I feel like I am only now coming to terms with the impact of my character on my ability to function socially. It’s certainly easier today to access research papers on the condition than it was when I was diagnosed eighteen years ago. At that time, the information available to non-specialists was negligible, with just a few resources providing a very generalised overview of the condition.
Whatever medical interventions I subsequently accessed had a very narrow focus, primarily on addressing deficits in physical strength, energy levels and stamina. There was no consideration of the emotional and social implications of the diagnosis at all. In attempting to make sense of events in the past more recently, I feel much more cognisant of the latter. Thinking back to really difficult situations, it now occurs to me just how much I was impacted by this condition.
Traditionally, it has been thought that social dysfunction arises from the language deficits typically seen in males with the condition or it has been considered a consequence of daily life struggles associated with it. However, recent studies have shown that impairments in social cognitive processing may also play an important role.
I know my beloved is worried about me and my withdrawal from social spaces. “Whatever happened to your Biscuit Dunking Society?” she asks me, hoping to inspire me to reengage with likeminded friends. “Why don’t you all meet up some time?” Clearly things must be bad if she’s actively encouraging me to dunk chocolate biscuits in mugs of hot tea; usually the biscuit tin is locked away, out of sight. However, I feel there may be more to it than my self-deprecating view that I’m just an anti-social git.
Although the behavioural phenotype may be variable, on average boys and men with the condition are at risk for difficulties with social interactions and social adjustment. These social difficulties include shyness, social withdrawal, social anxiety, difficulties in peer-relationships, social impulsivity, communication difficulties, depressed adaptive skills, and reduced social assertiveness.
As will have been noted from my piece on Lowering the gaze, I continue to struggle with appropriate social interactions with others. Not just with Muslim women, as that article describes tongue-in-cheek, but with all kinds of people. I wonder if that is why I have spent the last two decades wandering amongst communities with whom I only enjoy limited social interactions — my local Muslim community and my Turkish extended family. Have I sought refuge in cultural difference to flee ordinary interactions?
Studies suggest that individuals are at risk for psychosocial and emotional problems such as social withdrawal, social anxiety, shyness, impulsivity and inappropriate social behaviour. In early adulthood a significant portion of men report having few or no friends, poor relations with siblings and parents, little energy and initiative, and few or no spare time interests.
What I could really benefit from are practical strategies for coping with social anxiety. It’s great clinicians are increasingly engaged in research to discover what impact the condition has on the lived experience, but somehow this needs to be translated into useful support. How does one address erroneous assumptions about social behaviour, imbibed and actualised over decades? How can I unlearn — in my mid-forties — behaviours which I have carried with me my entire life?
Most pressing for me: how do I develop the self-confidence to assert my rights? How do I muster the confidence to consider the likes of career progression and seeking new opportunities? How do I undermine the tendency to constantly withdraw — whether from physical spaces, or obliterating my written thoughts? How do I interact with others, without taking huge detours to avoid any kind of awkward situation? How do I enjoy an active social life without feeling perpetually on edge?
I will admit that being Muslim has been a great coping strategy. It enables me to flee social settings I find extremely difficult, such as those work networking events focussed around the bar. It allows me to hide behind language barriers as an excuse for minimal interactions. Locally: “Ki gal hai? Main theek haan.” With family: “Nasılsınız? Naber? Ne var ne yok?” It allows me to be extremely selective in where and with whom I interact. How convenient!
But I feel that something has to change. I feel I need to learn how to be a social creature, content wandering out in public. It’s not that I’m a perennial misery guts. I have a good sense of humour and a friendly wit. I’m a hospitable host. I’m calm and kind. It’s just I can’t handle crowds and noise, and often feel completely out of place amidst them.
If I could change just three things about me, they would be: my voice; my self-confidence; my posture. Only one of those — my perpetual slouch — I feel I have any hope of addressing alone. For the others, I need some kind of coaching and support. How, I know not. These are preliminary investigations, seeking solutions to evident problems, belatedly taking the initiative to address shortcomings I recognise in myself. Here, my new social charter.