Hope in Isolation

Delta Winds cover 2000Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College


Hope in Isolation

Matthew Alldredge

If you were to ask me about my experience in high school, I'm afraid that there wouldn't be much to say. I wasn't involved in any extracurricular activities. I didn't go to my senior prom. I never attended any school football or basketball games, nor did I ever step out of the house to hang out with acquaintances. Throughout my four years of high school, my life was pretty lonely.

I liked it that way, though.

I suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder, a mental disorder that is simply defined as a phobia of social situations. Sufferers fear judgment and ridicule by others so desperately that they tend to avoid socializing altogether, which can cause a person to miss out on many opportunities in life. Indeed, this disorder has come to hamper my life by causing me to needlessly analyze every social interaction in my life and to compare myself to others, and thereby to stifle my creative talents and responsibilities.

The symptoms of anxiety mustn't be unfamiliar to anyone who has experienced a dry mouth, shaking hands, or a pounding heart while under pressure, be it from a math test, a speech in front of one's peers, or asking that special someone on a date. Such tense situations bring everyone to a state of nervousness, but for people like myself, that nervousness is constant, and is brought about by the simplest social interactions. Just seeing someone approaching me causes my heart to skip. My palms sweat uncontrollably when a teacher calls on me for an answer. I often get caught in conversations with acquaintances who just want to get to know me better, and although I appear cordial and kind outwardly, inwardly I'm counting the minutes, praying that it will end soon. After meeting a girl in the halls and discussing something simple like the weather, I find myself repeating the conversation over and over in my head, trying to analyze my words to see if I said anything to make myself look stupid or unattractive. The worry never seems to end.

In the past, to avoid this intense panic, I'd seek solitude so as to hide from the judging minds of others. When an uncle would have get-togethers and barbecues at his house, I would invariably find myself sneaking to an empty room to be alone, content to listen to my parents and cousins conversing. Occasionally I would be sitting there, curled up in the darkness by myself, when I would hear someone say, "Where's Matt?" I would then cringe and shiver, knowing that someone would soon come looking for me. In high school, while my peers would all congregate in the central courtyard for lunch, I'd choose to eat beneath an indoor stairwell, where not even the teachers would look. Even at home, where I should have felt the most comfortable, I kept my true feelings from my parents by absorbing myself in television, video games, or drawing. My parents never really knew how my days at school went; they had to just assume I was telling the truth when I said, "It was fine." Obviously, such escape was not a long-term solution; I always knew that I would have to reemerge from my personal womb and face the world -- and my problems -- again.

Eventually, I came to an understanding of what had started my downward spiral: unconsciously, I had been comparing myself to everyone around me. By measuring myself unfairly against my peers, I was selling myself short. I looked at my older brother, a football star at my school, and I saw how popular and charismatic he was. I'd seen him with several girlfriends, and he had an impressive collection of mash notes from girls who were smitten with his looks. I envied his effusive attitude, and I told myself that I would never be able to stack up against him -- or guys like him -- when it came to being attractive. I never noticed how he failed to stay with any of these girls, or how his grades suffered due to his successful social life. I saw kids in my classes joining clubs and getting involved in all sorts of sports and competitions, and I felt so confused. I couldn't understand how they could handle all the work of class and still want to be in these clubs. Were they really joining these clubs for fun? Did they really enjoy each other's company? It all seemed so foreign to me, and yet I also felt angry with myself for not wanting to be involved like them. Was I wrong? Was I weird? In the end, the answer always seemed to be, "Yes, I'm wrong, and I'm weird," and it only made me feel worse, and less motivated. The damage I brought upon myself was horrible.

More recently, the comparisons have gone beyond self-image, and have instead begun to infect the enjoyment of my hobbies and creative endeavors. I have a desk that is cluttered with short stories, sketches, notes, poems, songs, and other assorted projects--all unfinished. The reason for this usually lies in my searches for inspiration. I thumb through novels, magazines, and art books in the hopes of finding something that will spark my imagination. When I find a short story or poem that I particularly enjoy, I often find my own work to be inadequate or derivative in comparison, and I chide myself for it. I remember getting stuck on a short story in which a young man suspects a poisoned water supply for the increasing murders in his hometown. I felt proud of my progress on it, so when I got mired in writer's block, I decided to do a little reading to warm up my creative centers. I picked up Stephen King's Nightmares and Dreamscapes, and opened it to find myself staring at a very similar plot in his short story, "The End of the Whole Mess." Immediately I thought, "Everyone's just going to think I'm a hack!" -- without even knowing who "everyone" was -- and I proceeded to wad up the work and toss it in the trash. Sadly, this has been the fate of numerous tales that, in hindsight, weren't really all that bad.

Fearing inadequacy in my leisure time is a serious problem in itself, but the seriousness is greatly magnified once the phobia is applied to my responsibilities. I've often put myself in situations that aren't challenging or that aren't necessary for me so that I won't have to face the terror of a bad reputation of a poor grade. I have taken jobs that do not challenge me mentally; I have refused to join academic clubs in school. I avoided the hassle of volunteer work, and I stayed away from sports. I avoided all of the things that were offered with the sincerest promise of enrichment and enlightenment, all because I was scared of the possibility of failure.

Such was the case at the University of Southern California, where the vibrant social atmosphere exuded by my dorm mates, combined with the pressure to get involved in the community, crashed into me like a tidal wave. I was a Fine Arts major at the time; my goal was to become an animator. I had been granted a half-tuition scholarship, a dorm room reserved for only the most prestigious students, special treatment from the staff, and still, I felt totally out of place. The only time I felt any comfort was, again, in solitude. My roommate was a former high school football star, much like my brother, and he was very successful in attracting friends, girlfriends, and followers. It was very difficult for me to enjoy his company because I kept feeling so inferior to him, and the constant flow of his friends coming in and out of our room made privacy non-existent. Ironically, my own dorm room became the most uncomfortable place in the university for me. I tried to avoid the dorms, but solicitors, church recruiters, and fellow classmates were everywhere, all the time. My classes weren't much better for me; they were chosen at the last minute for me and had little to do with my actual interest in animation, so I felt bored and unmotivated in them. I was also surrounded by peers who were so amazingly talented in their work that I couldn't stand to see them, lest I should once again compare myself (and my creative works) to them. It wasn't long before I began to feel suffocated by the constant fear and loneliness. I wanted to be alone, but being alone was "wrong." I needed to escape, but this time, there was nowhere to escape to.

That is, until it was suggested to me that I could withdraw. For me in my desperate state, it seemed the only option. I ended up throwing away a $10,000 scholarship because I was too afraid to face the reality of my environment. I've now decided to face this problem, and solve it once and for all before it robs me of anything else.

Social Anxiety Disorder is not just depressing, it's dangerous. The disorder has caused me to lose opportunities for a successful future. Fortunately, understanding the fundamental nature of the problem has aided my progress in recovering. As I continue to face the difficulty of daily socialization, I find that the fear is lessening its grip upon me day by day. I have become more open with my parents and counselors so that their advice can help me through the difficult times. I have challenged myself to make new friends every day, and I try not to base my self-worth on what my teachers think of me. By simply enjoying the processes of life over the products, I have come to appreciate my skills for what they are and I hope to be able to share my newfound hope with others who are suffering. I will continue to work hard at self-acceptance, in the hopes that one day I may actually be able to face my peers without fear.