Wake up boy, don’t you believe her words. What you feel and what you see ain’t true...
This might surprise the people that know me as a sociable person, but for the majority of my life, I have suffered from Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia). In the past, it was difficult for me to interact in group situations. Today, after a few years of therapy, I’ve learned to deal with it for the most part; however, there are still occurrences, when I am in public, that I feel this immense pressure in my chest as if someone’s squeezing my heart from the inside.
"Social phobia is an anxiety disorder in which a person has an excessive and unreasonable fear of social situations" -- that’s the first definition I could find online and I think it's pretty spot-on, yet there’s more to it. Social phobia has clutched me so profoundly at points of my life that I found it difficult, sometimes impossible, to leave the house because I feared what awaited beyond my front door. When I did find the courage to walk among the living, I had the gnawing feeling that all eyes were on me, judging my every move. This was especially prevalent in school, sitting in a classroom, I would start to imagine everyone in my class thinking negatively about me, and then I would start to hear their actual harmful words rolling through my brain. This mindset stayed with me after high school, everyday tasks were fraught with, “what will ‘they’ think about this.”
I try to stay away from the society. Every time I crawl, THEY all laugh at me.
"Why the hell are you dressed up like a punk? You look like a beggar for god sakes. What are 'they' going to think?"
I am the youngest of the three children and the only boy; my two older sisters are very loving, however, we were raised in a very conservative household. As a child, my family was overprotective of me, especially my mother. She feared if I went out to play with other kids I would absorb their ill-behaved ways. Every time she thought I shouldn't do something she would ask “What are the ‘they’ going to think?” Possibly our town had an abnormal population of gossipers and/or people that wanted us to step out of normal boundaries, so they could point a collective finger at us. A question I always had but was too afraid to ask, was: who exactly are ‘they’? Thus a lifelong relationship began was the ubiquitous ‘they’ – in my mind ‘they’ became a panel of judges that would scrutinize my every move and if I had a misstep, ‘they’ would make me pay both literally and figuratively.
Growing up. my childhood room became my sanctuary, within these walls, I would not be under the watchful gaze of ‘they’ and I could create the world in which I was safe. But as I grew older, my definition of 'they' transformed to the immediate people around me: teachers, classmates, neighbors, and relatives. I did not excel academically and my parents attributed this to the fact that I was overindulged. I felt everyone I knew was watching me, waiting for that perfect moment for me to mess up and fulfill a doomed destiny.
The phobia was more or less contained when I was alone, but when family gatherings took place, the anxiety was almost unbearable. This lead to the night where I lost control; the occasion was the wedding of my mother’s cousin. I was about 12 and despite almost being a teenager, I still did not leave my mother’s side. The wedding reception was in full swing and my mother wanted me to get an ice cream for both of us. I looked towards the ice cream stall, which was surrounded by kids acting like kids. Their loud voices made my heart race and instead of hearing children being joyous, I heard laughter at my expense. The more my mother insisted that I go get her a frozen treat and circulate with people my own age, the more terrified I became. Innocent nudging turned into exasperation and my mother then ordered me to leave her side and go entertain myself. The next thing I remember I was yelling, “Why the hell don’t you go and grab it yourself lady” (This was in Nepalese, of course, which probably made it sound a lot harsher than it sounds in English).
Immediately the notion of ‘they’ became very real as all eyes were on me with mouths agape and to make matters worse, my mind played it out in slow motion. Rage filled my mother’s eyes and I knew very well what the look meant -- punishment awaited. Shame overtook me and after that incident, the mere mention of a family party made me extremely paranoid and anxious to the point I wished I was dead.
When I reached my teens, my parents and I argued frequently, especially when I refused to go to functions where I was required to ‘act' like a family. I was an avowed anti-social by the time I was 15 and this led to constant yelling laced with profanity. I became a very rebellious and I turned a deaf ear to any objections of leaving the house to be with the most (according to my parents)- deviant kids in town: my new bandmates (Yes! I had started playing in a Rock N' Roll band). During this time, my mother asked constantly -- at the top of her lungs: "What would 'they' think?” and the little boy had grown up and answered, "fuck them!"
Without my guitar, I was still a little kid who was afraid of the whole wide world. Walking out the door and engaging with my surroundings was still difficult, but my guitar allowed me to have a safety net and this allowed me to form an alliance with my friends, as they all loved music. My thoughts were still imprisoned within me and then I found an outlet: singing. I was always good at singing along to songs that were rife with agony and rage. My buddies often complimented me on how my voice had an angst-filled edge, but what they didn't know was the strain on my vocal chords produced actual pain. I didn't mind feeling the pain because there was always a sense of release that followed after singing my favorite songs. I don't think I knew any happy songs back then.
