Anxiety disorders suck. They really suck. Maybe you’re skeptical when I say that, but it’s true: They’re the pits.
Social anxiety is kind of my anxiety’s specialty. Like, if my anxiety went to college, that would have been its major. It minored in spiders.
If you’ve read any of the literature, you’ll know that social anxiety is rooted in the fear of judgment. Maybe that’s even true. You’ll also know that the mind tends to run through all of the possible negative outcomes of any given situation, essentially convincing itself that such outcomes are probable or even inevitable as opposed to just conceivable. Maybe that’s also true.
I don’t know that I experience it quite like that, though. I mean, sometimes, sure, my brain worries about what could go wrong, but for the most part, I just experience this blind, irrational panic. It doesn’t really tell me that striking up a conversation with that stranger over there will lead to a humiliating incident. It just screams at me, in all caps, that FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DON’T, DON’T, DON’T STRIKE UP A CONVERSATION WITH THAT STRANGER OVER THERE!
Seriously, my brain can go fuck itself.
To someone who doesn’t deal with this sort of thing, it can probably seem downright silly. Such a person—with their remarkable, non-fucked-up, human brain—might be tempted to tell the anxietee to just get over it. Buck up. Stop making a big deal of it.
Let me tell you …
Bucking up does jack shit.
Have you ever seen a jack shit? It doesn’t help.
I don’t really have any advice for dealing with anxiety. If I did, I probably wouldn’t be here writing about my terrifically fucked-up human brain. But, maybe I have a framework that will help the terminally non-anxious empathize with the struggle. Because, everyone has some kind of irrational fear. Yours might be spiders. Or airplanes. Or immigrants.
Whatever it is, there’s something out there that freaks you right the fuck out.
And, as scary as spiders are, they’re typically harmless unless you’re a bug.
Even the bites of the so-called dangerous spiders—like widows and recluses—are rarely fatal. Whatever threats they do pose, are generally minimized by the administration of antivenins, though I would be remiss if I failed to mention that the venom of the Brazilian wandering spider can result in priapism. Priapism, named after the Greek god Priapus—whose giant, wooden erection is quite literally the stuff of legend—is the medical term for that condition long warned of in Cialis advertisements: a prolonged, painful erection.
So, spider bites: usually not a big deal, bad-to-the-boners notwithstanding.
But, we’re still afraid of spiders. Now, if your big fear is spiders or airplanes or immigrants, it’s usually not a whole, big thing. More often than not, you can step on a spider, avoid getting on an airplane, or build a big, stupid wall.
But, I can’t step on social situations.
So, imagine that, as you go through life, every conversation you ever have is a great, big, hairy spider looking to eat you. When a stranger sits next to you on the bus, that’s a spider. When a coworker asks you how your weekend was, that’s a spider. When an employee at the Burger King mistakenly gives you a hamburger with mustard, and you try to take it back, and she says she could have sworn you said mustard, and you tell her you said no mustard, specifically mustard with a no in front of it, and she asks why you don’t just wipe the mustard off, and that’s no good because you can still taste the fucking mustard, and she says fine, she’ll get you a whole, new hamburger with absolutely no mustard on it at all, but you’re pretty sure she just wiped the mustard off and gave you the same hamburger … You bet your ass that’s a spider. That’s, like, one of those Lord of the Rings spiders.
The point is, no matter where I go, no matter what I do, I’m surrounded by spiders.
If you try to set me up with that friend of yours that you’re so sure I’d hit it off with, you’re sending me on a spider date.
If you invite me to a party, you’re asking me to come to a spider dance.
If you tell me to just make a phone call, you’re asking me to shove my hand into a bucket of spiders and then put the spiders up to my face and then try to talk to the spiders.
I really don’t like telephones.
This is my life. Make no bones about it.
For me, there are spiders everywhere. When I go to a restaurant, I order my food from a spider. The cashier who rings me up at the Piggly Wiggly is a spider. The people on voice chat when I try to play video games online are all spiders. If you try to get me to open up about myself, then you’re the spider.
Even if I see a literal spider, that’s also a spider.
For me, everything is spiders. My entire world is made of spiders.
And, yet, somehow, through some great force of will, I manage not to run around screaming all the time.
Somehow, some way, most of the time, I manage to pretty much get by.
And when I’m not getting by? Well, it probably looks pretty weird to the spiders.
So, if you ever see me, and I seem awkward or standoffish or just plain out there, please try to have some sympathy. Try to reach down in your heart and understand that you might have a hard time too if your world were made out of spiders.
Once upon a time, there was an astronaut. His name was Steven. This was not unusual. A lot of people are named Steven. As a matter of fact, Steven was an especially popular name in the astronaut’s family, in particular. His father had been named Steven. His father’s father had been named Steven. According to several people, he’d even had a great-great-great aunt who had also been named Steven, although the reliability of this claim was a subject of some debate, but still … You get the idea: There were a lot of Stevens.
