By setting stores in competition against each other for customer ratings, Walmart is placing greater burdens and threats on workers

The writer, who works as an online grocery dispenser at a Walmart grocery store in the US, and experiences social anxiety symptoms, discusses how increased demands and threats are being placed on workers to achieve customer ratings in surveys and to compete in store rankings. This article was first posted on Cherry Northern’s WordPress blog, RaisedByOwls.

In a previous post, I revealed the culture that permeated my workplace. It’s a culture based on company image and competition against other Walmart stores. What this means is that people in my position–online grocery dispensers–must perform their primary roles (deliver customers’ goods to their vehicles in the parking lot) and arbitrary, yet obligatory, roles (convince customers to review their experience in order to boost the store’s rating among the local market and nation). But lately, it seems as if there’s been a shift. Now, the role we thought to be secondary in nature is starting to feel much more essential–both to the future of the department and the future of our very jobs.

Let me explain something through an example. If I were hired as a salesman, but couldn’t land a sale, what do you think would happen to me? I’d be fired, and rightfully so. Now, imagine if I were a salesman and–without much warning–my boss was demanding that I drive an eighteen-wheeler truck to deliver groceries to a wholesale store. First, this would lead to consternation since driving a truck was never part of my job description, nor what I signed up for. But imagine doing the job you signed up for and STILL not being good enough because you’re not performing well in a task that was never supposed to be yours anyway.

Just as in my last post, I still take issue with being pressured to ask customers to fill out online surveys referencing their experience with my customer service. To me, this is salesmanship and is not something I find inherently important to my role. If I had wanted to persuade customers to take action, I would have aimed to become a salesman. Prior to the fetishization of 5-star customer surveys, my job seemed simple and straightforward. You gather the order and take it out to the customer. Done. Easy. Simple. The way I like it. But now, there’s a new social element that is both bothersome to the employee and the customer. And things have become worse.

The boss of my department is a man I respect, and in general, has had a logical head on his shoulders. But something has changed. While I don’t mean to drag his name in the mud, my boss has tasted a bit of success (our store’s ranking is #1 in certain measurements) and has never seemed to come down from the high. I can imagine the stress of trying to stay on top. And of course it must be stressful to lead an entire department. Again, my aim is not to trash this boss of mine.

But I also think that my boss is blinded and has failed to consider the value that we, as workers in the department, bring.

So, where to begin?

Well, lately, we’ve been sloppy. It turns out that some customers have been getting items with poor quality. Things like brown lettuce would rightfully upset any customer. As a result of the sloppiness, we’ve been getting bad reviews. A 1-star review sets us back in a major way when you consider it takes 20 perfect reviews to make up for the damage one 1-star review brings. This metric is sadistic and unrealistic. It only serves to stress people out more. If you ask me, it’s arbitrary.

The boss was not happy about this and left an ominous note on the whiteboard. The note acknowledged the sloppiness and the mistakes. Since dispensers like me are the closest to the customer, dispensers take on most of the blame. For instance, we’re supposed to catch items that lack quality before they’re delivered. The problem is that we can’t catch everything, especially when it’s really busy in the afternoons. And I guess the “pickers” or shoppers hold no responsibility at all? If someone saw brown lettuce, then the lettuce shouldn’t have been picked in the first place. I digress.

A slew of bad surveys has brought down our CSAT score. CSAT is a fancy way to say, “Customer Satisfaction.” This metric is composed of the surveys that customers willingly complete after their experiences with picking up groceries. As you can imagine, the score is low. In fact, our boss made it clear it was the lowest it’s been since the opening of the department. Great. Let me think of something truly sad so I can at least shed a tear and pretend that some Walmart metric matters to me.

Oh, but it matters. It matters more than we know. CSAT is like a holy grail. It is the standard to which we must live. A string of bad surveys and a lower CSAT than usual prompted my boss to really get after the dispensers. He suspected that people weren’t asking for surveys. Or, that people were asking for surveys in “the wrong way.” Now, I’ll admit that I never ask customers to do surveys because my job isn’t to be a salesman for a company that doesn’t treat its employees well. Again, that’s not what I see as my role here.

I think what really bothers me is that I’m being asked to take part in a war I never signed up for. I don’t care how well our store does in comparison to other stores. I also don’t care about corporate reputation or company benchmarks–shit like that is above my paygrade. I don’t worship at the altar of impressing market managers or even the store manager. Yet, we’re supposed to be super involved in the process of making the store look good when customers really only care about getting their groceries and getting the hell away from Walmart.

And now, here comes the worst part. My boss implied that if we don’t get the CSAT back on track, we may see reduced hours. Let me just take this in. Let me soak this information in. Basically, if we don’t get enough good surveys, our wages will be impacted. Less hours equals less income. This, despite the fact that we’ve been one of the fastest (if not the fastest) online grocery departments in our region. This, despite our boss praising us in better times, making us feel valued and treasured. This, despite our hard work, sweat, and issues we’ve had to go through in our time here.

I have my doubts that they would actually reduce our hours. It isn’t like online shopping is going to slow down just because of few bad surveys from isolated incidents. The demand for online groceries and delivery will only continue to climb. So, uh, how can you reduce hours when demand is only going up? That doesn’t make much sense. But you know what? It doesn’t matter whether the threat has substance or not. The very fact that the implied threat was written on the whiteboard in the first place is what I mostly take issue with.

