Not Going to the Party: Anxiety, Access and the Arts

Personal, Politics, Rambles

This essay is about my own chronic social anxiety (discussed in concrete and difficult detail), about some of the complexities involved in talking about disability, and how mental health relates to accessibility. For me, it’s one of the scariest things I’ve put on the internet. Like everything political I put up here, it’s written from my own limited perspective. I’d very much value the thoughts and perspectives of others on the piece, especially if you think there’s things I’m well off about; I’m particularly interested in thoughts from folk involved in disability activism and radical mental health. Anyhow, here goes:

Not Going to the Party
Anxiety, Access and the Arts

When you apply for a job, grant, commission or anything else under the dubious and horror-inducing header of Opportunities, you should be filling in some kind of Equal Opportunities or Diversity Monitoring form, and that form should be asking you whether or not you have a disability. Actually, if it’s a really good monitoring form, it’ll ask whether you “consider yourself to have a disability” or whether you “identify as disabled”, which are simultaneously more complex and more simple questions than “Are you disabled?” The specificity of Creative Scotland’s “Do you have any of the following conditions which have lasted, or are expected to last, at least 12 months?” is a particular gem of hiding a hugely complicated discourse behind an apparently clear question. All of which is to say: every time I fill one of these out, I hover my cursor over the checkbox, wishing there was an option for “I don’t know, maybe, I mean yes, of course, but it’s complicated, what do you mean?”

I have severe and chronic social anxiety. I’ve written about some of the ways this manifests before, but, if you know me, it’s still quite possible that you might not know this about me. It’s easy to miss. It’s not a very visible condition – partly because when it’s bad it means I have to hide from people, and partly because it’s a condition which can disable (ah…) the parts of the self needed to talk about the condition. The way you might most commonly hear or see it is when you ask me to a party or some social event and I respond clumsily and awkwardly – “Uh, maybe, I mean thanks, I’d really like to, but I may not be able to, er…” – and, if you push me, I might say “Well I actually find parties really hard.” Then you might look at me strangely – or, in a way that heartens me when I see it but at the same time makes me sad, you might say, “Oh… yeah… me too.”

If you’re not a “me too”, here’s what it feels like. If I’m in a social situation, it’s something like trying to walk through a tight darkened corridor lined with broken glass. That might sound melodramatic, but it’s important to me to get across the physical pain and horror entailed by social situations for me – this isn’t introversion, isn’t a preference or personality thing, but incapacitating (ah…) suffering: so, darkness and broken glass. If I have people I really trust there, or if it’s a small gathering, or if it’s quite quiet, or if I have a clear social role (like host, or cook, or performer), there’s more light and more safe places to stand. The busier and noisier it is, the more strangers there are and the stranger they are to me, the less defined my social role, and the more at stake or risk my social capital (more on this in a bit), the darker and tighter the corridor, the sharper the glass. The broken glass is an unending stream of painful thoughts like “All these people hate me” and “I’m hopeless and ridiculous” and “I just failed and will always fail” and “Run away before you make a bigger fool of yourself” and “RUN AWAY NOW” and worse, all sharp and cutting in the way they arrive. I guess most of the people reading this have thoughts like that sometimes. Try and imagine having them constantly, all the time, without relief, and you’ll get close. Sometimes this leads to migraines, sometimes to panic attacks, sometimes to me just behaving really, really weirdly.

I’ve developed many strategies to manage my social anxiety, because I like people and I like being able to spend time with them without my hands shaking so hard I drop my pint. Alcohol is one coping strategy – though whether a pint or two eases or intensifies my anxiety is a bit of a lottery. Identifying a nearby safe space that I can withdraw to when needed – a calm room, a person to check in with quietly, a toilet break – is really crucial. Giving myself a fixed role to play within the party is a frequent one, though it has its limits, and it’s hard to relax with that. Many of these management strategies are as much for you, the “normal” person, as they are for me: they hide my anxiety from you, which makes it easier for you to relate to me and protects me from being hurt, even as it exhausts me. The best coping strategy I’ve ever found is performing itself: getting on stage and performing for people is a glorious feeling for me; it allows me to be in huge, noisy rooms without panicking; and often the buzz from performing well can carry over for several hours, enough for me to socialise free from anxiety for a while. The only downside is that when you’re known as a performer, your social anxiety becomes even more invisible. I’m continually astonished by the dense way people will say: “How can you be chronically socially anxious when you spend so much time on stages?” For me, the times I’m in performance are among the best times in my daily life, and that’s a huge part of why I’m an artist.

