I want to preface this by saying I know this may not be an option for everyone. This is simply my experience. One I wanted to write about for two reasons. The first being because of a comment I received where I felt my mental illness was invalidated due to the fact that I have a job. It caused my impostor syndrome to rear its ugly head. I want all of you who are in the same position as me to know that your anxiety and your experiences are 100% valid. The second reason is for those of you who are unable to work due to your social anxiety disorder. My wish is that this post can give you hope.
I’ve made no secret on this blog how I’ve lived with social anxiety disorder for my entire life. In this post I discuss how my social anxiety disorder impacted my ability to attend college at sixteen. This lead to me developing agoraphobia between the ages of seventeen and nineteen. However, I’ve never explained to you how I managed to overcome my agoraphobia and how I’ve become more comfortable in public despite my heavy social anxiety. It’s because I got a job.
Why did I get a job?
I didn’t want to get a job. I was forced to get a job. My parents were going through a very messy and bitter divorce. My mum was planning on moving out and I was going to live with my dad. As I was nineteen and still living at home, both of my parents told me they could no longer support me as they had much more to pay than simply household bills. My mum needed a deposit for her house, my dad was having to remortgage his house, they had solicitor fees. There was a lot going on. So I had to get a job. I had no choice in the matter. My parents needed me to get a job and so I did.
I had no qualifications and no experience. I applied for hundreds of jobs. Eventually, after about a year of searching, I landed a retail position. As you can imagine, retail is the number one nightmare for those of us with social anxiety. My job focused heavily on sales, particularly upselling. We were forced to meet extreme targets. If we didn’t manage to upsell with each sale then the manager would come down on us like a ton of bricks. I was once told that I was single-handedly destroying her store. I went from being unable to leave my house alone without a panic attack to thrust into a sales-heavy, customer-focused industry overnight. It was both the worst and best thing for me.
How did getting a job help?
Every day was the same. I had panic attacks. I would hide in the toilets and cry. Whenever I spotted a customer coming into the shop, I would put as much physical distance between myself and them as possible. And it worked. For the first couple of months I barely had any contact with customers. I made the bare minimum of sales required to make it look like I was doing my job. Then Christmas came.
While the first two months saw me making the bare minimum of sales, it became impossible when Christmas was fast approaching. Customers flocked to the store in droves. Everyone who has ever worked in retail has no doubt experienced notoriously difficult and rude customers. Now factor in the upselling we were targeted on. I bet you can imagine how unresponsive and abusive these customers will have been. And it happened often. This job could easily have broken me – could easily break anyone. But I’m nothing if not stubborn. Thanks to a deep-rooted fear of failure, I refused to quit. I endured the abuse, from customers and management. And I kept my composure until the customer left, then proceeded to hide in the toilets where I broke down and had my panic attack. Then, once I was calmer, I dried my eyes and went back to do it all over again. That was my system. A very unhealthy system. But it built up my resilience. It’s not the way that I would have wanted to build my resilience or confidence but I had no other choice. I showed up, I worked, and I broke down repeatedly for five months. And I don’t regret it.
The five months I was there taught me a lot. It taught me that I was much more capable and stronger than I ever gave myself credit for. Teaching someone how to swim doesn’t always work by placing them into the shallow pool. Sometimes you need to throw them into the deep end and see how they cope. I was very much thrown into the deep end. Yes, I cried every single day of the five months I was there. Not a day went by where I didn’t experience a panic attack. Before I got this job, I was broken. This job shattered me and helped me to rebuild myself from the ground up. When I look at the person I was back then, I have to credit a significant amount to that job for helping me to become the person I am today.
What came next?
After that job, I went on to have several terrible experiences. The job immediately after lasted a week. But I’ve since managed to build up a decent amount of work experience to land myself a job where I’m no longer in retail or customer-facing. In this job I’m seen and appreciated. None of this would have happened without all of my experiences. Thanks to being thrown head first into the deep end, I’m much more comfortable being around people than I was before. I can actually be around people, for one thing. The friends I’ve made who knew me back then comment how different I am now. While it’s only minimal, I have a degree of confidence that wasn’t there before. Even a small amount can make a significant difference. This job also helped me to build up my communication skills which has helped me immensely as I work on my social anxiety.
No, I’m not cured. I still struggle with social anxiety on a daily basis and I very much doubt that’s ever going to change. The fact of the matter is that if my parents hadn’t needed me to get a job, and if I hadn’t have had that job specifically, then I probably wouldn’t be the person I am today. I wouldn’t have met the people I have. I wouldn’t be working towards getting my degree, something that once seemed nothing more than an impossible dream. And while I don’t necessarily love the person I am, I much prefer this Kelly to the Kelly I was all those years ago.
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