by: Dominick Mayer
“I thought about the winter. Under layers, I wouldn’t bleed. Drinking root beer, watching football, oh, I never thought I’d be in a place everyone went to, but it really just took me a couple extra years to get there.”
- Bomb The Music Industry!, “Campaign For A Better Next Weekend”
When you’re dealing with severe social anxiety, the constant promise of eventual solutions rings fully hollow. You get upset that you don’t know how to talk to people, which sets you about being upset as to exactly why you can’t, then you start blaming your mother and father and imagined stair-related accidents you went through as a child because goddammit they should’ve never taken their eyes off me when I’d just been sleeping and pretty much everyone around you and the fact that culture as a whole is a shitty and annoying thing that too many people try to feed into.
Simultaneously, you’re enraged that you don’t fit into that group, that amorphous collection of “people who know how to talk to other people,” then you start getting riled up about how you can’t talk to other people, and how if you were just better or more interesting or owned an intriguing sport coat then none of this would happen.
Then you get riled ever more that now it’s Sunday and you’ve given up the entire weekend fixating upon the sight of your own navel instead of actually leaving the house and you haven’t even let the dog out all day, you selfish bastard. Having social anxiety is not unlike being an understudy for a mediocre production of Macbeth, the kind of community theater work that you failed to take seriously until Macduff’s hangover prevented him from making curtain. You’re trotted out to amuse and intrigue and dazzle, and you sort of just stand there, mouth agape with the spotlights on you, waiting for a stage whisper that’s never going to arrive.
Entering a room with such a condition is a veritable nightmare. Hell, picking up the phone is a rogue’s gambit, because God forbid you don’t have caller ID and you get somebody that you don’t know, and have to engage in human interaction using only a previously failed set of phrases that you know are inappropriate topics for polite conversation in between “hello” and “goodbye.” There are a lot of things that could make everything awkward, and you don’t even know what they are yet, only that “recent family deaths” and “the disappearing trend of frontal nudity in photography” have previously proven to be failures.
And maybe you make it out one day. And I mean really make it out. I’m not talking about what author Ned Vizzini referred to once as false shifts, those moments when the haze of anxiety and depression and endlessly spiraling self-doubt fade away thanks to the right song or movie or clandestine oral maneuver in a public place. False shifts are one of the cosmos’ cruelest practical jokes, the existential equivalent of spiking a young student’s books out of their hands while yelling “FRESHMAN!” They serve no purpose except to remind you what could be if only you could pull yourself out of your endless self-absorption long enough to notice the world around you. Instead, commonly, you’d be likelier to add that to the cycle of self-criticisms (because see you actually can be happy, you just don’t give a shit because it’s easier to mope and drink wine and watch “Adventureland” for the 17th time and then people will feel sorry for you and eventually you’ll have a one-night stand with somebody wearing flannel because you’re so soulful, you whiny wretch) than actually take it as a sign that the worst might be over.
And then there’s life on the other side. There’s that moment when, innocuously and years down the line, you take stock of your surroundings and realize that for all your grousing, you’ve effected genuine change. You suddenly have friends, at least a number of them robust enough to draw many Facebook likes from a particularly witty status and thus prove your worth within your circle. You can go to a place alone and not feel that slow tension in the bottom of your stomach, the one that reminds you that you’re not flipping out yet, but you’d better start pre-flipping out so that when the real panic comes it won’t be so disorienting that it feels like a heart attack again. You look around, at the movie theaters and concert venues and sporting events and the many other social spheres that you too are now allowed to inhabit, and you inhale and exhale with wonder, wondering all the while if this is a genuine movement of appreciation or if you’re making yourself feel appreciative so you can stay the dynamic lead in the story into which you’ve built everyone around you.
Then the world goes quiet for a second. That exhale is enough to rouse you from your many-splendored bout of self-flagellation, and you realize that you’re alive. That there was a time when you couldn’t go outside for fear that when you went to your friend’s house, people would be there that you didn’t know. That you almost killed yourself a handful of times and thought about it a lot more. That you have built a life for yourself, maybe the one you didn’t initially imagine but one that makes you really, really happy on the good days. That your new life is constantly evolving, and in this moment you can see it happen, see an incalculable number of probabilities that merely await your smallest move. And before the darkness of wondering about all the negative possibilities inherent in such an idea arrive, you force them back with reminiscence.
It’s all angles, now, hallucinatory flashes of street lamps and the bitter taste of malt liquor on your tongue, of junior high fights and that last sublime night of suburban odyssey before high school graduation. It’s the bleary feeling when you wake up against the honest respite of sleep. It’s the memory of all those mouths and loves and losses and sweat-soaked appendages curling around one another in an 11th-hour attempt to never have to age again. It’s watching families in a public place and knowing that I can have that if it’s what I end up wanting or I could embrace pleasure in its myriad forms until I die or fuck it, I could commit to celibacy and make boats. It’s remembering that you are alive and that many tried to take it away from you and that you are still. fucking. here. It’s everything. Congratulations. You made good.
Dominick Mayer is the features editor and head film critic for HEAVEmedia, a regular lecturer at Facets Night School and a part-time mailman. He enjoys campy movies, hip-hop and professional wrestling. Any well-wishes or grievances can be forwarded to firstname.lastname@example.org. He also personally replies to troll comments on a frequent basis.