“’You’re tellin’ me that you’d rather risk dyin’ than go have our nurse take a look at your arm?’” He sounds incredulous.
“I answer quietly, but my own voice is full of frustration, too. ‘Yes, Roger, I’m telling you that I’d rather die than go see the nurse. Dying would be more pleasant. You of all people should know that.’ I gesture at him. ‘You’re the only one who interacts with me or with whom I can interact. I especially can’t deal with going to see the nurse right now because I’m at my breaking point from all the encounters I’ve had recently: Mrs. Clark, Abigail Harris, Aaron Harris, Lilly Harris.’ I tick them off on my fingers then look at my hand. ‘Okay, that’s only four, but to me that’s a lot. And I don’t know what I’m doing! I’ll be damned if I’m going to further prove that I’m a loser by walking into another torture chamber that is the nurse’s office. I don’t even see a doctor. Why would I go see the school nurse for an insignificant little bee sting?'”
Brian Cunningham, My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel’s main character, is insecure and full of self-loathing. He’s unsure of himself and his place in the world. Unfortunately, insecurity—and with it the dislike of being judged and criticized—is part of being human. In general, we want to be liked, and we want to do well. That’s healthy! It motivates us and keeps us connected to life.
Sometimes, this natural feeling of insecurity is intense. The dislike of being judged becomes a fear, a distressing feeling of trepidation that descends and crushes us when we find ourselves in various social situations. Anxiety might skyrocket, for example, at the thought of having to go to a meeting or to a party. Anxious thoughts race through our minds. What should I say? What if I say something stupid? What if I’m wearing the wrong thing? What if people are only pretending to be nice? What if they’re talking about me behind my back? What if they think I’m ridiculous?
Then there’s Brian Cunningham. In his case, this natural feeling of insecurity is magnified to such a suffocating degree that he can barely function in the world at all. His fears are so intense that he has arranged his life so that he can, as much as possible, avoid people. He even does his shopping at Walmart at two in the morning so he can avoid crowds. When his safe space is invaded by a scared and isolated little girl, he goes into crisis. Brian goes beyond social phobia. He lives with an extreme form of that anxiety disorder known as avoidant personality disorder.
As much as Brian wants to avoid the world and all who are in it, he’s lonely. He is very much on the outside looking in, and he hates it. He wants to be included, to “be normal,” as he puts it, but he’s afraid.
We’re all a little afraid sometimes, I think. We don’t want to be judged for our faults but rather accepted for our strengths. That’s the good news. We all have strengths. Even when we live with social anxiety disorder or avoidant personality disorder, we have strengths and good things about us. We can use them as a starting point to form connections and to reduce anxiety. There’s more to the process, of course, but that’s okay. What matters is that even when the fear of judgment is so strong that it becomes avoidant personality disorder, we can connect with others. Brian needs to believe the truth of that…