Day 139 | Social Anxiety & Chronic Illness

July 26, 2017

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.

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  • Alyssa

    Wow, thanks for sharing that. I’ve never thought of social anxiety from a perspective like that, but what you’re saying totally makes sense! Way to go with your bravery and pushing through feelings of awkwardness and discomfort πŸ™‚

    July 27, 2017 at 6:12 pm Reply
    • Ana Harris

      Thanks Alyssa! I guess it is a little different than what people normally consider to be social anxiety… since it doesn’t usually involve worrying about what others think of me. It’s more a fear of the unknown and being overwhelmed, I guess.

      July 28, 2017 at 10:22 am Reply
  • Ruth Meyer

    I completely relate to this, Ana! I’ve been in that awkward moment too many times to count, trying to find a way out of answering the dreaded “How are you?” question, without falling into depressing thoughts, or complaining, but also not trying to hide behind denial either. I like the quote “I can’t people today”, because even now–feeling much improved–I still have days like that. Of the 29 million thoughts and choices in my mind to deal with every day, I now have other people intersecting with all those little traffic lights, u-turns, and pile-ups. And, I really care about people, and want to be their friend regardless of how I’m feeling. Sometimes I have to say I can’t, and stay back from social interaction, and that’s the worst, because I feel I’m letting everyone down and failing. Other times, I go for it anyway, and just struggle the whole time, until my energy level crashes and I can’t even communicate clearly. The truth is, in both cases, I’m still just me. I just need to breathe. Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t, but you’re still you. And that’s okay. It doesn’t feel okay, but it really is. We sometimes feel our inabilities are a burden on others, when in reality our friends and family are actually more happy feeling they can be a part of helping, supporting, and getting to understand us and our health better. Why? Because love. The love of God is just like that. It just is. God’s love, like God’s peace, goes beyond our understanding. It is there for us, even when we can’t see it. Sorry, I’m rambling. I’m so thankful you are feeling better able to handle social interactions now, Ana. That’s been a long difficult day-by-day struggle for me, and something I think about a lot. Hoping each day is a little brighter for you and Brett. πŸ™‚

    July 27, 2017 at 6:37 pm Reply
    • Ana Harris

      Thank you for sharing your story and your thoughts Ruth! I think it’s a common experience for those who are struggling with chronic illness. It’s good to know we’re not alone. God be with you as you keep persevering, dear sister. I completely agree with you that sometimes you just need to acknowledge your limitations even if it feels humbling and like you’re letting people down. God knows when we’re giving 100% even if it only looks like 10% to others. Take heart. ❀️

      July 28, 2017 at 10:26 am Reply
  • Ruth H.

    Thanks for articulating this. It helps me understand myself and others who have much worse experiences with their health than I have. With so many people struggling with chronic illness your words can help “normal” people have a little understanding (which seems sorely lacking).

    July 27, 2017 at 6:54 pm Reply
    • Ana Harris

      You’re welcome Ruth! I do hope my words can help people understand better. πŸ’•

      July 28, 2017 at 10:27 am Reply
  • Melody

    Praise God for some breakthrough! Go Ana with the strength of the Holy Spirit! I love you!

    July 27, 2017 at 7:02 pm Reply
    • Ana Harris

      Thanks Melody! I love you! 😘

      July 28, 2017 at 10:27 am Reply
  • Leslie

    How am I?
    To the clerk at the store: “I’ve had better days.” or “Meh” or simply “Tired”.
    To people at a social function I want to go to: “I’m Here!” (I love the response that usually gets. A bit of a questioning look, then a bit of realization, and “Well, yes, you are. That’s good.”)
    To the curious who keep at it with leading questions: “Thanks for asking, but I don’t really want to think about it and would rather talk about something else.” (I then look around and find something, anything, to remark upon, like “My mom had overhead lights like that in her house.” or “A lot of people wore purple today.” πŸ™‚ )

    July 27, 2017 at 8:33 pm Reply
    • Ana Harris

      Nice! I’ve definitely done the “meh” thing. 😊

      July 28, 2017 at 10:30 am Reply
  • Savannah Morello

    Great job Ana! I live oversees, so I can understand (at least a little) what it is like to not know what to say or how to act around strangely normal people. You are making great progress though, and I know that our best Friend will see you through even those most awkward, headdesk sorts of times.

