Disorders of the mind are debilitating, they hold us back in ways that are often hard to put into words. Somewhere along the way we decided this part of ourselves only needed to be shared with our closest confidants, that somehow sharing our faults with the world made us look weak, even if those faults may have simply been sewn into our DNA, or engrained in us at a young age through trauma we may not even remember. This summer I’m heading out on a trip, partly in an attempt to end what has held me down for so long, and I see no reason to keep some of my motivations a secret, especially if it has the potential to help others – that is my driving factor.
Ten years ago, after 18 years of being known as "very shy", I was diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder (also known as Social Phobia). For as long as I can remember anxiety has affected my life in every way imaginable. It kept me from independence, from making friends, from having conversations, from confidence, from playing sports, from relationships, from networking, from taking risks, from getting jobs, from simply going to the store because of the social interaction at the checkout counter.
While I absolutely believe shyness is a trait, it can get to a point where it is no longer just that, but a disorder. Being held back from doing something you want to do because you're "shy" may be a sign that it's something more. I often feel that there is a more outgoing person trapped inside of me, held down by fear, that occasionally manages to sneak out and play in moments of acceptance and clarity. Those moments soon evaporate when I self-assess, over-think, and become critical of myself - concerned with how others may be viewing me.
"Get over it", "it's all in your head", "what are you afraid of" are common sayings from people unaware of the affect that constant anxiety has over people like myself. Anxiety, and in my case social anxiety, is not logical. It doesn't make sense, I'm aware of this, people that live with it are aware of this, but that doesn't discount the physical and mental crippling affect it has on many lives.
The actual effect of anxiety puts us in a state of unease, or worry, where we have trouble thinking straight and functioning normally – often acting compulsive or with panic. I’d wager that most, if not everyone has had an experience with it. Anxiety can serve a purpose - to warn our bodies of impending doom, so that we are hyper-aware of the situation and can act accordingly. But anxiety disorders go past that, moving into territory that is not life threatening yet still yield the same automatic mental and physical reaction that a real life threatening situation would.
Imagine a past situation where you felt in danger - maybe it was a close-call on the highway, maybe you hit some bad turbulence while flying, or maybe you suffer from a phobia that you've largely been able to avoid (i.e. snakes). You feel your heart racing, your mind runs through all the possible outcomes, you're hyper aware of your environment and you just want to get out of there; these symptoms are all occurring without your control. Picture that, and now apply it to everyday life - where you know that you should accomplish 'A', but to do so you will suffer symptoms as if you were in danger. Of course there are varying degrees of the effects depending on the situation, but they're all uncomfortable experiences for the body and mind to go through - so now avoiding those situations appear to be the best route to take (more on that soon).
My form of anxiety takes an almost narcissistic approach. When I walk into a room where I don’t know anyone, I immediately get the feeling that all eyes are on me. I get very uncomfortable, unable to think freely, often needing to take out my phone just to try and keep my mind occupied on something else. If you’ve ever tried to meet me somewhere, where I’m coming alone, you’re probably well aware that I need to know exactly when and where you’re going to arrive because I don’t want to be walking in or waiting alone. Appearing alone and out of place in public is a constant worry; it triggers symptoms such as sweating, tunnel vision, compulsive thinking, and shortness of breath; and for no real justifiable reason that I can fathom.
Another worry comes in the form of unwanted, or unplanned attention, and even just the threat of it. Being put on the spot; a question I’m not prepared for, being called out in a crowd of people, a stranger engaging me in conversation; all trigger a heightened form of anxiety inside of me.
You’d think these issues would permeate through all aspects of social interaction, paralyzing me at the most extreme circumstances – yet I can feel comfortable talking in front of a crowd of people. As long as I know what I’m talking about, the crowd is expecting it, and I made the decision to take the spotlight – public speaking doesn’t garner any more anxiety than I imagine most people experience. A one-on-one conversation with a stranger is often more anxiety-inducing.
