Thursday, August 19, 2010

Pop quiz

What does your brain instinctively tell you to do when, say, a runaway bus is careening toward you? Or a mugger with a knife is lunging for your guts? Or Rush Limbaugh is stumbling toward you with his pants around his ankles and yet another engagement ring in his hands?

Right. You run like hell. No thinking, no putting on a brave face, no fighting back.

Now pretend you’re retarded* (and I use that word on purpose here). Pretend that your run-like-hell instincts kick in every time a friendly person smiles and walks toward you. Every time you enter a crowded room. Every time you get a freakin’ party invitation in the mail.

Congratulations! You have a social anxiety disorder.

Based on my interpretation of my personal experience with this extremely stupid disorder—and, as you’ll see if you keep reading this freakishly long blog post, I have nothing but contempt for it and what it does to people—a social anxiety disorder is an extremely impractical case of bad wiring that makes you interpret friendly, fun, happy things as hostile and terrifying. And you have almost no control over it.

For most of my life, I’ve lived under the crushing immobility of this goddamned thing. Since before it had a name. Since before those drug commercials with the sad little purple ovals that never went to parties with the other ovals. Since before I even realized my instinctive, everyday terror of friendly, nice people was not remotely normal.

Here’s the part where I pre-emptively apologize if this post is nothing but self-indulgent navel-gazing and then explain that I’m not writing it for pity or to make you see me as brave for telling my story and exposing my soul. In fact, I’ve started and stopped writing various versions of this post about 50 times over the last five years. And I’m still not entirely sure I know what I’m doing here.

But I’ve kept coming back to it. Perhaps I feel the need to explain myself to anyone who thought I was standing against a wall being all arrogant and unapproachable that one time at that one bar/party/rehearsal/meeting/parade/street festival/movie/social setting. I was not being arrogant. I was not ignoring you. I was actually afraid of you. Terrified, even.

Or perhaps it’s because I’ve come so far since I finally unlocked myself from this prison thanks to some intense (and very expensive) therapy. I can now walk up to strangers and say hi. I can carry on a conversation without looking around frantically for a way to escape all its horrifying pleasantness. I even went to my 20-year high-school reunion—which even to normal people can be a whirling sea of panic triggers—four years ago and had the audacity to have a great time.

I think I’m mostly writing this just to focus my own thoughts and mark my place in time as I go on this adventure from part-time terror to full-time (I hope!) normalcy.

All my life I’ve assumed people hated me from the moment I met them. I’d look for proof of my suspicions and easily find it (that guy just looked away as he was talking to me! those people I know are having coffee and they didn’t invite me!) in the most innocent of circumstances. Then I’d retreat to the relative safety of my house and struggle to breathe in my dizzying sea of rejection and then wait for the next person to hate me. And it all seemed so logical and rational and everyday-normal that I didn’t even realize I was doing it. Or that it was fucking stupid.

My folks, without realizing how much I was struggling with this or even that I was in therapy, recently commented about how I was afraid as a little kid to run around the corner and ask our neighbors—who were our good friends—for something. Which tells me this stupid problem has been my “norm” since I was old enough to leave the house on my own.

In fact, while I’m friendly with people from grade school through college if I run into them somewhere, I made no lasting friendships there. Aside from the handful of people I exchange Facebook greetings and holiday letters with, I have no actual close friends from school. And at my high-school reunion when people were planning parties at their houses and hotels to keep the fun going, nobody invited me to any of them. And why would they? We have very little shared history, so we have no old times to relive and no catching up to do.

One of the cruel ironies of this stupid problem is that people can interpret your terror as standoffishness. You don’t talk to them because you’re terrified of them, so they avoid you because you don’t seem nice or approachable. And then they keep avoiding you. And then you have real reasons to think they hate you. And the cycle never, ever ends.

And it’s really the most retarded* problem you could possibly have. (“Hi. My name’s Jake, and I’m afraid of nice people.”) I mean really. It takes pathetic and illogical to pathological new lows. (I just made that up! But it kind of makes sense!)

