Hi. I’m Ian Harvey, and I’ve got social anxiety.
Consider the following: You’ve spent a year of your life learning a skill, then several more honing it as a hobby. You get licensed, you’re good at what you do, and… nothing. Your brain vapor locks at the thought of actually executing your craft. Thousands of hours sunk in, and your hand drops the paintbrush, or your feet go numb when you strap on the tap shoes.
That’s where I was on Tuesday, all dressed up and no place to go. I’m a massage therapist, and I can’t bring myself to see clients.
The whole massage thing was completely out of left field in the first place. I was a weird kid in high school, with too much Dungeons and Dragons and too little self-awareness. I thought that hugs were only about the arms, and that wishing hard enough could make my crush come around and see the real me. I had hair down to my mid-back and a sweet collection of Hawaiian shirts.
I was also suffering from an insidious case of obsessive compulsive disorder. More on that later. Suffice it to say that I was an anxious young lad, and that I couched it in being weird. I wore it like armor, and let it cloud the truth of my incapacity. Like all humans with a wounded mind, I was an inveterate dissembler; always hiding, always smiling.
I also did musical theater. Well, once, in any case. I sang, I danced, I made the audience laugh, and my parents were proud of me. I loved public speaking, and never had a problem going first when it came to class presentations. It wasn’t just my “weird” act, either. I was never more comfortable or exhilarated than when I had an audience.
I’m betting I just lost a certain portion of my readers who suddenly can’t relate to me. “Social anxiety, but you can sing in front of people?” Others will be nodding their heads, knowing that mental illness is weird. People with dog phobias might love wolves and foxes. People with agoraphobia might be fine going to church, or hitting the casino.
Mental illness is more about theft than lack.
I didn’t lack the aptitude to learn massage. I didn’t lack the simple joy of making contact, or of helping people feel better. The new nonverbal language of massage never stopped fascinating me, and I love it to this day.
Back to Tuesday. I had an appointment later that day to do massage in someone’s home. Before you say “that sounds scary, I can see why you’d be anxious!”, you’ve got it all wrong man. The clients are always lovely, I tend to help them with their pain, and I get paid well. It was the social aspect that was making me miserable.
I didn’t want to call and confirm the appointment. I didn’t want to arrive at the door, or make introductory small talk as I set up my equipment. That’s it.
My day was completely ruined by sheer misery and anticipation, and the day before was only better because I had some temporal distance. I still had a grim heaviness in my chest every time I saw that appointment. It was crushing, it was all-consuming. I have difficulty conveying the sheer visceral aversion I was experiencing because it seems silly, even to me.
I ended up canceling. The sudden lifting of the load was incredible, and I thrill to think of it even now. Birds sang, the sun came out from the clouds, and I was me again. All because I got to avoid a fucking phone call and some small talk.
My point? I guess it’s that anxiety sucks. I worked at a spa before, but the “meeting new clients” thing made it miserable. All 3 years. I worked at a massage factory named after a cardinal sin, and the social aspect made it a creeping nightmare. 2 years there.
I don’t lack social capacity, as can be attested by my students and co-workers, but a small piece of the social puzzle has been stolen from me by anxiety. Medicine has helped, as has growing older. I’ve accomplished a lot, I’ve grown in my role as an educator, and I’m generally okay.
But, Tuesday. Tuesday sucked.