What does loneliness mean for someone with social anxiety?
Posted on May 08 2022
8th May 2022
In this big post, Russell Norris, author of Red Face, writes about loneliness – the focus of Mental Health Awareness Week in 2022 (9 to 15 May)
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, a time to stop and reflect on what mental health means for you and hear what it means for others. The theme this year is loneliness. And thinking about what that word means is important, because loneliness can mean different things for different people.
Over two years of COVID lockdowns, I heard many people say that social distancing made them feel lonely. But I heard people say the exact opposite, too: just because they were alone didn’t mean they were lonely. Sometimes, people might say they feel lonely in a crowded room. But how is that possible, everyone else in that room might say, with human contact all around you? Loneliness has many shades and no single common cause. It’s an individual experience and it’s always personal.
For me, loneliness is not the absence of people. I’m an introvert and I struggle with social anxiety, so I’m usually happy in my own company. Whenever I’ve felt lonely in the past, it’s been because of blushing. I’m very quick to blush: my face and neck break out in bright red blotches whenever I feel trapped or nervous. It’s always bothered me and still bugs me now, aged 42 – but it affected me badly in my youth. In my teens I developed erythrophobia (the fear of blushing). I would go out of my way to avoid any situation that might make me blush. These situations, of course, were always social. So I spent a lot of time finding ways to avoid people, day in and day out.
When I think about some of my loneliest moments, I think of myself as a teenager, walking in endless loops through suburban streets – because I was skipping school that day and had nowhere else to go. I think of university: missing classes and lectures, spending days locked in my bedroom to avoid my housemates, hitting a low point one dark night when I came very close to suicide. I think of the vodka I used to drink in the morning, before going into the office, to mask my anxiety until lunchtime. I think of all the toilet cubicles I’ve hidden in, after giving a presentation at work, waiting for my crimson face to cool down so I could walk back out to my desk.
Why did this only happen to me? My friends and colleagues didn’t turn red like this, they weren’t afraid of simple things like speaking up in a group or buying something in a shop. I felt like a freak, a grown man who still blushed like a schoolboy. Whenever I blushed or had an awkward encounter with someone, I’d go away and dwell on it. What did they think about me, now? Did they think I was weird or had some kind of problem? Did they think I was incompetent? Or weak? I was afraid to blush in front of them again, which made me want to avoid them even more. Round and round these irrational thoughts went in my head, reinforcing my phobia and pushing me further into isolation.
Isolation is an important word here, too. Because loneliness left unchecked can lead to isolation. And that’s where bigger problems begin. Social anxiety is sometimes called “the illness of missed opportunities”. While I take issue with the word “illness”, there’s a lot of truth in that description. Social anxiety leads you away from people: from friends, from colleagues, from partners, even from family. It can steer you into a life lived on the sidelines. And into the loneliness of being somebody you don’t want to be.
When I speak to others who struggle with blushing, especially younger people, there’s an intense desire for a quick fix. Which pill stops the blush, is there an operation I can have? It took me a long time to understand there is no single solution. There was no sudden turning point for me. Getting beyond blushing and social anxiety was a slow mixture of change: growing older, becoming a parent, accepting who I am and – crucially – telling other people how much the blushing affected me.
I told my GP first. Then my wife and my family. Then I wrote a book about it. The more that people knew about the blushing, the less reason I had to fear it. It wasn’t my secret to live with alone, anymore. And that was a huge step away from loneliness.
(Picture: courtesy of Tara Winstead, Pexels)