My Gossamer Dress

You wonder why I need to be by myself. I'd give anything to be able to make you understand why I'm as I am. So I shall try to explain the awful, unreasonable fear that drives me to solitude - fear that is far too alien to the normal range of human emotion - but is the earmark of social anxiety disorder. Also known as social phobia, this disorder presents a seemingly irreconcilable paradox between social avoidance and the desperate need for the nurture of human contact. Progress has at least assigned one of those official medical acronyms to it (SAD - Social Anxiety Disorder) to put an identifying tag to the outward symptoms. But beyond that, the understanding goes from black to blacker.

Let me try to put you in my shoes by creating an imaginary personal environment for you that might create in you some sense of what I feel and fear...

Imagine as best you can that you have no ordinary clothes that are warm, durable, and well-fitting. All you have to wear is a skimpy, gossamer thin dress, so sheer it barely covers your nakedness. Then imagine that this dress is as fragile as the mantle in a gas lantern, so delicate that any motion on your part can easily tear or shred it. As long as you confined yourself to your private quarters, you would feel somewhat secure. Unless you're an exhibitionist, it shouldn't be difficult to imagine the discomfort being in social situations risking complete exposure. How desperately in need of human contact, or how tranquilized or inebriated would you have to be to overcome your inhibitions enough to interact with the outside world?

So, like a prisoner who loathes the confinement, the solitude, and the monotony of a barred cell, but finds refuge there from the callous mischief of other prisoners, I walk into my apartment and lock the door behind me. The sameness, the solitude, the confinement are ever there to meet me and it's not long before loneliness consumes me. By coming home I escape misery to find misery. But once there, I have only myself to deal with. I hate it but I can live with it, if barely. I can't live with the emotional torture that comes with being with people for very long.

Most people possess enough self-esteem not to wither away at social gatherings. Not me. My momentum in trying to be social is short-lived. Just a word or a glance can be like a spark to my confidence of straw. My 'I'm as good as anyone' facade falls away to expose the real me who can't imagine being a peer to ordinary people. I want to disappear. I have managed to grow a little self-esteem in spite of a past that has done much to deny me of it. I've come to realize my potential, my talents, my value as a human being in God's sight, while I seek my worth in the eyes of society.

But my fledgling accomplishments make perceptually distorted giants of those who do ordinary things; raising families, holding down jobs, getting involved with civic activities. The outside world is like a huge, looming garden of accomplishments and abilities, recognized and respected. While I've put my heart, soul, and skills into my little 'hothouse' and managed to seed some impressive latent skills, they are tender and need room to grow. I know they need the social sunshine and the rains of the outside world to grow if they are to stand tall with the big boy accomplishments. That is where the rub is.

As much as I yearn to share life with the outside world and to have the confidence in public that other people have, I'm greatly intimidated with it all. Harmless people can easily injure me with normal talk that others would never take offense to. I fear that they will discover my little hothouse and with the most casual comment, strip me of my fragile self-esteem tied up with my plantings in solitude. Logic's voice fades away as I fear I will be seen as a pauper in thrift shop clothes in a 'tie and tails' environment. My fears are the epitomy of irrationality. But they are all too real to me. And just as real as any other clinically recognized phobia - phobias as unreasonable as mine.

I gag on the simplistic diagnoses of well-meaning friends, loved ones and mental health experts alike. In spite of the impressive advances in the curative sciences that give hope to the hopeless, ignorance still takes a heavy toll today on those outside the pale of medical discovery. For all the promise of expanding research, there is little in sight to realistically hang my hopes on. Beyond a small pool of those afflicted with SAD who have managed to find one another, there remains little interest, or concensus for support. Ignorance prevails. I'm left with no alternative but to keep trying to get the reality of the problem across.

If your visit to my world was less than pleasant, at least you can return to your real world. The gossamer dress is my real world. Fate has dealt me this hand and I'm not looking for sympathy or someone to blame. I am looking for someone to take those afflicted with social anxiety disorder seriously enough to acknowledge our plight as a real medical problem that deserves serious attention by way of better education, more study to improve existing treatment methods, and research to implement new ones.

Contributed by G.B.Cook and edited by his daughter, "Echo"