Monday, November 14, 2016

Social Anxiety and Panic Attacks: Conversational Difficulties and The Messy Room

Someone asks me to walk through a door, into a room I've never been in before. There is a door on the other side, straight ahead, that I need to reach as quickly as possible. I'm being timed.  This is the concept of conversation, and getting a thought from my brain to my mouth. The more stressed out I am, the more problems I have, and the more problems I have, the more stressed out I get. What can start out as barely nothing can snowball into a total panic attack. Let me explain, using the imagery of this room.

  • Sometimes there is absolutely nothing in the room, and it is well-lit.  (Feeling Chatty! Good eye contact, conversation flows well)
  • Sometimes there's a dimmer switch keeping the light at twilight visibility, and there are tables and chairs and couches and piles of paper stacked everywhere that I have to walk around to get to the door.  (Looking around while talking, mixed eye contact, a lot of "um"s)
  • Sometimes it's a hoarder house and nearly impossible to pick my way through the trash, but eventually I make it. (No eye contact, not answering you right away, subdued discussion. You may feel like I don't want to be there, which isn't necessarily true at all)

These are all pretty normal situations, and most people have felt at least those first two at one point or another. But sometimes, it's one of those situations and someone turns all the lights off. I'll be walking along and BAM out go the lights. I pause and wait for the lights to come back on.

  • Sometimes it's just a brownout and they flicker back on immediately and I can go on my way. (Pausing between sentences, struggling to find simple words)
  • Sometimes they stay off a little longer.  (Long, uncomfortable pauses, I look very disconcerted, and people stare at me while I struggle to remember how to speak or come up with a different words that can replace the word I'm trying to think of. This makes me panic because they are waiting for me to speak, which triggers even more pausing)
  • And sometimes they stay off so long I sit down where I am and when the lights come back on I don't know which door I'm supposed to be walking toward. ("What was I saying?" "What were we talking about?" Often I have completely forgotten what was mentioned less than thirty seconds ago. This is the pause that happens when I start a grilled cheese, turn around in front of the stove, and have absolutely no clue that I'm cooking anything until I smell burning. These pauses can happen anytime and they are the reason I am not allowed to cook without a timer and why I always keep my keys next to my son in the car until he is fully buckled.)

The worst, though, is when the lights go out in the hoarder house and like some horrible haunted house, someone comes up three inches away from my face with a strobe light blinking just slowly enough that I can't pretend it's a flickering light. And then that someone starts blaring sound bytes of people screaming and honking horns and babies crying and paper ripping and books falling off of desks.  Then someone starts poking me, tripping me, shoving me. And I'm supposed to still be able to find that door, because remember I'm being timed.

When I pause when I'm talking to you, I'm trying to get through that room. When I'm pausing and crying, stuttering and having trouble breathing or getting words out at all, I'm in that last room. It's not you, it's me. And what I need is a REAL dark room with only pure softness and nothing scratchy and no words or sounds or weird smells or anyone touching me.  Only breathing.

Trying to talk on the phone unless I'm in that safe space is like a game of panic roulette. Sometimes I can focus easily and make coherent thoughts, but that's not often. I don't do well with verbal messages, so if I'm trying to listen to you and also process everything that is happening where I am and also come up with meaningful things to say, it's not going to work. I need all my senses taken away to focus on speaking with you. This is why I prefer communicating through text, where I can formulate a message without worrying about the long awkward pauses, and I can look back at what you said since by the time I have gotten to the end of your sentence I have forgotten what was at the beginning.

If you want a meaningful conversation with me, by all means call me on the phone and play roulette. I will totally try it if that's what works best for you. But you might not get the best me. No matter how flighty, impulsive, or inattentive I sound on the phone, that has nothing to do with how much I love and appreciate you and your thoughts, and I hope that you don't give up on me. Next time may be better.

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