Do You Have Social Anxiety?
(It's cool if you don't, this issue is also about other stuff.)
Thanks for being here, everybody. I promise the next issue will be more about Siobhan Roy and her cocaine party baby that has, so far, apparently survived a round of the yay with Swedish night king Elon Skarsbezos, a tumble down a tiny stair, sex with Tom a.k.a. Matthew Macfadyen in the only role I’ve ever seen him in that has made me not want to do sex with him (a feat! give him all the Emmys!!!) and a fuckload of whiskey and bad German wine, but first - an essay about anxiety. It includes references to suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety, and hemorrhoids. Nothing sexy happens.
I Too Shall Pass
I am agoraphobic, which is to say that since childhood it has sometimes felt difficult or impossible for me to leave my home or even my bedroom. While “agora” means marketplace and “phobia” means “fear,” the reality of modern life is that I can easily order anything I need from online sites, and rarely need to visit an actual marketplace - or an actual anything - in real life.
I am not sure this is an entirely good thing.
This level of digital convenience was not the case when I was living out most of the events chronicled in my first book, a memoir called Agorafabulous!: Dispatches from my Bedroom. It mainly recounts my life from childhood through my early twenties (it was published when I was 31 - I am now 42.5). One of the chapters is called “Bowls of Pee,” because at times I was so frightened to leave my bed that I resorted to pissing in bowls rather than going into the bathroom.
In some ways, I suppose life has gotten easier for us agoraphobic types, at least those of us with any disposable income and reliable access to the Internet. Groceries? Instacart, Amazon, etc.. Over-the-counter medications, home cleaning supplies, and quick meals? Doordash, Uber Eats, Seamless, etc..
Scampers and Fido need a checkup? Many towns offer mobile vets who will come right to your home. Worried you’re sick? Zoom with your doctor, and perhaps even provide physical metrics using your Apple watch or other body monitor.
Want a shrink? Telehealth and video visits are often cheaper than seeing folks in person. I don’t even need to leave my home to attend a 12-step meeting.
The availability of these services is life-saving for those who cannot or should not leave the home or residential facility due to being immune-compromised, injured or physically ill. Beyond that, considering the economic factors involved, a hybrid approach is likelier healthy and cost-efficient for most of us.
But does a total reliance on these services really serve most of us with life-altering anxiety? In the short term, during a mental health crisis, absolutely. In the long term, I don’t think so.
Three years ago, there sprang up in me a strange, guilty feeling of relief accompanying the sorrow, fear, and confusion as the pandemic tore up our world. I’ve only experienced it once before. On and in the days following September 11, 2001, suddenly it seemed as if everybody else “got” what I’d “known” my whole life: the outside world is terrifying, and one must be constantly vigilant in order to survive. I didn’t feel a triumphant sense of having been right all along. I felt a sad, shameful gratitude that I was no longer alone.
Of course, I was living in perpetual delusion, whereas most of my peers were merely responding in a totally normal, understandable way to a horrible, finite and discrete event. Eventually, for them, things evolved to a new normal. Meanwhile, in the waning days of 2001, I descended into a full nervous breakdown.
I was lucky. A worried friend called my parents. My mom drove several hours and extracted me from my studio in the middle of the night. She says the entire floor was covered in torn sheets of paper. I don’t remember that, so it didn’t go in my memoir. But I believe her.
I’ve not had a crisis like that in the intervening years. There have been bumps in the road, plenty of them, and this is to be expected. Treatment has helped me lead a life far beyond what I thought possible. But we must course-correct along the way.
Recently, I have come to understand that in the past three years, I retreated into an isolated lifestyle that affected my personal relationships as well as my finances and health.
I got sober before the pandemic, thank God. But I remain familiar with the brief hit of comfort after an online shopping adventure, followed by the shame of acknowledging overspending and debt. I also know what it is like to use sleep to ward off the encroaching dread that accompanies a new day.
I am certainly familiar with retreating into one’s own misery because it feels like home. Pull down the shades and bar the doors so nobody else can get in. Marinate in that atmosphere and wonder why you’re lonely.
If you are among those of us who’ve experienced creative blocks during this time, I understand. While I have churned out many essays, articles, and podcast episodes in addition to doing various interviews, I have been blocked creatively when it comes to long-form work. And when one builds one’s identity around one’s art, this can be a real dry, uncomfortable mindfuck.
This is not to say I haven’t done stuff I’ve enjoyed. I am proud of the work our small team has accomplished at the nonprofit where I am a full-time remote worker. The work we do isn’t glamorous, and it has nothing to do with publishing or Hollywood or anything like that. It’s satisfying because the metrics are so clear: did we help more or less people this week? If it was more, good. If it was less, how can we do better next week? On to the next week.
I have done some artsy-pants type stuff. In 2021, I wrote on Mystery Science Theater 3000, which was a delight even though our writers room was on Zoom. At least I was working with people to make something goofy rather than sitting alone in my room. And if ever I related to any character during these years, it’s robots sitting in the dark judging art they had no hand in creating. (The episodes for Season 13 were released in 2022 - check ‘em out in the Gizmoplex).
I’ve done some decent solo work in essay form. Some of it has been shit, I have no doubt, but occasionally you get one that seems to hit the mark you aimed for. For example, “Thanks for Nothing,” which was actually written on and after a road trip in 2020. It took me until this year to realize that the road trip is part of why I was able to write, because I made myself interact with humans.