Say they actually did reduce hours. In my opinion, that’s a crime. Once again, there is no indication that business is going to slow down. My boss makes it seem like the very future of the department is in jeopardy because we don’t get enough good reviews. What my boss doesn’t seem to grasp is that bad reviews are not the end of the world–certainly not the end of an industry like this. The utility of the service we provide is worth more than one million good reviews combined. Do you think that people who have had a bad experience at Burger King will swear off Burger Kings forever? Well, do Burger Kings still exist? Do people have bad times at Burger Kings every day? Yes and yes, but at the end of the day, the restaurants provide a valued service that compensates for any bad reviews. A little bit of critical thinking could make this shit so easy to reconcile.

But let’s get to the threat. Because no matter how many times you read that note, it is impossible not to identify the threatening undertone. Of course the note was written in a “professional” way, but we’ve worked here long enough to read between the lines. There’s nothing in that note that proves a causality between a lower CSAT score and reduced hours. Regardless, I’m taken aback at the nature of the note.

As a boss, you don’t do that to employees you supposedly value. That is a crappy way to show your appreciation of our work. Using fear to drive the team to perform in the way you envision? That’s manipulation. Cutting hours for such a minor reason? We’re verging pretty close to “deducting wages” since less hours at work will mean less money earned. You don’t get the respect from your team by beating each person over the head with a pointed message implying dire consequences for refusing to sell one’s soul for a soulless corporation.

Then again, maybe cutting hours was the plan to begin with? After all, we all recently got a raise to $16 an hour. So, we get more per hour, but less hours? Wait. But doesn’t that just mean we’ve evened out? What use is a few dollars more per hour when you work less hours than usual?

Fine. Go ahead and play that game. I don’t really think any hours will be cut. I just don’t see how that would work. However, it’s your conduct that bothers me. What you wrote was disrespectful to all of us. Are we going to have bad times? Yes! Will we always be perfect? No! Have we made mistakes? Yes. Can we improve? Sure, if you let us. But what we could most certainly do without is the micromanaging, the fear-mongering, the pressure you put on us. If anything, you’ve now ensured that I’m not putting in any extra effort. I will do my job. I will do enough. But I’ll be damned if I play into your games and the pissing contests between stores.

To read more from this writer, follow their WordPress blog, RaisedbyOwls.

Accidental beginnings – being an activist for reproductive rights whilst experiencing social anxiety – an account from the United States

A writer in the US shares how the experiences of intimidation at her local women’s health clinic and music concerts helped her to become an ‘accidental activist,’ for reproductive rights of women, and push beyond her shyness and social anxiety. First published by the author, Sam Simmons, on her blog.

When I look back on concerts I’ve attended, there’s usually one strong image that sticks out in my mind. Paul Stanley flying on a trapeze over the crowd to perform on a giant turntable on the other side of the arena, video footage of the horrible aftermath of the atom bombings projected at the Dir En Grey show, Ben Faust of Goatwhore flashing me an “okay?” sign during their last song when I was in obvious pain from my legs getting slammed into the edge of the stage….you get the idea.

This is a story of how a mental concert image turned me into an activist for reproductive rights.

I never imagined being an activist of anything let alone something that’s so shrouded in controversy. I’m shy and timid with a profound lack of confidence and dislike for confrontation to the point where I avoid it whenever I can. I’m also afflicted with social anxiety and certain situations cause an overwhelming sense of terror. When I reflect on it, I find it so strange that I’m doing this activism. Though I’m supportive of many causes, in most cases I’ve never done anything more than donate a few dollars to show that support. Probably the most activist thing I’ve ever done up until this year was wearing a handmade shirt that read “Homosexuals have rights, too!” after coming out quite publicly in high school and was getting made fun of for being bisexual, an act that earned me a trip to the principal’s office and a warning not to wear the shirt in the future.

So what happened? It started with my women’s health clinic and ended at a concert.

I started going to the local women’s health clinic about a decade ago when it was called Western Dairyland. The staff there was helpful and kind so I have trusted them with my vagina ever since. They’ve been there when I’ve had pregnancy scares, vaginal infections, and one cancer scare after a pap came back abnormal enough they referred me to a doctor that could do biopsies. They offer exams, birth control, testing, and treatment for little to no cost and don’t turn anyone away because of an inability to pay, which was certainly my situation when I began going there. The clinic became Essential Health Clinic (formally Options Clinic) shortly after our governor made budget cuts to family planning, but thankfully nothing changed in terms of receiving care and contraceptives.

However, one thing did change in 2016: anti-abortion protesters.

In mid-March, I went in to schedule my annual exam. Not only did I find the clinic had changed its hours and were already closed for the day, but also found a middle aged man standing just a few feet from the entrance holding a sign that said “ABORTION KILLS CHILDREN”. I was greatly confused as the clinic is NOT an abortion provider. Not that I ever needed/wanted an abortion anyways thanks to them offering birth control pills along with a never ending supply of condoms after my first major pregnancy scare.

I passed him and his large, intimidating sign as I headed back home. After nervously passing him like a scared little rabbit, I stopped. To this day I still have no idea what compelled my brain to override my social anxiety protocol so I could turn around and timidly inform him, “They don’t do abortions here and they help a lot of people.” It led into a half hour conversation. “Conversation” being a figurative word as he did most of the talking— about God, Christianity, Hell, and apparently how the clinic does “abortion referrals” while questioning me on my beliefs—and I barely got a word in. During the conversation he gave me a card: one side with six “facts” on about abortion and the other side begging me not to kill my baby and surrender myself to Christ.