Here’s a brief list of the everyday ordinary things my social anxiety disorder has made me too terrified to do at one time (or sometimes a hundred times) over the course of my life:
• flag down a waiter
• hail a cab
• ask a clerk for help in a store
• ask a stranger for directions/the time
• walk up to a stranger at a bar or a party
• let someone introduce me to a stranger at a bar or a party
• ask someone to spot me at the gym
• ask someone in the aisle seat to let me out at my bus/train stop
• call/text/email someone I just met and ask him or her to do something fun
• make small talk with a co-worker
• make small talk with a doorman
• join an informal gathering of people after work without an express invitation
• join an informal gathering of people after a rehearsal without an express invitation
• call a meeting for a volunteer committee I’m supposed to be heading
• throw a party
• go to a party
• make small talk in an elevator/gym/audition/dog park/you get the picture

Sounds ridiculous, right? But when you’re trapped in a crushing, paralyzing fear, doing any of these things is as impossible as melting into the ground, which you’d prefer to do anyway.

And just try to find your fucking self-esteem when you’re walking an extra six blocks to work in the rain because you were too paralyzed to ask a stranger to let you up from your seat so you could get off the train at your stop. And then stop wondering why I’m describing this disorder with so many swear words.

Fortunately, my case hasn’t been lock-myself-in-a-dark-room-for-20-years extreme. I’ve had entire days an even weeks where I found myself somehow unshackled from this stupid problem. And I’ve never had these issues in places where I was “supposed” to be—like family gatherings or job interviews or official work projects or client presentations or rehearsals.

And there are cures. They take work, but this big ugly animal can be killed. I’ve seen three therapists (so far) to make this happen. The first therapist diagnosed the social anxiety disorder about seven years ago, which gave my enemy a name … and gave me something specific to fight, which was actually pretty helpful. But that’s as far as she seemed to be able to take me. The second therapist just didn’t click with me, but I stuck with her for a while because she was in my network. And the third therapist was the one I needed. He asked simple questions and offered logical insights and maintained a bemused, judgment-free demeanor that let me voice all the crap in my head and hear just how ridiculous—how staggeringly fucking ridiculous—my fears were when they left my brain through my mouth and came back in through my ears.

I started seeing him in January 2006, and by May I considered myself reliably functional in polite society. I can now go places that have historically been nothing but a sea of panic triggers—parties, bars, street fairs, networking events, actually anywhere large groups of people congregate socially—and I can walk around and socialize and laugh and leave and spend hours without it even occurring to me to have an attack. It’s a whole new world … and all it cost me was a lifetime of frustration and loneliness, five months of intense conversations and terrifying real-life practice, and a couple thousand dollars in out-of-network co-pays.

Looking back, it’s also driven almost every major choice I’ve made in life: I majored in English literature (four years of reading—minimal human interaction required), I built a career as a writer (but not a reporter, because that would involve talking to people out in the real world), I studied piano (no time to talk when you’re trying to master Debussy), I became a six-day-a-week gym rat (lifting requires no human contact—and it helps grow muscles that might work as an ice breaker when a simple hello is too terrifying), I started running marathons (exercise, fresh air, physical proximity to other runners at times, but no human interaction required), I built up a mildly popular blog (all typing, no talking) … see a pattern?

This journey has also made me acutely aware of other people suffering through the same bullshit. I recognize the signs. I see the terror. I often step up and say hi when I see someone cringing helplessly against a wall in a crowded setting.

But I don’t try to forge friendships. These people represent what I hate the most about myself. At least my old self. I don’t want to be dragged down by their stupid problems, which I fear are still on the verge of re-becoming my stupid problems. Call me insensitive, but I look at my calculated distance as self-preservation.

