It hit me like an anvil, without warning. I was a typical 15 year old, in the midst of enjoying football games and sleepovers, and playing on the JV soccer team. My high school years are both foggy and painfully sharp. Every hour of every school day was spent with my heart racing, one cheek to the desk at all times, in an effort to cool the heat radiating from within, alternating cheeks, depending upon who was sitting on either side of me, head down, in hopes of going unnoticed.
The fear of being called upon was more than enough to incite the blood flow. And then, when it actually would happen, the reaction was so extreme, everyone had to look, trying to reason how someone could turn that red without an implosion. It was so physically painful, by the end of the school day, my body was exhausted and my head throbbing, all I could muster was sleep. The stress my body and mind endured is now incomprehensible to me.
Erythrophobia, also known as a “fear of blushing,” not to be mistaken with social anxiety, this is an actual extreme social phobia. The fear is self perpetuating- the more one anticipates blushing, the more it will manifest. Eventually, the relation of time between thought and physiological response becomes non existent. Every minute of each day, year after year, it occurred in all situations involving any other human who would witness the rush of blood and inherent shame that traveled together, like old war buddies.
For years, it seemed the only logical answer was to never leave the safety of home. Or to die. Literally, two options. Then there is the rare and extremely irrational option that I elected- get knocked up and have a cute baby, so everyone will look at said baby instead of me. A distraction, a diversion- yes, that’s the answer. Never mind the stares and whispers I’d have to endure as a pregnant teen. This logic suggests just how desperate the situation was for me. Depression and anxiety had robbed me of clear thought processes and a level head. And, so it was, the answer to all my worries- Cassidy, born on the fourth of February, 1997, the second semester of my senior year.
It was a lonely place, and social anxiety wasn’t yet the overused, common household term that it is today. Teenage depression was thought of as grunge era angst, trendy and fabricated. Flannel and sadness, for looks.
I was semi comfortable in my skin when outdoors, free from the confines of my classroom/ pseudo jail cell. I lived for those few hours in the day I spent alone in my room, where I was safe from the endless pairs of eyes and the possibility that they may glance in my direction.
Time passed and the nightmare of high school faded. Teenage love, that promised a lifetime of thrills, gave way to heartbreak and addiction. The hopes and dreams I didn’t know I had all came to life for me one day, hinged on a unheard of, brand new pharmaceutical entity, advertised and gobbled up by people looking for an escape from the angst that is anxiety. Paxil was fresh on the market. Until this point, how to give a voice to my struggles eluded me. But there he was, that red faced, sweaty, shaking little cartoon, hiding behind furniture, while the voice over asked viewers questions that shook my soul.
“Do you feel like everyone is looking at you when you walk into a room?”
“Do you search for the nearest exit?”
“Does the thought of speaking in public make you contemplate suicide?”
“Does your heart feel as though it may fall out of your ass?”
Undeniably, yes. How was it possible? All this time, I’d never spoken to anyone of what I’d experienced, and there he was, an animated oval, bouncing on the TV screen, spilling my innermost secrets, during the prime time viewing hour. This was my answer. This was my new faith. This little pill would put to death every monster I’d been running from for the last six years. I was 21 now, armed with a prescription for synthetic confidence, and nothing was going to get in my way.
I could pen a generic autobiography about the life of a single mother party animal from this point. I will spare you the details of my parenting failures and just tell you that my daughter has grown to be an amazing young woman, in spite of my selfishness (thanks Gram and Pop). I will tell you I relied solely on a medication that I knew little about and consequently became indifferent to the poor choices I made. The only regrets I have are in relation to those I hurt.
I’ve been free of any anti anxiety/anti depressants for eight years. The withdrawals from an SSRI are a nightmare in and of itself, which speaks to how much of a mind altering effect they can have. I empathize with people who truly need them to function, but useage doesn’t come without a price. I can say discontinuing my daily dose, after nine years, was like waking up from a state of semi consciousness. I do okay without medication. I initiate friendships, I do lunch dates, preferably on a patio, and as of this last year, I let my clients face the mirror while styling their hair, so they could actually see me during our conversations. I’ll probably never opt to speak in public, but I’m okay with the that.
I was recently chatting with my sister and teenage niece, while the kids played on the living room floor. The topic of feeling anxious in front of an audience came up, as she regularly sings on stage. I decided to briefly share my experience with her. For the first time ever, I told someone, face to face, that I had a very real, life altering, fear of blushing. Of course, the mere thought of it brought the fire. She chuckled nervously. I forced myself to sit through the discomfort and face the shame that once upended my life, aside from a quick glance in the mirror to see what I’d really been hiding from all this time.
To my surprise, it was just me, I was still me. Blood vessels inflamed, but still me.
We continued our conversation, and what once would’ve sent me into a tailspin, was just a fleeting moment. The shame of feeling ashamed was gone.
I’ll never understand why I got stuck and fixated on the fear of a flushed face. I could do some more mental laps, lose more sleep, and probably never produce a solid conclusion. Or, maybe I’ll wave goodbye to the fear that once determined how I perceived myself, let it slip away in that rear view mirror and just be proud of the girl who’s had to figure out how to face the world.
With my cranium and sense of self intact, I walked out the door a little bit taller that day. The sun shone bright, and for the first time in years, the warmth of my cheeks was a sensation I welcomed. My face was hot as it bared the sun, but I was no longer dodging fragmented pieces of a falling sky.