Much More Than Shy

“I'm Jack. I have social anxiety disorder. But I also have hope.”

by Jack Hagge

“Hi! I'm Jack. And I have an anxiety disorder.”

Merely talking to other people makes me anxious. I often experience "phone fear." I avoid social gatherings (particularly parties), which I find excruciating. Crowded settings, especially without a perceptible escape route, cause me uneasiness, sometimes panic.

Anxiety-producing scrutiny affects me physically. My heart sledgehammers. My voice shakes. My hands tremble; for decades, my palsied fingers barely managed to sign a check or credit card receipt while being watched. My digestive apparatus stops cooperating, causing acute discomfort, not to mention fear of vomiting or having diarrhea. Sweat pours profusely from embarrassing body parts. Formal performances produce more severe symptoms, with anticipatory anxiety arising days in advance.

Some writers claim that the concept of anxiety disorders has been "constructed" by psychiatrists colluding with pharmaceutical companies. I beg to differ. My disorder is only too real. And I began experiencing its effects decades before drug manufacturers turned their attention to improving them.

As I've already implied, anxiety disorders can be crippling, leading to radically restricted lives. For 13 years after I miraculously got my driver's license as a high school senior, I felt so phobic about other drivers' scrutiny that I never once operated a car. I forced myself to begin driving again after starting a family and getting a job. Although the first four or five years of desensitization were filled with fear, I've become a confident driver. I've never had an accident and never received a traffic ticket. However, I've never parallel-parked (a maneuver invariably inviting scrutiny), and because I still find navigating alone in unfamiliar territory disconcerting, I've driven outside of Ames, Iowa, where I've lived since 1985, barely half-a-dozen times by myself.

For 50 years, my mental illness has caused me marked shame, job stress, possible physical damage, and lifestyle restrictions. For 50 years, I've desperately tried to disguise my anxiety and its symptoms—and heightened both. For 50 years, I've felt like a lone lunatic unable to perform things normal people do naturally, a disguised intergalactic alien who can't quite get the hang of imitating and interacting with the earthlings among whom he's crash-landed.

Thankfully I discovered that I'm not idiosyncratically, hopelessly crazy. Instead, I have an identifiable neuropsychiatric illness that thousands of others share. More important, it's amenable to treatment: Even just six months of medication and psychotherapy helped me considerably.

I've also realized that my disorder, though often daunting to deal with, has had paradoxical compensations. For instance, always before (and often during) every single class period in 20 years of full-time university teaching, I've endured considerable anxiety, with the usual-suspect symptoms. Nonetheless, I've won two teaching awards. "Your husband gets really excited in class," students, unaware of what's really causing my fear-masking theatrics, tell my wife, an academic adviser. And she's grateful that I rarely socialize alone, choosing instead to spend my free time with her.

Finally, I'm helping myself get healthier. I exercise, eat sensibly, avoid stimulants like caffeine, continue to inform myself about anxiety disorders (knowledge is power!), and meditate daily. Although I'm far from cured, my illness no longer seems beyond my control.

"I'm Jack. I still have an anxiety disorder. But I also have hope."

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