THEN - I was quite honestly a pretty sociable guy. Very few people would have approached me and mentioned that any degree of social anxiety was apparent. However, I KNEW differently. I was having negative thoughts that controlled the way I acted in certain circumstances.
I would keep quiet in meetings, praying that I wouldn't be asked to give my opinion. I really had to use every ounce of mental energy that I had to focus on what the speaker was saying, as I would feel terribly ashamed if he or she made a joke and I was unable to "get" the punchline and laugh.
In my mind I was counting the minutes for the meeting to be over. After each topic was presented, I would ask for God to miraculously end the meeting.
Then another topic of discussion would come up and I would have to refocus my energies yet again to "get through" another 10 minutes of what I considered "the outer rim of hell" at the time.
I would keep notes in a personal diary of the negative thoughts and feelings I was experiencing through times like these meetings. I would usually feel better for a little while, but I compare that feeling to what a drug addict must feel like when he or she gets a "hit" and it gets them through for a little while, but they will always need more later. This was not, in my case, a permanent solution.
NOW - I am much more at ease in meetings and actually look forward to them sometimes, especially if it is for a project that I am excited about. I no longer take notes about my negative thoughts and feelings. If negative thoughts and feelings come, they are usually related to the project, not me. I am able to be more assertive and express these concerns in the meetings. Sometimes the people benefit from what I have to say, other times we usually agree that it isn't the best idea, and move on with the meeting.
I don't feel like every single word I say or every opinion I express is being judged and viewed in a negative light. I actually feel like I might have something to say that will be of some benefit.
Honestly, looking back, I can see that major changes have occurred, although I couldn't see the changes happening on a day to day basis. They happened gradually over time, through persistent and patient practice of the cognitive, emotive and behavioral techniques I learned while going through therapy. I view it as similar to hair growth. From the time you get a haircut to the time it needs to be cut again, you don't really see the difference in your hair length day to day because the growth occurs very gradually.
THEN - I would worry about every little detail of a speech that was coming up. I actually considered dropping out of college because I didn't think there was any way for me to deal with the level of anxiety I felt when
it came to speaking in front of class. I would think things like... "I'm going to have a facial twitch, then everyone will notice, then I will twitch even more...then I will be totally humiliated and embarrassed and I won't ever be able to date and get married and have a good job and a family. Because who would want to be with someone who couldn't even get up in front of a group and give a simple speech? How could I provide for a spouse and a family if I was driven by such anxiety and fear?"
Therefore, I limited my dating life to very little. My world was slowly closing off and I could see fewer and fewer options as I continued to think this way.
NOW - I feel much less self-conscious as I give a talk in front of a group. I am more realistic in my expectations.
Not every speech is going to win a Nobel Prize. I can give a good speech and it doesn't have to be flashy or impressive for me to get a simple point across. I am OK with using MY abilities to do the best I can and move on. It would be a lie to say I don't have ANY anxiety over giving speeches, but the level of anxiety is much more manageable now and I am able to be honest with myself and not ruminate over little details that may not have gone as smoothly as I would have liked. Things are much better now. I may be challenged by anxiety throughout my life, but at least now I am able to do the things I want to do without anxiety having a say over whether I decide to do them or not.
THEN - People who I perceived as "authority figures" or "powerful people" would create high amounts of anxiety for me. I would assume that everything they said was "the way it was" so I wouldn't even question them or bring up any ideas of my own when I spoke with them. Afterward, I would beat myself up within an inch of my life for not speaking up for what I felt was a better solution. This, in turn, created feelings of shame, embarrassment, guilt, inferiority and anger. For the longest time, I resolved to just "do what other people said" and keep my mouth shut, avoiding these kinds of people whenever possible so I wouldn't have to face these negative feelings.
NOW - I have a healthy feeling when it comes to dealing with these same "types" of people. I have learned to slow myself down and live in a peaceful state, even when in situations that I used to define as "high anxiety situations". In turn, I feel that I am able to contribute what I want to say when dealing with these "authority figures".
What has helped me the most is the way I perceive these situations now as compared with the past. I truly feel, as every human has a right, that I have the right to say what I feel is right based on my own experiences, even if the other person may not necessarily agree with me. If we aren't able to come to the same agreement on an issue, I FEEL more now that it is perfectly normal for each of us to have our own opinions and ideas about various topics.
THEN - Being the center of attention was the last possible thing that I would ever want to have happen. I thought that I would make a fool of myself to such a large degree that everyone would see this "weakness" of mine, and in turn, would make fun of me for the rest of my life. My thoughts on this issue used to run something like this: "I just KNOW that teacher is going to call on me and I'm not going to know what to say. I wish I could just go to a corner somewhere and hide from this potential humiliation. Why can't they offer this class online? Why do I have to put up with this boring stuff? This just isn't fair."
Therefore I built my defenses extremely high. On the exterior, I built a strong austere facade, unshakable, while on the inside I was screaming for freedom from these irrational fears I had helped to develop in myself.
NOW - Honestly, I still do not LOVE being the center of attention. However, if a situation comes up when I am the center of attention or the butt of a joke, I don't get so worked up over it. I have learned the secret of being able to truly laugh at myself in a healthy way. I have learned that most people don't LOVE being the center of attention.
THEN - I had fooled myself into thinking that there was "some way out" of these feelings, that I just hadn't found it yet. Somehow, I was going to find the answer, I just didn't have enough time to figure it out yet. But the more I convinced myself of this lie, the more and more I sank into my anxieties and depression. I felt like there was little "real" hope.
NOW - There is definitely hope. I don't have perfect days, but I do have better days. My thoughts and feelings, over a relatively short amount of time, have changed dramatically. In turn, it has made my life much better. The consistency of good days versus bad is very high. I feel there are more options available now.
THEN - I just accepted that I may have to work as a newspaper carrier for the rest of my life, maybe get a small house eventually, and live out the rest of my days as a lonely person.
NOW - I have accepted the fact that much more is available. I can try more things and learn more about what I like and what I don't. Then, I can focus my energies on those areas that I really like. I don't feel like I have to "settle" for 2nd, 3rd or 4th best anymore. Now, I have the ability and the resources to find where my niche is, to be realistic about my performance and goals, and stay on a course in line with achieving these goals.
I have learned that a mental health problem is not the end. Rather, it can be viewed as the beginning of a long voyage where you are the captain of the ship with decisions that only you will be able to make.
You ARE the captain of your ship and you have a choice. You can choose to feel miserable all of your days, or you can choose to make decisions today that will make your life better tomorrow.
THEN - I wouldn't believe this for a second.
NOW - I am only beginning to realize what the possibilities are.
To be honest, most of the time I don't feel like I have time for social anxiety. There's too much to do now.