That said, the most extraordinary thing that could be said about Steven was that he was currently floating through space. He was in space on a special mission from the National Space Administration of Aeronautical Space and Whatnot (NSAoASaW). Steven’s mission was simple: to collect a random sampling of floating space rocks and bring them back to Earth in order to determine in what ways, if any, they could be said to be superior to Earth rocks.
Steven was proud to have been chosen for this mission.
On this particular day, Steven was on a routine spacewalk, floating through the vacuum of space outside of his very special spaceship, protected only by his very special spacesuit, in search of the very best floating space rocks that might happen to cross his path. What Steven saw on this day was, however, not a space rock. It was not a rock of any kind. What Steven found floating through the vacuum of space was, in fact, a sheep.
Naturally, Steven was taken somewhat aback by this surprising development. The vacuum of space, you see, is not a location naturally predisposed to the existence of sheep. Sheep, generally speaking, tend to prefer other environs, specifically those possessing such luxuries as food, gravity, and oxygen, none of which the emptiness of space can, in any way, be said to have.
So, of course, Steven was understandably curious.
“How came you to be in space?” Steven asked, looking quizzically in the sheep’s direction.
The sheep’s mouth opened, as if to form words, but said only, “…”
“Speak up,” requested Steven. “I can’t hear you.”
Again, the sheep’s mouth began to move. Again, Steven could hear only, “…”
“Ah,” said Steven to himself. “Of course, I can’t hear what the sheep says. Since sound never travels through the vacuum of space, I’ll have to bring the sheep inside my spaceship, where there will be air in abundance for its answers to travel through.”
With that, Steven motioned to the sheep in a complex pantomime intended to convey the message that he wished to bring it on board the ship.
The sheep simply nodded, having come to the conclusion that sound-based communications were ineffective at the present time.
The sheep offered no resistance as Steven wrapped his arms around it, pulling it back into the spacecraft.
Inside, the sheep took a deep breath, very much enjoying the inhalation of oxygen. It was especially nice, seeing as it had been so long since the sheep had encountered any.
Steven carefully removed the helmet from his spacesuit, saying, “How goes it with you, sheep?”
“Not so baaad,” bleated the sheep, who was quite happy to be on board, having long since found the vacuum of space to be quite tedious.
Steven introduced himself. “My name is Steven,” said Steven, “and I am an astronaut.”
The sheep thought that this went without saying but was far too polite to say as much to its host, instead saying, “I’m Roger. I’m a sheep.”
“I must say,” Steven continued, “in all my years of astronauting, collecting random samplings of space rocks and such, I’ve never before come across a sheep in the emptiness of space.”
Again, the sheep felt this was obvious, but kept these views to itself.
Finally, the astronaut came to the point: “How came you to be in this predicament?”
“Ah, well,” said Roger, “that’s a bit of a story.”
“You see,” admitted Roger, “back on my home planet, Earth, I was a burglar.”
“I see,” said Steven.
“In fact I was a burglar of some repute,” said the sheep with a touch of pride in its voice. “My exploits were known around the world. ‘Roger the Burgling Sheep,’ the newscasters used to call me.”
The name rang a bell with Steven, who responded, “Yes, you famously burgled the Great Pirate Convention in Helsinki.”
“One of my finest moments,” said Roger, smiling with a sense of self-satisfaction. “The trick was to convince the pirates that sheep make great guards who will never ever make off with a treasure-hold of ill-acquired loot under any circumstances whatsoever.”
“Ingenious,” said Steven, much impressed by his guest’s cleverness, however ethically dubious may have been the uses to which it had previously been put.
“As always,” replied Roger, making no attempt at modesty, “but my downfall lay in an even grander scheme.”
The sheep then proceeded to tell the tale.
It was fresh off its highly celebrated burglary of the fabulous Big Money Party for People with Big Money when Roger the Burgling Sheep devised the grandest scheme of its storied career. Deep in the Great Pyramid of Giza, rumor had it, lay the ancient Pharaoh’s super secret treasure-hold.
The Great Pyramid had been heavily searched, of course, and many people had attempted to find the fabled vault. Thus far, of course, none had ever succeeded, but the sheep had one important advantage over the previous explorers: It was incredibly lucky.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that, after flying to Egypt, sitting comfortably in the first-class section of a passenger jet, and sneaking into the Great Pyramid under the cover of darkness, Roger quickly stumbled onto a loose brick. Pulling said brick aside revealed a long-hidden door, covered in the dust of untold ages. The sheep had no particular skill in reading hieroglyphics, but the symbol on this particular door left little room for interpretation: It was a picture of a great, big box of gold.