Probably as this one-sided conversation occurred, a Los Angeles based metal/rap artist/activist by the name of Otep Shamaya was preparing to release her seventh album “Generation Doom” and planning out a tour to support its release.

The week I bought the “Generation Doom” album, which I admittedly became obsessed with, I had an appointment for an annual check-up at the Essential Health Clinic. The protesters hadn’t given up since my first encounter with one of them. There was still the one lone protester standing outside with his sign, though I had heard of more showing up at other times. After going through the usual routine of going through my medical history, determining that I didn’t need a pap smear that year according to the new guidelines, and renewing my birth control prescription, the RN informed me about my rights as a patient and the rights of the protesters. Basically, thanks to Free Speech, it’s well within their rights to harass patients outside the building as they please as long as they don’t physically block entrances or physically harm anyone. She told me its best to ignore them, a statement I’m sure her superiors told her to say, and that I shouldn’t let them bother me.

Ignore them? How do ignore someone that stands near the door of your healthcare provider so you’re forced to walk past them? How do you ignore someone that puts a large anti-abortion sign in your face while trying to get you to take literature and talk about Jesus while criticizing aspects of your faith and/or life? When I was a kid, I was told to ignore the bullies that tormented me based on the logic that they would eventually get bored with me and move on, but such advice never worked. Why would it be any different now that the bullies were now grown men on the sidewalk?

I found it upsetting that I had to be told my rights as a patient because of stupid, old zealots who think they can tell women of reproductive age what to do with their bodies and their faith. I figured there had to be a reason why the RN was telling women of their patient rights and to ignore the protesters.

I asked, “Are they…scaring women?”

She went onto explain that there had been patients who were intimidated by their presence, including a young woman whose relative had called to explain she was afraid to come into her appointment because the presence of protesters scared her. I never imagined women not coming to the clinic for help because of a group of men demonstrating outside the building intimidated them. I asked about the abortion referral claim and learned they have nothing to do with abortions other than providing information about it as part of their all-options pregnancy counseling (which also includes parenting and adoption). “Refer” can mean “to mention or allude to” so technically they do refer to abortion, but they don’t do “referrals”, meaning a medical facility transfers your care to a recommended provider. I’m not entirely sure which one the protester really meant.

I quietly slipped out the back entrance after my appointment. It only occurred to me after I had gotten halfway home that the reason I sneaked out the back was also the reason why there were women who admitted they were scared about coming in: they didn’t want to be confronted or harassed by the protesters near the entrance.

Two days after my appointment, I saw Otep perform in Ringle, WI. It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen her perform yet something about that show lead me to the activism I do now. Without this catalyst, I’d probably still be sneaking through the back door of the clinic to avoid being harassed by protesters about abortion and religion.

As I mentioned earlier, there’s usually one strong image in my mind when I reflect on the shows I’ve been to. The mental image that sticks out in my mind when I think about this show is strangely not of Otep herself. Instead, it was something not as obvious and extremely peculiar: a microphone stand.

Yes. A microphone stand.

Otep had two of them (I’m guessing for aesthetic rather than necessity). They were positioned on the front corners of this box that she stands on. Both stands were wrapped with thick, orange rope light, but the one to my right had been decorated with a couple doll heads that were vandalized with black Sharpie marker. As the crew set up the band’s gear, I couldn’t stop staring at this stand. In the moment I was mesmerized by these decapitated doll heads, I recalled an article I read where anti-abortion protesters had pelted a woman going to get an abortion with torn apart and fake bloodied doll parts. The image of the microphone stand stuck with me even more than Otep raising her black gloved fist in-between songs and declaring “This…this is the universal sign of protest”. Not to say that the protesting imagery of her set had no effect on me, but I couldn’t stop thinking about those doll heads and the story they reminded me of. Combined with her songs with themes of rebelling against tyrants and meeting the woman in all her bad ass glory after the show, I left the venue fueled with the desire to confront the zealots that showed up every Wednesday to harass woman.

The next day, I furiously typed out a Letter to the Editor about the services the clinic provides and the actions of the protesters. To be honest, I was terrified about submitting it for fear of retaliation, but felt I needed to send it in. There was a part of me that hoped it would convince them to leave these women alone and let them go to their appointments in peace, but they are extremely stubborn so they continue to demonstrate, lie, mislead, and bully.

But I have been just as stubborn because I believe in women having the right to choose and, more importantly, I believe everyone should be to go to their health care provider without being bullied by anti-choice protesters near the door and that women don’t deserve to be lied to about their options. Thus, I have continued to fight despite being timid and shy.

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Otep with mic stand decorated with doll heads (Sam Simmons)

Read more by the author, Sam Simmons, at her blog, AccidentalActivistAdventures.wordpress.com

The challenges of a voice condition, anxiety and working as a waitress – interview from Japan

A young woman living in Kanagawa Prefecture in central Japan, the country of her birth, having grown up in Malaysia and studied in Australia, shared her experiences of her life with her partner in Japan, including her experiences of her voice condition of spasmodic dysphonia and the effect of this on her social anxiety symptoms. She also shares her personal history of returning to Japan as a non-native speaker, having had to abandon her hopes of pursuing a life in Australia and the effect on her emotional well-being. She currently works as a waitress in a busy restaurant, a job role she has gained experience in, including, in different countries. Please note, this account contains references to suicide.

