This is part of a recurring series of essays on social anxiety in punk. For more, click here.

September 2, 2014
by Barrie Cohn

First off, let me preface by saying that I am far from a licensed psychologist, and I can’t speak for anyone’s personal experiences except for my own. There’s no “Satisfaction Guaranteed!” on any of what I’m about to say, but I truly hope that maybe some of my experiences can help others who deal with this. Even if all you, the reader, can get out of this is comfort that you aren’t alone.

I’m 32 years old, and my social phobias stretch as far back as to when I was a small child. While some of my earliest memories are blurry at best, as most tend to become as you get older, one of my most vivid recollections of my family realizing that I had extreme social anxiety happened when I was just 5 years old. For my 5th birthday party, I specifically remember that my parents had planned a big party for me. Held in our backyard, I remember being excited about the balloons, the cake, the games, and the professional puppet show that my mom had hired after I had seen them perform at my preschool and said I loved it so much. As I assume my parents had with some of the other parties they threw for me before (as I said, memories get a bit fuzzy from here, aside from looking in the photo albums for evidence of said events), they invited many relatives and whatnot – aunts, uncles, cousins, family friends, and some kids from my school. The only other thing I remember about this particular day was that when it came time for me to even go out to my own birthday party, I couldn’t. I refused to go into the backyard and see even my own extended family. I distinctly remember shutting myself in my room and crying. I don’t remember why, just that something absolutely terrified me to the point that I didn’t even want to be there.

As recently as last year, I was having a conversation with my grandmother about trying to remember bits of my childhood such as this, and she distinctly recalls that I hated having people sing “Happy Birthday” to me. Of course I couldn’t tell as I was only 5, but looking back, it probably had to do with my excessive shyness and fear of becoming the center of attention.

Somehow it didn’t get too much better as I entered elementary school, then middle and high school. I was literally afraid of people, kids my own age, anyone. For many years, I would go to school and sit by myself during lunch periods, and refuse to talk to anyone who talked to me back. This was made worse when my depression and issues regarding mental illness, and my emotional problems came to light towards the end of middle school. I had very, very few friends; the one good friend I had since third grade basically dropped me to join the 8th grade cheerleading squad, as unlike me, she desired to be popular while I loathed the very thought of it.

Several months before this occurred with my childhood friend, it was the beginning of 1994. I was entering the 7th grade, and for the first time in my life, my personal interests were shifting. Many of my classmates had already begun the emotional maturing process early on, and from ages 10-11 I was laughed at because I listened to oldies radio and chose to still watch Disney cartoons and 80s/early 90s sitcoms over the teen dramas that were all the rage at the time like Melrose Place and Beverly Hills, 90210. However, partially prodded by my mother’s urging to attempt to make friends for real, I somehow got the idea that if I forced myself to like what the other kids liked, perhaps it would work as an icebreaker and make it easier for me to open up to others. I started watching MTV regularly, became a huge fan of Beavis and Butt-head, and tried to force myself to like the music that was played on TV and the local top 40 radio station. The thing is though, at the time, with the exception of a few, oddly placed music acts (I was very big into Nirvana, Ace Of Base and Aerosmith for brief moments each), basically nothing that was showcased via mainstream outlets at the time was catching my interests. I liked Aerosmith enough to convince my mother to take me to see them (my first concert). Over that same summer though, it was Green Day that ultimately did catch my attention, enough to the point that by the time 8th grade began, they were literally the only music I liked. As they were quite popular amongst several kids in my class, I naively assumed that this would ease my social fears with a common interest.

It didn’t do that. I was already dubbed the outcast and the “freak” who didn’t want to talk to anyone, and the kids in my (very upper class, mostly white, private) school weren’t having it. To them, Green Day was a cool band that “uncool” kids like myself weren’t allowed to like. I was taunted in class, sexually harassed, and had my CD copies of Dookie, 1039 Smoothed Out Slappy Hours and Kerplunk! (plus my Discman) stolen from my locker three different times after having used my allowances to buy new copies. The third time, kids chucked the discs at me while I walked to the school bus, shouting obscenities. Needless to say, these incidents left an impact on me, as even now, I often can’t bring myself to listen to Green Day without being triggered by these memories of bullying. Over a band.

For brevity’s sake, the path I took was the path many others my age took after discovering Green Day (or Offspring, or Blink-182 later on). I shunned mainstream music altogether and discovered college radio, zines, Epitaph/Fat Wreck Chords CD compilations, learned the roots (got into the Ramones, Minor Threat and The Clash) and became immersed in the world of “underground” punk rock. Oddly enough, even in my school filled with stuck up kids, two punk kids (one was a girl several grades higher than me; the other, a boy who entered my school/class in 9th grade) saw my interest and took me under their wings. They befriended me, made me mixtapes, gave me zines, and importantly told me to just be myself and forget all the shitty kids that were telling me I didn’t matter. I owe both of them a debt of gratitude for opening up a world to me that wouldn’t reject me due to my social anxiety issues.

