I was 13 years-old when my dad called the cops and reported me missing.
The day started the same as any other, only on this particular morning the words of a schoolmate from the day before echoed in my head.
“Just wait till tomorrow, I have a surprise for you.”
From the menacing tone of her voice, I was terrified and not at all eager to find what surprise she had in store for me. So, when the school bus arrived and the other students lined up to get inside, I chose to stay behind and skip the bus. Instead, I decided I would take the city bus.
It wasn’t long before I got lost in the middle of downtown Calgary — not the most appropriate place for a young girl like me to wander around, but that’s what I did. I had no idea where I was going but as I walked, I could not let go of the sense of freedom I felt in being lost. My phone rang insistently, messages and calls from my family. The school would have told them that I was absent by now, but instead I just shut my phone off.
I stayed sitting on a park bench for a long time, reading and drawing in my notebook. There was something to be said about feeling more at peace in the middle of nowhere than in the halls of my school, but I took what I could in my momentary tranquility.
This memory still lingers in my mind, probably because it was the first time I took extreme action to avoid confrontation. My experience with bullying — compounded by the social isolation I lived at home — led me to develop social anxiety.
Social anxiety is an extreme fear of being judged or embarrassed by others. It’s one of the most common anxiety disorders, yet the Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) says ,it is one of the least diagnosed. The survey reports only 37 per cent of people with the disorder seek treatment.
According to a CCHS survey from 2002, about two million Canadians experience symptoms of social anxiety. Social anxiety can be caused by a number of factors, some of them stemming from past experiences, home environment or family history.
The effects of this disorder include the individual taking preventative measures to avoid putting themselves in situations where they might be exposed to anxiety inducing scenarios, which then goes to impact their personal life as well, mostly with their personal relationships. However, the recent pandemic brought relief to many individuals like me with social anxiety, as it did lower the expectations of day-to-day interactions.
Registered psychologist Tricia Thomas says that choosing situations that relieve symptoms for the individual does not work long term.
“What ends up happening is it ends up strengthening the anxiety in the long run. It serves as a maintenance of that social anxiety because then there is no exposure to social interactions outside of technology,” Thomas says.
With post-secondary campuses opening back up again, it’s been a struggle for many to get back into the “real world.”
St.Mary’s University student Kherby Dorcely also struggles with social anxiety. One of the most common symptoms they experience is restlessness.
“I had a hard time sleeping because I was overthinking so much, and it also gave me a lot of headaches. I’ll just always wake up and then I have terrible, terrible headaches. It was hard for me to even focus.”
Dorcely describes the experience of public spaces reopening as very draining.
“Obviously, I have to work on these things because … in the professional world, you’re going to have to talk to people, you’re gonna have to meet people, but also, I can’t lie and say that it hasn’t really been affecting me because it also shifts my mood as well.”
Thomas says, for socially anxious people, it’s best to take things slow and build positive peer connections.
“We’re a social species. When we don’t have the practice of socializing, the skills and confidence that we even had before waiver . . . and so a big important piece of self-growth is to perhaps explore those skills,” says Thomas.
Many things have changed with the passage of time, but my social anxiety has stayed stubbornly consistent. For many years I’ve conformed to the state of my mental health. Up until I went into the journalism program at Mount Royal University. Applying to the program was probably the most daring thing I’ve ever done. However, I knew that if I wanted to succeed in my chosen profession, I needed to start working on my fears.
On my first practice interviews with the journalism program, I put my hands beneath my legs, so my source wouldn’t see them shaking. I would talk, then suddenly stop, when I felt my voice tremble and let myself have a moment to calm myself. At some point my mind went into overdrive and I had to ask my source to please repeat themselves. Needless to say, my first interview was a mess.
The pandemic gave me the opportunity to do my interviews virtually without in–person contact. It allowed me to gently be coaxed into talking to people without the overwhelming need to shut down again. With time, I’ve noticed my voice doesn’t waver as much and I confidently say that my hands can sit neatly on top of my lap. I hope that with time and confrontation, the symptoms will be more controllable.
Eventually, on that day when I skipped classes at 13, I did find my way back to school almost close to lunch time. Only, when I arrived there were a couple of cops in the main foyer with my dad among them, his eyes red and wet. I expected some anger upon seeing me, but he only asked if I was alright. He hugged me and told me how scared he was, how he assumed the worst.
I never did find out what surprise the girl had for me. I guess she forgot.