I have an appointment this afternoon that I don’t want to go to. It’s the second of its kind and after this week I’ll have two more to go. What is this appointment you ask? It’s the required group therapy that I have to do before they’ll even let me in to see a counselor.
Let that sink in for a moment. Group therapy. For someone with social anxiety. (And yes, they know I have social anxiety.)
This group is supposed to be an introduction to the services they offer at the clinic. It’s called “Managing Your Road to Recovery.” It’s from 2-4 pm every Monday for four weeks. It isn’t something I have an option to avoid.
Last Monday we talked a little about possible triggers, among other things. When asked for examples, I brought up “large groups of people in small spaces”, “groups bigger than 3 or 4 people”, and “loud voices.” I don’t think it occurred to anyone in that room that I was talking about my personal triggers. I know it didn’t to the woman running the group until, after we finished for the day, I went to her and told her my issues.
She looked surprised, and then told me that half the group was graduating so we wouldn’t be as full this week. She also said that if I couldn’t handle it, she would see about setting me up for one on one sessions, but that it would take longer to get a counselor if we did it that way. Because there are specific topics that have to be covered, and it’s harder to do them in a one on one situation than it is in a group session.
I left feeling like death warmed over. My anxiety was so high I was actually shaking when I got into the truck. My husband stopped at the grocery store and we got drinks. He got iced tea. I got a one liter bottle of Mountain Dew. That’s a comfort thing for me, and it helped me wind down. I don’t drink soda that often anymore, so as a rare treat it helped. Not a lot, but enough that I was able to start thinking again instead of simply reacting.
To give you an idea, imagine 23 people – all adults – sitting in a small room that’s built for maybe 15. Many are talking, trying to express their ideas. The majority of those talking have no concept of “indoor voice” and are rather loud. Add into that a dog in the background who we were told was a service animal who instead of lying quietly like they’re supposed to do (and yes, I know people with service animals so I have an okay knowledge of appropriate behaviors for them) was restless and constantly whined and made little yipping noises. This dog is also a large breed dog, so she takes up even more of the limited space.
Incorporate into that scenario a few people who actually poke fun at those who mention triggers and, in some cases, actively use those triggers to try to get a rise out the person who mentioned them. Then have a facilitator who doesn’t seem to care that it’s going on, though she does try to get people to let others speak before they say anything.
That was the hell I endured for two hours last week. I don’t know who graduated from the sessions last week. I’ll find out today. I also don’t know if there are going to be any new people added, so I can’t say for certain our group is going to be that much smaller.
Now, from what I’ve said before this, you’re probably thinking I’m stressing out about today. You’re right. I am. But, there is another part of this. It’s what am I doing to alleviate as much of that stress as I can before I go that’s the important part.
I have social anxiety. It has damaged me most of my life. I won’t say it’s crippled me, because there are ways I’ve found to deal with life outside my preferred tiny bubble of existence.
The first thing I do usually is make sure I have a buffer between me and the rest of the world. That could be my husband, a friend, one of our roommates, etc. Someone else who I can fall back on to carry the conversations and deal with people so I don’t have to. That’s how I get through grocery shopping and most of the other stuff I do when I’m outside the house. I can’t do that completely this time because I can’t have a guest with me. But my husband does wait in the parking lot for me, and is there when I go on a break so I can spend a few minutes talking to him to help take the edge off the anxiety.
Another thing I do is focus on the reward I’m giving myself for getting through it. Last week it was soda. This week it’s going to be chocolate. I’m going to stop at the grocery store after I’m done and buy a couple York Peppermint Patties, or a Milky Way, or maybe just a plain Hershey’s chocolate bar. Something I don’t get often to reward myself for getting through a hard time.
Then there’s blogging about it, which is what I’m doing now. Getting out some of the fear and anxiety that’s turning my brain to mush right now is actually helpful because it lets me express myself without forcing me to stammer over the words that just don’t come easily when my anxiety hits. I also know that I’m sharing with people who may understand where I’m coming from, which helps me feel less like I’m alone in the world.
I’m also preparing myself mentally for this. I know I have to do it. I know I can’t avoid it. I know it’s going to happen. So I ask myself “how are you going to handle this?” I can make a plan. I don’t like talking in front of other people all that often so I can keep quiet and let the others talk. I don’t have to converse with those around me, though I can and will answer if I’m addressed directly. I can doodle on the edges of the worksheets we’re given, or on the blank pages we’re allowed to write notes on if we want to help keep me calm and more focused.
I get to have some cuddle time with my fur babies – my cat Reidar and my gray bunny Stormy. I will have some one on one time with my husband too before I go. These things help buffer me from part of the pain I feel when I have to do something like this.
I am also working on things that I enjoy. Writing on one of my projects, editing another, reading, knitting or crocheting…these things help keep me calm and centered. I may do all of these before I go, or just one or two. It all depends on what I can focus on.
When you deal with mental illness, you get a lot of the whole “get over it” or “it’s all in your head” comments. It isn’t as easy as “just think positive and it’ll change” for any of us. But focusing on the negative, on how everything is shit, on how we can’t deal with it, makes things harder. I don’t have a choice in how my brain works. I have no meds and very little at hand to cut down the harshness of my bipolar. What I can do is pick my battles and find ways of pushing through it. I’m far from being good at this. I am still more prone to letting my mood swings stop me. But those small successes, when I can turn a bad day into a few good minutes in the maelstrom of mood swings, those give me the strength to move forward another step or two.