It's Time To face My Demons
Today's post will be quite a lot different from the normal Tribal Fi "Schtick" and I'm not even sure if I can link it in some way to My FIRE journey or personal finance, in fact, as I type, I'm only at word number 44 (go on, count them, you know you want to) and I'm not sure if I will ever publish this post, so I guess if you're reading this, I built up the courage to press the button on one of my most guarded secrets.
One of the advantages (depending on your point of view) of early retirement and not being caught up in the day to day politics and general bollocks of having a day job is that you start to notice things about your self that I guess you always knew but were able to distract yourself from, ignore or just put down to your hectic life and move on. I feel like I know myself now much more than I did just 3 years ago when I was a "Titan of Industry" which for me, provided status, reassurance and I suppose proof, that I was doing well and as someone who had achieved more career success than many of my peers, I must have been pretty lucky when I was assigned my genetic make up.
Well, as it turns out, like most things to do with my former corporate "success" that that was all a lot of horse doo doo and the fact that I did well was more my fear of failure, drive to impress, willingness to sacrifice my wellbeing and personal life to get ahead.
And if I'd have recognised that then instead of now, maybe I would have been able to actually see that I have some mental health issues that I should probably address.
There, I said it.
I think I've just discovered (or admitted to myself because I think I probably already knew) that I'm not just introverted, shy, quiet or just a bit of a misery, I think I actually have Social Anxiety Disorder and I think I have it quite badly and It's getting a little bit worse as the years go by. And who knew? Its actually a thing with a proper name, a way of diagnosing it and actual doctors who know how to help try and fix you, even just a bit.
So first I guess I should explain what the tipping point was that has actually got me to admit it to myself that i have an actual problem and then to write this post.
Mrs H is currently away on a trip to the UK. One of our friends recently turned 60 (lets call him Greg) and a couple of weeks before she went away she told me that Greg was having a party but it was whilst she was away but Greg's extended family (which we are great friends with too) would all be there and that I should go. Now whilst Mrs H and I have never discussed it, you can't live with someone for 16 years and not know them pretty well so this little push from her was not accidental, it was encouragement to me to not be "That guy" and go to the party even though she wasn't there.
I said something a long the lines of "OK, I shouldn't miss it if it's Greg but I'll probably just go for a couple of hours because there'll be loads of people I don't know and I'll feel like a spare part if you're not there". That was the end of the conversation. We hadn't really discussed when or where and with all the excitement of Mrs H's trip preparation I honestly had pretty much forgotten about it.
Clearly though, I did know it was while Mrs H is away so I guess that excuse is pretty weak so let's cut to the chase, I didn't go to Greg's party and I didn't go because I was afraid to. I feel terrible that I let Greg down because he would have been at my 60th birthday party, and that's a fact I can't get away from.
So why didn't I go?
Greg is a legend and the party would have had probably had 4 people I know very well, 5 more I know well enough to talk to, probably another 10 that I've met before and then a whole bunch of people I've never met. I could have had a drink, eaten some food, chatted to people, listened to some music and generally had a good time. After a few hours I could have thanked them for their hospitality, wished Greg happy birthday and headed home, no harm, no foul.
And that is were the rubber hits the road.
I didn't go because I believe I have Social Anxiety Disorder.
This is what is going through my head literally days before a situation like this (not just Greg's birthday)
I'm going to feel self conscious and awkward
If someone talks to me, I'm not going to know what to say, and they'll think I'm ignorant or rude
They'll think that I think I'm better than them because I'm not engaging
Someone may do something to make me the centre of attention and I'll make a fool of myself
What if the music is loud and I can't hear what someone is saying to me and I can't keep up a conversation and then they'll think I'm ignorant or stupid
What if I do something stupid and they all end up talking about me behind my back
Maybe I can make an excuse to only pop in for one drink
Maybe I can say I'm sick, or Winston is sick or there's been some kind if emergency and I' not going to be able to make it
Maybe I can pretend that I didn't know when it was and just missed it
I'm not going
The anxiety of those feelings builds and builds and gets worse and worse in the run up to those kind of things until I eventually "manage to get out of it" in one way or another and it's like someone loosens a pressure release valve, and minutes later I feel so relieved, but also a little bit guilty because I really know I am letting that friend down and apart from this nonsense, I make a pretty decent friend I think.