So, do I have a disability? Do I consider myself to have a disability? Do I identify as disabled? Do I have a mental health condition which has lasted, or is expected to last, at least 12 months? Yes. No. Maybe. It depends.

The DSM-V, American psychiatry’s diagonistic manual, widely used elsewhere, calls what I have Social Anxiety Disorder. I pretty much fit the bill for how it’s described. Sometimes I call it that. Usually I just call it “social anxiety”, and that’s how I’ve talked about it with counsellors. I haven’t exactly self-diagnosed, and nor have I sought a diagnosis through standard NHS routes. I may yet do that – it might provide access to more understanding, and also to more assistance for my conditions, but it also means engaging with traumatic bureaucratic intrusion into my life. In any case, what I have severely reduces my ability to function in a “normal” way, causes severe pain and suffering, and has persisted chronically: these are all reasons I could be said to have a disability or identify as disabled.

But there’s more to it. For one thing, I pass. For the most part, people don’t know I have this condition unless I let them know. Like being a queer man not currently in a relationship with another man, I get given social passing privilege, or can take it. This matters. I don’t suffer the deleterious effects of being always seen as other, always seen as disabled, my mind and body aren’t seen as available to your intrusion in the way others’ might be, and so if I were to identify as disabled it would mean a different thing. There’s a community, a language and a discourse that I am tentative about appropriating. Moreover, while my condition is severe and chronic, it’s also for the most part manageable, and it does wax and wane, and that matters too: it is not permanently there. And more still, the stigma and lack of social understanding around mental health and wellbeing issues is such that it’s a major and difficult step for me to make to identify publicly in that way (a step you may be able to tell I’m deliberately forcing myself to make with posts like this). All of which is to say that disability is socially situated and complexly experienced, and is rarely a yes/no answer.

Through all of that, what really matters to me is whether my condition inhibits my ability to participate in my life. Disability is not, in the end, I think, mainly a question of whether you have such-and-such a condition or such-and-such a diagnosis, but a question of how the world excludes you – how the structures of society exclude you from experiences or resources or opportunities because of who you are. For an artist, chronic and severe social anxiety is a major access issue.

Social functions are a big part of life as an artist: “succeeding” as an artist, which is to say having any kind of “career” as an artist, which is to say not just reaching bigger and wider audiences but also being able to perform the labour functions of art in such a way that your social system will give you the resources you need to live, requires being able to socialise. You find your audiences through amassing social capital: growing interest in your name and your work, being able to persuade people to come to your gig, your launch, your action. You find your employers, commissioners, producers and programmers through being able to meet people, talk about your work, persuade people to take an interest in your work. You find your community and collaborators by being able to be friendly, interesting and kind. These are all forms of socialisation and social access, and they are true for lots of social roles and careers, but they’re really true for artists. They are also all boosted by being able to go to parties, and by being able to experience social situations as anything other than intolerably painful more often than not.

OK, look: I’m more likely to go to my friends’ gigs than anyone else’s gigs. Many of the artists I’m interested in are also my friends, and sometimes the friend part comes first. In the forms of art where the performance of the self is relevant – live art and performance art, for example – then being friends with the artist can make the work richer and more interesting to you. This stuff is not accusing artists and producers of being nepotistic or favouritist (though some of them may be that too); it’s a description of how the normative values and processes of society reinforce given structures of power. It is not blaming artists for being interested in their friends; it’s just admitting that that happens. It’s saying that if you’re more able to socialise, more able to make friends, more able to go to parties – places where you can make friends, interest people in you, form stronger social bonds, talk about huge ideas over free-flowing food and wine, whatever – then you have greater access to being a successful artist.

Accessibility is a many-faceted issue, and there are deep and complex questions to ask about it – about what arts venues and events can and should do to support access for artists and audiences; about how that is different for, for example, a regular wheel-chair user, a deaf audience member, an artist with manic depression; about whether inclusion is even the right discourse to be using anyway, whether there’s something inherently flawed and power-ridden about the idea of one group being “included” by another; about a hundred other things besides. So I’m aware that I’m launching this particular access question into a sea of other questions, and while I think that producers, organisers and venue managers have a duty to properly consider them all, I also sympathise with those genuinely trying to understand. So in what follows, I’ll try and make some concrete suggestions.

