I first opened up about my mental health struggles to my wife around 6 years ago, which was when I initially began to understand them. It was two years later that I decided to go public with it. This was mainly for selfish reasons, as it made me more comfortable knowing people already knew about “my issues,” as I called them. Yet, after I received so many kind messages from people telling me it had helped them too, and thanking me for my ‘bravery,’ I decided to continue doing what I could to help raise awareness of this widespread and still under-spoken about topic.
If you can spare a few minutes, please read on. It might be important for you, or perhaps for someone you know. It’s a short tale that may be familiar.
There’s a man I know whose social anxiety is often so bad he can’t even answer his own front door, even if he knows who it is. He would shake with fear. He’d become so twitchy and agitated he would drop things and lock himself in the bathroom. When he tried to speak, he could hardly form a sentence.
On one occasion he spent 3 hours building up the courage simply to walk to the shop. He was travelling, and he didn’t know anybody in the area. Yet, once he was brave enough to leave the house and a stranger in a passing car honked and waved, his anxiety became so intolerable in that moment that he ducked behind a bush and waited for his anxiety-induced panic attack to pass. Later that night was a good friend’s 40th birthday party. He missed the party because he was too afraid to leave the house and catch the train. That level of anxiety can shadow him for weeks, sometimes months at a time.
Most times this kind of “issue” happens — there have been hundreds of such incidents over the 30+ years he’s suffered with it, more if you count his extreme shyness at school — the guy is consumed with intensely burning skin, the itching so bad he regularly draws blood. He can’t think straight, and becomes agitated, and confused with simple things. These bouts can last for many minutes. There are often tears. This is a very rare and very unfortunate by-product of his anxiety, and, in public, it can be a humiliating experience.
It is his fear of these physical symptoms that can sometimes trigger the anxiety in the first place. Other times it’s in reverse. He’s not sure which way round is more powerful, but they can both be crippling.
Until recently, the only way this guy had ever really managed to control these “issues,” that come and go in weeks, months or even years-long spells, was by using alcohol to suppress the anxiety. The drinking became so bad at times over the years that he sometimes consumed a bottle of gin in the morning before going to work. Unfortunately, professional help didn’t actually help at all, and in several periods the drinking threatened to derail him.
Finally, with the right medication over the last six months, he has, in the main, managed to regain control over that darkness, and can now drink for enjoyment.
He believes some of his old friends struggle to believe this tale of alcohol abuse. Many people drink more than he does. But of course, it is the ‘need’ to drink, not the desire. In truth it doesn’t matter what others believe. If this resonates with you, you already know most high-functioning addicts or substance dependents are masters of disguise.
Neither this guy nor the doctors can be sure what first caused this extreme form of social anxiety — one recently told him he exhibited classic symptoms of PTSD, likely triggered by a couple of traumatic events in his younger years. Whatever it was, it was certainly his social anxiety that initially caused the drinking, and the drinking in turn later caused him to behave in ways he will always regret.
These “issues” have cost him friends and loved ones. They have cost him job opportunities and other life experiences. Both his mental and physical health have suffered immeasurably. When he’s enduring a spell of continued anxiety issues, he often can’t go out and exercise for months, which of course worsens his physical condition, and thus, his state of mind. It’s a vicious cycle. Simply stated, it has dominated his life for at least three decades, and there have even been times when he thought he simply couldn’t handle it any more.
Luckily, it has never reached that extreme low point. Along with the medication he now takes daily and perhaps always will, thanks to a few people who never judged him, and accepted him regardless of his weird, sometimes embarrassing situations, not to mention the mood swings and bouts of often unreasonable behaviour, he has emerged from the shade with a new-found passion for life, and recently, more days than not have been spent outside the darkness.
He had suffered in silence for so many years because he didn’t want to burden people with his struggles, didn’t want to make them uncomfortable and feel pity for him regarding his “issues.”
Before the medication, he has been missing in action at times others thought he needn’t be. Worse, in the times he felt better, he would make up for it, usually to extreme levels. It has caused him fights and fallouts, and periods of depression he found hard to shake. He even neglected visiting family for long stretches. It was simply too stressful, and the fact he wasn’t able to explain to them the reasons exacerbated the problem. He has been considered aloof, rude, and even arrogant by friends and strangers alike. He has been ashamed about so many things for many years. He hopes this post will explain a few of those things.
Mercifully, in the guy’s thirties there was a spell of close to 8 years in which his anxiety “issues” randomly departed, though they were always in the back of his mind. During those apparently halcyon days he was able to thrive and get a university degree, as well as teach English abroad — things he could never have imagined in those darker times. He even appeared on an international TV show, and there were also a couple of scary public book launch events that passed without incident. Almost. He was still so nervous, his wife had to do his reading for him.
So, it was a terrible day indeed when, 6 years ago, totally out of the blue after those 8 or so anxiety-free years, the “issues” came back with a vengeance. It came as a devastating blow and set those dark periods swirling again.
Thank you for reading this far. You may not have worked it out, but that guy was me. It is still me. Steven Moore. That ’normal,’ confident guy you thought you understood.
I continue to suffer from episodic bouts of extreme social anxiety, but the medication had been amazing at keeping it under control. I am experiencing a social, anxiety freedom I haven’t had in years, and man does it feel good.
If you’re reading this and have ever met me in person, you have probably spoken to me without having a clue of what I often deal with on a daily basis. There’s a high chance I was dealing with it then. I am good at hiding it. Too good, I suppose. I suffered in silence all those years ago for the reasons stated above.
But it is currently Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK. Once I first felt confident enough to emerge from my mental health closet, I decided I would try to become a kind of advocate for mental health awareness. I don’t do a lot, but I do what I can. That’s why I’m sharing this with you now.
Why? There was a time — the first two decades or more — when I didn’t understand my own situation. I denied what should have been obvious… that I had mental health “issues.” Instead, I judged other people for theirs.
In the last several years, a few people I have known — many of you will have known them too, or someone like them — have taken their own lives. I never saw it coming. I doubt you did either. More importantly, there’s a good chance they themselves didn’t believe it would reach such a tragic point.
People need to talk about their “issues” and share their burdens, but it is very difficult, and almost impossible for some people. It was impossible for me for so long.
We as humans need to continue removing the ridiculous stigma surrounding mental health and open up to ourselves and to one another. It is the only way.
I am lucky. I have an extremely supportive wife who understands me and has always supported me. We all need to be as supportive as she has been, including myself.
Most of us cannot do it alone.
The next time you see someone who appears to be struggling mentally, give them your time, or if need be, lend them a shoulder to cry on. Don’t judge them. None of us know what “issues” each other is going through at any given time. It can be so many different things, or it could be just one thing.
Spare a thought for them, especially as we emerge from such crazy and difficult times.
One day it might be you.
I will always be there for you too.