After ten years of being aware of my anxiety disorder, I've been able to slowly chip away at the most debilitating aspects of it, and now for the most part live a productive life. I can function in basic social interaction with strangers alone, start conversations with friends, and have normal interactions with most people. But many situations are still a struggle, as my instinct in each one of these is to avoid it, to run – I’m constantly fighting my instincts, sometimes making it tough to discern what I don’t want to do versus what I’m afraid of doing due to anxiety.
For example, every time I’m invited out somewhere (could be a party, a dinner, a networking event, etc.) my instinct is always one of avoidance. Knowing this, I attempt to force myself into the situation as a way to slowly beat the anxiety down. But after years of doing this it can be hard to conclude if I actually feel like staying in or if it’s my anxiety trying to control me. Largely these instincts are trigged by the unknown - being thrown into situations where I don't know everyone I'm with, in a setting I have no control over, in a place I can't escape.
Friends I've talked to about it are often surprised to learn I deal with anxiety at all. I'd attribute that to my sly ability to avoid situations that may cause me to experience it - I've gone many years successfully avoiding a lot of them. Networking events, approaching strangers, crowded areas - and where I haven't, I’ve usually been able to rely on a crutch or two. Alcohol has been a good aid, allowing myself to think clearer and without the worry of unwanted attention, but never an answer to the deeper problem, and certainly not something to rely on if I wish to stay in good health.
Another crutch I've often used to avoid heightened anxiety is being with someone else I know, and I believe that's a large reason why people close to me would never suspect that I deal with anxiety, they simply don't get the chance to witness it. But there are clues, often masked in what may appear as laziness or being a jerk; ask me to talk to that person I don’t know over there and I'll likely come back with something such as "why don't you?”; ask me to get the waiter's attention, "I don't see him"; ask me to call and order pizza, “does someone else want to do it?”; ask me to come meet your group of friends in a completely sober situation, "I'm not feeling well, maybe another time". Any of these sound familiar? While on the surface they may appear driven by some inane unwillingness to help, they are all driven by fear, fear of an uncomfortable situation that will cause me anxiety and possible embarrassment.
I've tried cognitive therapy, I've tried anti-anxiety medication, I've tried "getting over it", and after 10 years, even after some progress, it still affects my life quite regularly and at this point I feel I've hit a wall. I don’t want to rely on daily medication with a laundry list of side effects; I don’t want to constantly feel the need to beat down my instincts while only making another inch of progress over the next 10 years. There are changes I'd like to make in my life that I believe anxiety is holding me back from and I would regret not taking the chance to rid myself of it completely.
So in an attempt to tackle this, I've chosen to do something that scares me the most - I'm travelling alone to a country where I don't know anyone, in a setting I'm unfamiliar with, in a place I can't escape - I'm facing these fears head-on as I make my way to Peru for the psychedelic healing medicine that is Ayahuasca (you can view this 3 minute video explaining how Ayahuasca affects the brain). After months and months of research on the medicine, people’s first-hand results, and finding what I believe is the right approach and centre for my first experience, I’m ready to dive in.
It seems fitting that exactly 10 years after I was diagnosed and being told by a cognitive therapist that this would be a lifelong battle, that I’d always have anxiety and all I could do was gradually fight it down, that there was no “secret formula” to completely rid myself of it - I'll be sitting in the Amazon jungle, surrounded by a small group of new friends, drinking what could potentially be the "secret formula."
There are different reasons people seek the healing of Ayahuasca, anxiety is one of many. Others include addiction, fear, career, life purpose, perspective, and often just to submit themselves to the medicine for it to do what needs to be done - setting them on a path to become a fulfilled human being.
So while seeing if I can rid myself of anxiety is one of my motivations, I’m also looking forward to opening myself up to the plant and allowing whatever work she (as is often referred to as “Mother Ayahuasca”) feels needs to be done.