Facebook has been both an ally and an enemy for me in this adventure. It’s obviously great for building friendships out of casual encounters and staying in touch and making plans with people. And for putting my always-trying-to-be-clever self out there for people to see and maybe like. But every once in a while I’ll be scrolling through the news feed and I’ll stumble on pictures of parties or dinners or roadtrips populated by lots of people I know. People who obviously didn’t invite me to join them. And the rush of rejection and despair and frustration sometimes hits me so hard and so fast it crushes my chest and literally sucks my breath away.

Yes, it’s irrational. Stupidly, retardedly*, even arrogantly irrational. Especially because I do get invited to do stuff. But in my mind I’ve worked so hard to meet people … to build organic, genuine friendships that don’t come from me being too eager or pushy … to not go to that place in my head that says the people I meet all hate me and I should just give up … that I feel I somehow deserve the payoff of a whirlwind social life and an exhausting social calendar. And when I see tangible proof that I’m not on everyone’s radar when they plan their get-togethers … well … let’s just say this adventure out of my stupid retarded* (last time! I promise!) problem is still more of a journey than a destination.


If you’ve read this far you’ve concluded that I’m at worst a mess or at best a writer in dire need of a filter. Or maybe that I’m just as screwed up as everyone else, only I have a bigger platform to broadcast my problems to the world. But if my endless blather helps one person see there’s an escape from his or her anxiety prison—or if it helps you guys on the outside understand that pathologically quiet people are not always the unapproachable snobs they seem to be—then maybe I’ve embarrassed myself here for a good reason.

In the mean time, I’m still getting a huge kick out of my new skill: walking up to strangers and saying hello. Even better: walking into social settings and looking at strangers as potential new friends instead of obvious-to-nobody-but-me Ninja assassins. And if you need proof, I’m totally free to come to your parties and show you.

* I know retarded is a horribly offensive word in most contexts. My domestic partner’s brother is clinically retarded. And since he came to live with us I’ve stopped using the word entirely … except in extremely appropriate circumstances. Like describing a brain that’s terrified of friendly people. Or dismissing the rationalizations for denying equality to gay families.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Celebrities I have been sweaty with

I used to work out at the Crunch Gym in the base of the Marina City towers (the buildings that look like corncobs for you youngsters and the buildings that were implied to be Bob Newhart’s office for you older folks), and my celebrity-dar is such that I didn’t realize Will Smith was working out every day right next to me to get pumped up for filming the movie Ali until someone told me months after the fact.

At least I know who Will Smith is. I once spent an irritating few months sharing the gym and the locker room (but never the bathroom once I found out who he was) with alleged-child-pee-er-on-er R. Kelly and his thoroughly douchebaggy posse. And I once got sweat sprayed all over my arm by a very jittery pale man running next to me on a treadmill, only to find out later that he was Scott Weiland, who apparently is a pilot for something called Stone Temple Airlines, which must be a limited regional carrier because I never see them as an option when I book stuff on Orbitz. And I also totally ogled a very athletic butt that I found out later belonged to a baseball player I’d never heard of named Kyle Farnsworth.

But that was my old life at my old gym.

I have no allegiance to gyms or gym chains. I realized long ago that the most important feature for a gym to have—aside from decent equipment and a few hot guys to motivate me—is a close proximity to my house or my office. If my home or my office moves, I move gyms too. Because the less effort I have to make to get to a gym, the more time I can spend in my vain pursuit of maintaining some sort of physical relevance in today’s youth-obsessed culture.

So when my office moved two years ago to the heart of the Loop, I found a nearby gym that, though it’s so expensive it kind of makes me choke every time I open my Amex bill, I go every morning at 6:30 plus I cough up the equivalent of two house payments every four months so I can have one of its more muscular trainers beat me three times a week like a Mel Gibson girlfriend. And I love it!

But! It gets better!

On one of my first visits to this shiny new gym, I was huffing away on a Stairmaster absentmindedly watching Pretty Woman on one of the ten bazillion TVs that are suspended over the cardio area when I looked down and saw Richard Gere. As in the Richard Gere from the movie that was playing above my head, only live and in person in front of me in my gym. And, as my previous experience at Crunch proved, it wasn’t entirely implausible that a bona-fide celebrity (meaning one I'd actually heard of) would be using a high-end chain gym in the heart of Chicago’s financial district. So I started fantasizing about all the fabulous celebrities I’d be showering naked with sharing workout tips with now that I was an elite insider member of a fabulous, dripping-(literally)-with-(sweaty)-celebrities gym.

