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Living with social anxiety disorder

Adrian Ho
'After years of living in the dark, I finally came face to face with the culprit. I was diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)'

The greatest irony of my life has always been the fact that I’ve been working as a writer for 10 years but I’ve never really felt like a real writer. And I know exactly why: because I’ve never truly lived. At least, that’s how I’ve always felt.

How can a writer call himself one if he hasn’t lived his life fully? I mean, sure, I’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to travel across the globe. I’ve lived in Vancouver, New York, Amsterdam and Bangkok. Traveling has brought my life some sense of adventure and excitement, but somehow, it has never really made me genuinely happy.

I realize now that happiness is difficult to attain if one has been living a solitary existence. It is true what they say, life is senseless if it is not shared with others.

It’s not that I don’t have family or friends. I have them, plenty in fact, and they are certainly most loving and supportive. But see, throughout my life, I’ve managed to subconsciously distance myself further and further away from them. And therein lies the problem.

Coming to the light

Up until a few months ago, it had always baffled me why I find it so difficult to initiate, manage and keep lasting relationships with other people when it seems so easy and natural for others. Growing up, I had always attributed this social difficulty to my shyness and introverted personality, but things got so out of hand that I knew something was wrong with me. I’ve begun to feel like a person with a social disability.

Last September 2013, after years of living in the dark, I finally came face to face with the culprit. I was diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), a mental condition also referred to as social phobia. It is the intense and irrational fear of being scrutinized, judged and embarrassed in social and performance situations.

People with SAD experience anxiety and/or panic attacks, which include extreme nervousness, palpitations, fatigue, nausea, headaches, shortness of breath and increased heart rate. These symptoms can be quite debilitating that those who suffer from it tend to avoid situations that would trigger such attacks.

I remember vividly a Christmas party in 2000, back when I was a junior in college. The other students were having fun drinking, dancing and socializing amongst themselves while I was in one corner, alone and afraid, drinking beer, hoping that the alcohol would ease away my nervousness. Unfortunately, the alcohol failed me that night. I didn’t loosen up; instead, I got a headache, as if the nerves weren’t dreadful enough.

I watched my peers with immense sadness and great envy. I had wished that I could dance so carelessly and laugh so freely like them. They were living their lives while I was a mere spectator, anxiously watching their lives unfold before my eyes. Such moments when I questioned my self-worth happened countless more times in my life. I’ve been miserable – too inhibited, too scared, always thinking and barely living.

Answered and unanswered questions

Learning about my condition felt like a breakthrough. SAD explains everything that is socially peculiar and suspect about me: why making and answering phone calls would, at times, terrify me; why speaking up in a group of 3 or more people would make my voice tremble, practically rendering me mute; why driving a car with my family as my passengers would make me too self-conscious; why opening up and sharing my personal life to someone would make my heart race; and why I ultimately tend to isolate myself from other people, even from my own family.

Over the years, I’ve always dabbled in different things, always searching for that something that would make me happy and whole. I’ve ventured in small businesses and I’ve taken courses in filmmaking, photography and creative writing. But no matter how much knowledge I put in my head, no matter which new endeavor I take on, I’ve never been able to fix myself.

That is because I’ve been looking outwardly when, all this time, the root of my problem lies inside me – literally and figuratively. My brain has a chemical imbalance that causes my illogical fear of scrutiny and judgment by other people. This fear, in turn, triggers my body to go into panic mode whenever I am in a particular social situation; hence, the anxiety attacks  the nervousness around people, the trembling of my limbs, the shaking of my voice, the racing of my heart, the over-thinking, the extreme self-consciousness.

Breaking free, moving on

Since the diagnosis, I’ve been wondering about what could have caused my social anxiety. My research tells me genetics and/or a traumatic past are the usual suspects. The fact that I have been overweight my entire life, it occurred to me, might have caused my low self-esteem – all that teasing that I endured as a child could have exacerbated my social anxiety.

I’m also inclined to think that my struggles with my sexual identity might have a lot to do with my disorder. I’ve been out as a gay man to my family, close friends, some relatives and co-workers since my early twenties, but I have not necessarily been out to the world. I haven’t really felt compelled to publicly come out until now. I didn’t feel comfortable; I didn’t want to be judged negatively. So for the longest time, I’ve kept my personal life private, choosing not to open up about my sexual orientation. However, I do realize now the pertinence of my sexuality to my identity; thus, it must be acknowledged.

It has been almost 3 months since I first sought professional help. I know that it’s going to be quite a challenging process learning how to properly navigate through my social anxiety. But at least now, I feel that my life has a sense of direction.

I’ve written about other people – both real and imagined – but I’ve never been able to write my own story because things about myself did not make sense until now. I feel that the dark phase of my life story has ended and a new chapter thus begins. And as the page turns, wise words from Nelson Mandela emerge:

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

I reckon 34 years is a long enough time to have suffered in silence. I must cease letting my fears control my life; besides, judgment and scrutiny are inevitable. I must now break down the walls that I’ve subconsciously built around myself to shield me from judgment – the very same walls that pushed people away.

I must learn to open up, share my thoughts, express my emotions and let people into my life. It is high time that I set myself free from the shackles of social anxiety so that I can give others a proper chance to get to know, and judge, the real me. –

Adrian Ho is a Filipino-Canadian writer who has lived and worked in Manila for 10 years. Early this year, he resigned from his television writing job to do some traveling, explore new career paths and hopefully begin a new life. Little did he know that his recent journey would lead him to a life-changing self-discovery. You may reach Adrian at

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Man in bottle image from Shutterstock.

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