Social Anxiety in Recovery, Part 3: Everything Old Is New Again
Soon after I quit drinking, I noticed a strange new development that I didn’t immediately connect with new sobriety. It is still ongoing, although I’m working through it. I am frequently overwhelmed with painful feelings of not belonging, not being chosen, not being included. “Will they like me?” “Do they like me?” “Look at that fun event they posted pictures of on Facebook, how come we weren’t invited to that?” “Oh, I don’t think she likes me.” “Nobody likes me!” I noticed I was feeling increasing angst over these questions and I thought, “WTF is this? Am I in junior high again?”
Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I am! I am 13 again. That’s the age I started drinking—my path to deadening the pain of not belonging, among other things. That 13-year-old girl has a lot of unfinished business. Now that I’ve taken away the anesthetic, she has stepped forward, and is insisting some attention be paid to her wounds.
I’m not surprised at all that old issues are resurfacing, but I am taken a bit by surprise that it’s manifesting as social anxiety. If you had asked me what my main problems were at that age, social difficulties would have been quite a few down on the list. So it’s taken me some time to begin untangling this.
At age 10, my family moved to another state and I had no difficulty making new friends. Then, at age 12, we moved back. My old friends were at different schools, and I was the “new kid” at the most torturous age possible. I had no friends at all for most of the school year, no one talked to me, and I cried every night. It was bloody awful.
I finally started to make friends after running into a girl from school on the beach in another state during spring break. We bonded that week, and when we got back to school, I quickly assimilated into her group of friends. They were good kids and we really did have supportive, loving friendships, and I was so grateful and relieved. At the same time, I was still me–desperate for belonging and fearful of being on the outside again. I wanted to do whatever was necessary to fit in seamlessly. They smoked and drank, so I did, too. They never pressured me, per se. The pressure came from within me, if there was any pressure at all. I remember that when the first opportunities to drink with friends arose, I took them with no deliberation at all—there was no question what I would do. I quickly learned that drinking made me feel less self-conscious and helped me forget everything except the fun of the moment.
Much happened to me and within me around age 13, most of which is beyond the scope of this post. My friends were literally my lifeline, and in some cases, I was theirs. I believed I was nothing without them—that they were the only thing good in my life. I was also consumed by feelings of not being good enough, fears of not being accepted, and fears of losing whatever acceptance I’d gained at any moment. Despite the fact that this doesn’t match the current reality, these feelings are all coming back up now, I believe because I stopped drinking. The pain feels old and new at the same time, and it feels very real.
The current reality is that I have fewer friendships in my daily life than ever before. I grew apart from a couple of my close friends as we got married and had kids. A couple of others moved away, and while we keep in touch a few times a year, and we can pick up where we left off on the rare occasions we see each other, it’s obviously not the same. As for friends I’ve had for decades that I still see on a regular basis, there is one left. And there is one other treasured friendship that is newer but solid. The others are tenuous. Months can go by before we see each other or even talk. It seems everyone is just too busy. These newer friendships tend to feel so promising and then they never seem to get beyond a certain point of very occasional get-togethers. I want more. Girlfriends, you know? Like I used to have, people who are part of your daily, or at least weekly, life.
I am beginning to wonder how my alcoholism has affected the role of friendships in my life. I have read articles like this one about the difficulty of growing new friendships at this age, and I know it’s not all about what’s wrong with me. But I can’t help but look around and wonder, where are my soul sisters? Where is my woman tribe? How is it that female friendships have always been so crucially important to me, and yet I have not managed to build a strong and lasting circle? Was too much of what I have to give taken up by my alcoholism and all the energy it took to try and control it?
Besides being a fun drinking buddy, I have always been the friend who wants to talk about real stuff, and listen to real stuff, too. I know friends have felt loved and supported by me over the years, at least in large part. Since I’ve been struggling with all this, I have considered whether being an empathic person is an ego construct—some kind of story I like to tell myself. But no–I know it is a genuine part of who I am. Still, I wonder about the self-absorption that I am told is a hallmark of alcoholism. Is it possible I am not as good a friend as I always prided myself to be?
So, a perfect storm has gathered here. Very currently, I feel lonely for real community with women, and I’ve felt this way off and on for a couple of years. Now I add the layer of my recovery—this major thing happening in my life that carries a stigma, and my conflicted feelings about if and when to tell new friends, and how they might react. And meanwhile, the part of me that is 13 again suffers a preoccupation with belonging and inclusion that has the exact flavor and quality of that early adolescent age. Several times over the last (almost) 8 months, I have been racked with sobs over real or imagined slights and child-like feelings of being “left out.” It’s kind of embarrassing to admit that as a woman in her 40’s, but hey, that’s why this blog is anonymous!
All this adds up to feeling incredibly raw and vulnerable.
There are good things happening. I am blessed to have the close friends I do have. The get-together I was all nervous about in my last post happened last night, and it was lovely. I talked to my sponsor beforehand about all of this, especially the question of what to say about my glass of sparkling water instead of wine. She said, “Let’s put this into perspective. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Worst case scenario is…drumroll…they will think you’re an alcoholic!” That, along with several comments from readers here, helped me relax a bit and not take it so deadly seriously. One of the women did ask if I drink when she saw my Perrier, and when I said no, she said, “Really, not at all? Is that because you’re a better person than me?” I said, “Definitely not, I just discovered I feel better when I don’t.” Not the whole truth, but also not a lie. And that was that. It was a really fun night, and at the end, there were hugs and a heartfelt “We really should hang out more often.” I got a phone call today from one of them and a text from another about getting together again. And, I am meeting another new friend for coffee next week.
These things make me so happy, but I must be careful even about that. I must move beyond diving into tailspins called “What’s wrong with me?” if someone I like seems uninterested in a friendship with me. By the same token, I cannot depend on positive signs of new friendship to feel good about who I am.
Where is the line between healthy, natural desire for connection and community and neediness, desperation? Wherever that line is, at the moment it seems to be a fine and precarious one for me. I do know which side of that line I want to be on. I want to come to new friendships from a place of genuine interest and caring for others, not out of craving for whatever emotional need friendships promise to fill for me.
Time to listen to the 13-year-old me, hear what she has to say, and discover what she needs in order to heal. As for this longing for more connection and community, I think I must first find that in connection with my own spirit, and with God. I believe the rest will follow. This is my healing work.
© soberfire, 2015