Chuck Wendig: Social Anxiety


Here we are, halfway through January, and so far #NaNoFinMo2 (the Quickening) has been a total failure.  But all is not lost!  This is the second week in a row I have written a story for the Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction Challenge.

This week, the name of the game is Something That Scares You.  The assignment is to take a fear and turn it into a story of 1,000 words or less.  So of course, I chose to take my social anxiety and turn it into a quasi-autobiographical character sketch.  Of course I did.  What is a blog for, especially mine, if not to place my fears and emotions on the altar of my creativity and display them for the world to gawk at?

I couldn’t come up with a clever title, so I just called it “Social Anxiety” and ran with it.  I hope you like it.  Hopefully I’ll get on with the book soon.  That’s a whole different set of anxieties I’m trying to get past, though.  Wish me luck.


The telephone sat on my desk, still, plastic, inanimate.  Just looking at it I could feel my stress level going up.  My breathing quickened.  My heartbeat accelerated.  My face was flushed.

I stared at it.  It ignored me, involuntarily mocking me, unmindful of the emotional devastation it wrought.

It has been my greatest fear since I was a child.  I developed a stutter when I was in the fourth grade and it manifested itself most virulently when I answered the telephone.  The sound of the “h” at the beginning of a word—hair, hero, hello—defeated me every time.  My throat closed up, my breathing stopped, and I could do little more than gasp three of four times until the word came out in a rush, almost in a shout.

I finally stopped talking on the phone altogether when I was about 13.  The mental block was enormous.  It was years before I trusted myself enough to answer the phone without sounding like I was having a seizure.  Even now, more than thirty years later, I know how to control my disfluency and I do it without thinking 99% of the time.  But I still have to hesitate and consciously gather myself when I answer a telephone call to make sure I don’t stumble.

I built walls in adolescence that were too tall to see over because I was afraid to try to knock them down.  As I have gotten older it has become easier to do things that once seemed impossible and the walls have crumbled some.  They still stand high enough to impede my progress if I’m not cautious, though.  Most of the time I am careful enough that I can work around and over them but this…

This was too much.  In an attempt to force my way out of my fears I had taken a job that required me to be on the phone all day, helping people fix problems with their computers.  I knew on the first day that it had been a terrible miscalculation.  Every time the phone rang I broke into a sweat and my heartbeat filled my ears.

I answered the phone, but I hesitated and stumbled, and I knew that I was making the wrong kind of impression with the person on the other end of the line.

“{Pause} H- {stumble} hello {continue in a frantic rush to maintain momentum} and thank you for calling Outreach.  {Deep, calming breath}.  My name is Sam.  What can I help you with today?”

Once I got past the introduction I was fine.  I knew my stuff—I gave good answers—and I was confident and firm in my advice.  That first second, though, that moment when I had to answer the phone and greet the caller, that defeated me nearly every time and it made my life a living hell.  It made me afraid of the telephone again, for the first time since I was a teenager.

It was the same every time the phone rang.  Six calls an hour, they wanted us to take, eight hours a day.  That was 48 opportunities to stumble, to fall, to appear foolish, to be laughed at.  It’s no wonder my self-esteem was flatter than Wile E. Coyote on asphalt.

I needed to find another job, but I couldn’t.  I was paralyzed by the knowledge that looking for a job would lead me to having to speak on the phone with someone for an interview, or just to get information.  The very thought of having to do it drove my anxiety up to the point that I was afraid I was going to have a breakdown.

Of course, that made it even worse, and I could feel depression beginning to dig its claws into me as well.  I was well and truly stuck.  Anxiety on one side ready to rip my throat out, depression waiting to wrap its coils around me on the other.  I didn’t know how to get out.

This story is supposed to have an ending around here somewhere (hopefully a happy one), but it doesn’t.  It’s still in progress.  I’m in a different job now and the situation has changed since then, but my walls have been rebuilt just a little and are higher than they were, and my fears are still there, lurking behind them, waiting to pounce.

I know it’s only a matter of time before those fears reemerge.  I have to believe that I can be stronger than they are, and I have to be confident in my ability to combat them.  Once I truly believe that I can do it, the rest will fall into line.

For now, I soldier on, answering my phone when I have to, trying to make the best of it.  I’m taking a brick off the wall every time I do.  Eventually it will be low enough for me to see over again, then step over, then finally kick over.  Only then will I be free of my fears.  Only then will this story ever really end.