Social anxiety can stop you from living your life to the fullest, but sometimes there’s something that makes it all fall away. For me, that’s conventions.
Four years ago I joined the Hypable staff as one of their editors with dreams of eventually being able to write for the site. Thank God for Teen Wolf because it afforded me that exact opportunity, and since then I have ventured out of my comfort zone and taken on larger projects, joined several podcasts, and expanded my little circle of friends dramatically.
Going outside of your comfort zone is a nightmare for someone with social anxiety. Everyone has different triggers and the symptoms manifest in a myriad of ways. In my case, new situations and new people make my brain shut down. I’m terrified of looking stupid. Of getting lost. Of not knowing what to do. Instead of shortness of breath (though that’s happened on occasion), it feels as though someone has wrapped their hands around my neck and started squeezing.
It is a terrifying feeling, especially when you realize that it’s not real. I know I’m not in danger. I know that looking stupid or feeling alone is not the worst thing that can happen to me. I understand that no matter how much of a fool I’ve made of myself, at the end of the day I’m the only one that’s going to remember what happened. And yet the feeling persists.
So, as you can imagine, at the height of my anxiety I tried to avoid those situations. I walk instead of take a taxi or the train. I avoid large crowds of people. I decline invitations to new places. I’ve even convinced myself I’m disinterested in something just so I don’t have to admit I want go and can’t because my brain thinks it’ll lead to my very undoing. I’ve stood at the end of my driveaway, frozen, wanting, needing, willing myself to take a walk down the road, only to have a million embarrassing scenarios run through my head, rapid fire, convincing me it would be better, safer, and less stressful to just stay inside.
And so I would. Those who don’t have anxiety or aren’t familiar with how it works probably imagine me, hermit-like, squirreled away in my bedroom, leaning over my computer, typing furiously and cackling at cat videos. Well, you’re wrong. I’m actually in my living room.
Having anxiety and being an introvert are surprisingly complementary characteristics. I don’t want to go outside and interact with people (social anxiety), and even if I did, it would drain me of all my energy (introvert). Being around people can be exhausting, even if I’m having fun, and even though I’m sure some people think I’m a recluse, I find that being alone in the comfort of my own home makes me feel happier and more confident than if my friends dragged me out to a bar or a concert.
Don’t get me wrong — I do like going outside. I have friends. I see movies in an actual movie theatre. I actually enjoy meeting new people in most situations and I’ve even been known to go out for a drink once or twice! The trick, for me at least, is when the desire for something outweighs my fear. If I’m not that invested and I’m worried about the unknown, I pass on the opportunity. I value my happiness more than I value the need for social validation.
But every once in a while, an opportunity comes along that is worth the danger of poking my anxiety monster. Four years ago, that opportunity was San Diego Comic-Con.
I have never wanted anything as much as I had wanted to go to Comic-Con. That first year I was on staff, in 2012, it was physical torture to be sitting at home while my friends were interviewing my favorite celebrities, seeing footage before the rest of the internet, and coming face-to-face with the most incredibly realistic cosplays I had ever seen in my life. Covering that convention from home was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I was ecstatic for everyone on staff and happy to at least be one degree away from the convention. On the other hand, I wanted nothing more than to be at ground zero. I’m not going to lie. I shed a few tears that week.
The next year presented itself, and there were additional opportunities to go to the convention. I volunteered, even though I felt sick to my stomach. I had never been to New York City on my own. I had never flown by myself. I’d never been to California. And I sure as hell had never been in a building with 150,000 other people jostling for a first look at their favorite fandom.
But my desire to be in the middle of that mess far outweighed my sheer terror. Not by much, mind you, but enough to meticulously organize my week into a schedule that meant I was never left alone at the con. I never talked to anybody about that first year, and probably never will, but I wonder if they saw the fear in my eyes every time they looked at me. Because I felt it down to my bones.
Believe it or not, the wonder far outweighed all that stress. I make a joke of it whenever I talk about going to cons and visiting “my people,” but it’s true. I’ve never felt more safe and accepted than I do at a convention because wherever you look, you know these people understand you. Maybe they’re not into the same fandoms as you are, but they get your enthusiasm, your excitement, your dedication.
As much as it scares me to still go to these conventions, big or small, I’m much less hesitant than I was four years ago. I still stress about public transportation and I prefer doing things in pairs or small groups, but I’ve since flown by myself countless times and every once in a while I’ll wander off to do something alone, without fear of looking stupid or being judged because I know I can turn to the person next to me, strike up a conversation about whatever it is we’re waiting in line for, and make a new friend. It’s as easy as that at a convention.
Today, my anxiety is under control. I still have panic attacks, but they’re no longer a daily occurrence and I don’t have to take medication just to feel normal anymore. I worked on slowly but surely pushing myself out of my comfort zone and building up a tolerance for new situations, and I can absolutely credit the start of that journey to the day I decided I would do anything to go to Comic-Con, even if it meant facing my biggest fears.