This evening, the ranchers invited us over for a barbecue. We gratefully accepted and I brought my own sweet potato to compensate for all the gluten I couldn’t have. It was nice to spend some time getting to know them better and hearing their stories. I had a good time though I felt a bit shy and stayed pretty quiet.
One of the downstream consequences of my illness has been intense social anxiety. This is in part because my pain and sound sensitivity kept me so isolated for so long that I fell out of practice. I forgot how to engage with others in a confident and focused way.
Even more than that though, my daily experiences were so painful and unusual that I lost my ability to connect to the world of normal. I forgot what it felt like to be normal and do the normal things that normal people talk about. The chasm between my world of crippling illness and everybody else’s world of relationships, work, activities and plans seemed impossible to bridge.
A simple question like, “How are you?” brought on tremendous anxiety.
How do I even answer that? Is there a way to answer honestly that people will actually understand? Do I even know what the truthful answer is? How could anyone who doesn’t have a chronic illness possibly understand what my daily life is like anyway? Staring at the same four walls day after day while my body continues to deteriorate. It’s too terrifying to talk about.
Perhaps worst of all, I didn’t even know who I was anymore. Almost everything had been taken from me and I couldn’t even remember the me that everyone else seemed to know. I felt like they were interacting with the Ana they knew and loved before the illness but she was as different from the present me as anybody else.
So, little by little, though not intentionally, I closed myself off from the overwhelming and confusing world of normal. I just needed to survive the moment. There was no energy to process thoughts and feelings, only enough energy to stay alive for one more day.
So, I just did the best I could, and on the rare occasions when I was well enough for a visit or phone call, I smiled and tried to hide the paralyzing anxiety. My trick was to come up with lots of questions I could ask to avoid having to talk about myself. It also helped to have Brett in the room so if someone did ask a question, he could answer it for me.
Now that I’m finally recovering I am having more and more opportunities to re-engage with the mysterious world of normal. It’s exciting and scary at the same time. It feels a lot like what I imagine reverse culture shock might feel like. Everything that should be familiar is suddenly strange. There’s distance where closeness should be. It’s awkward and I don’t like it.
Yet, I’m noticing that the social anxiety isn’t quite so paralyzing anymore. There’s just enough anxiety to make me really uncomfortable but not so much that I cannot overcome it. Little by little, I’m relearning the strange dance of human conversation.
That is why tonight, when Brett had to leave the barbecue to answer the phone, I was able to stay and talk to our new friends about dogs. Did I start to panic when Brett got up to leave? You better believe it! Did I seem shy and awkward? Yeah, probably. But I did it, and that’s progress!
By the way, Brett and I made a beautiful PDF of my favorite resources for suffering souls. I created the content and he made it look fancy with his superduper graphic design skills. It’s available for free to my email subscribers. Click here to sign up and receive 5 Resources for the Suffering Soul.