One Woman’s Social Anxiety Story of Recovery
Have you heard the social anxiety story of Earla Dunbar?
In the 1990’s, Toronto, Canada resident Earla Dunbar rarely left her house due to social anxiety after being laid off from her job. She relied on her husband to do all the household errands and lay in bed thinking that she was worthless and wanting to die. She locked the door and hid when people came to the house.
Earla had felt different going back to the age of four, experiencing psychological and physical symptoms of social anxiety, but she did not know what she was feeling had a name. After her father died when she was 10, her shyness transformed into social isolation and depression.
All of that changed for her after receiving help from psychiatrist Martin Katzman at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental health (CAMH) in 2005. Earla not only overcame her social anxiety, but went on to become co-facilitator of a social anxiety support group, guest in the CAMH awareness campaign “Transforming Lives” in 2005, and star of the documentary, “In the Spotlight” in 2017.
I caught up with Earla in 2008 for an interview not long after the Transforming Lives campaign. I wanted to ask her questions like
- How did you first reach out for help?
- What was the most important thing you learned in treatment?
- How do you stop from sliding back into anxiety?
- What would you tell other people feeling the way that you did?
Earla was very kind to answer all of my questions with thoughtful replies. If you’d like to read the full transcript of the article, it is available in my FREE resource library (along with lots of other goodies!).
What was my main takeaway from my interview with Earla? I’d have to say that I was amazed how much her life changed by getting the right kind of help. It’s unfortunate that stigma stood in the way of that for a while, but I’m glad that eventually she found the right resources. I hope that you will too.
Below I share some of my key takeaways from my interview with Earla.
You Can Get Past the Fear of Getting Help
Some people might think that Earla wasn’t that fearful, and that’s why it was easy for her to get help.
The truth is that in my interview with her, she talked a lot about being terrified and scared.
“It was totally scary, but I knew I had to take this step because the pain was too great and all I wanted to do was die.”
But she managed to put past that fear to get help.
“I felt weak, and I felt like I was crazy. In the assessment with my psychiatrist, Dr. Martin Katzman, he asked me all these questions, questions no one had ever asked me. I thought no one knew what I was feeling and how I was coping with my social phobia, but here he was knowing most of what was going on inside of me. I was totally embarrassed because I knew I had to be honest with him and I thought, How can I be this bad that I have what he called “social phobia.”
You aren’t alone if you’re anxious about asking for help. But if you find the right person, you should eventually start to feel like things are going to get better. Although this first step might be the hardest, it’s the right one.
You Get Out of Treatment What You Put In
Earla worked hard, folks.
- She went on medication when she didn’t really want to (but later realized it was the best thing to do).
- She did cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) at her very first appointment with Dr. Katzman.
- She met with him weekly, then bi-weekly, then every three or four months.
- She met a social worker every two to 3 weeks.
- She did a ton of thought records as part of CBT, and she walked into situations that caused her anxiety (according to a fear hierarchy that she created in therapy).
- She volunteered to work with seniors.
- She attended group therapy four months after starting to see Dr. Katzman.
If you want to overcome social anxiety it’s going to take some work. But the more work you do, the more success you will see, and the easier everything will become.
You Can Rebound From a Relapse
It wasn’t that Earla did not have relapses, either. She talked about the first time she crashed, when her nephew was ill in the hospital and she became exhausted from spending time with him. All of her earlier fears and depression came back.
But, she managed to pull herself out of it.
“What I have to remember is that, yes, I am going to have “bad” days, but, yes, I will get better. Maybe today is not great, but I know tomorrow will at least be a bit better. Going for a walk is wonderful. Having a cup of tea with my best friend helps. Writing in my journal is also good.”
Earla noticed that feelings would come back for many reasons including money problems, family issues, and lack of sleep. Some of Earla’s tips for rebounding included…
- Do something you’ve never done before (for her, it was going on TV)
- Go for a walk
- Have a cup of tea with a friend
- Write in a journal
Today, she says: “I am outgoing, happy and, believe it or not, love people.”
You Shouldn’t Compare Your Social Anxiety Story to Those of Other People
So often we compare how we are doing in the light of what other people do.
Earla gave the example of using the telephone:
“…don’t compare yourself [with] other people. Let’s say you are terrified of using a phone. You know other people use them all the time — so why can’t you. Remember, though, that using a phone may be your biggest fear, so, of course, it is going to cause you so much anxiety, pain and panic. If you were afraid of a bear this would seem more logical, but the phone is your bear — so don’t think that you are weak.”
Ironically, as Earla grew more confident, some people even questioned whether she could have ever had severe social anxiety:
“I run a social phobia support group, and a lot of the people in the group do not believe how severe I was. The way that I got well was first having an amazing doctor who I trusted. Second, being on medication (not everyone has to be on meds) and doing CBT, [which] is amazing and it is now part of my thinking process, although I sometimes slip.”
Moral of the social anxiety story? Don’t give up on getting help, work hard in treatment, protect yourself from relapse, and don’t compare your journey. Remember these four points from Earla’s social anxiety story, and you’ll be well on your way to the life you want.