I see working as a waitress as my first step in building my social/people skills and self-confidence. I’ve taken on the same role in other countries, but there is no restaurant that operates the exact same way as another. The general flow of work (escort, take order, serve order, clean up tables, cashier, etc.) remains similar, but some require more communication skills than the others. Moving countries has made it hard for me to step up in my career and I find myself having to always re-adjust to my environment and start from zero. Due to reasons related to relocation and toxic managers, there is no restaurant where I worked for over a year at one go.

Regardless, waitressing gives me comfort as it’s what I have built the most experience in so far, and there’s a lot of flexibility to it – having more control over my shifts, less burden of responsibility and being able to quit at any time when I feel ready or whenever necessary (i.e. with a 2 weeks notice). If I accumulate my work experience from all of my workplaces, I’d have almost 3 years worth of experience as a waitress.

If I am still new and have many things to learn and get used to, it can be hard to relax at home after a training/working day. In this situation, I spend most of my free time at home learning whatever I can to perform better at work. For example, studying the menu, preparing questions to ask the next working day, organizing and re-reading notes written down during training, etc. Only after working a certain amount of time and when I feel like I have adapted well to the workplace and coworkers, I can easily forget about work and relax at home. Though from time to time, if I experience communication problems at work (stuttering, for instance), I go over what I wanted to say and practice at home. Interpersonal problems, such as rude or angry customers, micromanagement at work, other staff who slack and lack cooperative skills, etc. tend to stick with me longer and it can feel stressful even after coming home.

Relaxing at home, to me, is just doing whatever I feel like doing at the moment – napping, watching entertainment, cooking, cleaning, etc.

In my past workplaces in Malaysia and Australia, English was the main language used and there was more cultural diversity. That made the work environment comfortable for me as it was easier to fit in, and I was frequently in a position where I had to assist staff with low English proficiency. This helper role came to me very naturally and it was satisfying for me. In Japan, work is more formal and I feel like the odd one out. In particular, communication problems that arise from language barrier is a challenge that I feel is a high hurdle to overcome as well as problems related to my anxiety. At my previous workplace in Japan, I had to give an explanation of the menu to customers after escorting them to their seats. That made me feel nervous and uncomfortable as it felt like a mini-presentation with all eyes and ears on me. The challenge at my current workplace is having to talk into a microphone when calling the next customer in line after a table is open.

All of the workplaces I’ve worked at are very busy businesses, especially during peak hours. Although I get overwhelmed, I manage well during these periods as I get very focused on my work and act according to the priorities I set. There can be many things that need to be done at one time but I do one thing after the next quickly in the appropriate order. Also, busy hours are the only time when I can tweak my work a bit so that I work swiftly. For example, in the previous workplace where I had to explain the menu to customers, I would put the menu on the table and let the customers know to call any staff if they have any questions and move on to my next task.

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He [my father] supports me with taxes and health insurance but there is definitely pressure coming from him. While he knew I developed and struggled with my voice condition, he says comments like I am still a kindergartener and questions me if I know how much money it costs to pay for taxes and health insurance. It feels demeaning and it makes me think that he is only supporting me out of obligation without any genuine worry or compassion. Because of this pressure and also my own will to be independent, I manage my money well enough where I have never needed to ask him for extra money.

From all my previous workplaces, I never earned a lot of money but also never earned too little (as there is flexibility and control over my working shift) to not be able to pay for my expenses (rent, utility bills, phone bill, food, etc.). Rent and utility bills are fixed to a certain amount, and I budget my expenses for food to a specific amount each month. This allowed me to spare a good amount of money which I usually keep for savings or spend on eating out or on gifts for birthdays. This has been the situation up until my most recent work.

Currently, I am living with my partner (and is the first time living together with someone) and this new lifestyle has lifted a lot of financial burden off me. I no longer pay for rent and utility bills and, fortunately, this happened when my voice quality began to deteriorate to its worst state. After relocating and moving in with my partner, I was unemployed for several months and used this open time to find a diagnosis for my voice condition. I relied on my savings when I needed money during this period and after getting a formal diagnosis, I gathered my courage to look for a temporary job that required minimal communication while I thought over the treatment options. Financial stress is a big focus in my life now due to this voice condition in addition to anxiety and low self-confidence. Being financially independent is an immediate goal for me and I wish to achieve it as soon as I possibly can.

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Before this voice condition [spasmodic dysphonia] occurred, I did not have any major issue in socialising and as my anxiety was at a bearable level, it was still possible for me to challenge things that were out of my comfort zone. I think the best way to describe it is that I had high-functioning anxiety – where on the inside, I’m constantly nervous and tremble from fear but I put on an act to perform well and behave appropriately. There were a few times, however, when I physically struggled and my nervousness was clearly visible to the people around me. I never intentionally ran away or avoided social situations nor did I make a conscious effort to put myself in them.

Around the time when my symptoms deteriorated and my voice quality changed drastically, I withdrew from talking as much as I possibly could. While my family could hear the change in my voice and when I expressed to them that it was difficult to talk, they continued to push me to go for job interviews (for professional work positions/full-time jobs) and dismissed my concerns. I became so quiet to the point it seemed like I underwent a personality change and there was a lot of frustration towards my family who pressed on their judgements and lacked understanding. I lived with my eldest sister during this time and worked at a restaurant. I pushed myself hard to pull through every working day and the action of talking itself became very fearful and tiring at both work and home. Every shift, customers would ask me, “What is wrong with your voice?”, “Is that your normal voice?”, “Is your voice alright?” etc.

