Social anxiety


Fifteen years have passed since the day that changed my life. It seems like yesterday and it seems like a century ago. So much has happened since that day – good things, although there’s plenty more I hope for. And yet, I remember that day so well, and the months that followed.

To celebrate, I’m repeating my post from five years ago.

—o—

On 3rd March, 2002, I received an email. It began: “Hi, it’s Gill Balbes (as was) here. Was talking to Jane the other night and she was telling me about how she’d been in contact with you and that you remember me (as I do you) so I thought I’d say hello. Schooldays seem a long way off but it would be nice to hear how you’re doing.”

Schooldays certainly were a long way off. It was over thirty years since I’d walked out of the school gates, vowing never to have any connection with any of the girls I’d known over the previous seven years – a few even longer. It was only recently that I’d added my name to the Friends Reunited site, opening up the possibility of contact, although I didn’t expect anyone to write to me.

But Jane did write and I made a decision: that if I was going to correspond with anyone from school, I would make the relationship meaningful by being open about what happened to me there. If they didn’t want to discuss it, there wasn’t much point in reuniting.

Fortunately, Jane did agree to discuss it. She also apologised for what she did to me, although I didn’t hold her or any of the former pupils to blame as adults for their actions as children. I always knew the bullying (which I called teasing then) had had a bad effect on the rest of my life, but never thought the children were mature enough to understand what they were causing.

Jane soon put me in contact with Gill, who had more time to write. Gill and I corresponded almost daily for a long time, and she became a very special friend to me. It was Gill who told me about social anxiety. I didn’t realise the significance of it at first, but gradually two things became clear. I was not alone in being this way and it’s possible to improve. (I don’t think it makes sense to say there’s a cure, and I don’t think there needs to be one.)

Gill has been the catalyst for many changes in my life – for starting to write, for starting a blog, and much more. We have now met several times. After ten years, I still count Gill as a very special friend.

—o—

Actually, Gill and Jane are both very special friends. Do you have a friend story you want to share?

A lot of things have changed since I was young. One of the things is that we talk about mental health. That is, we talk about certain types of mental illnesses and disorders, while others are still off the radar.

 

One of the disorders that is still not talked about much is social anxiety disorder, which I defined here.

 

There are reasons for that. By definition, people who have social anxiety don’t like to draw attention to themselves at all. They particularly don’t want to admit to what feels like a very big failing. But it needs to be talked about, because a lot of people out there are suffering needlessly. They suffer from loneliness, from a lack of empathy and understanding, from embarrassment, from anxiety itself.

So, for my contribution to World Mental Health Day, I’m linking to an article I wrote last year for Stigma Fighters: Pressing the Button.

Have a nice day!

Help me if you can, I’m feeling down.
And I do appreciate your being ’round.
Help me get my feet back on the ground…

The Beatles

I suffer from HAY fever. No, not that hay fever; I’m glad to say that has never troubled me. I’m talking about that HAY question, the conversation starter: How are you? At least it’s usually a conversation starter. Except that, in my case, it usually isn’t.

Sneeze in white hankie

When I hear that question, I break out coughing, sneezing and spluttering. No, not literally, but the anxiety-filled equivalent: panic. Spluttering inside and nothingness outside. Confidence in one thing only: this will not go well. And through it all, I force myself to continue.

“Fine, thanks. How are you?”

Answer.

Here’s where every other conversation slips seamlessly into something meaningful. In the current conversation, there’s a pause that lasts slightly too long until the other person moves away to talk to someone more fun, more interesting, more communicative. Clearly I’m boring and miserable, and I don’t want to talk.

Oh, but I do. It’s just that a topic for discussion with someone I hardly know doesn’t come to me. Yes, I could make it up. I could sit alone in my garden or at my computer and make up a conversation between two relative strangers. I could make the speakers hesitate if the plot demands it. I could make the words flow if I want them to. Because the speakers are puppets and I’m pulling the strings.

Who’s pulling my strings when I’m down there on the stage? Whoever it is, is slacking on the job, or letting the strings go slack.