As I looked down at Richard, assuming all this time he’d been admiring my dedication to fitness and contemplating which blockbuster movie he’d like to use as a vehicle to launch my co-leading-man stardom with him, I realized that … um … he wasn’t actually Richard Gere. In fact, he barely even looked like Richard Gere, aside from his silver-gray hair and his cute-ish fortysomething face. And the fact that he was a man.

But! It gets worse!

Because once I started going religiously at 6:30 am (I’m the undisputed mayor on Foursquare, for those of you inclined to be impressed by such silliness) I started to notice all the morning regulars … including yet another celebrity lookalike. Fortunately for me, I knew right away this dude wasn’t the actual celebrity. Unfortunately for him, the poor fucker looks like Glenn Beck, who, even if you can get past his batshit craziness and his one-cylinder intellect, is still a goofy-looking low-budget circus clown. Bless his cold black heart.

And then this week a third celebrity lookalike appeared and started getting in the way of my morning workouts. This one looks remarkably like Rita Moreno in West Side Story, complete with plum-hued bouffant and fiery kohl-lined eyes. Unfortunately, he tends to take up two sinks in the locker room right as 30 other guys are racing to get cleaned up and get to work. But still. I bet he floats like a butterfly way better than Will Smith ever could.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

This just in ...

The biopsy results are back. The foot mole was benign. Can I get a woot?

Feet and ice cream

So the dermatologist told me I could take my mole-excision stitches out of my foot by myself on Friday or Saturday if the wound looked healed and the stitches felt like they were “pulling.” The wound definitely looked healed and I convinced myself that the stitches were indeed pulling on Friday night, so I got out the pointy little dissection scissors I still have from my college I’m-gonna-be-a-doctor-someday biology class, sterilized them with rubbing alcohol and started trying to snip the tiny little stitches on the outside of my foot. But my eyes are 42 years old, the outside of my foot is far away, and my hips and knees have all the flexibility of a Faux News anchor in a Sarah-Palin-is-totally-smarter-than-a-box-of-farts discussion. And by the time I’d hacked away enough of the stitches that there was no turning back, I realized there was no way I was going to get them all out with any precision … or even with any degree of certainty.

The domestic partner was gone, but he tends to be squeamish about such things anyway. Fortunately, our buddy Mike was staying at our house for Market Days, the Boystown street festival that elevates crowds, noise, drunkenness and shirtlessness into an art form, and he wasn’t squeamish in the least. So he picked out the last little bits of my stitches, I gently washed the wound, and as I started to bandage it for stability, the damn thing ripped open.

Which meant I got to traverse about 4,000 miles of crowded street fair all weekend in heavy bandages, sturdy shoes, and the hopes that no drunken fool would spill beer or full bodyweight on my foot. I carried a triage kit in a pocket of my cargo shorts in case I had to rebuild my foot after such an emergency, but it survived the weekend with nothing worse than a stabbing pain every time I took a step.

Which almost martyred me because Mike wanted to experience everything Boystown had to offer this weekend. So we did a lot of walking. And standing. And shuffling through unmoving crowds. And dancing. In place. Because of the crowds. But still.