As the sheep reached forward, a scarab beetle suddenly scurried across the face of the door. Stopping just at Roger’s eye level, the insect turned its small, buggy face toward the sheep and unexpectedly began to speak. The message conveyed by its insectile, slightly buzzy voice was this: “He who opens Pharaoh’s hidden door will be forever cursed.”
Roger brushed the annoying pest aside and pushed the door open. The sheep had little faith in the musings of beetles, having found them in the past to be quite unreliable.
The door opened onto a long, dark hallway. How long it might have been was hard to say. Even with the flashlight, Roger could not see all the way to the end of the hall. It was a good flashlight, too: A nice, heavy Maglite, not one of those cheap, plastic lights they sold in the dollar store. This was a quality flashlight.
That aside, even the long, dark hallway did not seem terribly interesting; I mean, let’s face it: there’s not much to say about a hallway, especially a dark one.
What was somewhat more interesting, however, was the dragonfly hovering just inside the hallway. It stared at Roger with its compound eyes, and it also spoke, saying, “He who walks down Pharaoh’s secret hallway will be forever cursed.”
As the dragonfly flitted off to parts unknown, the sheep rolled its eyes and stepped into the hallway. Dragonflies were well-known hypochondriacs, prone to interpret all sorts of mundane, everyday happenings as ancient, Egyptian curses, so the sheep continued on its way.
It was about halfway down the hall when Roger’s path was suddenly crossed by a black cat. After scampering from one side of the narrow hallway to the other, the cat stopped briefly to say, “He whose path is crossed by Pharaoh’s black cat will be forever cursed.”
“Pshaw,” said Roger, strolling right past the feline. The sheep didn’t believe in curses—or black cats either, for that matter. Roger had long since surmised that all black cats were really just white cats that had gotten incredibly dirty. As such, the sheep paid no heed to the cat’s words.
Upon reaching the end of the hallway, Roger encountered a rat. The rat spoke in a big, booming voice—unusual for rats, but not unheard of—saying, “He who enters Pharaoh’s secret treasure room will be forever cursed.”
But, the sheep knew that all rats were notorious liars. This was where the phrase “you dirty rat” came from. So, Roger simply said, “Psh, whatever,” and confidently entered the room.
This was certainly Pharaoh’s secret treasure room. One could tell by the large chest, undoubtedly filled with gold, sitting in the center of the otherwise unoccupied room.
Roger approached the chest, but was stopped by a small Do Not Disturb sign. Roger was stopped by the sign because it unexpectedly opened its mouth and said, “He who opens Pharaoh’s secret treasure chest will be—”
The sign paused here to take a deep breath and draw out the suspense. How would its sentence end? “Super rich”? “Very happy”? “Slightly underwhelmed”?
But, no, the final two words out of the sign’s mouth were, “—FOREVER CURSED!”
The sheep paused to consider things for a moment. It didn’t have any preconceived notions about things a sign might say to it. Why would a sign lie? But then, the sheep thought, what does a sign really know, anyway? Roger promptly raised the lid of the treasure chest.
The sheep was surprised to not see any gold. Instead, it saw a great, big, gooey, slimy, alien, goo monster, which proceeded to leap out of the chest brandishing a slightly futuristic scepter of some sort. The goo monster adjusted the regal-looking crown on its head and proclaimed, “You have awakened Pharaoh! For your crimes against a good night’s sleep, I hereby curse you, sheep, to float through the vacuum of space for all eternity!”
“So, then, the alien, goo pharaoh waved his magic, science fiction stick around, and I was in space.”
“Incredible,” said the astronaut.
“So, it turns out that the pyramids really were built by aliens, and the pharaohs were all goo monsters!” said the sheep, who had made a sweeping judgment based on a single experience.
“But,” said Steven, still trying to wrap his head around the fantastic story, “why was the alien inside the treasure chest?”
“Dunno,” answered Roger. “Maybe that’s just how goo monsters sleep? I s’pose it helps keep all their goo in one place. Otherwise, it would be running all over the floor and whatnot.”
“I suppose that makes sense,” said Steven. “But, all those warnings you ignored …”
“Well, they kept saying, like, ‘He who does so-and-so …’” Roger explained. “I mean, I identify as nonbinary. I thought it wouldn’t apply.”
“Did you explain that to the Pharoah?” Steven asked.
“Well, he didn’t really give me time, now, did he?”
“I guess not,” said Steven. “At any rate, it sure is lucky I found you.”
“Yeah,” said Roger, “But, I just keep hearing the Pharaoh’s last words echoing in my head over and over.”
“Well, as he was waving his magic stick about, banishing me to space, I heard him say, ‘He who offers assistance to the cursed sheep will be forever cursed.’”
There was an awkward silence.
Finally, Roger added, “Dunno what he meant by that.”