When I was in elementary school I started having some breathing issues. In the evening, after the day's activities, I would start to feel tightness in my chest and shortness of breath. After telling my mom about this, after weeks if not months, she decided to take me to the doctor. After the doctor did a few tests, that all came back negative, he concluded I didn’t have any serious problems like asthma or a heart condition. He told my mom that it was probably some type of anxiety and that, after a busy day, I would settle down in the evening and start to worry about what it happened that day and what was going to happen the next day.
Of course, this was a different time in our world. First of all, it was big that my mom even took me to the doctor because, back in the day, people didn’t run to the clinic for every sore throat, rash, or for tummy ache. Second of all, this was also a time when, if something wasn’t physically wrong with you, like blood gushing from your leg or something, you were “fine". As a matter fact, even if said you were bleeding, say from punching your hand through a window and having tiny glass shards stuck in your hand, you were also “fine". You were fine to the point that you were slapped and sent to your room until a few hours later when you were assisted in removing the tiny glass shards from your hand before a Band-Aid was placed over the wound.
Back in the day, and in my family, things that were happening in your head weren’t really happening. Therefore, the doctor's quick conclusion that anxiety was causing my shortness of breath didn’t really register on anyone’s radar. For the last 30 years I’ve lived with, and adapted to having generalized anxiety. It’s something that I’ve come to learn about myself, as some of my teachers in elementary school and high school were of the mindset of my mom, who either ignored the issue or even, in one instance, poked fun at my anxiety, which definitely exacerbated it. I developed my own coping mechanisms without even knowing it and in adulthood I recognize it for what it is, accept it, and do my best not to let the little anxious demons on my shoulder get the best of me on any given day. Because I have struggled with anxiety for so long, I see it in other people and I understand that it comes in many forms.
I’m a really gregarious person who enjoys the spotlight and has no issues speaking to large groups or meeting new people. Growing up in a big family, I was surrounded by people all of the time, I’m incredibly comfortable being in situations with lots of people who are talking with and over one another. Actually, I feel really uncomfortable or anxious when I’m all alone.
Andy, on the other hand, did not grow up surrounded by a clan of people. He grew up in a nuclear family and based on what I’ve heard of his upbringing from him and his family, I think it was a quieter place, a less chaotic space. And while he does not understand the anxiety of worrying about what the kids are going to do after school two years from now, which is something that I would worry about, he does understand the feeling of being anxious, particularly when he is in a big group of people. No, he has no official diagnosis, but some of his own personal reflection and dialogue with me has led me to the conclusion that perhaps he’s struggles with social anxiety.
As a self-proclaimed social butterfly, it is often painful for me to participate in social functions with Andy. He has a hard time small talking, being goofy, or talking about topics that aren't heavy hitting or 100% relevant to his life and work. I will watch Andy’s face if he is with me and we are a part of a conversation talking about family, movies, music, or heaven forbid, high school or family. Just this past weekend I, after being tired of participating in too many family activities without a spouse, asked him to join me for a family camping weekend. Hours into the social excursion, we were sitting around the fire. Of course my cousins, brother and I got into a conversation about all the people we know from high school and where they are now. Andy remained nearly silent during the entire conversation until he muttered under his breath that the topic was boring. My brother turned to him and asked him if he would like to choose the conversation topic. Without even acknowledging my brother's question, Andy picked up his phone, tapped an icon, and stared at Facebook, completely ignoring that we were even sitting next to him.
After almost 20 years of experiencing this type of behavior, all we can do is laugh and say, that’s just Andy! Most of our friends and family are completely used to Andy coming to a social function and sitting in a corner, writing out checks for bills, writing emails on his laptop, or wondering where he’s gone, only to find him in a lonely corner talking on his cell phone. Some have expressed concern to me. They have asked me if Andy’s behavior is an indicator that he doesn’t like them or that he is unhappy. I tried to explain that Andy’s awkward social behavior does not mean that he doesn’t like them. It is simply his coping mechanism for mitigating social anxiety. But wait, you say, Andy holds several positions that are very public and is regularly in places with large groups of people and maybe even in those situations he seems perfectly normal. And, I would say that this is true, and you are right. When Andy is in work mode, he seems at home and comfortable in his skin. Andy can easily stand up in front of a group of 20 people and talk about board governance or the status of the town dump. He will talk your ear off about local politics or the ins and outs of managing a nonprofit organization. But put a drink in his hand, and take his phone out of the other one, and ask him what his favorite movie is and you can visibly see the dude start to squirm and his mind drifts away in hopes that his body can follow suit.
I do feel bad for him because I know what anxiety feels like and it's no fun. As the third most common mental health problem*, Andy's desire to jump off of a cliff before standing in a circle and to tell people what he likes about them (true story, he was totally asked to participate in this activity), is pretty common in other people, too. But, it's also hard for me not to play into Andy's distaste of social/fun time, like when we are driving in the car, for example, on forced family fun vacations.
I like to think of these road trips like an episode of Between Two Ferns. I'm Zach Galifianakis, obviously. As a guest on my show, Andy is trapped between two car doors instead of two ferns. He acts like he'd rather be anywhere but there. I relish and delight in peppering him with ridiculous questions, ignoring his irritated responses and eye rolls. When I hit him with a real doozy, like a super personal sex question about his ex, he stares into space. Unperturbed, I go in another direction, demanding his opinion on how he feels about men wearing sweatpants without underwear. At long last, we get to a rest stop and he can escape (if only momentarily) but I trail him, telling him about the diagnoses I learned about him after taking various online quizzes for him. And so ends the episode of Between Two Car Doors.
You're thinking how pissed Andy is going to be after he reads this but he already read it, every line, and besides asking me to take out the part about men in sweatpants, he didn't disagree with anything that I wrote. He even laughed at a few parts and wanted me to emphasize my love of taking online diagnosis quizzes on his behalf. Then, he went outside to his safe place- mowing the lawn to avoid after dinner chat with me and the girls.
Why do I choose to expose such personal information about myself, my kids and my family? In the era of highly curated social media, when we see carefully crafted and perfectly angled photos and scroll through posts of what seem like other's successes and amazing lives, I feel strongly that there is at least one person who connects to my post each time it hits the internet and feels a little bit better knowing that to err is human, to be anxious is human, and to love while simultaneously being super irritated by our family is normal. We never know what is going on in someone's head, even those that seem the most confident and relaxed on the outside. It's ok to be vulnerable and it's actually really powerful to witness someone's vulnerability because it means they trust you. So, go ahead, be a little vulnerable or allow someone else to be vulnerable with you. It's a beautiful gift.