My Triumph Over Social Anxiety

Sean - 27 - USA

I used to be afraid to leave my apartment, it wasn’t the outside that scared me, like agoraphobia or something, it was people. Especially large crowds, and events, restaurants, parties, parks, pretty much anywhere outside my bedroom. It started at college. I went to the best university I got into, and now in retrospect, I’d say that people should choose their university based on where they are most likely to succeed, rather than name or status. It was a huge university in the middle of a city, with thousands of students walking around campus and classes with hundreds. And I’m from a suburb, not used to walking around city streets, and as soon as I got to the college dorms I was surrounded by people and I hated it. It got much worse over that first year, I was jealous of all my friends from high school who had a lot of fun where they went, but I didn’t make a single friend or go to any parties. I didn’t learn much either, stopped going to classes entirely and just passed based on essays.

I did have a girlfriend from high school, she was great and really supported me.  But I was pretty bad for her. If she wanted to see me, she would have to come to my place, and we spent the whole time in my room, mostly watching TV. She was a very social person, but after I got this social anxiety problem I prevented her from going out, making friends, I pretty much made her college life as lonely and uneventful as mine. So we broke up. Of course after losing my girlfriend, I lost the few long-term friends I had. Not because they didn’t want to be around me or didn’t understand, just because I wouldn’t see them or join in activities for so long that I started to feel alienated and detached from them, and more and more embarrassed and anxious to see them again.

Second year I lived in a shared apartment, and that’s when it got the worst. It was much better than the dorms, and my flatmates were really nice easygoing people. But because I became so anxious to see or be around other people, I never felt comfortable being near them (or anyone). I filed with the university’s disability program so that I didn’t have to go to classes or tests, could do everything from home. But then I became a complete recluse. I started going to pretty extreme lengths to not have to see anyone, even my flatmates, by not going out shopping for things or even using other parts of the apartment. I bought a ton of protein bars and food in bulk, and drinks, so I wouldn’t have to go into the kitchen. Worst part- I started peeing in water bottles so I could go empty them in the toilet when my flatmates they left the apartment. So I spent about a year of my life in a small room with the windows covered, eating the same thing every day, watching lots of reruns and bad movies, very lonely and increasingly depressed. So that’s what an extreme case of social anxiety looks like, it was debilitating and looking back I felt like I totally missed out on my early twenties and the college experience.

There was a pretty long road to recovery and interestingly enough, it was solved in a pretty simple way.

But the story does have a happy ending. There was a pretty long road to recovery and interestingly enough, it was resolved in a pretty simple way. I saw a therapist via Skype every week, and we would constantly try to make steps for me to get outside, start socializing, or at least not be afraid to be around other people. It took years to actually get to the root of it. I was pretty popular in high school, and all my friends went to big city universities, so why did I react so badly and have such a terrible experience?
Eventually, we realized that it was all about self-esteem. Going to that huge university made me a little fish in a big pond, I didn’t feel unique or important, and I felt that my achievements really paled compared to many of the people around me.  Then not going out made me feel (and look) like a total weirdo. This continued of course after I miraculously finished my degree, I was going outside sometimes, still not socializing at all, still lonely, but my life was more normal. Main problem- I couldn’t get a job. That’s not too unusual, graduate unemployment is high, and I didn’t even get called for interviews because I had no experience relevant to my degree. But it really did a number on my self-esteem. I felt useless, like a broken member of society, unable to support myself or achieve anything.

Finally, I got a break. I got a job in content writing for websites after a ton of failed applications and interviews, it just took persistence. I was always good at writing. It was just an entry-level job, I earned very little money and it wasn’t especially impressive by most people's standards. But I was being valued for a skill, recognized and rewarded by others for something I could do better than most people. I felt that I was being paid because I was a functional, contributing member of society. And when I talked to people about it, I seemed like a normal young man doing just fine by most people’s standards.

So that was it. It felt incredible. Soon after I got the job, I decided to start going out to socialize, reconnect with old friends, see my family more, and start dating again. We were all amazed that it seemed to change so quickly over something so simple. It wasn’t the years of expensive therapy, or the anxiety medicines I tried. Although those definitely do work for some people. For me, it was just doing something to make myself feel more normal, even proud of who I was.

Today I have a pretty healthy social life, balanced with an ok career. I actually work in the Central Business District, walking by thousands of people every day. And I go to the gym, go on dates, and made some friends. My struggle with social anxiety took about five years to overcome, and I’m still not super social, but I’d say that now I just feel like an introvert and not someone suffering from a terrible anxiety condition. And now, I would recommend to anyone who is suffering from similar anxiety- think about how you feel about yourself, your self-esteem. If that’s not doing too well, find something like a hobby, job, or skill, that will make you feel more proud and fit to be around others.