The Mighty Logo

What It Was Like to Discover in College I Had Social Anxiety

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Editor's Note

Can’t sleep? Join the Up All Night group on The Mighty to meet people who can relate.

He does not look like what I thought a psychiatrist would look like, although how could I know because this is my first time seeing a psychiatrist.

I tell him my name, that I am a junior majoring in Intercultural Studies and I am from central Texas. He asks me why I am here and to please describe my symptoms and my shoulders soften because his voice is gentle and the eyes behind his thick glasses are kind.

First I tell him about the knots in my stomach and the tightness in my chest that both appear when I walk through campus. I tell him that, no matter where I go, I feel people watching me. I tell him about my tiredness, that when given the option between going out with my friends and watching movies in my dorm room on my laptop, I choose the latter. I tell him that even though I am tired all the time, I have stopped sleeping. I lie in bed at night and think about the social encounters I had that day and which of them could have been interpreted as awkward.

I stop talking. I am thinking now about how quiet my voice sounded, describing my symptoms, when I hear the psychiatrist say “social anxiety.” It is something I have never heard of, yet I know that this is not a misdiagnosis.

* * *

My parents were only going to homeschool me for kindergarten.

It was a “we don’t have anything to lose” year, a hypothesis year, a year for my mom to not have to drive me to private school because my twin sisters were babies. It was never supposed to last for more than one year.

But they liked it for me and I liked it for myself, and so one turned into another and another. They knew the critics said that homeschoolers didn’t socialize enough and so they made sure I socialized enough. I was always going a co-op or a class or a basketball practice or a church activity. My mom liked to joke that we were homeschoolers who were rarely at home.

The summer I was 11, my parents started sending me to a camp in the Ozarks. I ziplined and tubed on the lake and played dodgeball and ate coffee cake and powdered eggs in the mornings. I did all of that and I also came to dread when a girl asked me where I was from because the question that followed was always about what school I went to.

I’m homeschooled, I would say, and then she would ask me how that was even possible because I was so normal, so not socially awkward.

But most of them would pull away after that. If it was true that I wasn’t socially awkward, why did people felt the need to reassure me that I wasn’t socially awkward?

The camp was only for a few weeks every summer, and back at home, I would fall back into my routine: good grades at the co-ops and classes, captain of the basketball team, leader of the Bible study at church.

When it came time for me to go to college, there was no reason for my parents to think that I didn’t have the social skills to succeed. They knew the critics said that homeschoolers didn’t socialize enough and so they had made sure that I had socialized enough. I had never told them about how the girls at the camp made me feel.

* * *

The summer after my freshman year of college, I had gone with my parents to pick up my sisters from the closing ceremonies at the camp in the Ozarks. I had gotten knots in my stomach when we drove in, knots when I walked down the hill toward the dining hall, knots when I ran into a now-counselor who had been in my cabin one year and was eager to chat. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the knots then because more than a year passes before I decide to make the appointment with the university psychiatrist and he diagnoses me with social anxiety.

He schedules me a follow-up appointment and then refers me to our university’s counseling center. The next week, they assign me to a psychology doctoral student named Christine and we have our first meeting that Friday afternoon. She is short and has straight, shoulder-length blonde hair.

Like the psychiatrist, she asks for an overview of my symptoms and I begin by mentioning the stomachaches and chest tightness I feel when I walk through campus. She interrupts by asking what color I see when my stomach hurts like that.

The question surprises me, but what surprises me the most is I have an answer: red like a traffic light and red like a stop sign. I tell her when I walk through the cafeteria or am trying to find a seat in the gym right before the basketball game starts, I see red. She teaches me breathing techniques to use when I’m anxious and we practice: “Inhale 1-2-3-4, hold 1-2-3-4, exhale 1-2-3-4.”

One Saturday, I get in my Civic and drive to the beach. I find an empty pavilion and sit down and start to eat a foot-long submarine sandwich. There is a group of people in the pavilion next to me, grilling and laughing. They don’t wave and I don’t think they are looking at me, but their presence is threatening nonetheless.

I stay for a while, but not as long as I would normally stay. “Normally” meaning, of course, if I were still normal. If I were not socially anxious and if I were not socially awkward. I drive home wondering if the people in the pavilion had or had not been looking at me. I do Christine’s breathing exercises and I tell myself that, even if they had been, I am safe now.

Getty image by AntonioGuillem

Originally published: June 8, 2020
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home