Suicidal thoughts were on my mind very frequently as I felt extremely isolated, scared and hopeless. While living with my sister, I could not do what I needed to do for myself – taking a break from everything and to look for a diagnosis. I applied to jobs just to show them that I was trying real hard as they would constantly ask questions if I’ve applied to any and to how many. But with this voice where I cannot speak clearly and can be easily mistaken for sounding very nervous or appearing unconfident, failure was only met with failure. There was only one interview I passed, where the interviewer asked if I was sick and wished me to get better. I got a job offer from that teaching company and while I know my family would have wanted me to accept it, I declined it because I could not see myself working comfortably and felt that my spasmodic voice would cause many issues at work. 

Spasmodic dysphonia robbed me from expressing and presenting myself the way I want to. I do not sound professional at all and trying to make a good impression, especially in interviews, is extremely difficult. Even basic, day-to-day tasks like grocery shopping, ordering food at restaurants, etc. are much harder than usual and I feel dread when a staff asks me questions to which I have to reply with more than three words.

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I chose to further my studies in Australia because I wanted to immerse myself in white culture and saw it as a way to gain experience in doing things on my own. Distance-wise, it was not too far from Japan or Malaysia for visits. Adapting to Australia and familiarizing myself with it’s systems (transport, health insurance, accomodation, etc.) was, thankfully, easy for me as I had a mutual connection – my father’s coworker’s son studied in the same city. Although I had never met him before I moved to Australia, he was very friendly and was there to guide me and answer any questions or doubts I had.

I studied my Bachelor’s in Health Sciences (Public Health major). I actually wanted to study Physiotherapy or Veterinary, but due to my insufficient grades in high school/pre-university, my options were limited.

In general, my life in Australia was sometimes lonely, but peaceful and steady. I was very focused on my studies as I knew that if I failed even one subject, I would not be able to retake any without going through a miserable, intense talk with my father. When I was outside of the classroom, I was alone most of the time and I made only 2 good friends from university. Many things I did in Australia was for a specific goal – to land a full-time job and get citizenship. However, it was a little far too late when I realized it was an unattainable goal due to the unrealistic nature of the criteria to be fulfilled in order to be eligible to apply for citizenship.

There were a lot of oral presentations I did in university – usually in small classrooms and once in a big lecture theatre. Often, I hear people say that in the beginning they feel nervous but after speaking for awhile, they feel more relaxed and used to it. Strangely, for me, I get more and more nervous the longer I have to stand and speak in front of a crowd. The presentation I gave in the big lecture theatre was extremely stressful. I accidentally read the same line twice and I went into full panic mode. My chest was pounding, my legs were trembling and I was trying hard to control my head tremor. My vision started to get blurry and the last thing I wanted was to faint in front of everyone, so I stopped talking and squatted. This was my first time experiencing a panic attack and I was unable to continue my presentation due to the fear of having another attack and also because of embarrassment. The impact of the experience sticks with me until today, and I avoid job applications where presentations are involved in the interview process.

Financially, my father covered all of my university fees and my living expenses. I would receive a sum of money that was meant to be used for a whole year at one go, and so I built a habit of keeping receipts then noting down the prices for the necessities (toilet paper, shampoo, toothpaste, etc.). Eventually, I made a weekly budget for food and a total monthly budget, and stuck with this routine the entire time in Australia. This financial management, as well as small income from my part-time job, enabled me to save up a fairly good amount of money which I prepared in the case of being unemployed for some time after graduation.

Post-graduation period was stressful and there were some dark moments here and there. A lot of my worries were around getting a full-time job and the reality of moving back to Japan as the only appropriate solution was hitting me harder at a gradual pace. This was at my conscious level, but at my subconscious level, I was emotionally struggling from the impact left from a physical fight I had with my father when I visited Japan for a while for my coming of age ceremony. I found myself in unbearable loneliness and misery at times in Australia, and I made a suicide attempt. The sort of thoughts that ran through my head right before the suicide attempt was, “I am completely alone and I want to escape from everything”, “I don’t want to see another day”, “My death might bring new meaning and inspire my father to change”, “My death might inspire people to be kinder and bring more awareness and openness towards mental health”, etc.

The decision I made to return to Japan was based on logical reasoning. Instead of focusing on my feelings (how much I did not want to go back due to my fears), my focus strongly pointed towards an objective perspective (what I should do, what I will be left with if I continued to stay in Australia and what other opportunities I would be missing out on). Only after making the decision, the fear of the unknown reality that was waiting for me slowly started creeping in. I kept myself busy from negative emotions as much as possible with my part-time work, self-study in Japanese and packing. Regardless of the fear, once I made the decision, it was 100% set and it never swayed. I recall breaking down and crying on my final day of work.

*Note: the decision itself did not contribute to my suicide attempt. The anxiety around the awareness that things were not going well for me (the job hunt) and how moving back to Japan was becoming a more and more realistic option contributed to it.

