How Social Anxiety Disorder Feels to MeTomorrow I’m going to a conference. I remember the last time I went to a conference, a plane trip alone to another state. I booked the wrong flight and missed it so I broke down into tears, almost deciding not to go till my family pushed me, my father driving me two hours to the airport so I’d catch another flight. If I’m going to put myself in a place with confusing strangers, I want everything else to fall into place first.

I wake up an hour after I go to bed, scrambling to check what time it is, worried that I’m late. I look at my phone and realise it’s only midnight but I only go back to sleep after checking my alarm clock for the third time since I set it. More than anything, I fear being late in a situation where I’m not comfortable.

When I finally wake up, I want everything perfect. I feel as if having things ready, the way I want them to be, means less worrying about them later. I don’t know if it works, because it gives me more time to concentrate on what’s around me, which isn’t always a good thing. I triple check that I have everything I need in my bags to cover every possible scenario.

I like to be comfortable when I’m in stressful situations but that usually involves warm and bulky clothing that makes me feel as if I’m standing out too much. So I opt for nicer clothing and hope that by fading in, being less comfortable won’t make me more nervous.

When you look at me, you might think I’m confident. Or quieter than you’d expect or maybe a little snobbish or bored by you. That’s what I think you think, anyway. I might be wrong. Actually, I’m trying to pretend that I’m as comfortable as everyone else seems to be, in a situation where I’m absolutely not.

Although I am often nervous around people who I respect and look up to, there’s another type of person who makes me much more anxious. They’re the people who intimidate me, not because I respect them, but because they have an air about them which makes me feel they’re looking down at me, a mix of silent sarcasm and over-educated confidence.

Am I too loud? Am I too quiet? Did I um and ah too much, or did I talk too fast? DO I HAVE A BIG SPOT ON MY NOSE?

My body is telling me it wants food. I can feel my belly gurgling but but I’m not hungry because my abdominal muscles are so tense. When I finally have to eat, to be polite, I manage but it’s not enjoyable. I worry that I’m eating too slow, I’ll drop something or I’ll fill up too soon and leave a rudely full plate.

I don’t expect to have fun. Even when there are no expectations of me, when other people are having fun or being entertained, I’m watching every move I make. When conversations swirl around me, I try and look interested or join in. When something I say falls flat or isn’t heard above the din, I sink back into my shell, hoping I don’t have to talk again. I can’t enjoy myself knowing that I have to watch for social cues and I might be drawn into a confusing social situation with no warning. I can’t relax till I’m alone in familiar surroundings again, without an audience.

When I have a moment where I’m alone, I want to cry, glad to feel as if I’m no longer in the spotlight, no longer forced into complete control. But I can’t because I have to keep it together, keep up the charade, survive till I can go home and hide in my house, with people I know, in comfortable sweats and curled up in a messy familiar bedroom.

I’m finally alone, comfortable. I can relax. I fall asleep, overwhelmed by the exhaustion of doing very little but being over prepared for anything.