If you've read my other articles, you may have seen the one where I talk about my struggles with depression. I realized after writing that article that, being somebody who writes articles for the world to see, I have an opportunity to spread awareness and insight into mental illness. So for this article, I'm going to be sharing what it's like to have a family member with severe social anxiety.
My older brother was diagnosed with severe social anxiety when I was fairly young, but just like it took a long time for me to finally be diagnosed, it took him a long time too. For as long as I can remember, my brother was always "shy." At least, that's how my young mind perceived it.
One thing about living with a sibling who has severe social anxiety is that, because there's such a large age gap between us, I don't remember a time when he didn't struggle with it. I'm the youngest sibling of five, and my brother is the middle child. Looking back, I seem to remember always being late to the movie theater because we had to wait outside in the parking lot for him to calm down enough to go inside. I remember always having to leave places- parks, zoos, etc., far earlier than I wanted because it was all too much for him.
I'd be lying if I said I've never gotten frustrated with his illness. Being a young kid who couldn't comprehend what he was dealing with, it seemed as though he was stopping us from having any fun. But for the most part, him struggling with the anxiety was just another part of life for me- it was as natural in my mind as anything else. Because I had the chance to grow up watching him learn to cope with his anxiety, I've gotten an insight into his mental illness that has helped me to become the person I am today.
In truth, I think there is still a lot that people don't understand about mental illness. Between my own experiences with depression and his experiences with social anxiety, it's become apparent that there's no shortage of misconceptions and false assumptions. But until you've been a little girl watching her big brother (who, by the way, was six-foot-tall by middle school) turn into a small, sweating, crying lump of fear in the middle of a crowded movie theater, you have no idea what severe social anxiety is like.
Because my brother didn't "look" the type to be shy- like I said, he's a very tall guy- he faced a lot of criticism and doubt early on in his struggles. From having school officials to even family members telling him that he was just being lazy, a brat, or disobedient, my brother, unfortunately, didn't have the best support system. Understandably, he went into a state of depression for a long while before being sent to what was essentially a boot camp. This, along with continuously changing different schooling methods until eventually just getting his GED, meant that his life was pretty much anything but stable.
Again, during all of this, I was still pretty young. I remember seeing my mom get frustrated with the principal who told her that the reason her son was struggling in school (to the point where he would simply walk home every day after she dropped him off) was because he was just "a bad kid." I remember asking why he was suddenly changing to a private school, then why he had an at-home tutor, then why he wasn't having any schooling at all. I remember him refusing to go to family gatherings because even blood-relatives were scary to him.
It seems as though everyone had formed an opinion of him. They'd give him titles- "lazy", "stubborn", "out of control"- based on what they were able to see. But one thing that I've learned from having him as a brother- and something that I hold dear to my heart- is that I have the privilege of seeing a side of him that nobody else does. I see a side of him that he allows me to see because I'm one of the few people in his life that isn't scary to him.
I could tell you all about what he struggles with, but the thing that I am forever grateful for is that I can tell you about all the other things.
I can tell you that he's an exceptional gardener- another thing that people probably wouldn't guess, based on his appearance. He protects and cares for his plants like they're his children, doing research and buying all sorts of strange tools to make sure they grow healthy and strong. He even takes it to the next step by cooking with some of the things he grows (he takes a lot of pride in his food).
Likewise, I can tell you that he's a bit of a nerd when it comes to history, science, and random facts in general. He loves shows and documentaries that explore the technical and historical side of things, and almost any time I see him I can expect him to tell me something new. He also has a talent for technology, and he even built his own computer. Whenever family members or close friends run into a problem with technology, they can rely on his knowledge (whether in person or through a third party) to help.
I can also tell you that he has an absolute heart of gold. Despite being let down by a lot of people in life, and having a lot of people turn on him simply because they couldn't understand what he was going through, he's one of the most sincerely loving people that I've met. He does his best to see all sides of a situation, and he can't stand to see anyone (including animals, which he also has a huge soft spot for) get hurt or abused.
The fact of the matter is that my brother (and everyone, really) is composed of many different characteristics. Because he struggles with social anxiety, most of the people who know him (or of him) only get to see the limited, afraid side of him. I consider myself really lucky to get insight into the rest of his life because he truly is an exceptional person. So here's the lesson of this article: whatever you see or don't see in a person, there is always more to the story. Likewise, there is much, much more to my brother than his social anxiety.