Social anxiety had taken over my life – a leap of faith saved me

Fearing the judgement of other people and worrying about how I came across took over my life (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Raring to go, feeling fresh as a daisy with that little flutter of both excitement and nerves messing about in my stomach, I greeted my new employer with a smile and entered their home.

I was thrilled as I held their gorgeous baby in my arms; the child I would work with for the next phase of my nannying career. It’s a feeling familiar to many in childcare, and the sensation that drives me to do what I do for a living.

Rewind to a year ago, and I would never have believed that this could be me. My social anxiety had reached a point where I had given up on having friends, attending places or events outside of my comfort zones or having a job that involved working around people.

Over the years, I had become more and more ashamed of my feelings and, in a vicious cycle, this made the problem worse.

Fearing the judgement of other people and worrying about how I came across took over my life to the point where I would describe interaction with anyone outside of my family as a phobia. 

I have always been a socially awkward person and prefer not to be the centre of attention. But, in the last few years, this became serious social anxiety, as diagnosed by my GP and very clear to those around me. 

My crippling fears and panic attacks at the thought of talking to people, my refusal to answer the door or the phone, and my despair in situations such as being out shopping in public or being invited to an occasion – this had become my life.

Then, the pandemic hit and provided me with the perfect excuse to give up battling it. Now I had to stay in; I didn’t have to conduct convoluted excuses to try and get out of things and nor was I obliged to do anything except be at home.

The new laws fitted in perfectly with my social anxiety; I was literally banned from mixing with people and that was perfectly fine with me. This got to the point where I became terrified of lockdown lifting.

When lockdown lifted, I hadn’t worked for two years and had no desire to go back to it, despite having many years of happy memories with children under my care, which shaped me as a person and who have stayed close to me right up until this day. 

The thought of building the confidence to meet up with a stranger, in an unfamiliar setting and to sell myself and my skills was terrifying.

Almost selfishly, children had been the perfect crux to stave off my anxiety, even when it was less serious. The way I operated was by putting my entire focus onto the children; the responsibility for their care and safety overriding my feelings of unease.

I get on brilliantly with children. They are honest, forthright and pure; they haven’t developed into adults with their passive aggressions, hard to read nuances and dubious agendas. Adults feed the paranoia of a socially anxious person incessantly. Despite this, I hadn’t felt able to apply for new jobs.

Then – feeling trepidatious – there came a point post lockdown, at the start of summer this year, where I knew I had to get back to work, otherwise there was never going to be a way to break the cycle. I also feared for my relationships with those close to me who did want to go out and have friendships.

Soon into my search, I found a job through a nannying group online that sounded positive. After a phone interview, which I struggled with and felt shy about, I was offered the job. I was surprised by this, even though my husband had told me I was judging myself too harshly and I came across well.  

But as I headed out for my first day, I had a panic attack while commuting and, unable to recover, just came home. Regrettably and embarrassingly, I broke off contact with the family simply because it was easier for me to avoid the phone call or the email explaining why I had let them down. I accepted that I wouldn’t work again.

This was it; the anxiety had become so strong, I couldn’t even go to work anymore. I couldn’t even get through it with the interaction of children, who I love caring for so much. I was doomed to live in the house forever and not speak to anyone.

I took one last head on attack at this; I searched for jobs and saved many, but I didn’t feel ready enough for several weeks to put myself through the risk of further panic attacks and the self loathing which followed. But then, the perfect role came along. 

I believe everything happens for a reason and something about this new role was different. On paper, it was a social anxiety sufferer’s worst nightmare. Not only did it involve the usual interactions but it also took me out of my comfort zone massively as it was working away in a completely different city for three days a week. Still, I had a good feeling and applied.

The support of my loved ones helped – this time my sister took me to the interview and my husband picked me up; all I had to do was go.

I go outside, in crowded streets to walk the baby through parks, museums and nature reserves (Picture: Claire Lindsay)

The mum was so laid back and she had explained that she was attracted to me for the role from reading my work online, as she shared my views on attachment parenting and discipline. This is one of the few things I feel confident in knowing about, so to find someone who not only agreed but wanted a passionate chat about it was a huge turning point for me. 

The family were so welcoming and instantly made it clear they wanted an extension to their family, not just an employee. The one-year-old baby and his older sister were like magnets to me and I instantly rediscovered that wonderful feeling. Without being able to fully explain why, I was put at ease and though I worried on the first visit about having another incident like the previous interview, this lessened each time, to the point I looked forward to it.

The atmosphere was everything I believe in: accepting, non-judgmental, laid back and comfortable. I felt both accepted and welcome.

Finishing the days on positive notes, I had the best feeling about this since my social anxiety was diagnosed, just over three years ago. 

This was the point when my thinking changed from ‘I can’t do this’ to ‘let’s treat this as an adventure!’ The sense of achievement I felt spurred me on. It may seem pathetic to many, but walking into a house and holding adult conversations comfortably was a massive step for me.

The job entails train travel to Glasgow, which has become one of my favourite cities, and staying with my sister who lives there. It involves very long 12 hour shifts, with the children in my sole care and responsibility.

I go outside, in crowded streets to walk the baby through parks, museums and nature reserves. As people tend to do with cute babies, a lot of people interact with me and I find myself able to respond. Those who know me would not recognise me.

Previously, a grunt or a short answer would be all that I could offer, and I would then feel anxious about it for the rest of the day, paranoid about what they thought about me. 

During a museum visit in the first proper full time week, I engaged with one of the other visitors who approached me to discuss an exhibit. We talked about the artwork and he joked that the baby was the best bit of art in the gallery. I wondered how I was doing this, without pretending to be on the phone or looking at my feet? And back at my sister’s, how was I able to phone up and buy us a takeaway and hang out the window to call out to the driver as the bell was broken? 

Little by little, a change is happening in me and I am enjoying it; it’s a long way off from me being comfortable to attend a party and you’ll never catch me in a mosh pit or doing karaoke, but I have realised that I can work and I can talk to people and actually like it.

I have been able to access this through my love for this wonderful young baby. The feelings of anxiety have been beaten by excitement; diluted by senses of achievement and adventure.

There is a lot of work to do with social anxiety and this was no quick fix; in fact accepting this job has been the biggest gamble of my life as it could have taken me either way.

But something hit me as I head to my mid-30s and I realised that if I didn’t take a bold step, then this would be me forever. It may not work for everyone, but sometimes after the small steps seem to be too slow progress, a big leap might be the best way.

I am so proud I confronted my fears head on. I am feeling hopeful in where the changes I have made take me, not just in terms of my work but me as a person. 

I still have social anxiety. But I am still me.

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