One of the most common traits shared amongst who abuse alcohol or drugs is intense discomfort in social situations. I think it's safe to say that all people feel some level of social anxiety. However, in my experience I have discovered that people with addictive personalities, heavy drinkers especially, struggled to feel comfortable in any type of social situation.
What is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety is defined as a mental condition in which social interaction causes irrational anxiety or stress. In the simplest terms, those of us who suffer with social anxiety have a very difficult time being around other people, whether individually or in groups. Interacting with other people can feel so uncomfortable that we need to alleviate our stress with the ancient social lubricant called alcohol. Without a few drinks in our systems spending time in any type of social environment can feel annoying, even painful.
One of my earliest memories is being taken to a birthday party by my mother where I knew no one. I don’t recall whose party it was, but I do remember the fear I experienced as soon as I arrived. I was around five or six years old at the time. My clearest memory of this event was hiding inside the house while all the other children played outside near a pool. A glass door divided me from the other kids as I watched them all playing games and swimming. Adults kept asking me why I wasn’t joining in the fun, but all I could do is cry and beg them not to make me go outside. They finally gave up and left me alone until my mother returned and took me home.
The feeling of being separate from others, feeling like an outsider everywhere I go, is something that I've struggled with my entire life. I believe this feeling of “otherness” is a major ingredient of my alcoholism.
I’ve always felt, starting from an early age, that I didn’t belong anywhere. I was plagued with a nagging feeling that everyone else in the world understood what life was all about and knew the secret to happiness. If I was at a party, I never felt that I fit in or belonged. I felt as if everyone else was part of a secret club that I wasn’t allowed to join. No entry! members only!
I’ve since learned that just about everyone has felt this way at some point or another. Perhaps not as consistently as I did, but everyone at some point feels separated from the rest of humanity, as if they are totally alone, without a friend in the world.
Perhaps this is something that you deal with as well, the feeling that you're alone in the world or an outsider everywhere you go. I have discussed this issue with countless people over the years. We share the same common feeling that we are aliens who don't belong on the same planet as everyone else.
Does Alcohol Help?
What many of us discover is that alcohol makes us feel like we belong.
I’ve always been a blusher. Since childhood, I’ve experienced a maddening rush of blood to my face whenever I feel awkward or embarrassed. The most frustrating part about being a blusher is that when you blush, you become more embarrassed by people knowing you’re blushing, which then makes you blush even harder. When the blushing increases, the blood rushes into my ears, making it difficult to hear. Once my face flushes hot and my hearing is impaired, I become confused and begin to stammer and stutter. It’s a vicious cycle of humiliation that I’ve struggled with ever since I can remember.
Over time, I worked hard to avoid any type of situation that might embarrass me. Socializing in large groups, approaching a girl I liked, speaking to adults, attending parties, dancing, all made me feel incredibly uncomfortable and awkward. Booze changed everything for me.
I realized early in life that many situations that induced embarrassment could be easily conquered with a few drinks. By my teens, I rarely engaged in any type of social activity without downing a few beers whenever possible. Drinking gave me the courage to look people in the eye, speak out loud, joke, dance and most importantly, talk to girls.
I became dependent on alcohol to help me navigate awkward social situations well into adulthood.
It was discouraging, when I finally got sober at age 43, to realize that I was unable to look people in the eyes without turning my gaze away, my cheeks flushing bright red, my words getting stuck in my throat. Trying to talk out loud and engage in eye contact felt unbearable at times.
Social anxiety often feels overwhelming. It can make us feel weak and inadequate. Worst of all it can lead us to self-destructive behavior. If you've ever dealt with social anxiety by turning to alcohol for relief, then you will ultimately bring more suffering into your life. This is especially true if you consume alcohol excessively over many years to navigate social situations.
Social anxiety is one of the leading causes of alcohol abuse. Many of us never truly learn how to feel comfortable in any social setting without drinking before, during or after such occurrences. If we want to reduce or stop drinking, we have to first recognize and admit that we struggle with some form of social anxiety in order that we can discover a way to interact in the world without turning to alcohol for relief.