I began this post thinking that it would end in a plea for help. Please tell me what to say to someone I hardly know to stop them before they glide away. But maybe I know what to say. I just have to be able to  rummage around the jumbled handbag of my mind and pull out the words I need at the right time. Or to put the words in the front pocket well in advance, so that they’re easy to find when I need them.

There, I’ve answered my own question. But don’t let that stop you from offering advice. It will still be appreciated.

Following on from my announcement of changes to my blog, this post links all three themes of my blog: writing, social anxiety and living in Israel.

I get it when women say they need to talk problems over with women friends. There’s something about the conversations that makes them different from conversations with men. Yet, for most of my life, I didn’t have any women I was close enough to to confide in. Social anxiety caused that. It told me to keep my distance from women… from everyone… because while I needed them, they didn’t need me or want my friendship and I shouldn’t cling to them.

RambamRambamI still don’t meet other women very often, but I’m getting better at it. There’s one I often meet. We write together and talk, too. And two days ago I met up with someone I haven’t seen for many years. I even initiated the meeting and travelled all the way to Haifa for it. Well, for this country it’s a long way. The bus journey from Jerusalem to Haifa takes all of two hours.

We had a pleasant and interesting chat together. She also gave me a brief but fascinating tour of Rambam Hospital, where she works. In particular, I saw how the underground carpark can be turned into a whole hospital in times of emergency. Amazing!

TechnionChurchill1

Sir Winston Churchill at the Churchill Building, Technion

As I was in Haifa anyway, I did a bit of research for a novel I began in November and plan to return to. I wandered around The Technion Institute of Technology and found some details to add or change in the novel. It was hot and humid and the paths of the campus, up there on the Carmel mountain, are very steep, but I’m glad I went.

The title of this post also has a different significance for me and connects to the exciting news I hinted at in my last post. Along with another author – the lovely Emma Rose Millar, who appears again at the end of this post – I have been working on two novellas based on the painting The Women Friends by Klimt. The first, which will be published early in 2017 by Crooked Cat, tells the story of Selina, a country girl, desperate to escape the demons of her past and searching for solace in the glittering city of Vienna. The second novella follows Janika, who is Jewish. It begins when the first novella finishes, in 1938, a time when Vienna wasn’t a good place for a Jew to be in, to say the least.

So that’s my big exciting news. If you’re interested, you can also read about how I’m spending the summer over on Nancy Jardine’s blog. How are you spending your summer? Or winter, if you’re in the other half of the world?

AnnouncementPicWithAuthors

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Author of the Day

Today, I highlight two authors – the two who appear in the post.

Emma Rose Millar writes historical fiction. Five Guns Blazing, set in the eighteenth century and written together with Kevin Allen, follows a convict’s daughter from London to Barbados. More information is on Emma’s blog.

Nancy Jardine is a multi-talented author, who writes historical romantic adventures, intriguing contemporary mystery thrillers and YA time travel historical adventures. Her published novels are too numerous to list here, but can be found on Nancy’s blog.

On Tuesday, I was a guest author on the The Story Ape’s blog, where I wrote about Israeli folk dancing.

Ailsa Abraham commented:

I started in late middle age with Breton dancing and although exhausting it was such fun to be moving in rhythm with other people. Metaphor for life, perhaps?

The comment got me thinking about my relationship with dancing.

It began at the age of four with ballet. I had private lessons because the class was on Saturdays and I couldn’t join that for religious reasons. But I was allowed to take part in the annual concert, which was also on a Saturday. We walked to the hall because travel wasn’t allowed, and the teacher took the clothes I had to change into and wasn’t allowed to carry. I enjoyed ballet. I would probably have enjoyed the class more than the private lessons. I’d have enjoyed dancing in rhythm with other girls, but religion prevented me from doing that. I took some of the ballet exams. The best remark I got was that I had a very good sense of rhythm.

I don’t remember how I picked up the twist. Maybe from watching it on the telly. Maybe we did it at summer schools. I remember being good at it. I remember dancing it on the last day of primary school.

There were never many occasions to dance while I was at school. A wedding here, a party there. It was something I knew how to do. I watched what everyone else did and copied them. I always had confidence in my ability to dance. They laughed at me when I spoke, but never when I danced.

