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Why My Mental Illness Makes Me Seem Rude

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Last night, my 11-year-old son performed as part of a 7000-strong children’s choir at a major London concert venue.

While the other parents from his school chatted, laughed and cheered in a big, noisy, jolly group, I was – by chance – seated on my own, across the aisle from the others.

Some people might have been disappointed to be sitting alone and tried to swap seats to be nearer the others.

But me? I breathed a huge inward sigh of relief.

When you have a mental illness – even if it’s mostly under control – social occasions can be fraught with difficulty.

I find it extremely hard to fit in with a group. I’m an introvert by nature, and enforced gregariousness is physically and mental exhausting.

My anxiety levels creep up and up. My cheeks start to ache from the effort of keeping my smile in place. My heart beats faster. My hands shake.

Depression has, for me, come hand in hand with social anxiety. Put me in a situation where I’m expected to be sociable and outgoing, and it feels as if every fiber of my being is screaming for an escape route.

I find it difficult to talk to people I don’t know well. Small talk is an alien concept. I don’t seem to be able to ask the right questions, give the right answers, laugh at the right jokes. I tense up. I start to panic and look for escape routes: pretending to answer emails on my phone, disappearing to the bathroom. When I’m at my worst, I come up with excuses to get out of the occasion altogether – too much work, a lack of childcare or a migraine.

People who see me in these situations must come to their own conclusions about me.

I’m shy.

I’m aloof.

I think I’m superior to everyone else.

I’m just plain rude.

I know this is how I come across, but the truth is I couldn’t feel less superior to other people. I feel small, uncomfortable, broken, worthless. I don’t talk to anyone because in my heart, I’m sure no one could possibly want to talk to me. I’m way out of my comfort zone, afraid of getting it all wrong.

I believe when I ended up seated across the aisle from my group last night, they were as relieved as I was: absolved of the duty of having to talk to shy, anxious, socially awkward me.

It’s why I scuttle in and out of the playground with my head down, avoiding eye contact, when I take my children to school in the mornings.

It’s why, if I see someone I vaguely know in the street, I’m quite likely to pretend I haven’t noticed them.

It’s why I often let my phone go unanswered because I can’t face speaking to whoever is on the other end.

I know I must look rude, and I don’t mean to be. It’s just that sometimes all of my energy is going into holding myself together. There’s no slack, nothing left for me to give beyond pure survival of a situation that’s making me feel painfully uncomfortable.

So please, if you think I’m ignoring you, if it looks like I can’t be bothered to talk to you, if I’m sitting in silence when everyone around me is laughing and chatting, please don’t think I’m being rude.

I’m just trying to keep functioning.

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Thinkstock photo by Iakov Kalinin

Originally published: March 11, 2017
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