Sue Cleland’s Story – Social Anxiety Disorder

I am telling my story, because if it means that it brings hope to just one person who lives with Social Anxiety Disorder, that recovery is possible, then it is worth it. I will start by sharing with you some of my experiences of living with Social Anxiety Disorder. I will then go on to explain to you how I believe I developed this illness, its symptoms, the effect it had on all facets of my life, the coping mechanisms I used, as well as explaining how the disorder was never recognised or treated for twenty years, and resulted in the development of more complex related conditions.

If you have been diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder, or you think you may have Social Anxiety Disorder, you will probably be able to relate to my experience. I hope it helps you to understand that you are not alone, and that treatment is available that can help you to overcome your fears and live a more meaningful and satisfying life, free from extreme fear.

Some thoughts and experiences that were real to me
To remember very little about your childhood, your teenage years, conversations held, because you may have been there physically, but mentally you were worrying about who was around you, who was watching, who was listening and what they were thinking of you
To wake up in the morning with a chest that feels like it is strangling you
To dread the day ahead
To develop a pair of eyes in the back of your head so that no matter where you are you are constantly aware of what is happening all around you and what potentially could happen
To walk down the street and believe that everyone is looking at you, staring from cars, from buildings – people you cannot even see, waiting for you to trip over and make a fool of yourself, judging the clothes you are wearing, the way you walk.
To be asked out on a date and end up with your drink all down your front because you were shaking so much you missed your mouth.
To look into someone’s eyes while they are talking to you and believe that they can see straight into your soul and know that you are a quivering mess inside
To live with a mind that is constantly in motion, with a head full of negative self talk, thinking, analysing, predicting everything that is around you every minute of the day.
To be unable to relax
To believe that you don’t belong here, that you don’t fit in, and there is no one like you in the world, to feel like a misfit.
To pack up your belongings and move house 18 times in 12 years because you think that by moving you will find happiness
To drink alcohol before leaving the house for a social event
To worry weeks in advance before giving a presentation to the point where you make yourself sick and then make up some excuse the day before that you cannot do it.
To worry days, months, years later about a silly comment you made to a friend, a colleague
To desperately want help but to be unable to reach out for it because that will only confirm that you are weak, pathetic and useless
To be incredibly self critical and self conscious
To have not one tiny bit of respect or self worth for yourself
To blame yourself for everything that goes wrong
To overreact
To cry yourself to sleep
To be a perfectionist in everything you do and punish yourself if what you do is not perfect
To be dependant on your partners to protect you from the big bad world so you won’t let them out of your sight
To shake uncontrollably in front of the public, in front of your peers, in front of your colleagues and have no understanding of why that was happening
To be constantly on guard for the next time you might have a panic attack
To stare out the window for hours on end dreaming of another life, another place, another time. Anywhere but here, any life but yours.
To think about death on a regular basis
To watch your soul disintegrate and not be able to do anything about it
To constantly seek approval in everything you do or say
To find it almost impossible to make your own decisions
To feel naked wherever you go, with all your vulnerabilities, and insecurities exposed for everyone to see
To sense that people are constantly watching you, thinking about you, criticizing you, scrutinizing you.
To pre-empt every conversation you are about to have, word for word, sentence for sentence, and pre-empt the response, which more often than not is negative
To run home the first chance you get
To wonder if it will ever end, to wonder if you will end it
This is the life of someone who lives with Social Anxiety Disorder. This was my life until I was diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder and received treatment.