On the plus side, I relished sleeping until 9:00 on Saturday morning instead of getting up at 5:00 to run 14 miles on a gaping foot wound. So there’s that. And even though I rarely wore a shirt this weekend, I abandoned all pretense that I like to eat radishes for breakfast and I stuffed endless piles of sugary carbs in my face at every meal. Which is why this gratuitous photo of me and (left to right) my impossibly hot friend Brad, a friend of his, and my handsome and intrepid foot-suture-snipping buddy Mike at the street fair is cropped above the waistline, Sunshine:

Speaking of sugary carbs, I have been extremely weak-willed this summer about one of my biggest vices: ice cream. I could happily eat ice cream for every meal every day of my life and regret nothing. Except the loss of my ability to see my feet. Which means I’d never get those damn stitches out. Those of you who keep track of such things may remember that my reward for finishing my last marathon was four flavors of Ben & Jerry’s, consumed alphabetically in bed in front of a DVR full of Bones reruns. (It’s a known fact that ice cream is healthier for you if you eat it alphabetically while watching fake but fabulously graphic autopsies performed against a whimsical background of insouciantly denied romantic attraction. Look it up.)

The only two instances where I can always say no to ice cream are if it’s a flavor I don’t love or if it’s just cheap store-brand crap. And the flavors I love tend to be pretty nothin’-but-sugar simple: vanilla ice cream with cookie dough, brownie bits, chocolate pieces, candy, cake, fudge and/or frosting.

Unfortunately, in my old age I’ve developed a disturbing new ice-cream-related shopping disorder: I’ll look through the window at the grocery store freezer, find a Ben & Jerry’s flavor I like, reach in to grab it, and not notice until I’m all the way home that I’ve actually picked up the flavor that was next to it … which is invariably a flavor I hate, like Nuts ’n’ Squirrel or Crunch Limbaugh or Jake’s Excised Moles or Sarah Praline. (I really hate nuts in my ice cream.)

Thankfully, my Frozen Treat Dementia (FrTD) probably keeps me from actually consuming ice cream for every meal every day of my life instead of just blogging about it in the abstract. Which is how I’m able to keep my weight at a reasonable level year after year. And as added insurance, every year or so I get another mole or two hacked out of my body. And now, to prevent myself from ever eating anything again, I cut out my own stitches too early and watch myself burst open all over the bathroom floor. It works like magic.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

May the best Jake win

I ran the Rock ’n’ Roll Half Marathon on Sunday in what turned out to be a sea of celebrities. And I mean “celebrities” in the “barely relevant people who’ve been out in public at some point in the last seven years” sense. Also in the “I’ve heard of only three of these eight people and I could identify only two of them by sight” sense.

But! The numbers are in, and though my watch said I finished in 2:14:07 while my official time was 2:15:49, I still beat all seven of the “celebrity” finishers. Especially Jake Pavelka, who I hope won’t feel too resentful to propose to me, romance me with his shirt off and then dump me before my husband finds out. Jake may be a douchenozzle, but have you seen him? I know he’s not really much of a publicity hound so he’s never on television and there are almost no pictures of him on the Internets. But wow. Just … wow.

If you want numbers, here’s the “celebrity” breakdown:

If you’re a Proposition 8 supporter—especially if you’re still a supporter after yesterday’s impeccably reasoned trial decision—you obviously have no reading comprehension skills (or use for facts, for that matter) so just look at the dramatic play of white and dark in the above screen grab. Then stick a chainsaw in your ass.

Speaking of bloody wounds, my foot cancer surgery went so well on Tuesday that it was practically over before it began. It took longer for the anesthetic (the injections of which really, really, really hurt) to set in than for the doctor to excise the mole, cauterize the wound, stitch the edges together, and slap on layers of nourishing antibacterial goo and bandages. All of which meant I get to wear flip-flops to work all week:

The doctor said the pain would be pretty intense once the anesthetic wore off so she prescribed some hefty Rush Limbaugh drugs for me. But instead of hurting, the wound just burned like a peeing hooker. So no hypocritical drug-and-divorce-addiction scandal for me!

She also said I’d need to keep the stitches in until the wound stopped swelling and bleeding, which could take 7–10 days. On the off chance everything healed just fine in the first 48 hours, though, she gave me permission to remove my own stitches on Friday and just keep everything tightly bandaged for a week.

And guess what? 48 hours after the surgery, everything has healed quite nicely. So by this weekend I’ll be able to add “suture removal” to my resume. Also: “bar mitzvah clown.”