One of the things that has always struck me about depression is how random it can seem. Yes, there is such a thing as acute depression caused by traumatic events. It’s a serious problem that requires its own treatment. But chronic depression seems to have no rhyme or reason. When I was a kid I thought of depression as the product of tough life circumstances. What I have learned over the past seven and a half years is that this is largely not the case. Certainly having a hard life can’t make things any easier for anyone and stress almost always has some sort of negative health consequences. However, there are a lot of very happy people who have had a terrible life and a similarly large number of depressed people who seem to have a great life.
The reason for all this is that depression is not a result of your life circumstances so much as your reaction to it. A large amount of the damage caused by clinical depression is “self-inflicted”. Now, by no means am I engaging in a sort of victim-blaming that says “depressed people need to stop worrying” or “depression is a cop-out” or any other cliche like that. Depression is much more insidious than a self-selected bad attitude. Rather, like a dengenerative nervous disease, depression can actually render you virtually incapable of making decisions or taking actions that will help you to be happy or at the very least make it much more painful. In the same way some other nervous disorder can make it impossible for you to move a muscle no matter how hard you think about moving it, depression (at its heart a nervous disorder of its own) can render you unable to feel happy or motivated even while you’re smiling or counting your blessings or hanging out with friends.
One common manifestation of this is social anxiety. During my adolescence I started to suffer a form of social anxiety which continually worsened over the course of several years. In terms of depression, my social anxiety was probably “moderate” and at most moderately severe. I recognize that I have been lucky in that many people with depression or anxiety are rendered almost completely unable to make meaningful social connections, whereas I have always had at least a couple good friends. However, my social anxiety still has had life-long ramifications and in some senses is the heart of my depression.
I was never that imaginative to begin with. I relied on my older brother to come up with ideas for games and make-believe as a child. I always envied his creative mind that allowed him to come up with complex stories, whereas I had to find entertainment and artistic fulfillment in pre-designed media such as board games, sports, and video games.
One day around the time I was 10 I recall being in a social situation where I had the opportunity to make conversation with someone new. I felt helpless. I realized after the fact that my only resort was to predesigned lines and that I felt no natural inquisitiveness or any conversaitonal flow. As I thought about how other people talked, I concluded that I had no talent for small talk. I can go on for ages about a compelling and socially relevant topic (such as the general superiority of the National League in baseball) but I don’t seem to have any penchent for making a personal connection with someone else. I don’t remember funny little stories from the day, I don’t generally engage in very much gossip, and I really have no interest in knowing how your day went (sorry!).
Any one who has ever suffered from shyness can probably relate at least in part to how I felt. That was the first moment I ever remember feeling socially self-conscious. Over the next few years various other signs of shyness started popping up. My favorite example is one specific neuroticism which is often pointedly noted as a sign of social anxiety disorder: fear of telephones. I used to love getting to answer the family phone (back in the era of landlines) and would race my siblings to pick up the receiver. However, after one incident where my mother scolded me for sharing too much over the phone with a caller, I became absolutely petrified of repeating my mistake. Over the years I have come to hate talking on the phone. I dread having tough conversations on the phone more than I dread them in person. Even today when I am at my parents’ house there are times when someone is yelling at me to pick up the phone and I ignore everything.
In tenth grade, this all started to veer from general shyness to bona fide anxiety. During my first year of high school, I enjoyed the constant attention I got from classmates. As a new kid in a small-town community I was always a bit of an oddity and the fact that I was a star pupil meant that I got a lot of attention. I ate it up. I made friends, was praised for my academic prowess, and on football game days when I was wearing my team jersey I got hit on in the hallways. It was awesome.
However, by my second year the wheels had started to come off a little. I began to tire of the constant attention solely based on my intelligence. I started feeling like all anyone else saw was some smart, geeky kid and that I was a static personality. I started to see any interest showed to me from the girls because I played football as being shallow and crass. In every social situation I began to find reasons why anyone who was nice to me was really being insincere. I have always been gullible, but not quite enough to be unaware of it. It’s the worst middle ground. I’m aware of my occasional naivete and over the course of time started to see everyone as a tease who secretly is laughing at me behind my back.
According to WebMD, “People with social anxiety disorder suffer from distorted thinking, including false beliefs about social situations and the negative opinions of others.” Basically, social anxiety lends you to focus on catastrophic thinking about social situations. You suffer from paranoia and always believe the worst possible thing about your social life. One criticism from someone, one sharp joke, one stammer can make you think someone hates you. You also suffer from anticipatory anxiety — worrying about future social situations and all the possible things that could go wrong. I remember suffering a panic attack on the way to a friend’s birthday party and obsessively checking the invitation every 2 or 3 seconds the whole ride down because I was afraid of showing up at the wrong time and date. I almost passed out from worry upon arriving and not seeing a whole host of cars in the driveway. Being the first to arrive terrified me.
The worst manifestation of my anxiety had to do with romantic relationships. I found myself unable to function as a normal teenage boy. I was incapable of anything resembling the pursuit of a girl I was interested in. In fact, the more I liked a girl the more paralyzed I became around her. I found it impossible to signal interest in a girl. I will have much more to share on this topic in later posts.
The worst part of all this is that there’s a definite feedback loop. Social anxiety causes you to have such crippling fear of social situations that you avoid them altogether to escape the stress and fear. However, I found out over the course of many years that, as a social being, I can’t find happiness in isolation. True happiness comes from making connections with people; yet I avoided making connections with others in order to avoid discomfort. In the same way that physical therapy and working out a muscle can help treat a degenerative nervous disease, one of the best ways to treat social anxiety is by getting a “social workout”. You only overcome your fear of conversations after learning how to have good conversations, or your fear of going out on dates after going out on successful dates. However, the intuitive response to an anxiety-inducing situation is avoiding it altogether.
In the end, anxiety begets more anxiety. My complaints about not being able to meet nice girls or get a girlfriend grew louder over the years; in the meanwhile I continued to become more withdrawn. A vicious cycle ensued in which I determined that because I didn’t have enough friends or couldn’t get a girlfriend I would avoid being social and disappointing myself…that avoidance led to me not being able to make new friends or get a girlfriend. This reminds me of the Seinfeld episode “The Opposite” wherein the title character tells George Costanza “if every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right”. At some point, everyone with anxiety needs to go against their instincts and force themselves to work out their social muscles. It hurts and at first you might need to lean on others as a crutch or even work under the guidance of a professional therapist but you can’t complain about your inability to walk if you never try standing up.