I struggle with social anxiety. It took me many years to realize that the fear, worry, illness and overall terror that I would feel from even the simplest social situation actually had a diagnosis. For most of my life, I just thought I was shy or had poor social skills. Never did I realize what the true problem was and so I suffered silently, hoping people would just leave me alone.

Only recently have I come to discover the truth that has started me on my road to healing. Social anxiety is a very real illness that millions suffer through, silent and alone. It is a mental disorder that can strongly interfere with a person’s relationships, career and overall life.

There are so many aspects of social anxiety that make it an extremely difficult illness to cope with, but the hardest part, as is the case with many mental illnesses, is that it is invisible.

No one can look at you and see the problem. They cannot know the physical symptoms and emotional turmoil with which you suffer day in and day out. They have no idea of the amount of energy it takes you to muster the strength to leave the house some days.

Shy. Timid. Anti-social. Recluse. Rude. Arrogant. Self-involved.

All the words one with social anxiety hears often. Either we are viewed as broken and sad, taken on as cases that need to be fixed. Assumed that we just need to be pushed harder to interact, to come out of our shell. Or we are viewed as cold and elusive, perceiving our silence and seclusion as a personal attack or an uncaringness.

No one sees the truth. No one sees the longing to reach out, to socialize and to converse. To join in at the gatherings and have carefree chats, making friends and acquaintances easily.

They don’t feel your heart beating faster with their approach. They don’t see your stomach churning and stance tightening. They can’t know of the light-headedness and faintness that overcomes you. They don’t hear the thoughts racing through your mind, barely discernible even to yourself.

As your spouse hands you the phone to speak with your father-in-law, on the other end of the line, he is unaware of the terror surging through your body. The limited speech comes not out of dislike or disinterest. He can’t possible know the depth with which you long to reach out and connect. All he receives is the short and quick responses and extreme desire to get off the phone.

When a friend invites you to a gathering, they aren’t aware of the dread that fills you. They don’t know of the sleep you lose in anticipation of the event nor the countless hours you spend in fear awaiting what should be a positive experience. And when you finally decide to back out, they don’t feel the sadness that plagues you for missing yet another event because of the anxiety. All they know is, once again, you are not there.

Social anxiety is a very real thing that makes life challenging in so many different ways. It is not something one chooses just as no one would choose a physical handicap or disease. But what makes it so much harder is, when we cope well, the illusion that we are fine or when our coping skills fail, the assumption that we are broken.

We just try to get through each social moment without a full blown panic attack. And with each attempt, hopefully it gets better. Hopefully we can make more people understand. Hopefully one day we can pick up a phone without crippling fear or saunter up to the packed bar at the next party. Hopefully.