Lunch is in session. Everyone is huddled around the table; little chunks of food and gossip skating through the surface to find new homes. There’s no doubt that this hour is the highlight of the day for employees. Amidst the welcoming chaos, Arham kicks back in his chair and yawns. It’s when his mouth is open wider than humanly possible that he zeroes in on me.
It’s not an accident that we make eye contact. It’s the norm in our boss-to-employee relationship. He sits right in front of me every damn day and stares at me. With distaste, not interest.
Social anxiety is nothing but a ruse, his careless words come back to haunt me more than I care to admit.
I have lost weight since I joined this company all thanks to Arham, who has freaked me out so much that I can hardly get two bites in before losing my nerve. He thinks people with social anxiety disorder are actors, faking an illusory illness just so they can chicken out of difficult tasks. Well, I have news for him.
No one would want to live through the symptoms if they had a choice. Of course, I don’t tell him that. I keep my mouth shut but refuse to keep my imagination in restraints. That is my only escape.
I have tried wearing bland clothes, thinking that the dullness could make me blend into the dull wallpaper behind me. No difference.
I can tell that he is aware of my discomfort and yet he keeps doing it. My head is bursting with a migraine. I cannot stop the quivering in my limbs and I’m afraid others will notice how bothered I am owing to the fact that I get pale when I’m nervous. I want to scream at Arham and show him that this is what I have to live through constantly.
Every single second of every damned day, I’m doomed.
I get up immediately when my colleagues start to step out. Right outside the door, my shoe strap falls out. I crouch to fix it. That’s when I hear them talking. Hania and Arham. She’s calling him off for his behavior. I’m rather surprised why she’s doing it now, doubtful that it’ll make a difference.
But better late than never, I guess.
I hear Arham become defensive, shifting the blame smoothly to my side while adding a biting tone to his sarcasm. “She once asked me why I thought social anxiety wasn’t a real thing. I asked her why she thought anyone would give a damn even if it was. She needs to grow some professionalism in her bones, it’s not like all of us are here to babysit her”
He usually gets away with this but not with Hania. She’s a badass when it comes to confrontations. I often wonder if I can be like her but sigh.
“When someone has a heart disease, do you tell them to get over it? If your friend has kidney failure, do you tell them to grow up and live through it? Someone in your family has a tumor, do you tell them to stop being a baby about it?” I hear her take a deep breath and then continue in a calm tone, belying the meaning behind her words.
“You think just because social anxiety exists in your brain, it’s nothing to worry about?”
It appears as if she is bent on steamrolling over his ignorance and flatten it into a mush so it will be easier to give it a new shape.
“I get your point,” he says slowly, whether in agreement or to shut her up I can’t be sure. But apparently, she’s not done yet. “Just because it exists in her head doesn’t make it any less important. I would imagine that intelligent people such as you would understand that an illness in the brain is even more significant since that’s where all our orders come from. You think social anxiety means you have to babysit her? You just have to be a human and nothing else.” I hear the sound of a chair screeching and immediately leave the room.
I want to take a page out of her life and tell Arham that my pain and illness don’t need validation for him to be seen as true.
But I avoid confrontations like a plague. I simply cannot take the pressure and put Arham’s faulty thinking to right. Because he doesn’t see his behavior as being mean or crossing a line. He truly thinks that he is doing it for my benefit, the tough love kind of thing.
Why does the clock need to strike at 1 pm every day? I feel the threads of social anxiety stitching a coffin around me. Could it not just skip over that dreadful hour for my sake, for the sake of my sanity? I release a long breath that seems stuck inside my throat, choking me. It’s not the first time that I question the fairness of life. It isn’t enough that I tolerate the piercing gaze of Arham, always taunting my inability to get a word out without my tongue tying itself in knots. After I eavesdropped on their conversation yesterday, I cannot squish the tiny hope that’s hijacking my senses with reluctant what-ifs.
Usually, I feel torn between holding him accountable or blaming the institutionalized dismissal of social anxiety as a valid illness.
I don’t know who to blame for this ignorance. I drag my feet to the dining area, dutifully nodding to whatever my colleague is telling me. My breathing has quickened again, coming in short gasps. Fortunately for me, the dining area comes after two flights of stairs. I have been blaming the innocent steps for the effect since the very start. I can feel my hands getting wet while beads of sweat are popping out on my back, sliding in thin streams of unchecked dread. My heart is probably running a mile a minute. And I know for sure that if I tried to talk right now, I’ll either end up crying or break down.
These symptoms have been living with me as the friends who simultaneously pump me with fuel and drain me of my blood.
Not a day goes by when I don’t feel their presence. I’m sick and tired of it all and yet there’s no escaping from your own self. I take my seat furthest from the door, right at the end of the table so I don’t have to sit in the chatty corner of the room. I hardly survive at the shallow end, I’d probably die amidst all the racket.
But today feels different somehow.
For one, Arham doesn’t take the seat right in front of me, Hania does. We don’t talk much but I’ve always felt a kind of kinship towards her even though I have no reason to. She is everything I’m not: confident, gutsy, outspoken and unafraid. She gives me an encouraging smile, one that I reciprocate gladly.
My eyes wander to my boss, unconsciously and I’m stunned to find his attention diverted towards someone else. As if realizing my stare, he turns towards me and smiles gently, turning immediately back towards his neighbor. I’m speechless. Did Hania really manage to change his thinking? I feel my breath rushing in smoother than I’ve ever felt in this room.
The hour is passing by faster than ever and I can’t help but feel it’s a prank.
I talk to my colleague a little who is happy that I have finally decided to break my vow of silence. Although I haven’t told her why I suddenly turn mute during lunch hour, I’m pretty sure she knows why. Most everyone does but they keep their distance.
Even after we have gone back to our seats, there’s nothing waiting for me at my desk: no sharp retorts, no seemingly innocent taunts and not a single comment on why I’d rather be silent than talk. It mostly gets flared around Arham and now that I’m not feeling the pressure so much, I feel the teeth of social anxiety relax a little. My cell phone vibrates on my desk, signaling an incoming message.
“I used to sit at your place once, thinking that it was going to be the end of me. But it wasn’t and it wouldn’t be the end of yours. Social anxiety doesn’t define you, nor do the people around you. Never give up.”
Suddenly, it makes sense why she didn’t interfere before. It’s not important when she swooped in to help, it’s important that she did put herself out there. For my sake. And she has my gratitude for that.
I feel a sliver of hope rising up inside me. My silver lining in the grey clouds of dark depression. I clench my fist and square my shoulders. If she can fight her social anxiety and make things easier for another person going through the same then I will try to do that too.
Cover image via videblocks.com