When I left Australia, I made a visit to Malaysia where my mother was, before returning to Japan. Being in Malaysia again felt very nostalgic and made me think of the carefree days of my youth. It was nice to catch up with my mother again, and I got to meet with a childhood friend after many years. On the day of departure, I had lunch at the airport with my mother and I remember feeling like it was my “last moment” before going face-to-face with whatever was in store for me. I broke down crying and I couldn’t help but feel mentally and emotionally unprepared for it all. My mother was on alert with the time but I insisted on heading to the departure gate near the time it closed. When I felt it was time to make a move, I said my goodbye to my mother in front of the departure hall. While I was walking towards the departure gate, I looked at the list of the flight information and found out the gate had already closed. I panicked knowing I missed my flight – but at the same time there was big relief. And so, I got to stay in Malaysia for a while longer until I was at the airport again – but this time, I felt more prepared to leave.

I think my past suicide attempts has made me more susceptible to suicidal thoughts. To this day, I still struggle to make full sense and accept/embrace various things, such as my identity or my father’s behavior. There is a constant lack of peace within myself and an inherent dissatisfaction about life due to believing that life is hard and tragic. The feeling and thought of “wanting to get away from everything” is still there, but the awareness that taking my own life will indefinitely hurt other people keeps me away from doing it. 

This is all I can write although there are more things I wish I can write. It feels very suffocating and painful trying to process everything into proper words and sentences. Thank you for letting me write up to what is comfortable for me 🙂

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In general, making friends or close bonds is hard for me due to several reasons. I don’t necessarily go out of my way to approach and talk to people with the purpose of building personal connections (i.e. friendship). I tend not to take initiative as the process is tiring and I rather leave it to happen naturally. I find it uncommon to “click” with people beyond surface-level, and so, for these reasons my social circle has always been very small. When I do initiate conversations, it’s usually for the purpose of building surface-level, positive relationships in order to get along with classmates at school or coworkers at work. Outside my social circle, I appear to be very rigid, agreeable and polite/nice to a fault. I smile as much as possible and it feels very unnatural. I hold myself back from saying things that are actually on my mind, and because I try to please people (even in subtle ways, like making firm eye contact when people talk to me to show them that they have my full attention), social interaction is exhausting and draining. I fear of being disliked by people and want people to have a good image of me. 

My social life, right now, is still very small. My partner is the only one whom I happily interact with everyday, and his family a few times a month. Especially with my voice condition now and the burden of future expenses, I’d rather avoid expanding my social circle at least until my voice has made a recovery.

Support groups for returnees are most likely non-existent here in Japan. I’ve heard of schools for returnees to catch up or brush up on their Japanese skills, but I have never physically seen local support groups or institutions that offer social support. Maybe, they exist online, which is where I, fortunately, found a support group for my voice condition. Most of the members there have been diagnosed with the same condition and other members are friends or family members who have joined to be more involved and learn more about the condition. The group is very active and people post questions or share their experiences to spread knowledge, uplift others or to simply vent.

Anxiety, however, does impact how I utilize social media to make or maintain social connections online. I have a weak presence on social media due to my fear of people making judgements on what I put up. I feel afraid to share my feelings, thoughts and life experiences to people I don’t know well. I am particularly sensitive to photos and can become flustered if I find out other people have put up photos of me. My quietness has resulted in losing good connections I once had and overtime, it has enhanced the fear of posting things online.

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Preparing the next steps for my voice condition required an in-depth research in understanding the condition and the options available. As the voice condition has no cure, it does make the pathway to a smooth road more complicated than it seems to be. Even though there are plans in place, there is still uncertainty if it will be successful or if it will fall right into place. 

Currently, I am taking botulinum toxin A (i.e. botox) injections which helps to relax the muscles of my vocal cords, thus, reducing the spasms. The effect of this treatment is only temporary, and so, multiple visits to the ENT is needed when the effect has worn off. Due to the inconvenience of multiple trips and side effects that initially occur, and the high-cost in the long run, my next step is to attempt surgery. The surgery does not restore the voice completely, but improves the voice drastically in comparison to the symptomatic voice for over a course of years. Whether the improvement will last for a lifetime is unknown, but the level of satisfaction from patients who have undergone the surgery is relatively high.

Given that the surgery is successful and my voice becomes free of spasms, I will start looking for full-time jobs. The area of interest will be teaching English to children and if there is low recruitment, I plan to utilize an employment service center to look for other jobs that are suitable for me. If the surgery is unsuccessful and my voice remains spasmodic, I will make use of the employment service center to look for full-time jobs where speaking is involved little to none. Job interviews always make me very nervous and tense, but as I push myself little by little, I can give myself a pat on the back after every effort. 

Knowing that there is no quick fix for anxiety, I am aware that it will be a long process to get better and requires patience. I have reflected enough to come to an understanding that to fully overcome it, I need help from a counsellor/psychologist. Seeking help from a counsellor/psychologist has been in my mind for years, but as it is expensive, I plan to approach one some time after getting a full-time job. Currently, I don’t really know if I can say I truly have social anxiety or if I simply have had many experiences of the symptoms. That is the main reason why I feel the need to see a psychologist. I think seeing one can help me clarify many things, especially my mental state. It feels like it’s been many years that I’ve wondered and asked myself, “What is wrong with me?”. There are times when I have thought my anxiety is more linked to cPTSD as I’m certain my anxiety was triggered from past negative family events and harsh upbringing.