I don’t want you to stop having parties! I don’t even want you to stop inviting me to parties! (Please keep inviting me to parties.) I definitely don’t want people to stop having art parties, which are beautiful. Other things I’m not asking for include: rewarding or congratulating me for overcoming my anxiety (because it’s not something to be overcome: it’s something I live with and that’s a fact that you need to live with); and asking me every five minutes at parties whether or not I’m OK (I’m definitely not now!) But there are a couple of things I want to draw out.

It’s not just me: different people have hugely different capacities and limiting factors when it comes to parties and all the other kinds of socialisation. Across neurodiversity, depression, OCD, autism spectrum conditions and a host of other forms of being can change how you can and want to socialise. Many of these are much more severe and more “disabling” than mine, though that doesn’t – and it’s a struggle with myself to assert my ability to say this – reduce how severe my condition feels to me. In a totally different but equally relevant way, ability to access the art world’s social capital can also be reduced by having kids, debt, or a tiring job at 7am. Or by having drug and alcohol dependency issues. Or by a thousand other things. People are extraordinarily diverse and often strange, in both visible and invisible ways. So, if you believe in widening access to the arts, and you believe in welcoming diversity into your community, then please remember that that applies to how you socialise too. Mindfulness of neurodiversity: that’s the main thing I’m asking for.

When you’re organising events and festivals, do you provide multiple ways to socialise? Are you sensitive to how space and organisation create different social spaces and different access issues? When you host an art party, is there a quiet room or a safe space? (Correct answer: the whole thing should be a safe space). When you set up a networking event, how might the kinds of networking you provide exclude some people, and who could you ask to help? How much do you rely on the social connections you’ve made when programming a festivals? Could you draw a map tracing your relationship with each artist and how it formed? Are there any blank spaces on that map? When you see someone acting or seeming awkward at a party, what do you do? Do you act embarrassed and shut them out? Do you equate their awkwardness with some moral failing? Do you avoid inviting them next time? Or do you find ways to relate to them as another human being?

Those last questions are about recognising that our society privileges particular kinds of mind, particular ways of being, and particular social abilities. Being a good party-goer is a social norm. It is hard not to be part of that norm; it is hard to celebrate the extraordinary things that not being part of that norm can give you when your exclusion is hurting; and it is painful and traumatic to be ignored, laughed at, judged for being weird or otherwise abused for not being part of that norm. Resist reinforcing that norm whenever you can. I want you to invite me to parties, but when I say I can’t come, think about what your response might mean to me. You can ask me about ways of responding, if you’d like. More often than not, I’d like that.

There’re a lot of reasons I’m writing this, asking these questions, and making these suggestions. It’s happening now because it’s just been peak Edinburgh festivals season, which is like the world having a party on my doorstep, and thus a constant source of horror. It’s also because Forest Fringe just held an excellent gathering around some questions of access. A big part of the why is that I think they might be helpful for the many other people I know facing similar or connected issues in their lives: a bit of solidarity is a wonderful thing. Another big part is that I think that the more neurotypical artists and producers who read this might gain some genuine understanding from it and start thinking of other ways to do things. But beneath and behind those reasons, this is also about being honest about myself, thinking through who I am and how I relate to my work and the world. For me, maybe the most important outcome of writing this is that the next time I’m facing one of those forms, I might just tick “Yes”.

Thanks to Laura Dean, Katy Ewing, Darcy Leigh, Jenny Lindsay Barbara Melville, Annabel Turpin, and Molly Uzzell for comments on and support for the first draft of this piece.

9 thoughts on “Not Going to the Party: Anxiety, Access and the Arts

  1. I identify absolutely with this. I’m dyspraxic and often avoid social situations like parties and other gatherings. And no, people would never guess it. I can perform my poetry to an unknown audience with no or little nerves. I can visit a small gathering where I know everyone and trust them, and attempt some form of conversation. But put me in a room where I don’t know what might happen next, what might be discussed next and I feel physically ill. I sometimes have panic attacks and my dyspraxia displays verbally with speech impediments and stuttering. People look at me and see someone who loves funky clothes and they have no idea how shaky I feel inside or how my anxiety is rising every time I perceive (often not imagined) a certain ‘look’ from someone. How do you explain that to someone when can stand up and perform and they say “oh aren’t you nervous?” Well no, actually I’d be more nervous walking into a pub alone, even finding the ladies loos alone can be an ordeal.

  2. Excellent article. I learned from it, especially about the link between safe spaces and performance and all of the side effects. My disability retirement from teaching was to a great degree the social anxiety disorder you describe, but–since it manifested not only in fear of crowd behavior but also physical nerve damage and sciatica and depression–fortunately or unfortunately, I did not have to prove the disorder. I perform poetry and/or take on tasks to be able to be in groups, slipping away as soon as I can. Thank you for this accessible essay.