My parents thought I was wasting my life when I played with my band. They didn't see any future for me in Nepal, so they decided to ship me to the US.
Once again, the anxiety became a way of life after I moved here. I kept my head down and tried to contain the negative thoughts. The first few years in the states were a constant struggle with depression that often led to chaos, especially when I wasn’t active musically. Somehow I pushed through school and work and managed to survive.
As time went by, I felt the matters getting worse. At one point I felt like I didn't have a single person whom I could count upon, for anything. It wasn’t until the year 2013, I admitted to myself that I had a real problem. Although I didn't know what it was at the time, I became committed to getting out of the negative cycle that inhabited my life.
I checked into getting counseling at the university I was attending. I met a great counselor/therapist who helped me identify my lifelong struggle and gave it a name: Social Anxiety Disorder. At first, it felt like the earth was pulled off from my feet. I kept thinking, "Did it mean that I was insane?, Did it mean that I wasn’t normal like them?" I was told that almost 80% of my thinking was flawed because of the paralyzing fear of judgment. And then my brain was illuminated with other questions: "If my thoughts aren’t real, does it mean that no one's watching me? And maybe, the world doesn’t hate me either?"
I was now very determined to shed the dark thoughts with light. Counseling helped me identify harmful thought patterns and instructed me to write down any adverse notions that I was thinking at random times of the day. At the end of the day, I would go back to read everything that I had written and I could see how distorted it truly was. I had to change my perception of the entire universe and this was a tremendous challenge because my mind was conditioned to revert back to destructive patterns. I slowly learned to disassociate from my anxious mind and replace it with a feeling of composure that started to rise from within, which was a conscience that I hadn’t experienced ever before.
Mary goes around in my thought run...
The therapy went on for 4 months; we met once a week and I reported to the counselor my progress and then we discussed whatever questions and issues that I had. One of the reports included a girl Mary who sat behind me in my Art history class. I had a crush on her. We had spoken only once when she asked me about a test. But I noticed she was watching me. All the time. This was exciting, but it also made me feel anxious; I allowed her to take up residence in my brain, where she lived and grew although we did not speak.
Are they all lies?
Next year, long after the class had been over, Mary and I bumped into each other at a pub where I was playing a few songs during an Open mic night. After my performance, I went to sit next to her at the bar. She smiled at me and said I sounded good. I was probably blushing by then. I then asked her about the art history class. She said she hardly remembered anything from class except the professor. What shocked me was, she definitely didn’t remember me at all.
Running into Mary was definitely an eye-opening event for me. I had fabricated an entire ongoing mental scenario with her, all it was, was a false perception.
While I was still in therapy, I researched and found this excellent audiobook online by Dr. Tom Richards, the director of Social Anxiety Institute. I listened to it day and night and completed all the exercises. I was resolved to find my definition of being cured. I even had the audio playing while I slept, because I wanted to be free from my thoughts even while sleeping. It slowly, but steadily, worked and apparently your subconscious mind picks up sounds and voices and processes them even while you’re sleeping.
The result wasn’t immediate and took some time to show, but today, finally, I’m at this point where I really don’t stop to think what 'they' think of me. Going through the therapy has made me immune to the criticisms and ridicule I sometimes have to endure as an artist. Although there are times when I'm walking down the street I see people looking at me, but doesn't really affect me. If someone is, in fact looking at me and we make eye contact, no matter how uncomfortable I might feel at the moment, I simply wave or say hello.
I started writing the song 'Watchin' Me' around the same time my counseling/therapy ended, that was almost three years ago. I wrote and rewrote the song over 20 times, never thinking I could complete it. Yet I couldn't give it up because it had such great significance and meaning to my life.
I was finally able to rewrite the whole song earlier this year, in a matter of few minutes -- the main difference was: now much of the anxiety within me had subsided and I didn't fear anymore what ‘they' would think if 'they’ found out the true meaning behind the song. Instead, I feel like this is a story worth sharing because most people who go through these anxiety disorders aren’t really capable of sharing their experiences in the first place. Hopefully, this blog or the song itself will give them a voice to share their own story someday.
Paranoia is overruling our world. When she’s over you still ain’t through—have you lost your mind?
Writer: Rav Sitaula
Editor: Christine Finnegan