I have struggled with pretty crippling social anxiety since I was about 12 or 13. It started off just as shyness but instead of getting better as time went on, it got worse and worse until it started to have a serious effect on my life. In high school I drank to deal with the way I felt around most people. If I was going to a party, going to the mall or even writing a particularly stressful exam, I’d get drunk to get myself there and through whatever the situation was. You might not thinking pre-drinking for an exam would be very effective, but they never stressed me out because I didn’t know the answers, it was just sitting in a room filled with people who were supposed to be quiet and concentrating would overwhelm me to the point where I could no longer even pay attention to the exam questions! So the exams I took that I was a little intoxicated for, I did the best on.
Around grade 11, drinking even a little bit started to make me very ill. I’m still not sure what it was, but as soon as I’d have even one drink, I would get this horrendous pain in my left shoulder and I’d have to go lay down for 15 to 30 minutes until the pain would finally pass. All of a sudden that meant that I couldn’t really depend on what had been getting me through my most anxious of days. I could and would still drink at parties, I’d just plan ahead to have somewhere to lay down for my 15 to 30 minutes and then I could just keep drinking and be okay, but that wasn’t really an option for the school thing anymore or anything spur-of-the-moment that would happen to come up. Looking back I think getting that weird pain, whatever it was, was a blessing! A lot of my family has struggled with alcoholism and addictions in the past and starting to depend on booze to get me through anxious situations as early as 14 had put me on a dangerous path. By 18 I’d quit drinking completely but I’d also stopped attending most social gatherings and I’d stopped going to school.
In grade 11 I’d missed something like 45 of 90 days of class, because I still got 80s and 90s however, no one really seemed to care. I got called to the principles office once and I’d told him something awkward like I’d just started taking birth control pills, they were making me feel nauseous in the mornings so that’s why I was missing so much school. He’d asked if my mom was aware of this, I said she was, he called her but the line was busy so (looking rather flustered by the whole conversation) he’d sent me on my way back to class and I don’t think I ever spoke to him again. My first day back to school in grade 12 after the summer, I realized I was done. I remember sitting in the cafa-torium surrounded by my friends and all the other students all talking and laughing before heading to their first class, all causing this brain straining hum of noise and anxiety. I looked around, feeling so out of place, alone and unhappy and I realized in that moment, I was never coming back. I seriously got up without warning and said I was “so done with this school and was going home” and that’s just what I did. Walking out of school that morning was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.
I set myself up through the Independent Learning Center and had all of my grade 12 courses by the end of the month. I started working full time at a dying shoe store at the mall and I just worked away on my final year of high school from the comfort of my own home or at work when there were no customers (which was pretty much all of the time). I finished entire semesters in weeks, I had lots of money for someone my age and I just spent all of my time with my boyfriend and a few very close friends. I finished my grade 12 year early with all 90s (except math, I think that was like 75, stupid math) and took a few extra courses just for fun since they were only something like $45 a piece. I wasn’t dealing with my anxieties, I had just found a way to more or less avoid them. I lost a lot of friends who didn’t understand why I was always blowing them off and I think by avoiding being in social situations my anxiety got a lot worse, but at the time I was happy.
I didn’t really mean to get into all of that in such detail, but my point is that I have been feeling this way for as long as I can remember. I did the drinking thing, the avoiding thing, I started taking anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication around the age of 20, but at 21 I was no longer eligible to be on my dad’s health plan and what I was taking wasn’t making a huge improvement in how I was feeling anyway (plus it was almost $500 a month without the drug plan), so I quit taking them. By 25 I was unemployed and determined to stay that way. I wanted to make money with my artistic abilities, so I did spend a lot of time practicing. I stopped going out other than a couple of times a year to see my family for special occasions, which made going out overall, all the more difficult. I played a lot of video games but I also made a lot of progress with my art, I wrote my first novel and I started to make a little bit of money doing freelance writing on the internet. At 26 I got a well paying job at the hospital, curious as to if making $20/hour would be enough to overshadow how horrible being in that 9 to 5 environment made me feel and it was (at the time) the worst three months of my life.