Apart from time commitment and high cost, I have delayed seeing a psychologist due to moving around as it seemed to be such a hassle to talk about myself from zero every time I saw a new one. When I was in my teens, asking my parents for permission to send me to a psychologist was absolutely out of the question. Because of this, I approached my school counsellor when I noticed my anxiety impacted my studies. The only place and time I could study with good focus was when I was at home or alone if I was outside. Learning at school (focusing on my teacher in class, class presentations, random questions being thrown at me during class, exam revision with the class, etc.) was difficult for me. For exams, when my seat was in the middle of the room or when the exam invigilator walked by me, I got too anxious to be focused on my paper and blanked out. As a result, my grades suffered. The conversation I had with my school counsellor pretty much sparked my awareness about the core problem of my anxiety. 

During the time when I moved into my partner’s home and was unemployed for a while, I tried online counselling, in hopes there would be high engagement and progress regardless of the cost and time. However, the counsellor appeared uninterested and the interaction was not engaging. It also felt too overwhelming because there was too much that has happened and too much to explain. After a few trial sessions, I cancelled my registration and withdrew from the program. 

At this point, I am unsure if I will overcome everything but I am taking things step by step without complicating things too much. Resolving my own problems (voice condition and employment/financial issues) and expanding my social support (making friends and getting to know people with similar life experiences) will hopefully decrease my stress and increase my overall happiness and wellbeing. Only then, facing and addressing my family problems (which I believe is the core issue) will come so that I am already on my two feet and less prone to being emotionally fragile.

I think I have noticed something interesting – how some people can remember a lot of things (in great detail too) while others, block it out and can’t recall much. Hm, I wonder why that is so and how different the journey to healing would be between the two groups.

***

Social anxiety news and stories round-up

Blogs

The writer provides a personal insight into a difficult incident of social anxiety in the workplace and her efforts to manage and reflect on the experience: “Today I had to lead a meeting on a topic about COVID and did horribly. I froze up, rambled, and made no sense. My supervisor and two others noticed I was freaking out and didn’t really help. Then I sat in my office and basically just stared at my computer for 30 mins. I decided to just text my boss and said I was going home because I have anxiety and can’t focus. Then I went home and cried for an hour.”

A 27 year old woman describes the difficulties with socialising with family members with strong Trump supporting political opinions and attitudes: “I guess I need to learn to steel myself a little better to their remarks. I know full well that just because they think one way intensely doesn’t necessarily mean they are right. I know it’s not a personal attack against me, but sometimes their opinions make me uncomfortable. It’s that whole them being so right-wing conservative (so Trump brain-washed) that eats away at me because the views they espouse are like night and day from how I feel. And sometimes I sit there wondering how could they really think that?”

The post explores dissociation, with the writer giving personal examples of experiences: “I used to volunteer at a food bank before Covid arrived. I had just received a call from a shop asking if I would like to do two months worth of work experience with them. I said yes and thanked them before hanging up. However, my anxiety kicked in and instantly I dissociated, zoning out into space. I could hear another male volunteer trying to have a conversation with me, but I couldn’t pull myself out. When I finally came out of it, I felt embarrassed and instantly apologised multiple times, explaining that I wasn’t ignoring him and I was just experiencing dissociation. I’m happy to report that he just laughed and said he was okay with that as long as I was okay.”

Working at a grocery store in the US, the writer is unfairly moved into a new role but is able to appreciate the personal benefits, despite the injustice of the decision: “Ultimately, I found this new position to be a million times less stressful than my old position—to the point that I almost consider it enjoyable. Most of my week is spent up front at the doors sanitizing carts or counting customers as I’m one of the few that can afford to spend all day up there without it affecting my work. It also might have to do with the fact that I’m one of the few employees that doesn’t bitch about being up at the doors. I really have no reason to whine since door duty no longer takes me away from working an understaffed area that desperately needs stocking constantly.”

A ‘thirty something environmental scientist’ describes the challenges of a work field trip having started her role as a remote worker, facing challenges with training and interaction: “My co-worker even told me not to be so hard on myself and not to feel like I need to get everything right away because he said after 14 years, he still gets confused and unsure. Our job is nebulous sometimes and subject to arbitrary decisions. Maybe that’s the nature of regulation. We’re almost environmental lawyers, having to interpret what laws mean and squash environment and science into these boxes where they don’t fit neatly.”

Creative writing

i’ll take the long way home, and carve out a path along hiking trails and highways, all of my own. trace the geography of broken promises along my collarbone, and try not to dance on the walk home, a smile breaking out across my cheeks despite it all. despite myself. feel the bruises, and scrapes, and scars, the way my thighs touch, and just let them fucking exist.

a catalog of fears, a series of questions, reasons to disappear. ideally, selfless writing mimics the camera, in the antiseptic laboratory condition tradition, stripped of human emotion. a program which mimics nostalgia. the verb is missing but the lecture continues.

For a group of communinist dissidents, no-one seemed to do much. Young, fashionable people, people with long hair and flared trousers and slim-fit paisley shirts, came to the flat each night to smoke and talk about movies, people at the university, the state of the economy, politics. Ana knew about soil acidity and fermentation tanks. She knew a little about American fiction and her favourite singer, Josipa Lisac. Sometimes she wouldn’t know if they were talking about a film director, actor, politician, or a mutual friend.

