In an attempt to overcome some late night despondancy inspired insomnia, I attempted to take some (I’m currently suffering a mild cold) cold and flu tablets night time edition. The ones with the magical stuff that supposedly helps you sleep. This would have all gone very well if it weren’t for the subtle choice to imbibe said tablets with a glass of mountain dew, at which I realised that right now there is a battle raging in my nervous system between the calming effects of some kind of chemical and the raging stimulation of caffeine. Which will win? Only time will tell.
I thought, since I’m now no closer to sleep, I might take the time to talk about a particular form of anxiety, one of which I suffer greatly. It’s called social anxiety disorder, and it’s one of the most common forms of mental illness, affecting around twelve percent of adults (citation not needed, it’s my fucking blog I’ll write what the fuck I want). It’s also the form of mental illness with the most adorable acronym, “S.A.D”. Awwww.
It’s hard for me to write about, since if you understand the disorder, you’ll understand that one of the most important aspects of it is a constant feeling of being judged by others. You’re judging me right now, I feel it. You think my jokes aren’t funny at all. That previous joke was probably too subtly ironic. I’m such a fucking failure. Excuse me while I berate myself for a few minutes.
(…you can’t read it but I’m silently paralyzed as to what to write next…I’m also judging myself by the irony of the previous sentence…)
When I said earlier that it affects around twelve percent of adults, that’s a little misleading as to my own personal experience. In fact when psychologists talk about that figure they’re including people who suffer with all levels of severity. This includes a subcategory known as performance anxiety (or the technical term “social anxiety disorder performance only”) which applies to people who have problems such as panic attacks when performing, such as giving a speech. This falls under the general category of disorders I like to call the “yes sweetie, you’re mentally ill too…no really” disorders. I’m not sure if I’m stretching the term too far but this is a kind of “first world mental illness”.
In all seriousness though, this is a real problem for some people. That said, however, that version of the disorder is far removed from the more general form of social anxiety disorder. The severity is a very important distinction. Someone who suffers “performance only” anxiety can generally lead a relatively normal life. For instance, many actors suffer this disorder and yet continue to lead successful careers.
The more general form of S.A.D is a debilitating disease. It’s a well researched fact that S.A.D has a high level of comorbidity, which in spite of sounding (to me at least) like some kind of domicile sharing with a necrophiliac, merely means that people who suffer from S.A.D are at much higher risk of suffering related illnesses like depression and inferiority complex. This is on top of the actual symptoms of S.A.D such as isolation.
Wait, did I forget to explain what S.A.D is? Such a fucking failure.
Essentially what this means, in the more acute general case, is an extreme fear of social interaction. For instance, imagining you reading this right now is causing me to have a mild anxiety attack. I’m sweating, my heart is beating a little fast and my super ego is yelling insults from the sideline like a heckler at a stand up comedy show. I can only respond back with explaining to him that it’s his body too, at which point he goes to the corner and cries. As such the thought process can get a little complicated.
I suppose I’m what you might call a high functioning extreme case of S.A.D. I think that’s probably due to a number of coincident reasons, the primary of which is my extreme inferiority complex. The way I see it is, I can ignore the fear of gaining social disapproval because I’m already a loser anyway, so fuck those guys. Some people have it worse than me. Some people literally (the real literally, not the version all the young punks are using these days) can’t leave their own home. I do have those fears though, and they get stronger as time goes on. Even interacting with people I cohabit with is a stressful situation, that I often try to avoid. That’s where headphones and video games come to the rescue.
I think, in fact, that most of my issues stem from this disorder. Or, to look at the other side of the coin, social anxiety disorder stems from all of my issues. It becomes a big ball of string that’s impossible to untangle. To take a Freudian description of it, would be something like the following.
The superego is a difficult thing to write about. That’s because it doesn’t like you talking about it. I could go into detail, but this is the basic meaning behind the famous movie quote “The first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club”. The reason this is so successfully achieved in the mentally ill, is that the superego’s primary responsibility is to tell you what things will earn you disfavour in society. If you talk about the superego, it says, society will hate you. It’s telling me this right now.