Due to weird anxiety issues (and often lack of companionship), I didn’t begin going to punk and hardcore shows regularly until my senior year of high school. By college, I was tossing money away and going to every/any show that came through New York City. My reasoning was that I was making up for lost time of not going when I was a teen, and perhaps I had some weird reservations that I was only “allowed” to be punk until I became an adult. I don’t know, but what I do know is that after a while, I went a tiny bit overboard and started even going to see bands I didn’t even like, or only liked mildly. Again, I chalk this up to overcompensating for being too scared to do anything while younger.

Somehow during this process, from the years 2001-2003 roughly, I began to slowly make friends but noticed an odd connection. I was beginning to develop a reputation by folks approaching me and beginning a conversation with “You are at EVERY SHOW!” Often, folks made a big deal out of this, and I was told on numerous occasions this made me some kind of “star” in people’s eyes. When all I saw was a bored loser who was just making up for lost time, if you will. It came to a head at the end of 2003, the beginning of social networking, when Friendster came about. I was leaving friendly and nice comments on people’s pages, mostly acquaintances, some actual friends. However, the return comments were a bit shocking: with a couple of exceptions, it seemed as if the only thing people had to say about me was that I went to shows and was at “every show.” This should have made me felt good, because for years I felt invisible and wanted people to notice me. Now they were, but I still was scared by it. It seemed very strange that people who had all these more than casual interactions with me only could say one thing about me, almost as if they didn’t really know me. That hit me in a bad way, and made my anxiety even worse. To this day, sometimes if someone approaches me and claims they see me everywhere or used to, often I don’t know how to respond.

Which isn’t always a bad thing. Truth be told, I actually made quite a few good friends by opening up and talking to those at shows that I saw often, or those who decided to acknowledge me. Some of whom are still my friends even years later. My social fears began dwindling, and in a strange way, despite its discomfort, people talking to me first helped me to become more welcoming to those talking to me at all. I still don’t know how I did it, but eventually my fear of people disappeared. Now, I can approach people and say hello to strangers without hesitations, or fears. I’ve become good at picking up social cues and body language, and although I still tend to be awkward with it, I think I’ve become good at backing off if I feel I’m being too clingy, or pushy (though I still have a lot to learn). The process of learning how to talk to people and just letting all those discouraging thoughts win over my ability to converse, has been a long one. In all honesty, as I’m attempting to wrap this up, you probably hope that I have some sound advice for you on how to beat it as I did.

That’s the thing though: I really, don’t actually know how I did it. My only real suggestion is, that perhaps I just practiced it enough. I forced myself to talk to people who approached me, or say hello to someone I recognized, even if it made me sick to my stomach. Instead of giving in to my natural instinct to run away, I forced myself to practice by just letting fellow showgoers talk to me, about anything. It doesn’t always work, mind you. Sometimes I was (or still am) not feeling well physically, mentally, in a bad mood when I’ve been approached and that has discouraged any friendliness I might have otherwise. The anonymity has allowed me lately, probably for the worst sometimes, to state my opinions in a forum I feel comfortable in, even if I come off as abrasive or awkward (which no doubt I do). The internet has been a blessing and a curse, and sometimes its made my social interactions better; sometimes worse. I don’t know if I’m actually getting better at this, and what I can do to make it better. (but enough from this tangent…)

So what to do? I guess my advice would be, just practice as I did. If someone talks to you, try and make an attempt to talk back. Don’t think about anything. Don’t think about what that person might be thinking. Hard as it is, just try and let the conversation flow, and don’t think. That’s ultimately, I think, what initially helped me. The other things came later, but taking that first step is huge. I know it’s hard, but I have faith in you. And this is coming from a person who has/had almost none in herself. We can do this. We can get past this. We’re not broken because talking to others is hard for us. Punk rock attracts flawed people. Remember that most of them are there for the same reason you probably are – they didn’t fit in anywhere else. They aren’t perfect. If the person doesn’t seem interested in talking, it may not be personal (as I said, they could just be feeling sick or having a bad day). Just tell yourself it isn’t you, and try to focus elsewhere.

This shit isn’t easy. It may not get easier. Sometimes, social anxiety can maybe only be treated at a professional level. But in the punk scene, I truly believe in an ideal that even though your heroes or others may let you down, we have to try and stick together. Just try. That’s all we can do.

If I can’t believe in myself, then I believe in you. Take comfort in that.