Don't get me wrong, I get it, this is just a night out with friends having a good time. I fully understand it is totally irrational behaviour!
We get invited to a lot of things, I think our friends like us and genuinely want to spend time with us but my anxiety means we probably only go to around 35% of the parties or events we get invited to and it's mostly because of my anxiety. Mrs H even has a way of calling it out these days, she'll say "It's OK, I know you're a weirdo about this stuff". I guess calling someone who is admitting he has a mental health issue a "Weirdo" might seem a little insensitive but I can assure you it comes form a place of love. believe me, she calls me much worse when it doesn't come from a place of love!
This has been like this for years, and if I'm honest from being a child. I never wanted to go to my friends birthday parties as a kid and even at family parties I was the moody, crying little shit who would burst into tears if anyone criticised or made me the centre of attention. The more I've thought about it, the more it's making sense. I've done some reading about Social Anxiety Disorder and it can be hereditary. I actually think my dad might have had the same thing as he would always be quiet at parties and would take himself off to bed and leave my mum with their friends (she was, and still is at 81, a party animal of note and definitely has zero social anxiety!)
So what happens when I actually go to an event that trigger my Social Anxiety?
There is obviously occasions where non attendance is not an option and as well as big events like weddings, funerals etc. for me, there more often these days that we've cancelled or declined the last few events with a certain friend or group and my anxiety is almost worse by the thought of not going as they'll start to think we don't like them, which couldn't be further form the truth. I guess forcing myself to go is a bit like recharging the friend battery by sucking it up and putting myself in that horrible situation (that I know really isn't) to maintain the relationship (typing this is helping me understand how ridiculous this all is but also how much it's affecting my life).
So we go. To set the scene, most events that we go to are organised by close friends and usually have a mix of some of our other friends, some people we've met a fee times and then some people we don't know. It's usually at someone's house, often involves a Braai (barbecue) and always involves alcohol (which is the real national sport of South Africa).
So we arrive and my heart is in my throat because one of the toughest parts is entering a room of people when I don't know exactly who is going to be there. My mind is racing about remembering names, coming off as polite but getting past this part as quickly as possible, finding somewhere to sit that will isolate me from strangers and out of any level of attention. Where do I put the drinks / gifts we brought? do I go and shake hand or is a broad "Hi" with a wave acceptable. Will people think I'm rude? How do I get a glass? Do I need to offer to get everyone else a drink?
This is all just arriving!
Then I'll pretty much nurse my drink and stay where I am because then I don't have to get up. if there's food, I won't eat if I can avoid it and then nothing can go wrong there, as long as that won't appear rude. I'll smile a lot and hope that nobody tries to make small talk with me. I'm already computing what time we arrived and what is a reasonable time that we can stay before we can leave without anyone saying "They left early" after we've gone. Things go downhill if someone I don't know starts talking to me as my mind goes totally blank. I have literally no idea what to say or ask and I end up only answering their questions all the time thinking "they must think I'm really self-centred because they're asking me all the questions and I don't know what to ask them". I'm literally racking my brain for a simple question to ask that won't make me look like an idiot and it's completely and utterly blank.
That bit was hard to type.
If you knew me, you wouldn't recognise what I've just written as me. Over 47 years, I've built coping mechanisms and ways of dealing with situations to protect myself and if you were just meeting me, you'd probably just think I'm a little quiet, possibly a little awkward but I would still hope you'd think I was polite and friendly even if a little bit shy. What you wouldn't know is that during our simple interaction, my brain was running like a Formula 1 car processing every word I say against an internal scorecard of how likely you are to have a bad impression of me. It's totally exhausting.
