When I turned 26 this October, I was so excited to be celebrating sober. It was an especially significant time because I was the age my brother would have been the year he committed suicide.
After coming to terms with my sex addiction, I was finally figuring everything out. I cut my abusive family out of my life, along with any vice that made me avoid my feelings – and even chopped off my long, damaged hair. I was emotionally and physically starting fresh. But that night my birthday would shake me with the reality that getting sober was in fact only the beginning of getting my shit together.
Since my friend was having her birthday the same weekend, we decided to combine our parties. I served our mutual friends dinner at home, and later we went to a bar she wanted to go to. But as soon as we arrived, something felt off. I no longer wanted to be there. These were the same friends I had before I got sober, and I loved them to bits. But while everyone else was chatting and laughing with their drinks in hand, I felt uncomfortable in my own skin. I felt foreign in a familiar environment. And I felt this immense panic that I needed to get some air.
My partner came with me, and as we walked around the block I quietly wished I could share his happy buzz. I fully admit that before I became clean I was a much more social person. After a year of isolating myself for fear of relapsing, I began to feel ready to go back to the social life I once had. I thought after a year of getting used to being sober I'd be able to integrate myself into old situations – just without drinking or trying to sleep with people.
But when I felt more comfortable on the sidewalk than inside the bar around my friends, I realized things would never be the same again.
For the next month I spiraled into a horrible depression. I had discovered the hard truth about getting clean: In order to be sober, your entire life needs to revolve around staying sober. Basically, not only do you need to avoid places that trigger you, like bars, but you need to work on the reason you feel like using in the first place.
I thought that after getting clean my work would be done – but instead, all the issues I'd been covering up came flooding back. Along with the parts of childhood abuse I hadn't dealt with from years of therapy came something I'd been in denial about my entire life – my debilitating social anxiety.
I've known that I have an anxiety disorder since I was diagnosed in my early 20s, but social anxiety never seemed like it applied to me. Somewhere between being a quiet child and a sex addict I discovered the power of alcohol and its ability to help me disengage from my fear of talking to people. Suddenly at parties I was confident, funny and just able to tell a story without getting lost halfway through because I started to worry about telling it the wrong way.
Because most of the times I went out there was alcohol around, I didn't realize that I was using it as a crutch for my social anxiety until I tried to be social without it.
But there have been a lot of times when I was sober that I didn't feel anxious around people as well. Sometimes I would have coffee with someone for a business meeting and rock it. And sometimes my close friends have referred to me as extroverted because around them I can be very outgoing, and even loud. I think these instances are why it took me so long to pin down my social anxiety – because it's unreliable. It can appear when I'm out for dinner with someone I've known for years or it can be nonexistent when I'm at a house party with people I don't know. It depends on the environment, how pressured I feel, and how good my self esteem is that day.
For example, earlier this year I went to a bar to meet my partner's friends. I felt great on the way there and was comfortable while sipping water and making conversation with people one on one – but then my partner left to go to the washroom. When his friends turned to me and asked how we met – a story I'm well versed in telling – I started sweating and desperately trying to string my sentences together as if I no longer knew how to talk.
I left soon after to cry myself to sleep, sure that I had made a terrible first impression. While some might say facing humiliation will help you get over your fear, I was traumatized. The next time we went out with his friends it was even harder for me to work up the nerve to make conversation.
When I finally looked up what social anxiety was, I had spent hours anxiously laying in bed, contemplating a meeting I had with a potential roommate the following day. No matter what I did, I couldn't stop worrying about the different ways the conversation could go. Even though we had a lot in common and I was genuinely interested in moving in with her, I couldn't bring myself to meet her for coffee. The pressure of making conversation with someone I didn't know, hopefully going on to become friends and organizing the details of our living arrangement was just too much pressure.
I know that thinking this way is ridiculous – but there's no rationalizing away social anxiety.
When I read the definition of social anxiety on my phone that night, suddenly something clicked. It read: Social anxiety is an intense fear of what others are thinking about you (specifically fear of embarrassment, humiliation, criticism or rejection), which results in you feeling insecure and not good enough for other people, and/or the assumption that they'll reject you. After seeing that there was a name to what I was feeling, I finally understood why I've gone to great lengths to avoid presentations, interviews, coffees, dinners and phone calls, and why I was a mess during so many of the ones I did attend. Memories of being bullied in school and being ignored at home surfaced, and I understood why kissing someone was easier for me than having a conversation with them – at least I knew they liked me.
After coming to terms with the fact that this is something I need to deal with now that I'm sober, my depression became unbearable. I realized that the person I used to be was now stripped bare. I had chopped off my hair, stopped using harmful vices and deflated my ego – and all that was left was a person who I wasn't comfortable being.
Now I had to deal with the person who was left over from all the layers of temporary self esteem – the primping, drinking and fucking: The person who had grown up in an abusive home, didn't learn how to develop healthy relationships and was terrified of people seeing the real her.
Suddenly after a year of being proud of my sobriety, all I wanted to do was to buy a bottle of wine and have sex with somebody I didn't care about. I came to understand why my brother had killed himself before reaching 26. The pain he had been feeling by that point must have been excruciating, and it all came back to me after years of using various vices to make it go away. After weeks of feeling like I was going to relapse, I came clean in my partner's bed, crying about how I was a terrible person after all of the support he had given me. But he just held me and told me that everything was going to be OK – and one day I finally started to believe him.
It took thirty days of grieving my old life – the one where I could be the life of the party – to come to the realization that there will be parties in the future, but I'll be sober and most likely awkward while working through my social anxiety. I have a therapy session next month to start conquering this, but in the meantime I'm planning to start doing little things to be more social, like going out with friends more.
But the important part to remember is that pushing yourself only leads to making anxiety worse, so while isolation isn't going to help, I also need to go easy on myself. Just like addiction, there isn't any quick fix for social anxiety, but I know that by working on it regularly my life will be even better than when I was using in the first place.