’s no way I can avoid the doom (the one where I scream in public and my head explodes). On those days I don’t go to the supermarket. I can live off my emergency stash of two-minute noodles and resort to using tissues for a while, but usually my partner is kind enough to go shopping for me. I stay home alone.
The monster has a head for this too. I start to worry about failing, about not coping, about being worthless. All the predatory pieces of my mind come out to feed. It’s the hardest thing to fight off.
And then one day I was home alone, unable to face the supermarket and my impending doom. I started the old cycle of worry … and then I stopped. Instead, I started drawing tenuous parallels between myself and Disney characters who find it hard to function in society due to a crippling fear of people. And before I knew it …
So maybe the moral of this story is that when life gives you lemons, sing to those lemons about how awesome and magical you are. And if it still bothers you afterwards that they’re lemons and not lemonade then at least you have an ice castle to be bothered in.
Or maybe that’s nonsense and the moral is just that anxiety is hard and it’s hard every single day, but you can still do life.