This is about social anxiety – those hidden fears and neuroses that blight your life and make you feel like a brain-crippled, un-normal, low-functioning fool.
I didn’t know, until I heard a radio phone-in, how many other people have Things. Thought it was just me and a couple of close, confiding friends.
Everyone else has no problem ordering a drink, opening the door, talking to a teacher, going to a bank. They – the happy, carefree, normal people – just get on with stuff like this.
But a 5live phone-in last year was unexpectedly flooded with people who successfully hold down difficult jobs or manage busy lives while coping with Things.
An old housemate had a Thing about hairdressers. By no means shy, or lacking in confidence, what he used to hate about it was that you are held captive and can’t escape while they question you. He used to beg me to come in with him and tell the barber he was a deaf mute so I could do all the talking. He would regularly make appointments then cancel them. Eventually, he bought a set of clippers from Argos and I trimmed his hair in the kitchen (this is when military-style crew cuts were in fashion).
A colleague’s wife had a Thing about people coming to the door. It freaked her out, unsettled her for days, so much so she used to ring him, sometimes in hysterics, whenever anyone knocked at their front door.
Made no sense to me, who has no problem yanking the door open and telling whoever it is to shove their taunting double glazing leaflets somewhere they’ll be appreciated – like Antartica.
But ask me to pick up the phone and call for a takeaway and you will end up very hungry.
I have a Thing about phones, and calling takeaways in particular. Just can’t do it, and I don’t know why. The phone often crackles and you can’t hear what is being said properly, you might mess the order up, you have to give your name and if you mumble you have to repeat it.
Using the phone is hell – I would rather drive to the takeaway, order in person, sit on a draughty bench surrounded by drunken yobs reading last week’s local free sheet for half and hour then drive home while it all goes cold or spills out over the passenger seat.
I have always regarded this as a weakness, a failing that limits me, sets me apart from the rest of the population and which I should try to overcome. I make myself use the phone, and when I do, it is always fine. Although I hate it, I always end up with the right order.
But I still dread it as much the next time.
There is a theory, the Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway theory, inspired by the book by Susan Jeffers. I read this book years ago and can’t remember anything about but the inspiring title. You can work through your fears, it implies, until they aren’t fears anymore.
But can you? If you have a Thing about making phone calls, or parking the car (another of mine, let’s not go there), the theory is, if you make yourself do it often enough, and without mishap, then it becomes easier and easier until the fear is gone. Yeah, sometimes I can pick up the phone and get on with it, but it doesn’t make me feel stronger, and the next time I loathe it just as much. And it has always been this way for me.
Same with my housemate with the hair. He now has a standing appointment with a city-centre barbers which is too loud and busy for chit-chat. He says it makes it a bit easier – but not much. He still occasionally cancels when he can’t face walking in there.
In the twenty-five years I have known him, he still hasn’t got over his Thing, despite facing it time and time again. (I don’t know about the colleague with the wife. I changed jobs. Maybe she is cowering in the hall right now while he bangs on the door having forgotten his keys.)
I have a Thing about garages. The kind where you get your car MOTed and it costs you £1,000 and there is nothing you can do, luv, because they have already stripped it down, y’see and it is going to cost you 500 nicker just to build it back up again, luv.
I have had a LOT of bad experiences with garages. But not my current garage, which is run by two laid-back blokes who have cheerfully stuck my car back together with duck tape before now, always manage to jolly it on through its MOT and are always up front and honest. My car has been going to this garage for fifteen years now, but MOT time still sees me with my head in a bucket of sand while reaching for the bus timetable deciding I don’t actually need to drive anywhere anyway.
My husband does the garage stuff. He books it in, drops it off, even when it is of extreme inconvenience to him. He braves the oily workshop and talks about alternators and crank-shafts and stuff. The amount of stress and anxiety this saves me is mammoth. I know I shouldn’t be avoiding it – I should be feeling the fear and doing it anyway – but the relief that I don’t have to any more is indescribable.
Is this a bad thing? Is this the thin end of the wedge? If I avoid every Thing I have anxieties about will I end up a prisoner to them, stuck at home with a broken-down car, slowly starving to death as I try to harness the mental strength to order a curry? Or will I just feel better able to manage everything else in my life?