Almost all my life, I have been afraid of other people.
It started quite young, when I first began to be aware that I was ‘different’ to others, which I interpreted as ‘lesser than’. I had only those around me to compare myself to, and it was obvious that I lacked something, some qualities or understanding of the world, that they had. That I might have other qualities just as good never occurred to me. This was the start of my fear of being ‘exposed’, my inadequacies painfully revealed for all to see.
My frequent social blunders and people’s hostile reactions added to my anxiety. I never knew when the next attack would come, or from where, let alone why such truckloads of disapproval would be dumped on me. In fact the older I got the more expectations it seemed others had, and the more I seemed to make mistakes no matter how hard I tried - and believe me I tried so hard – and thus my fear of other people and their reactions to me continued to grow.
Even after I began to acquire some social skills, or to mask as I’d now call it, I was always afraid of being exposed – because ironically these skills actually seemed to increase the risk that at any moment the mask might fall off, and I would be revealed as ‘faking it’. I was often subtly rejected anyway, but I felt sure that a more complete and utter rejection would follow if the full extent of my inferiority was revealed for all to see.
I think now that I probably had social anxiety disorder during this time. Not that I would have ever admitted any of it to any counsellor or psychologist, for fear of more judgements that would have left me feeling even more inadequate, more stupid, more everything ‘wrong’ and inferior. Looking back now, my tension and anxiety must have been obvious to many, but I think I was probably dismissed as ‘neurotic’ or similar. Some did try to help me, I remember being told to ‘just relax and be yourself’. The problem was when I followed that advice, I got more criticism and hostility, not less. I would withdraw again, more confused than ever. I was caught in a vicious circle of shame, low self-esteem and fear, which led to more shame, lower self-esteem, more fear, around and around.
And then came ‘that’ relationship. As the relationship progressed, my partner made it more and more plain that in her eyes, I didn’t measure up, as a partner, as a woman, and quite possibly as a human being. Nothing I did or said was good enough, and as fast as I ‘fixed’ one thing I’d done or been, another would crop up, the nagging criticism was constant and devastating. I lived in greater anxiety than ever, trying so hard to please, to be and do what she demanded. None of it was enough, I wasn’t enough, I could never be enough, it seemed. My self-esteem plummeted ever lower.
Eventually, of course I burnt out. I gathered up what little strength and shreds of self-regard I had left, and exited the relationship. I was empty, lost, and broken, with nothing to give anymore. I just didn’t have the capacity.
I retreated to live alone in a tiny cottage in the country where I barely saw anyone for days at a time. Combined with being relieved of the pressures and demands of an emotionally abusive relationship, I now had lots of time for self-examination. It was not an easy time, as I finally admitted to myself just how terrified of others I was.
I began piece by piece to unravel and let go of all that terror, a process that in some ways continues today. I had no understanding of what caused that terror, that wouldn’t come for many years more, and I still thought of myself as an inferior specimen of humanity, but I started to not care about other people’s opinions and judgements of me. It seemed to me that they would judge me and criticise me no matter what I did, so what was the point of worrying about it?
Fast forward several years, and the realisation of being autistic. Through meeting other autistics, I began to slowly realise my ‘difference’ was not an inferiority at all, but a unique way of being. It took some time, but my self-esteem began slowly to repair. My fear was slower to decline, but as I grew more confident in my autistic self, it did slowly diminish. More years went by, and I realised that I’m non-binary, aromantic, and probably either demi-sexual, aceflux or something similar; and more recently that I’m almost certainly ADD (without the H). Understanding all of my ‘differences’ has further alleviated my fear and shame. Community was crucial to this, but so was a willingness to look at myself.
And now? I would say that my fears are more of a knee-jerk twitch, an ancient reflex soon quieted. Where it is tangible, it’s more of a pragmatic wariness rather than outright terror. At home, by myself, I can relax. But when I venture out, I’m always at least a little on guard. Some individual or, say, a group over there might be laughing now, but I never know when some minute error on my part means I become a target. (And yes, it has happened.) Better to move on and avoid them. And given I can only recognise potential abusers if they follow a pattern I’ve seen before, it’s just safer to avoid anyone I don’t know, with new people added only slowly, as they prove themselves.
The truth is that I’m still in many ways in retreat from the world. I have no permanent job, no partner, no dependent children, multiple health concerns and little involvement with the community at large, which makes it easier to stay solitary. My main social interactions are online, which I handle way better than IRL interactions. The bottom line is that I still don’t trust the world, or people.
The long years of fear have taken their toll of course. I feel that a lot of my health problems, especially CFS, low thyroid, GERD, IBS and possibly even the diabetes are the end result of all that stress and anxiety. You don’t gnaw on your own liver for decades without paying for it.
I’ve also realised that the flip side of fear is anger. There’s a lot of rage stored up in me, fearing the world has become FTW. Sometimes the anger is focused on a single person (most notably my ex), but sometimes it’s just a more generalised thing. It is, alas, mostly bottled up with little outlet for it, other than creative ones. Another kind of gnawing on myself. I navigate this every day. And I don’t expect anyone who isn’t autistic, or some other kind of neurodivergent, to understand it. How can they? Who can, if they haven’t lived it?
This is the first time I’ve admitted all this publicly. It feels cathartic to do so. Once upon a time, I could never have done it at all. That’s progress, I guess, but the world, and other people, remain the same. I remain the same. It’s only how I deal with it that’s changed.