I realized at that point in my life that I was not just your average person who didn’t like getting up and going to work. I would sob for hours before I’d leave the house in the morning and honestly wish I’d be in some horrible car accident or something so that I wouldn’t have to go. It did end up being a very high-stress job that I didn’t feel I was equipped or properly trained for, but I remember seriously thinking, “I’d rather be dead than spend my life doing this.” I haven’t had a “real job” since. I worked with my aunt at her in-home daycare for 4 years or so, but that was super casual part-time work, with children, in a family member’s home, so it was totally something I could handle. Now I’ve moved an hour away though, so I can no longer really depend on that for my income!
As I mentioned, I’ve wanted to make money with my art and writing for a long time now. I know it’s possible to use your skills and abilities to make money without ever working for a company because that’s what my little brother does. I watched him struggle with his social anxiety as well and he stopped going to school even earlier than I did. But he had this drive to build websites and make money online since he was like 16. He taught himself everything he needed to know and even though everyone kept telling him how unrealistic he was being and how he basically “wasn’t living his life like everyone else, so what he was doing was wrong,” he stuck it out, worked hard for himself and just bought his first (big beautiful) home, all from being self motivated and self employed. He’s the only reason why I believe that being happy and having money can actually go hand-in-hand for me. He did it and he believes in me and that makes me believe in myself! Just because I’m not punching a clock and answering to a manager doesn’t mean what I’m trying to do now is easy however, and that wasn’t really something I’d anticipated!
Lately I have been making money with my art work, what I hadn’t considered though is that in order for someone to buy your art work, you’re going to have to have some kind of social interaction with that person! Duh! And that has not been easy! I think I’ve been really lucky so far because everyone I have done work for has been really kind and really appreciative of my work, but I still have to do some deep breathing before I answer an e-mail, I have to fight back the tears before I actually go and meet a client and I have to keep trying to do the self-promotion thing when the voice inside my head keeps telling me just how badly I suck. I know my brother has faced challenges working for himself with social anxiety, but he always manages to overcome his issues for the sake of his business and that’s what I have been trying to do too. It’s very difficult and it’s been very stressful, actually making myself a facebook page for my art, ordering business cards, building a website, etc. I just feel like eventually someone’s going to be like, “Uh Jenn, you are a total fraud and suck at art, stop pestering us with your stupid drawings!” And as much as I totally believe you should be who you want to be and screw what other people think of you, I quite often become obsessed over what other people must think of me…
I guess I just wanted to share how I feel on here since I don’t believe it’s something people can easily pick up on and I’ve been dealing with it a lot lately as more people inquire about or purchase my art. People assume I am shy and I know some people have thought I was stuck up or just an air head, but that’s not really the case. Unless I am in a very comfortable and familiar setting, I am struggling. I keep pushing myself to try new things and go to events with my boyfriend, which has been really good for me I know, but it’s never easy and I don’t think it ever will be.
I do think it’s worth it though because it is a different kind of upset. When I’m going to work 40 hours a week for a company and it’s stressing me out beyond belief and making me miserable, that doesn’t feel like it’s worth it. I feel like I am wasting what little time I have on this planet by being miserable just for the sake of money. When someone has asked me a question about a sketch and answering them is stressing me out however, it feels like it is worth the stress because I am doing what I want to do and actually potentially bringing in money from it. It doesn’t make me depressed like a job does, it’s really hard and stressful, but it’s worth it. I have gotten in my own way a couple of times now, I didn’t get my form handed in in time to get a place at the market in town here this summer to sell my art because I put it off too long. It was scary and so I avoided it, but as long as things like that aren’t constantly happening, then I think I’m doing okay. I was really disappointed in myself about that one so hopefully next time I can realize how disappointed I’ll be and I’ll be able to face that fear and do what I need to do! It worked out though because I ended up selling all of the rocks I’d prepared to sell at the market just this week to one person. I think the more success like that that I start to see, the easier it’s going to be to push myself to do the really hard or really scary stuff… I’m hoping anyway!
Thanks for taking the time to read my social anxiety story and thanks for your comments and e-mails, they are always appreciated and it makes me feel so much better to hear that other people out there understand and are going through the same things as me!