  3. This is excellent. Interesting what you say about alcohol as hit or miss – one reason I don’t drink is that it can intensify my anxiety. Absolutely identify with what you say about taking on roles as well – I think that’s one reason I tend to end up organising events – I have a clear role, I know what people will be talking to me about, I know I’m less likely to find myself caught in those awful spiralling silences, flailing through a sea of phrases I’m supposed to say but cannot make sound right coming from my lips.

    I’m so glad to see you talking about mental health and access too – it;’s something so many venues are so backwards in dealing with – sometimes they will look at you like you’re an alien if you mention it, even though they have ramps, induction loops, large print and braille programmes etc. Things I find particularly stressful are the “between times” at events, especially workshops/panels – lunches and teas/receptions being the worst. I can often only get through them by going for a walk and coming back for the exact time of the next session – it means I frequently end up having to pay for food I can’t eat – AND there’s guilt added because people who randomly come up to me are being friendly, kind, and yet I can react as if they’ve put a gun to my head – much of the time it feels as though they have. A quiet space where you know you can go and not be approached would make so much difference (the irony is that if I am allowed to be in control of initiating contact, in a structured way, I will often end up the life and soul). Other things that matter include being able to request a chair in the corner/by the door.

    And of course the biggest thing people need to understand is that just because we find social situations awkward, that in no way means we can’t handle the pressure of performing (yes, we often treat parties of performance, but this means they take so much more out of us than others) as people often assume. And yes – don’t stop inviting us to things just because we often have to say no – stopping the invites feeds the anxiety immensely

  4. I think a lot of artists, including myself find it hard to ‘reach out’ network and make partnerships to support our practice. It’s hard to because our practice can be so personal and we become so intrenched in it that, for me even picking up the phone becomes intimidating and alien. I do not identify with having a disability but have found myself disabled from practicing as an artist many times in my career because of the exclusive nature of systems and cultures around me. For what it’s worth when I do manage to reach out it has been very rewarding and I aim to do this more so am looking at ways to support this through training and making some strategies relating to career sustainability. I find when I have done a lot of thinking and research I can cristalize and simplify my ideas, then it become much easier to communicate them. I also find arranging a coffe chat, just one on one can be easier and more fruitful than attending a party or gathering.

  5. Harry as always, interesting and incisive. I find that nobody ever believes I have this problem as my coping mechanisms are so good (or rather so drastic ) – (silence or talking too much) and how I can be on stage seems to contradict this problem for other people, which can be a problem in itself. With regards to the box being ticked, I always tick it because I can’t say definitely ‘no, I haven’t a disability’ and I used to be ‘disabled’ until government changed the goal posts.
    So I always tick it, however I view the labels attached to ‘the disabled’ as generalised and heavy headed and public perception as under developed to say the least. Public awareness is key to this but they /we are a stubborn lot but then thirty years ago a common response to mentioning depression or anxiety was for the person to say ‘How can I cheer you up?’ which although well meant was ultimately a mis-comprehension of depression.
    I go for coffees a lot, usually one on one,never alone. I can cope with that. I never go into a pub unless I’m meeting someone and I never answer my home phone. I find the energy consumed in coping with my anxiety/depression can be a contributing teleological factor in my cycle of depression and this to be frank is a pain in the arse. Parties and social events are always problemmatical for me and I find myself creating excuses and lapsing into ennui (which means I either break the ennui and go to a party or stay in a state of ennui which isn’t good for me: a cleft stick really.).
    Not going to a party after I have said I would increases anxiety through guilt so all the vicious circles gather.
    However I view this as my problem and cope with it in my own way and have learned to try not to over think things or to take the things people say or do as personal. On a good day I am someone nice to know; on a bad day I am a hermit who functions in a rudimentary way.
    Is that what makes me a writer? I don’t know but I tick yes anyway.
    Is that what defines me as a person. maybe but I tick ‘no’ anyway.
    Is the ability to tick disabled a presentation of my coping mechanisms, definitely…maybe.
    all power to you.

  6. As I always do with your writing, I very much appreciated this piece – the clarity and easily understood descriptiveness of it, and the fact that you have written it at all. I suppose it helps as well that I can relate personally also.
    Having worked with people living with aphasia, but in a way that looked very much at accessibility rather than some kind of ‘cure’, it’s really heartening to see this conversation being had in such a different sphere.

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