And then there's the other side of the coin
When I'm amongst only people who I know well and who know me just as well, when I'm in a business setting, when the party is mine or in my home or on the very rare occasion that I don't get the social anxiety (feels like 1 in 100 for reasons I can't explain), I can be the life and soul of a party. In those situations, I mingle, network, I'm totally comfortable making a speech (in fact I'm quite good at it) or doing a presentation. I have a great time. And if you've met that Mr H enough times, you would find it really hard to equate what I've written above to the man you know.
It was the same during my career, I was an over achiever for the majority of my working life. I only ever interviewed for two roles and they were the first positions at the first two of three companies I worked for before retiring. I was pretty much always given a new role as a promotion and in 27 years of working (16 to 43) I had 12 jobs of which 10 came with a promotion. But I can see now, that wasn't because I'm some kind of business genius, it's that I was so fiercely protective of my reputation, profile and what people thought of me, that my Social Anxiety would drive me to be better, quicker and faster than my "competition" through hard work and sacrifice. My entire career, I would do whatever it takes to exceed your expectations. If you said 5 days, I'd do it in 4. If you said 90%, You'd get 100%. All of that was not about success, it's that the thought of someone saying "He's good, but I've seen better" would be enough to crush me.
That, is a very unhealthy way to live your life, and I've been testament to that by having more than my share of life threatening scares and physical episodes to the point, I don't have a very positive view of my career despite the fact on paper it looks pretty impressive and has fortunately led me to where I am now which is retired and addressing the elephant in the room which I guess can only be a good thing.
I'm from a part of the UK (Yorkshire) and was brought up by a generation that was tough. Yorkshire in my parents days was driven by coal mining and textile production so it was hard work, low pay and everyone pulled their wait and you didn't "moan" you got on with life. Yorkshire folk are famous for calling a spade a spade and not a manual digging implement so discussions about mental health were not only off the table, mental health in general was (possibly still is) categorised as the following:
Depression - "You just need to cheer up lad, how about we go for a beer?"
Anxiety - "You need to man up and stop being such a girl"
Bi-Polar " He's got a screw loose that lad!"
So as you can imagine, trying to explain to someone that you're actually scared of a room full of people you don't know is not going to get you showered in sympathy! Whilst the comments above don't describe my family, it would have still been a difficult topic and much more difficult than if I'd said I was gay or I wanted to join the priesthood or turn to Islam. Any of those things would have been fine, supported and understood but it feels like trying to have a conversation about mental health would have been much more complicated, which may be why, if my dad also suffered with Social Anxiety, he was never be able to deal with it. I guess I'll never know as he's no longer around to ask.
So deal with it I must.
Its actually becoming a bigger problem than it's ever been and that's not because I think it got worse in me, it's that we're at a time in our lives when we should be out enjoying ourselves and spending time with friends but it feels like we only spend about 25% of the time we should doing it. It's even the most simple things, Mrs H loves to go out to eat and I love cooking and eating food so you'd think we'd eat out all the time. We don't and that is not for any other reason than I am anxious the whole time about every aspect of the process from what I'm wearing to whether the waiter thinks I'm a tool to whether someone on another table is judging me.
So how do I know I really have Social Anxiety Disorder?
Ironically if all the above wasn't enough, I decided to read up a little on Social Anxiety Disorder (I know, consulting Dr Google is dangerous) and in a matter of minutes, I decided to write this blog post as my first point of action (I'm hoping I can give this to a doctor to read rather than trying to explain it). It was like reading a description of how I've felt for a large part of my life.
