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April 18, 2010 | 12:00 p.m. CST
In a cozy, square-shaped space framed by Japanese screens and maroon couches, I was among ten men and women attempting to talk to each other. Most of us looked distressed and could barely make it past two or three sentences. After a few minutes passed, silence invaded the room. I glanced around nervously. The person I was talking to stared at the floor. The moderator stood up and told everyone to stop. He then drew two names from a hat. One was mine. I had to have coffee with Mary for 15 awkward minutes. No more, no less.
I felt an overwhelming urge to make an excuse and escape. Every moment was awkward and stressful at the Social Anxiety Workshop, a weekly group therapy session for people who had trouble even speaking to others. I clenched my teeth and imagined myself surrounded by friends, laughing and joking. “One day,” I told myself. “One day, I will be able to have a normal social life.”
As an aspiring journalist who will be talking to people for a living, I still cannot believe that was only four years ago. Back then, asking someone directions on the street terrified me. I would tremble and sweat profusely while ordering at restaurants. I could barely hold a conversation even with a friend. Later, I came to know that I suffered from social anxiety disorder. It stemmed from an intense, irrational fear of being judged by others. I believed that everyone in the world disliked me. I thought I would live an unhappy, lonely existence for the rest of my life.
I had struggled with shyness and depression since high school, but my life took a nosedive after a college transfer brought me from Pittsburgh to New York City in 2001. Stuck alone in an unforgiving, cold metropolis, I failed to connect with people. I had only one friend whom I knew from childhood, and when I did go out, I drank excessively to mask my anxiety. I was so paranoid that whenever I saw strangers laughing, I would think that they were laughing at me.
My private life was as bad as my public life. I lived in a squalid, tiny room in Brooklyn. Half-finished Ramen noodle bowls, beer bottles and pieces of scrap paper cluttered the floor. I slept on top of a pile of rags and blankets. I ate either at McDonald's or ordered from the greasy Chinese restaurant nearby. When I did go out, I tried to be unnoticeable so people wouldn’t talk to me. I wore over-sized, mostly black clothing and my long hair concealed my face.
I still attended classes so my parents in Taiwan wouldn’t worry about me. On the surface, I was the quiet, unapproachable guy in the corner. Nobody knew about the turmoil in my head. I yearned to have someone I could really talk to, and I seriously considered ending my life if I was still spending my birthdays alone by age 27.
Besides going home once a year, I was afraid to go anywhere during vacations. To justify my misery, I kept myself busy working menial jobs that required minimal human interaction. I spent one winter break sitting in a windowless room shredding papers for minimum wage.
Things improved a little after I graduated from college. Faced with the pressure of seeking employment, I was able to lower my anxiety for short periods of time. During these moments of clarity, I managed to get a job as a graphic designer and also made a few friends. An office job presented a new set of social challenges. I became increasingly self-conscious about my anxiety, as I had to see the same people all day long. I remained silent at my desk, reporting only to my manager when necessary. I was getting in trouble for putting off making phone calls. Though I was creating beautiful designs, my feelings of inadequacy grew deeper. Until someone forcefully stepped in.
I had met Fiona at a bar shortly before graduation. I don’t quite remember how it happened, but we dated for about a month. She was the first person whom I allowed close enough to see my anxiety, and I felt relieved to be able to tell her things I had never told anyone else. The relationship never worked out, but a few months later we both needed housing and decided to rent a three-bedroom apartment together.
As a roommate and friend, she became concerned for my well being. One day, she dragged me outside and forced me to ask five strangers for the time. Every time I tried to approach someone, my mind went blank, and I saw an image of that person screaming at me. After fidgeting on the street for about an hour, I managed to ask one harmless old lady, and then I ran away.
I was angry with Fiona for trying to turn me into somebody else. By that time I was in denial and believed that I did not need social skills. After all, I had managed to graduate college and get a job. I also had a few friends. Isn’t that all there is to life? However, Fiona never let up. For a whole year, she yelled at me every day and forced me into social situations until I finally admitted that something was wrong.
I sat down at my computer, and typed “shyness problem” into Google search. The first entry was a Wikipedia entry on Social Anxiety Disorder. “Damn, that's exactly me right there,” I thought. I then searched therapy options and found the Social Anxiety Workshop. In May of 2006, I checked into my first session at the moderator’s apartment on the Upper West Side.
I attended these workshops on-and-off for the next two years. Thinking that I had improved, sometimes I would stop attending only to come running back after having an anxiety attack. However, now I knew that there was hope. I started caring about myself. For the first time in my life, I became afraid of dying. I knew I still had a tough road ahead of me, but I wanted to travel it.
I began pushing myself harder, moving on to the same center’s public speaking and acting programs. The spectacle of a group of not animated, shy people trying to act out scenes from movies and plays would’ve caused a Hollywood director to have a heart attack.
For some reason, the instructor kept assigning me roles where I was seduced by women. I didn’t really mind. My most successful role was portraying Benjamin in the seduction scene in The Graduate. I tried on different types of emotions. I improvised a comedy skit as a wedding band leader who insisted on playing Black Sabbath. I delivered a furious tirade at an imaginary coworker. I gradually became less self-conscious and more expressive.
As 2007 drew to an end, my layers of anxiety had peeled off to the point where my adventurous and curious core started to show itself. Having unused vacation days, I joined Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms and boarded a plane alone to Mexico.
Not knowing a word of Spanish, I spent two weeks painting murals at a healing center in the jungle near Puerto Morelos on the Yucatan peninsula. It was essentially my first time interacting with free-spirited, positive people who wanted to make a difference.
However, nothing was a life-changing as the Temazcal — a Mayan sweat lodge. It took place in a pitch-black cave, heated by pouring water on red-hot volcanic rocks. One by one, the participants chose an instrument and entered the cave. We started by chanting in unison, which quickly escalated in intensity. Finally, people were making whatever sound came to mind. The combination of the complete darkness and intense heat temporarily wiped out my inhibitions. I lay on the floor, furiously pounding on a xylophone, screaming over and over again at the top of my lungs: “I don't want to be scared anymore!”
I returned with a positive and open mind. I joined a gym and started eating healthy foods. I started meeting all kinds of people and traveled the world through business trips and vacations. I felt all kinds of emotions that I had never felt before. I remember walking down my office hallway humming a song, and realizing that I was actually in a good mood. I clearly remember sitting at a table having a happy conversation with a few friends and feeling lucky to be alive. I celebrated turning 27 at a birthday picnic on the Jersey Shore with more than 15 close friends. I guess I did end up killing myself. My negative self.
Still, my anxiety lurks. The old, familiar symptoms of cold sweats, troubled breathing and nausea still resurface every now and then, especially before a big interview. However, it doesn't stop me anymore. After forcing myself through the situation, I always feel euphoric, as if I had just conquered the world.