How to Deal with Social Anxiety When You’re Sober
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How to Deal with Social Anxiety When You’re Sober


A few years back and with a few years of sobriety, I went over to the house of a dude I really had the hots for. He’s super-bright, so I judged everything that came out of my mouth, which ended up being next to nothing with all the self-editing going on in my head. When I got to his place that particular evening, I stepped over the threshold, took a look around his apartment, blushed like a five-year-old, and said something along the lines of “So, yeah, um, cool! Hmmm, this is…I mean, yeah.”

He gave me one of those “Oh my god, you’re a whack job” looks. His eyes bugged out, his brows arched in perplexity, and I immediately wanted to bail. He’s Jewish and, since I had gone brain-dead, out of absolutely nowhere I blurted out, “Does it offend you when people sympathize with Palestine?”


He stared at me again like I was a nut. I was afraid my comment might seem anti-Semitic or something. Why did I even go there?

The conversation got worse. “I’m just really nervous around you,” I confessed. “I get tongue-tied for some reason.”

He took pity on me and tried to put me at ease, but I suspected he’d rather be hanging out with some fiery, fast-talking young blonde who bantered wittily and was eager to discuss her favorite sex positions.

“Is there anything I can do?” he asked. “Do you want some tea or something?”

Yeah, some Earl Grey. And spike it with a couple ounces of Beefeater, please. That, or you could just knock me over the head with a frying pan. I may die, but at least I will no longer suffer from the agony of my paralyzing self-consciousness.

I didn’t know if I should drink the tea or not. Was it a trick question? Which answer would make me seem more normal?

“I’m good,” I said.

The conversation got a bit better, because I let him do most of the talking. But when I did open my mouth, I still sounded like a humorless moron. That, or I laughed too hard at his jokes.

Before I go further, I’ll admit that I’m not some deep, mysterious introvert like Morrissey. When I’m comfortable with people, I often don’t shut up. But that’s only when I know it’s safe. And my nerves don’t just act up around guys.

No, it happens with everyone I meet for the first time who I feel uncomfortable around. There are a few souls out there who immediately put me at ease with their warmth, their inquisitiveness and their generosity. That, or it’s just chemistry. Whether it’s platonic, erotic or even familial, some people bring out your best, most authentic self, and others make you crawl deep down into your little shell like a baby crab—terrified and afraid you’ll be crushed.

Unfortunately, you don’t always get to hang out with people who are “safe.” My freshman year of college was complete hell. I’ve never felt more alone. Everyone seemed super-cool, comfortable in their own skin—and they all drank. Being raised in a conservative household, and being constantly reminded that alcoholism runs in the family, I didn’t touch a drop of booze until I was 18. And that moment when liquor first went down my throat, just two weeks into my first year at school, all my shyness melted away.

So this was what it felt like to be “normal,” to have a conversation with a stranger without shitting your pants. For the first time, I could talk to the sorority girls with the designer clothes and the $300 highlights, and they actually seemed to like me. I could also flirt with boys, which was the best part of the booze. Suddenly I could dance with them, I could grope them, I could act like the sensuous woman that was burning beneath my fear. Of course, after multiple drinks, the alcohol backfired—I started yelling gibberish and falling down, and my friends had to drag me home.

After a few years, I learned how to sort of hold my liquor, which took a lot of work, but I managed to control it enough to not make a complete ass out of myself or get into too much trouble. It made dates tolerable, hooking up easy, and conversation with writers and journalists not so intimidating.

But now I’m sober, forced into new circumstances, new jobs, new romances, new meetings and new living situations. The social anxiety can be so terrifying it nearly brings me to tears.

Recently, I had to go to a dinner for a prominent LA publication. I arrived late and everyone was already crammed around a large table, and the one friend I recognized was stuck between a bunch of other people. The only seat available was at the end of the table, between two people I didn’t know. When I sat down, neither of them greeted me. I feigned interest in the menu, in my phone, looked quizzically around the room, but I could only do that for so long.

I put out my hand, introduced myself and crossed my fingers that they might include me in their conversation. Thankfully, they did start talking to me, but my mind became a conversational wasteland once again. It’s like trying to sing when you have stage fright—you can’t. Your vocal chords tighten up, you can’t breathe, and you sound like a dying seal. I don’t remember exactly what I said, something about how the paper’s sexy new redesign might bring in classier advertisers instead of  the pot dispensaries and strip clubs that typically take up ad space.

“Classier ads?” the guy asked incredulously. He gave me the same look as the guy I had the hots for and glanced at his conversation mate, a friendly enough girl who at that moment also gave me a weird look.

Once again, I wanted to bail but for some reason, I stayed there, determined not to pussy out, to have a new experience. Thirty minutes later, a seat opened up by my friend at the other end of the table, another freelance writer, and I was introduced to a bunch of other writers. Not only did they put me at ease, but I had some fascinating conversations about subjects I cared about, laughed and laughed at some of their jokes, and even ended up getting some phone numbers.

This is exactly how I confront my social anxiety in sobriety—I just show up despite the fear, accepting that I might look like an idiot, that I might I feel sick and that I’ll probably want to leave. I force myself to stay. Half the time, I end up having a blast and getting to know awesome people, and half the time I end up making an ass out of myself and getting weird looks from men.

But, hey, if the chemistry is that bad when you talk to a dude, imagine how awful the sex would be.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.