I can't leave the house

Some days everything is fine. Some days I can't buy groceries

By Cary Tennis

Published September 24, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)


I need ... not so much advice, more like a finger point.

I have social anxiety disorder. Never diagnosed, but when there are days when I step out of the house and have to go back inside  because I am convinced the world has dismissed you, what else can it be? That's a little rhetorical, as I am not a therapist, but having a label really, really helps.

Before six years ago, “the world does not care about you because you are not worth caring about” was the law dictating my life. This stemmed from something of a hostile home environment. Of three daughters, I am chronologically dead center between two incredibly gregarious, extroverted people (my older sister, to this day, can go to random states for work and can score a couch to crash on). I was debilitatingly shy, and I don't know if my mom favored my sisters' extroversion but it did mean I got overlooked a lot, and when I subsequently wilted from that she regarded my perceived weakness with scorn (and when I naturally did poorly in school, she taught me love was conditional). My dad worked too much, which was too bad because I still get along with him best of all.

Similarly at school I was equally overlooked. I did get a pretty tight coterie of male friends, but I maintained emotional distance so I wouldn't drag them down. Despite them I grew up alone and isolated, and thus became very independent, but also very stuck.

But then I graduated from high school, and after a year slumming in a community college I worked in a cannery in Alaska. This was not only somewhere that wasn't home, but a total paradigm shift. Suddenly, I was working 18-hour days doing manual, mostly mindless labor. The only thing people cared about was if I worked hard. I did, so they loved me (I was promoted twice during my 18-month tenure there). I gained friends, lovers, and even compiled a surrogate joke family. With that kind of positive reinforcement I took root and sprouted.

Now, three years after leaving Alaska for good, I am writing this email in the house that my fiancé and I own. I have a job that is fulfilling and very people-centric, in an industry with room for a lot of professional growth. I can tell people I am shy and they won't believe me. I have a downright amiable relationship with each of my immediate family members. I have emotional boundaries in place. And I have friends in my life I can fall back on, and vice versa. I have salvaged a good life for myself.

So why am I writing you? Because life is not black and white. There are days when I come home from work and I lie down and I can't move. I can't do serial engagements because in the middle of the second or third thing I will need to excuse myself to take a nap. And occasionally a black hole grows inside of me and sucks me dry of energy, leaving me feeling hollow and bereft. It rarely happens, but it can last for days. And how can I continue through life if I don't even know if I can buy groceries on any given day?

I've gotten myself pretty far, but I don't know how to go further.

Have any directions?


Dear S.A.D.,

When you have, like, one weird thing that keeps happening, and you know what it is, that's a great time to go to a cognitive therapist and say, Here is what is happening and how can I change it?

I think you have done really well. I often recommend Dr. David Burns' book "Feeling Good," which is mainly aimed at depression, but is also a great introduction and workbook for changing one's own behavior.

I'm not a therapist, and I don't make diagnoses, but I do share brief impressions, and my impression is that you are an introvert playing the extroverts' game, so you need to take care of your introverted side. Pay attention to how much time you spend surrounded by people, and take note of when you need to recharge. When you need to recharge, recharge. Don't pretend to be an extrovert. Absent yourself from the crowd and recharge.

Maybe as an introvert you have over-adapted. You have taken great strides to integrate into a world of extroverts but every now and then the ineluctable tide of your inner world rises and takes over. It has had enough and nothing you do is going to stop it. If that is happening, then stop fighting it.

Now, maybe it's more complicated than that. Most things are. If your feelings of paralysis are physical in nature, that's different. And if you're having panic attacks, it can feel like a heart attack! Anxiety is no joke. So get diagnosed. Learn what treatments are available. I have a feeling that a brief course of cognitive-behavioral therapy will help, but the main thing is to share your history with someone and really work toward a resolution.

Meanwhile, if you can't buy groceries on one day, then stay in, order takeout, recharge and buy groceries the next day.

Cary Tennis

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