I participated in and finished a Tough Mudder on Saturday, June 14th. At the end of the day, long after all of the high fives and "hell yeah!"s were dished out, I sat in the bathtub amazed by what I had just done. I sat in orange tinted water, not contemplating my performance or the physical challenges I had just put my body through, all I cared about was my ability to accomplish something that would have been impossible a year and a half ago. I was able to have an epic adventure completely free of social anxiety.
I'm a pretty fit person who takes great pride in my physical well being but that hasn't prevented me from being terrified of doing athletic activities with other people in the past. This Saturday was a perfect breeding ground for my social anxiety but I experienced none. No part of me mentally shut down or caved in. There were other athletes there that are beyond what I'll ever be, enough to intimidate anyone who doubts themselves even in the slightest. But I saw them as motivation instead of my brain telling me they're better than me and that I'm not good enough for what I'm about to face. I didn't have one embarrassing moment and that wasn't because I escaped doing embarrassing things. In fact, I found myself in a few situations that would have made great viral videos of what not to do. I also bombed some of the challenges so bad that I'm sure I made everyone else feel better about their performance. But I also did amazing on the other obstacles. But the memorable part is that I didn't care and that I laughed it off, the bad as well as the good. I did great but most importantly I felt none of the anxiety that once would have been there.
I am beating my own chemically programmed fears.
In the past I could have never possibly toyed with the idea of joining something like this. There are a million reasons my mind could instantly come up with that would scare me away from any event with other people involved. None of them are reasonable but anxiety within the bipolar spectrum isn't always fair or warranted. It took me years to build up the gall just to do group bike rides. Even then it wasn't necessarily courage that brought me out onto those paved country roads, it was someone I connected with that told me I was going. But even then I was a wreck though the entirety of those rides. I wasn't afraid of how other people saw me, I have rarely if ever cared about that. My anxiety is me judging my own actions, my self image turns on itself.
"You're really quiet. I never pegged you for a quiet person."
I'm not. I just have no idea what I'm doing and I'm fighting the urge to fake a death in the family so I can run and hide from this verbal exchange.
"Are you ok? You don't look ok."
No, I'm not ok but it's my goal in life to make these situations ok, so please bare with me as I sweat like a 600lbs person in 110 degree weather and make unprompted seasick faces.
I'm going to act like the opposite of who I really am because I'm treading water in a polluted river of chemical imbalances. I don't know why I want to run and hide but the compulsion to do so is overwhelming. I'm going to look awkward and do awkward things during these moments because I forgot how to move my bones and muscle in conjunction with the skin that's encasing them.
My social anxiety manifests itself as unwarranted fear. No logic associated with it, nothing to pinpoint, just the feeling of fear. The chemical reaction in the brain that causes that emotion without any reasonable trigger. It may not be warranted but it is unfortunately 100% real. The fight or flight chemicals being dropped like atom bombs while I'm comfortably sitting in a coffee shop with other decent people I may or may not know. I'm not hard to make friends with and I make friends quite easily, unless it's during these moments.
I'm not a sensitive person. Sarcasm runs through my veins and is more important to me than balancing my check book. I take jokes and sly remarks very well, I enjoy the lifestyle that is trying to get the best of one another. I don't get seriously bothered when strangers are rude to me or if people stare at me in public. I don't mind asking stupid questions or tripping over my own feet. I'm incredibly witty and usually a very self confident person. It doesn't make any sense for me to randomly be afraid of people. It isn't always just strangers or people I know. Sometimes it's one or the other and sometimes I can be frightened just by the concept of other people. I have days where I'm outgoing and all smiles around strangers. I'll crack jokes with a cashier who's ringing me up, I'll have no problem going to the bank, or waiting at the DMV and striking up a conversation with the person next to me. But sometimes during my chipper day I'll run into someone I know and I'll get this weird feeling in my stomach and have no idea what the hell to say to them. I just conversed with 100 strangers without any problem so why is my stomach churning at the thought of speaking with a friend? It could very well be a close friend but my mind will still freak out.
"Hey Gwen! What are you up to?"
I'm currently praying that the entire milk aisle will spontaneously combust so we all have to rush out of the building and I can avoid a painful conversation with you that is through no fault of your own.