How the fuck did it take me this long to figure that one out? That maybe part of my creative block was not “just” a lifelong tendency to procrastination, or an inability to focus based in very understandable reasons related to neurodiversity, or some deep-seated need to defeat myself because I don’t think I deserve nice things, but because I am human and therefore human interaction feeds my soul because I am not a rock or an island and I do feel pain and I do cry and I need to fucking be with people sometimes like a goddamn fucking person?
Nothing is less exciting or novel to me than wanting to kill myself. It used to be thrilling, in a way, to teeter on the brink. But it’s just happened so many times in my life that it’s commonplace. It’s like a flare-up of hemorrhoids - nothing to write home about, and I know it passes, but when it’s really bad I can imagine it’ll be there forever and ever.
This is an inexact and inelegant comparison for various reasons. Inflamed ass veins are not the same as a desire to kill oneself. An Epsom salts bath won’t cure suicidal ideation, or nor will Preparation H (which, as I learned in my childhood pageant days, also helps de-puff your under-eye bags, but don’t quote me on it and also I’d suggest doing facial massage and using Fenty Skin caffeine cream instead).
Also, notably, I don’t think hemorrhoids can kill you.
But isolation can, if you’re isolating inside a mind that would like to end itself. You’ve got to get out among trees and birds and humans, specifically the kind who won’t try to kill you.
Last week, I challenged my agoraphobia, and its milder yet still pernicious cousin, social anxiety, in a major way. I’m a member of two unions, the Writers Guild of America East and SAG-AFTRA, and the former is on strike. The latter is in solidarity with the former, particularly during its own negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). I felt that I should be of service in some way.
It took me all week and a therapy session to psych myself up for it, but I made signs with a bunch of other people for two hours in a conference room at WGAE headquarters. I didn’t know any of them. Snacks were available. It was good. I got there a little late because of nerves, but I got there.
I used the momentum of that confidence-building experience to see a couple friends in person for meals, and even to go to a 12-step meeting in person. I felt great. It felt like a victory. And then I rested all weekend because, as I’d predicted, I was tired from the effort.
By “rested” I mean that I tidied my home, slept in, did some creative writing of my own, hung out with my cat, and didn’t socialize with anybody, except for when the neighbor set the kitchen on fire so we all had to go outside and spend time with the helpful and capable gentlemen from the FDNY. It was actually fun, because nobody died or even got injured, and the apartment apparently didn’t sustain much damage. I met a 24-day-old baby and a 2.5-year-old dog.
This weekend was good, but only because it was a pleasant contrast to the pleasant time I’d spent with others. It felt like balance, something that has often been out of reach for a brain that prefers extremes.
All things change, all things go, this too shall pass, now is all we have, and all that. We only get one life. You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. I know. I’m trying. I know. I remind myself. I forget. I remember. It hurts. I remember. It feels better until it doesn’t. I’m sorry. I’ll try again tomorrow.
I’m still here.
We’re still here.
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These recommendations aren’t sponsored. I just like what I like!
My new podcast, Social Anxiety Variety Hour, launches in June and it’s about exactly the type of thing I discuss above (probably with more laughs and less intensity on most episodes, but we shall see). How do we socialize now? How do we find a way to break through isolation and believe that loneliness and solitude are not, in fact, synonymous? It’s in the same spot as my old podcast, “Well, This Isn’t Normal,” so you’ll see those episodes sitting there. You can catch up on ‘em if you want.
If you want to support the weekly podcast in advance as a Founding Listener, head on over to my Patreon to find out how. (You also get stuff in return, but I’ll keep that info over there, as we are currently Substacking and must focus on…stacks? Subs? Yes.)
4 mistakes to avoid when you’re lonely (Washington Post): Some good advice from a therapist in here.
Support the WGA - You can bring snacks to strike locations, join our members on the picket lines, or just wave or honk and say hi. It means a lot.
The Perimeter Path exhibit at Green-Wood Cemetery - See that tintype photo up top? And also this one right above? They’re by Rowan Renee (check out their Instagram) who is incredible. They have an exhibit on at Green-Wood Cemetery June 3 - September 4: “The installation explores the history of race and class in the cemetery through close focus on unmarked graves in two public lots (Lot 88 & 5499). I imagine a way to memorialize these individuals through an installation that conjures a monument-maker's library of tombstones. There are hundreds of objects, including carved marble fragments from Green-Wood's decommissioned receiving tomb, fused glass, archival images, and lots and lots of stones collected with the help of volunteers.” They request visitors bring a stone to the installation.
Here’s another tintype by Rowan. Whether you get one done or visit the cemetery or access their work through another means, I think you’ll dig it.
Again, my Patreon - We’ve just been over this, but I shall say again: it’s a good time.
‘Stranger Things’ shoot delayed by strike: ‘Writing does not stop when filming begins’ (LA Times) - This is the right call, so good on the Duffer brothers for doing the correct thing.
Cannabis workers face death and exploitation. California is stepping in after Times investigation (LA Times) - There is no end to stories of farmworker abuse in this country. The state is getting involved after the release of “Dying for Your High,” “a Times investigation detailing the plight of cannabis workers who are cheated, threatened with violence or even die because of unsafe working conditions…[the report] found 35 cannabis workers killed on the job in a five-year span, a toll that has since risen to at least 37.”
Thanks for being here, everybody. Because I need and also enjoy money, you are welcome always to switch to a paid subscription here on Substack, or to join Patreon, or both. But I’m glad you’re here, no matter what.
Take good care of yourselves.