MeAndTheTribe

Being different (with a dance group in an Indian village)

At university there were several opportunities to dance. I loved them all. In particular, I liked dancing to the Rolling Stones’ song, Brown Sugar. I didn’t know what it was about; I just loved the music. And I loved jumping around in time with the music and in time with all the other dancers. This was something I could do at least as well as everyone else.

People I worked with were surprised to see me dance at all, let alone better and in a more liberated way than most. They assumed anxiety over talking must extend to every other activity. They were wrong.

I don’t know why it took me so long to discover folk dancing in Israel. For once, this was an activity in which I could be in step with everyone else. In everyday life I was always out of step. The only problem is that there’s more to going dancing than dancing. It’s also a time for talking.

My conclusion? Dancing is not a metaphor for my life. It’s a metaphor for what my life might have been.

If this post seems a bit confused, I think that’s because writing it has confused me. In the words of Fagin in the musical Oliver, I think I’d better think it out again. Can you help? Help me get my feet back on the ground? No, Beatles. I’m happier jumping in the air.

It’s probably unfair of me to call out this particular person. There are probably millions of people in the world who would do the same kind of thing. But yesterday it happened to be this one and she upset me. Not massively – just a bit.

She followed me on Twitter and I followed her back, as you do. Then she sent me a message and I replied and she wrote back. Here’s the conversation:

TwitterConversationWithSusanMcIntire

It was an interesting question. I considered my answer carefully. According to her Twitter profile, she lives in Hawaii and is an author, mentor, speaker, entrepreneur and visual thinker. I chose to ignore all that and think of her as a person. She chose to ignore my choice and answer as my mentor. I didn’t ask for her advice; she just gave it.

But, Susan McIntire, you don’t know me, so how do you know whether your advice has any relevance for me? How do you know whether calling a friend to discuss meeting is ridiculously easy for me? Or even whether I have a friend to call? How do you know whether your advice will be useful for me or the opposite – that it’ll make me feel like a failure because what for you is ridiculously easy doesn’t feel like that for me?

So thank you, Susan McIntire. I know you mean well (and probably want to find new clients) but I’d rather you didn’t do that to me.

As Firefox likes to say: Well, this is embarrassing!

But this really is.

At the beginning of the scavenger hunt that I described in my previous post, Tali, who runs Israel ScaVentures, held up some cards with words on them and asked us to think of associations. Words like DANGER and OPPORTUNITY.

I’m not good at these excercises. My mind tends to go blank when it’s expected to be spontaneous. Fortunately I didn’t have to say anything; the others all come up with associated words.

Then Tali held up a card with the word

WallsI didn’t suggest anything for that word, either.

All the words were connected to our activities for the rest of the morning. WALLS was no exception.

Moses Montefiore, the British philanthropist, decided to build the neighbourhood of Yemin Moshe in an attempt to alleviate the poverty and overcrowding within the old city walls. 15,000 people lived there at the time (mid-19th century).

Montefiore also used money bequeathed by the American, Judah Touro, to set up the adjacent neighbourhood of Mishkenot She’ananim. Its high walls and barred windows were designed to give people the confidence to move into it.

Attacks by Arabs during the 1930s prompted the destruction of internal walls so that fighters could move around Yemin Moshe without detection. The five iron gates were also built at that time, effectively walling in the neighbourhood.

Tali Kaplinski Tarlow of Israel ScaVentures

Tali Kaplinski Tarlow of Israel ScaVentures

But before we learned all that, when Tali held out that card with the word WALLS, I thought of an association immediately. But I didn’t say it. I was too embarrassed. What I thought of was social anxiety and the way it builds an imaginary wall around a person, keeping that person separate from the rest of society. It’s the reason for the title of this blog. It’ll come up in the interview I’m posting on Thursday.

But it didn’t come out of my mouth on Sunday.

As I might have written in a story about me, “She sighed, slowly shaking her head from side to side.”

Links

Israel ScaVentures

The Almond Bakery Café that replenished us with cakes after the hunt.

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