"I saw you Facebook post about _____, how was it?"
It was somewhere between the generic answer I should give and the weird answer my mouth is going to produce that will result in you feeling uncomfortable because I suddenly forgot how to interact with the human race.
Other days it's the opposite. I can crack amazingly wonderful jokes that have all of my friends laughing. I am my comfortable and outgoing self. I can conduct a conversation with an acquaintance, everyone enjoys my company, and I theirs. But as soon as I'm in the presence of strangers I feel a bizarre pressure to make sure I don't say the wrong thing.
"Which pump did you say, ma'am?"
I don't know. I'll just stare at this Wawa attendant and hopefully the other 8 people in line won't murder me.
"Nice weather we're having, isn't it? I see the bikes on your car, going for a ride?"
A what? Oh yeah. I'm going to go ride bikes today. "Yep. I'm going to rotate my feet so they move forward. Or the weather. Yes. We have weather."
And the ever popular days where I can't seem to interact with anyone properly. On days like these everyone is a threat to my mental stability. Strangers, good friends, even the chubby babies who stare at me while I wait in line or while sitting across from me in a restaurant. I like to make nasty faces at these babies on days like that. At least I'm only mildly intimidated by someone whose life centers around shitting their own pants.
"I've been texting you for a couple days, are you mad at me or something?"
No. I've been ignoring all of my messages. I've been avoiding eye contact with my pets and the neighbor's dog. I'm even hiding from images of human beings on the internet.
Social anxiety hits me for no reason and often out of nowhere. I can start off an interaction like a normal person and an hour after talking to them I suddenly feel like I have no idea who they are and I must escape the situation as soon as possible. They haven't said or done anything wrong. In fact, they're still tuned into the conversation and when I suddenly cut off the interaction it's very obvious that I'm trying to get away. People take this personally and think that they've done something offensive or that I dislike them. My behavior comes from no such foundation. The natural organic flow of human interaction that is inherent in all of us leaks out of my brain and I'm stuck trying to figure out what the hell to say in response to you. 404, social behavior not found.
"So after I found my cat sick I rushed her to the hospital and it seems like everything is going to be ok."
Oh god, do I need to comfort them? But the cat is ok-ish? What the hell do people say to things like this? Just say what naturally comes to mind. "That seems like an good bad situation, or a bad good situation... I mean they have other cats out there... I mean if that one doesn't work out, like as in it (holy fuck, don't say dies)... Sounds like it's going to be fine."
"____ and ____ got engaged!"
Fuck! Show enthusiasm, open your eyes wider and smile, or something. "Oh great! (the muscles in my face only retract my lips and eyelids, now I look like a bug eyed cannibal). So I guess that means they're having a marriage or a married?"
The over abundance of nervousness that builds in your system causes you to not want to see anyone for the rest of the day or the next couple of days. You don't want to experience the pressure of remembering how people are suppose to talk to each other. I already know how and I'm great at it except for the times when my brain chemicals decide to temporarily abandon this skill. After a while avoiding people for a long stint of time seems to be the only answer but of course that's impossible. I'll just continue to walk around acting strange and making people feel uneasy while they lose faith that I ever liked them or thought of them as a friend.
I've over come a lot of that and Saturday was the proof. I still find myself trapped in those loops every now and again but I'm capable of overcoming them. The biggest realization is that hiding from people doesn't work in the long run. However, I can take some time to myself and recuperate when I need to. Recognizing when to give myself alone time in order to recharge the energy needed for successful social interactions is now a gift. I no longer beat myself up for this behaviour because I know it's bipolar based.
My participation in the Tough Mudder wasn't made monumental just by me showing up. It was the fact that I was able to motivate and help people all day long. I didn't have any of the social anxiety fueled mood shifts that were once my entire life. I shook hands and introduced myself to others, something I'm usually terrible with. I joined forces with strangers to better get through obstacles and motivate each other along the way. Not once did I feel uncomfortable or had any fear of being around others. I put myself in the right situation and with something I love- athletic endeavors. Physical activity is my first and foremost tool against bipolar and nothing is better than seeing all of my efforts paying off in the environment I'm most comfortable in.
Mad bike women:1