Freud talked about the mind being divided into three primary functions. The first function that developed was the id. This is the part of the mind that tries to achieve basic pleasurable desires, such as sex and food. As humans developed, the mind evolved to have a second function, the ego. This is the part of the mind that we are most familiar with, and allows us to think of ways to optimise the satisfaction of the id, by delaying immediate pleasure for (presumed) more pleasure in the long term. The superego evolved when humans realised that other people have thoughts too, and that unfettered actions towards pleasure would possibly cause distaste in other humans which could lead to problems such as having no friends, being shunned by society, or even worse, imprisonment or death. The primary function of the superego is to veto the egos plans if it feels they will cause the above problems.
Herein lies the root problem with (at least my) social anxiety disorder. It is theorised that a maladjusted childhood can lead to development of an overactive superego. The superego becomes the primary driver of behaviour, and if trained to have certain beliefs, will punish the victim for having thoughts of normal social interactions. To go back to the Fight Club analogy, this is why the protagonist “beats himself up”, since Tyler Durden is a metaphor for the superego. You know that old saying, “Don’t beat yourself up over it”? Now you get it. Still don’t believe Fight Club is a metaphor for a problematic superego? Notice that I started this essay as a way to fill time during insomnia? Coincidence? Maybe.
I can hear you thinking right now, “oh doesn’t everyone have that?”. The severity is very important however. Everyone has a superego. Not everyone has a maladjusted superego. It’s the difference between a personal trainer and a dictatorial sadist. Yes, you have a superego, but chances are, you don’t have mine.
There’s a reason I believe that the popular beliefs surrounding disciplining children are fucking bullshit. Go back a step, and think about what might cause the superego to become the “primary driver of behaviour”? A part of your mind that has a set of unbreakable rules that punishes you if you dare to even think about breaking them. Sound familiar?
This is probably going to be hard to hear for some people, but if you think that this is unquestioningly acceptable, there’s a high likelihood that your opinion on the matter is being driven by your superego. That’s part of what drives the cycle of abuse. You’ve been trained by your parents, who were trained by their parents, that to have a “non rules” mentality is deserving of punishment. When someone suggests such parenting, your instinctual reaction is for your superego to punish you for even thinking about it, and then, through transferance, to get angry at other people who would dare to talk about such things.
That’s not to say there isn’t any value to rules. Clearly the superego is the most evolved part of our brains, and it does help in society to have certain rules that we take for granted such as don’t be violent (at least without reason). It’s just that in focusing on rules for rules sake, and not on reasoned thinking, we are training our children to submit to their superego, rather than on the primacy of the ego. Without going into the explicit details behind it, punishment, especially traumatic punishment such as physical punishment or extreme verbal abuse, is one of the most effective ways of strengthening the child’s superego, and thus impoverishing their natural self in the process.
My Superego Makes Me Sad
This leads to the cause of my disorder. My overactive superego is constantly running. I suppose this is what people mean when they say things like “you think too much” (fuck them, they don’t think ENOUGH – s.e). I simply can’t participate in normal everyday activities without having the sound of it in my ear. It’s a constant struggle.
I find it incredibly difficult to explain this part of it all. I suppose there’s a lot of complicated little bits, and what’s worse, each and every part in itself could be easily brushed off with “oh everyone has that”. You’ll have to trust me that chances are you don’t have what I have (I’m talking generally here…obviously there may be other sufferers reading this).
To try and explain, imagine if you may, you’re in a group of people. Except you don’t see a bunch of other people as an opportunity to engage in meaningful activities, but rather you see giant hands waiting to slap you. If you ever got to see the movie version of Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, think of the vogons home planet (or just watch it now) as the classic illustrative example of social anxiety. Now imagine that your life is like that every moment of every day. That is how I see the world.