Research

  • Social Anxiety and the Generation of Positivity During Dyadic Interaction: Curiosity and Authenticity are the Keys to Success – Kevin C. Barber, Maggie A.M. Michaelis, David A. Moscovitch – Behavior Therapy, online March 31, 2021

“Dyadic analyses revealed that participants’ affiliative goals during the social interaction predicted positive outcomes for both themselves and their partners, although the link between affiliative goals and positive affect was weaker for participants with high SA. Mediation analyses demonstrated that adopting affiliative goals may promote more positive outcomes by increasing participants’ curiosity and felt authenticity. Taken together, results illuminate the pathways through which people with varying levels of trait SA may derive interpersonally generated positive affect and positive social outcomes, with implications for clinical theory and practice.”

  • Response Inhibition, Cognitive Flexibility and Working Memory in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder – Ana Isabel Rosa-Alcázar, Ángel Rosa-Alcázar, Inmaculada C Martínez-Esparza, Eric A Storch, Pablo J Olivares-Olivares – Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Mar 31;18(7):3642 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33807425/

“This study analyzed response inhibition, cognitive flexibility and working memory in three groups of patients diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, considering some variables that may influence results (nonverbal reasoning, comorbidity, use of pharmacotherapy).”

  • Social anxiety disorder and the fear of death: An empirical investigation of the terror management approach towards understanding clinical anxiety. Zuccala, M., & Abbott, M. J. (2021). https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2021-01861-001

“Emerging evidence suggests that death anxiety is an important transdiagnostic construct underlying a range of psychological disorders. Terror Management Theory (TMT) is currently the preeminent theoretical framework used to explain the role that death fears play in psychopathology. This study sought to examine the TMT approach to understanding clinical anxiety while addressing several methodological limitations associated with the existing empirical literature. Method: Semi-structured diagnostic interviewing was employed to recruit two groups of participants with either Social Anxiety Disorder or no anxiety diagnosis. All participants were randomly allocated to receive either mortality salience or control priming, before undertaking two tasks designed to measure social and physical anxiety symptoms, respectively. Results: The overall pattern of results failed to provide evidence in support of the novel hypotheses derived from TMT. Mortality salience priming did not exacerbate social anxiety symptoms for participants with Social Anxiety Disorder, but did exacerbate physical anxiety symptoms for these individuals. No such effect was observed for non-clinical participants. Conclusion: These results suggest that more robust theoretical frameworks may be needed to explain the evident, but likely complex, relationship between death fears and clinical anxiety. Directions for future research are discussed. “

“The relationship between separation anxiety and suicidality has not been explored extensively,” Stefano Pini, MD, of the department of clinical and experimental medicine at University of Pisa in Italy, and colleagues wrote. “One study found an association between separation anxiety disorder and increased risk [for] suicidal behaviors in a prospective study of 500 Indian adolescents in a rural community. Another study reported an association between severity of separation anxiety symptoms and suicidal ideation in a small sample (n = 31) of patients with social anxiety disorder, although the observed association was dependent on comorbidity with major depression and avoidant personality disorder.”

  • Candidate Factors Maintaining Social Anxiety in the Context of Psychotic Experiences: A Systematic Review – Warut Aunjitsakul, Nicola McGuire, Hamish J McLeod, Andrew Gumley – Schizophr Bull. 2021 Mar 29 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33778868/

“Prominent psychological factors maintaining social anxiety included self-perceptions of stigma and shame. Common correlates of social anxiety included poorer functioning and lower quality of life. In conclusion, stigma and shame could be targeted as a causal mechanism in future interventional studies. The integration of findings from this review lead us to propose a new theoretical model to guide future intervention research.”

News articles

A light-hearted look at the fears of a young woman and her friends as lockdown restriction easing in the UK allows her to meet up with five friends outdoors over Easter: “Staying at home eliminates the holy trinity of social anxiety: the fear of missing out, the fear of actually being there, and the fear of what you did or said that creeps in after you’ve left.”

A humorous take on common behaviours prompted by socially anxiety: “This is my favorite game to play. Peek-a-boo, you don’t see me. I can’t recall the number of times I’ve strolled into a store and out of nowhere, launched myself behind a rack for cover because I recognized someone. Did they see me? Oh God, I hope they didn’t see me. What if they saw me hide? What if they come my way now, what do I say? Oh God, why am I like this? Usually, I’m by myself, so I don’t have to explain my behavior to someone else and feel extra stupid. But when I’m out with my husband, I have to deal with him too because he snickers and leaves me to my own insanity. Hello, social anxiety. I trail slowly behind and intermittently ask him to check if the coast is clear. I keep track of that person’s whereabouts until they leave the store. Don’t ask me how much time I’ve wasted doing this.”

“Think about the biggest challenges you’ve faced and overcome. Looking at your strongest, wisest moments, do you think you could use that same strength and wisdom to prevail in this potential challenge as well?

What do you think you could learn from it? In what ways do you think you would gain strength as you face these new obstacles?

Thinking about your strengths and your best moments can help you to remember that, while you may not enjoy your current circumstances, you have the strength to handle what comes. You may find new strengths you didn’t know you had!”

Article on London based writer, Russell Norris, who experiences severe facial blushing as an anxiety symptom: “Norris has decided to confront his fears by being more open about them. He’s written a book, Red Face: How I Learnt to Live with Social Anxiety, about what life is like as a perpetual blusher. “It’s not easy, is the short answer,” he notes. “I became an expert in avoidance.””