My Personal Background to the Development of Social Anxiety Disorder
I grew up in Melbourne where I completed my secondary schooling and went on to study various different courses.
I had a normal childhood and upbringing with very caring parents
I am the middle of three children I believe I developed Social Anxiety Disorder when I was around 10 years old and it intensified over the years due to the following factors:
Genetic sensitivity
Feelings of inadequacy and beliefs of being different as I was adopted as a baby
Particular environmental situations which were stressful and fearful
Perceived extreme pressure to conform with my peers in the community in which I grew up
These factors combined lead to:
IRRATIONAL thought processes that became entrenched at an early age and lead to the following beliefs:
I believed I was worthless, not good enough, that my opinion did not matter
I believed that everyone who came in contact with me would judge what I said, how I behaved, and scrutinise me.
I believed I had to be perfect in everything I said or did and approved of by every person in my life.
I had a very poor body image
I was extremely fearful of people in positions of authority, and all men in general
I was extremely fearful of being embarrassed or humiliated in public
This entrenched belief system lead to the following symptoms characteristic of people who live with Social Anxiety Disorder:
High levels of anxiety when in public, around authority figures, and groups of people
High levels of anticipatory anxiety while at home
Panic attacks on a regular basis (1st at 15 years of age)
Low self worth / low self esteem / feelings of inadequacy
Depression and all the symptoms that come with it
Isolation
Insomnia
Very high expectations on myself
I viewed my world as negative and only focused on negative stimulus from others even though at the time I was not aware that I was doing that
Failed relationships
Lack of occupational goals and direction
Suicidal ideation
Extreme mood swings
Labile affect
Anger
Sweaty hands constantly
Blushing
Coping Mechanisms I used before treatment included:
Avoidant behaviour
Alcohol Abuse – binge drinking/self medicating especially before social events
Dependency on partners
Acute Awareness of everything around me
Constantly on guard
Moving house on a regular basis
Binge eating patterns
The symptoms mentioned intensified over 20 years and became worse. Over time I developed other conditions including severe depression, potential alcoholism and avoidant personality disorder.

At age 15 years and again at 22 years I saw two different psychiatrists to try and understand what was going on in my mind. No diagnosis was ever given. Instead I received a prescription for anti-anxiety tablets to take when I felt ‘nervous’. This medication only relieved my symptoms temporarily, and was definitely not an answer to my troubles.

At the beginning of 1999 I experienced panic attacks every day. Symptoms became intolerable to the point where I really believed I could read other peoples thoughts (which is known as a psychotic episode).

It was at this point that I was hospitalised for 3 weeks where I was diagnosed for the first time with Social Anxiety Disorder, and other conditions as mentioned. This was a turning point in my life and the most positive thing that could have happened as I was on a path of self-destruction after living with this disorder for almost twenty years with no help.

Treatment included anti-depressant medication, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, self-esteem work, relaxation techniques, perception/assertion training, interpersonal skill training, public speaking courses, focusing skills and meditation. Most of the therapy after my discharge from hospital I undertook myself due to a lack of experienced therapists in Queensland who work specifically with people who have been diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder.

Recovery was also made possible through the good support from my treating psychiatrist, my family and close friends, and a strong belief in myself that I could overcome the illness, as I did not want to live with such extreme fear and anxiety every minute of the day anymore.

Since undertaking treatment I have not experienced one panic attack and my level of anxiety has now decreased to within normal limits. I am now much more content, and confident with my life and myself. I am now in control of my emotions and thoughts, and I now view my world in a rational way, as well as finally having developed a sense of self worth and a belief that I am worthwhile.

Beliefs I Now Practice:
I now believe that everyone is 100% responsible for their own thoughts and beliefs in life which affects the way people feel and behave
I now know that there is always more than one way to perceive any given situation
I also believe that it doesn’t matter if not everyone I meet takes a liking to me or likes what I say.
I believe there is no such thing as perfection, it is only someone else’s standard
I believe there is no such thing as a mistake, only an experience that did not work out as I would have liked.
I am no longer dependant on others to make me feel good
I believe in myself and my own self worth
I now believe that people are not to fear and I am not being judged all the time
I now have the power to make choices in my life that are right for me and the belief that I can achieve whatever I set out to
I no longer live a life of fear, and for the first time in twenty years I feel like I have only just begun to live my life
From the age of thirteen years to thirty years my level of contentment with my life and myself fluctuated from 0% – 50%. Today, after treatment, I am now 90% content with my life and myself, happy and relieved that I have now found the key to start my life again, free of fear.

By Sue Cleland
www.adavic.org.au

Sue’s website: http://www.anxietyhelp.com.au/

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