    I pray for you often! – Savannah

    July 27, 2017 at 10:50 pm Reply
    • Ana Harris

      Thank you so much Savannah! It’s reassuring to know that you can understand and means a lot that you’ve been praying.

      July 28, 2017 at 10:31 am Reply
  • James

    Many mold avoiders have mentioned anxiety as a symptom of mold in and of itself, on top of the fact that one usually doesn’t feel like socializing when they are sick. So I think your physical healing could also be helping with the lessening of anxiety you feel, and of course practicing socializing is also part of relearning how to live in the “normal” world. The necessary withdrawal from the normal world needed to survive this illness tends to make me think of Rip Van Winkle or some sci-fi suspended animation scenario where people wake up (or get well in our case) and have to relearn how to be in the world when so many things have changed while they were “away”.

    July 27, 2017 at 11:32 pm Reply
    • Ana Harris

      I definitely agree with you James! I think the anxiety was definitely exponentially magnified by the physical brain injury.

      July 28, 2017 at 10:32 am Reply
  • Bethany Rose

    I’m so glad to hear that you are improving enough to sit and visit!! πŸ˜€
    And I’m not the only one?! Somehow knowing that is a relief. I used to absolutely dread the question “how are you?” First, emotionally, physically, or spiritually? Sometimes I almost wanted to spill out all of my symptoms and ask them how they would feel. But then I used to think no one cared to know. I discovered the wonderful phrase, “I’m okay.” Because to me okay meant the same awful as always.

    July 28, 2017 at 7:11 am Reply
    • Ana Harris

      Oh! I can so relate to this Bethany! I’m so sorry you’ve been in the same position. I used to say, “I’m alright” a lot which like you, just meant… “I’m just the same awful and I’m getting by.”

      July 28, 2017 at 10:34 am Reply
  • Katherine Forster

    Oh wow, that sounds really hard. I’m thankful for your blog and other places that have helped me understand more about chronic illness, because I’ve never experienced anything like that; but now I feel like I can understand better, even if I can’t relate. I’m so glad you got the chance to socialize some! Praying always!

    July 28, 2017 at 8:01 am Reply
    • Ana Harris

      It’s so encouraging to know that someone who doesn’t have personal experience with chronic illness wants to understand more, Katherine! That will help you to be a much better comfort to those you meet who are suffering with health issues. As always, thank you for reading and commenting.

      July 28, 2017 at 10:37 am Reply
  • Patty Margaret

    Dear Ana, I guess it’s scripts that gets every body thru social stuff. As kids we learned them at tea parties. When I started college and was sent out of tow to conferences, I wanted to get the most out of them. I made up a script to meet people: why did you decide to come here. And when anxiety made me fear the store checkers I learned to say how’s it going. I’m hoping this helps. I’m missing my nature center vonkunteer job after 5 years of this. But I hate to reverberate from my solitude by uncontrollably explaining everything so they won’t blame me for abandoning my job. I’m so in need of scripts too. I like just ok. I’ll ask them how’s the birding or gardening going. I miss them.

    July 29, 2017 at 6:16 am Reply
  • Jen

    I can definitely relate to the social anxiety after living with chronic illness for so many years. Another question I’ve dreaded is “What do you do for work?” I still don’t have a good response. When meeting new people it’s hard to know how much or little to say about my health problems and how to redirect conversation to another topic. Socializing can be overwhelming when you’re body and brain are struggling with illness. So glad that you continue to see improvement!

    July 29, 2017 at 11:50 am Reply
  • Chris

    Ana, I so appreciate your transparency. You have taught all of us so much!! And to see the progress happening gives us all hope. I feel certain God is using you to change lives and teach others about so many things. I applaud your courage to keep trying and not giving into the anxiety!! I know it takes much bravery. You go girl!!! So many people can relate to all you are experiencing!

    July 31, 2017 at 7:44 am Reply
  • Erin

    Oh wow! That’s so awesome!!! πŸ™‚ And I absolutely LOVE the photo of you and Brett all fancy. πŸ˜‰ Do you have any timeframe of when you will be “completely” better? Able to go into stores and all that?

    July 31, 2017 at 6:23 pm Reply
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