Now, to add to that, imagine that every time you have a conversation you have a constant barrage of noise playing next to your ear. It’s kind of like the worlds most annoying and idiotic heckler is your constant companion, but for some reason you’re compelled to listen to it. “Dumb!” it smugly asserts after every sentence you utter, and, “By the way, did you notice the way that person didn’t respond with overwhelming enthusiasm? You’re as useless as a pig with pockets, you are.”
It’s paralysing. This is why (at least so far as I hypothesise) most sufferers prefer isolation. It’s just easier. Even if a social interaction may have been successful, the FEELING of failure will still be there. That’s why it’s kind of useless to suggest to someone who suffers S.A.D to just “give it a shot”. While the person making the recommendation sees that there is a chance of a successful encounter, the sufferer knows that, for them personally, all encounters carry some emotional cost regardless of the outcome, and much higher penalties if the risk doesn’t pay off.
The costs accumulate too, at least in my experience, with a social faux pas causing immense stress for anywhere from hours and days to, potentially, many years to come. For example, I once made an embarrassing comment to a friend of mine, and even though we have become good friends I still constantly stress about reprisal and disapproval, nearly two years after the fact. She even hugged me recently (which causes a bunch of stress in and of itself that I won’t elaborate on here), but still my brain finds a way to discard that evidence and to return to the stress.
And The Rest
Back to the start of this whole train of thought, it’s fairly obvious, at least to me, why there is a high rate of comorbidity in relation to S.A.D. I’d fairly confidently suggest that probably the primary cause of my depression is due to a lack of fulfilling relationships. I might even venture to say that my self esteem issues are a result of allowing my failure to form said relationships be used as ammunition by the superego to punish my sense of self.
Perhaps the worst contributor to depression though, is wondering what I could have achieved had I never suffered this problem. S.A.D is known as the “illness of lost opportunities”. For an artistic person like myself this couldn’t be more true. When I try to create something, whether it be music, art, writing or other endeavours, I constantly have the fear of social disapproval weighing me down. I’ve lost count of the number of projects I’ve completed to various stages only to be overcome with anxiety about presenting the result to the public and abandoning the whole thing. The thoughts get pretty extreme, to the point that I find myself thinking things like “if this isn’t the most adored piece in the history of the world, you’ll be a total failure, and can you really handle that kind of rejection? (McFLY!! Hello!!)”.
That’s partially why I’ve decided to avoid proofing and editing these things any more. It’s just another opportunity for my superego to gain the upper hand. Perhaps that’s why I sought private feedback in the first place, to try and avoid any potential negative perception. Also perhaps I unconsciously was seeking an excuse not to publish.
This Is Bigger Than Me
Perhaps the single most recurring thought that has been coming from my superego as I write this article, is that it will just sound like a bunch of whinging. It is perhaps one of my biggest fears, that I am completely out of touch with the severity of my problems and that in fact I’m just “having a cry” about things that are not that big a deal.
I hope to move the conversation beyond that though. I’ve wrote in the past about the subtle link between mental illness and economic policy, and it has been shown that S.A.D may be a risk factor to relying on government welfare, as well as living in conditions of poverty. Social anxiety disorder may be one of the biggest problems facing our world today, and yet, it is fairly much unknown to the majority of people, including those that unknowingly suffer from it.
In fact, even in academic circles, acceptance of the severity of S.A.D (even the acceptance that it is actually a disorder) is only a fairly recent development, and it is still quite controversial. It was once thought that S.A.D was a rare disorder, but the evidence is building that in fact it is perhaps the most common mental illness. A lot of the controversy revolves around arguments such as where you draw the line between shyness and mental disorder, but all this achieves is to further muddy the waters around a problem that is consistently unexamined in society.
And yet, in spite of all this, this is a disorder that has been observed by our species for thousands of years:
“…through bashfulness, suspicion, and timorousness, will not be seen abroad; loves darkness as life and cannot endure the light or to sit in lightsome places; his hat still in his eyes, he will neither see, nor be seen by his good will. He dare not come in company for fear he should be misused, disgraced, overshoot himself in gesture or speeches, or be sick; he thinks every man observes him.” Hippocrates, Father Of Medicine
Perhaps it is time we took notice.