The key symptoms and aspects of Social Anxiety are:
A fear that arises in anticipation of an event
A fear of negative judgment, embarrassment or rejection
Worrying about appearing anxious
Meeting unfamiliar people
Having to ask for help when shopping
Being seen when eating or drinking
Having to perform in front of others
Symptoms that occur include:
Feelings of panic
An intense fear of judgement by others
Feelings of dread in situations with other people
Feeling very self-conscious embarrassed or awkward in front of others
Avoiding situations that might trigger anxiety
Difficulty making or maintaining eye contact
Sensitivity to criticism
An understanding that the fear is irrational
Symptoms have been present for more than 6 months
If I asked Mrs H to score me on the above list, she'd probably give me a solid 10/10, in fact, she wouldn't because she's very loving and caring so she would probably say 8/10 so as not to make me anxious hahaha!
So what's the plan?
Step 1 was writing this post. It may sound weird but writing allows me to hear my internal voice and check myself. I'm at my most honest when I write as this blog is a bit like a diary, I write it to myself. I know I need to see a doctor / psychotherapist so being able to share this with them will be easier than trying to explain anxiety while I'm inevitably feeling anxious because the doctor is a stranger and he/she might judge me!
Step 2 is to find a doctor. Who is the question. I'm not sure if I should go see my GP and explain it to him at the risk he isn't sympathetic or doesn't believe in Social Anxiety and tells me I need to get a grip (and there's the anxiety kicking in!) or maybe I should book an appointment with a specialist first so I can be sure I'm talking to someone who gets it. I'll figure that out, either is better than doing nothing.
Step 3 - Assuming my diagnosis is correct, get some treatment, it seems like that is a mix of therapy and medication, neither of which sounds like fun. The thought of taking mood altering drugs is a bit scary despite the facts I spent a large part of my late teens doing it most weekends for fun! And psychotherapy is, if I'm honest, something I struggle to believe will really help, but I guess I come from a time and place where you suck up your feelings and move forward, so maybe it's the right thing.
Step 4 - This all sounds very expensive so I guess I'll need to disappoint myself as usual to discover that my medical aid or gap cover probably covers none of this and the medication is a squillion rand per tablet but I still have to go through the pain of discovering this for myself and then getting really angry and wondering why I pay R6000 for medical cover when I get nothing tangible for it unless I'm actually in hospital which is exactly what I'm trying to prevent!
Step 5 - Tell people. I suspect a lot of our friends are going to say "That explains a lot" and hopefully they'll forgive me and maybe also give me a little slack if I turn down the odd invite. I know Mrs H is going to read this, possibly before she gets home so I'm hoping she'll help me tell the people who matter. I'm also going to make peace with Greg and take him his birthday present / apology gift as it feels like letting him down was the straw that broke the camel's back so putting that right is a good thing to do (Not that he has or would ever tell me that I let him down anyway).
Step 6 - Take some perspective. I've been carrying this thing for most of my life and whilst I can think of a couple of events in my former years that possibly explain why it might be worse than it could have been, I've managed to deal with it for more than 40 years so its definitely not life threatening and whilst I wish I could get rid of it, it doesn't stop me functioning, it stops me partying! Writing this post has been very emotional and its only 10:47 am now and I'm exhausted and have a banking headache and a tear in my eye. I do think it will be cathartic though. Winston is lying next to me on the floor snoring, the sun is shining and my wife is about to board a flight to come home so life ain't so bad (apart form the house cleaning I need to do before she lands!) I suspect I've pissed a few people off but not to the point I can't fix it and even if I had to go the rest of my life with this anxiety, they do say that acceptance is the first step on the road to recovery.
If you've read this far, sorry that you're not reading a witty investing anecdote or a monthly update on the finances and instead you've been subjected to a 15 minute self-absorbed download of my woes but thank you for listening and normal broadcasting will resume forthwith.
Maybe, just maybe, this post might help someone in the future who also goes into a blind panic the second they hear the words "X messaged me, they're throwing a party on Saturday and we're invited" or "Shall we go out to dinner at the weekend" or "Some people are coming to the house to quote for the work we talked about, will you deal with them?"
I'm not sure if I'll write about this again unless it becomes clear that it might be helpful to others but lets see. Maybe I'll write about the cost of treatment in a few months! I better stop there as this could be the longest post ever while being the most irrelevant.
Until next time, keep living.