After seeing the title of this post and the picture that accompanies it, you can probably guess that what I’m going to write about is fear about the upcoming race-the Glass City Half Marathon-that I’ve been training for. But I can almost promise you that what I’m actually afraid of is not what you think, and it’s about more than race day jitters.
What I’m about to share with you is going to be really hard for me, and it might make some of you uncomfortable. Nevertheless, it’s something I feel I must do. Because it’s exhausting to hide a part of yourself for years, even a part that you feel people will not understand or accept.
So why am I so afraid of race day? Because I have Social Anxiety Disorder. Simply defined, this disorder is the extreme fear of being scrutinized or judged in social or performance situations. People with SAD are afraid of things like public speaking or performance, or being around unknown people or in unfamiliar places (think unpredictable public places like city streets, crowded malls, etc). While I definitely deal with those two fears, the worst anxiety I experience is called paruresis-the fear of going to the bathroom in public. Now I know that most everyone has an occasional case of bashful bladder. However, SAD disorders go way beyond simple shyness–in fact, some people who suffer from SAD don’t even define themselves as shy (myself included).
Though I haven’t been officially diagnosed, I deal with social anxiety on a daily basis. When I want to meet a friend for lunch, instead of anticipating a good time with them, I worry about where the bathroom is. Will it be private enough? If it’s a private bathroom, will someone need to use it while I’m in there? Will they be listening to hear when I’m finished? Will they think I’m taking too long? What will my friend who’s waiting for me to come back think if I don’t come back in an ‘acceptable’ amount of time? Will they send someone to check on me? (I’ve actually had this happen, in a bar…guess the friend was worried I drank too much and passed out.)
Traveling is a nightmare. I hate car rides, especially when I’m the passenger. Asking the driver to stop so I can have a bathroom break is unthinkable. I imagine them pulling over and waiting impatiently while I try to pee, and me trying not to think about them waiting impatiently.
This anxiety is something I cannot control. I know I catastrophize. I know my fears are irrational. I realize that, most likely, no one cares if or when I urinate. I realize no one is consciously listening to me pee. I know that most people are courteous and will wait patiently while I have my turn in the stall. But the part of my brain that is responsible for my anxiety isn’t interested in rational thought. It is the same part that issues the ‘fight or flight’ response. I have about as much ability to stop my anxiety in the bathroom as a person can stop their palms from sweating and heart from racing during a true traumatic event.
In addition to paruresis, I also suffer mildly from agoraphobia, which is the fear of public places. While my agoraphobia doesn’t usually deter me from doing things I want to do, like taking my son to a kid’s playland on a busy day, I will still avoid things like baseball games and shopping on Black Friday where there are likely to be large crowds. I also suffer from mild depression.
So, my biggest fear on race day–using the bathroom in public– is the same as my biggest fear on any given day, only magnified times 100, because I’m also dealing with agoraphobia, and, yes, your typical race day jitters.
I know after reading this post, some of you will have questions. I will try to anticipate those questions now, as well provide a couple of take-aways (things I hope you will learn from me sharing my story):
- I don’t know how my SAD began. I did have an experience in a public restroom at a baseball game when I was very young, around 8 years old. It was a hot day, and I had drank a lot of iced tea. When I got into the stall, I couldn’t urinate, and I remember I got very upset. I remember it clearly, though I don’t think this was the ‘defining moment’, as I went on to experience no further anxiety until I went to college.
- There is no ‘cure’ for SAD, though there are treatments like anti-anxiety medications and cognitive behavioral therapy. I am not currently receiving any treatment for my SAD, but I am on a low dose of Zoloft for depression treatment.
- Just because I have this disorder doesn’t mean I’m ‘broken’. It’s just something I deal with. I don’t want your sympathy. I don’t even expect you to understand. I just hope you will accept me for who I am. Please don’t scoff at my disorder or try to minimize my feelings. You can’t ‘talk me out of it’, though I wish that were possible. As I said before, the part of my brain responsible for the anxiety I feel isn’t interested in rationality.
- If I’m at your house, or we are in a public place together, and I go to the restroom, just know that I might be a while. Don’t worry about me, and, for God’s sake, don’t send someone to check on me. I swear I’m not dead 🙂
In closing, if you have made it this far, thank you for letting me share this part of myself with you. While it was not easy, it is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I know that dealing with my SAD has made me a more empathetic person. There are so many people who are silently dealing with all sorts of issues every day. You can’t always know a person’s story just by looking at them. I know it’s hard, because I still do it, too…but when a person does something you don’t understand or like, try not to let your first reaction be judgement. You never know what the reasons for their actions might be.
And, NO, I haven’t signed up for the Glass City Half Marathon…yet. I’m not ready. And that’s okay. I did sign up for another race at the end of February, though. I need to get my feet wet (quite possibly literally, depending on the weather). Sometimes the only steps you can take are baby steps. It doesn’t matter–they’re still steps. I may not ever ‘get over’ my anxiety, but I refuse to let it rule my life.