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When Social Phobia Makes You a Bad Friend

“Would you like to have lunch?”

It’s the first day of classes. It is lunchtime. This girl seems very nice, and we share at least one interest. We are both taking a course called “American Diva” that I am really excited for. But I hear myself say,

“Uh…. Sorry, I have mac and cheese at home.”

I think that may be one of the most embarrassing things I have ever said, and I regretted it the minute it slipped off my tongue. I love mac and cheese and I did have some at home and I’m not a sharer with my food, but the fact that I would rather sit alone at home with mac and cheese instead of potentially making a good friend isn’t a good sign about my mental health, especially considering how few friends I had in the city at the time.

I have social phobia. There have been times in my life when I would only leave my apartment to go to class and to let Kiwi (my dog) out to pee. When I do let Kiwi out, I sometimes cross my fingers that I will not see any other dog owners because despite Kiwi being a super social dog and that being what is best for him and what makes him happy, I don’t want to make small talk. I don’t want to talk to anyone except my parents. This includes my best friends, people who, once I start talking to, it is easy and nice and makes me really happy. But the anxiety before these discussions never gets easier. Because of this, I am an admittedly terrible friend. I try to check in with my friends on occasion, but I tend to be too anxious for regular conversations.

I’ve always been somewhat like this, though when I was younger, I was vivacious enough to fool everybody. Nobody would have said I was shy. But when I was younger, I would avoid one-on-one situations because I figured if there was a lull in the conversation, with multiple people there the onus wouldn’t be completely on me to fill in the silences. It has gotten much, much worse with time.

I want to apologize to all my friends, but I can’t because I can’t promise I will be better in the future. It would be disingenuous. I balance guilt over never being there for them with anxiety that they will have a bad conversation with me and start to hate me or think I am boring. I know rationally that not being there might make them hate me, but I’m not really a rational person. Every time I speak to someone who doesn’t have to love me by virtue of our relationship, I hear a narrative in the back of my head, “What a stupid thing to say. You sound insufferable. You don’t belong here. Nobody likes you. Go home.” So, many times, I do.

I connect easily with children, seniors and animals, especially animals. It can be hard to separate who I am from my phobia. For instance, I hate parties and try to find the house pet to hang out with whenever I find myself at one. But that’s who I am, not my phobia. I know this because I was that way during the one point in my life where I felt like I really did have friends who loved me. I will never have friends like that again if I don’t ever speak to anyone. But it’s hard.

The pandemic has enabled me, but it is starting to wind down. There is a dog park across town that Kiwi will love, so I am moving there. Kiwi is social. I’m hoping to build up enough confidence that I will be able to follow his lead, that other dog parents will become my friends.

Rhea LaFleur shares her journey with mental illness on her blog The Ivy Psychotic.

Photo by Kev Costello on Unsplash

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