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The Terror of Dealing with Social Anxiety Disorder in Prison

My condition was both the thing that led me into crime and an extra punishment on top of my jail sentence.

Graham Brief

Francisco Goya'sCasa de Locos. Image via Wikimedia

When most people finish university, they either get a job or go traveling. Unfortunately, I'm not most people. Since the age of 18, I've suffered from social anxiety disorder, a mental illness characterized by severe shyness and a fear of social situations. I could have gone traveling, but sitting in the corner not saying anything in a far-off land would have been very similar to doing the same thing in the UK. As for entering the world of work, that was never going to happen—I felt as if I was physically unable to speak whenever I had to talk to anyone I didn't know, and not many employers will give a position to a candidate who doesn't answer any of the interview questions. Instead, I started taking drugs to give me the confidence to socialize, and then became involved in petty crime to get the money to buy them.

It's easy to fall into the trap of believing that the socially anxious are too timid and hermit-like to become heavily involved in crime, but according to psychotherapist Jacob Barr, who frequently treats patients with this condition, the socially anxious sometimes feel as if there's no other option than to quell their fears and insecurities with drugs.

"Too often sufferers of social anxiety disorder will feel that they have a simple choice either to live each day with low self-esteem and anxiety, or to escape into the world of addiction," he says. "Sadly, many choose the latter. A cycle of self-destruction is then set in motion, and it's not surprising when a life of crime quickly follows suit."

Although anxiety typically causes people to avoid risky behavior, Dr Monique Ernst, who has co-authored a paper on the link between risk-taking and social anxiety, believes that the opposite can be true when they're placed under stress. "Neuroscience brings support for a neural substrate of risk-taking in social anxiety," she says. "The neural circuit implicated in reward-and-risk-related processes has been found to be hyper-responsive in socially anxious adolescents." In layman's terms, there are potential neurological motivations for the socially anxious to become involved in criminal activity when placed under what they perceive to be extreme pressure.

In my case, my brain interpreted any and every social interaction as "extreme pressure." Things had gradually got worse since I left home for uni, to the point where I felt terrified speaking to friends I'd known since childhood. My mind was constantly abuzz with negative emotions, and I acted a way that I never would have done in a million years if I had been thinking clearly.

The end to my short-lived life of crime came at six o'clock on a Monday morning, when my door went flying off the hinges and six burly drug squad officers stormed into the hallway.

"Where are the drugs?" an overzealous drill-sergeant type copper bellowed inches from my face. "We know they're in here! Tell us where they are, or we'll rip the place apart!"

The drugs weren't even hidden; they were in a big bag in the middle of the floor that might as well have been labelled "drugs."

"They're in that bag over there," I told them, figuring I'd only delay the inevitable by lying.

"We've caught you bang to rights," the drill sergeant shouted.

Erm, yeah, I thought to myself. I think I gathered that.

The guy seemed to scream fucking everything he said, even though I was fully cooperating, which I thought was a bit uncalled for. But then again, the police had been gathering intelligence on me for months, so I guess it was the culmination of a lengthy operation and he was pretty excited. From his point of view, I was another dangerous drug dealer who had been heroically removed from the streets.

READ: The VICE Guide to Mental Health

Going to jail is frightening for all first-time offenders, but even more so for somebody who can hardly say a word and has the social skills of a ham sandwich. In the run up to my sentencing date, I felt as if my heart was going to beat out of my chest. I was as scared of standing up in front of a room full of people as I was of getting locked up. Fortunately, the judge didn't criticize me too heavily or spend a long time reprimanding me, which would have left me a gibbering wreck. He did, however, sentence me to two years in prison, which I thought was a bit excessive for a first-time offender who had been caught selling ecstasy, not crack or heroin.

After being sentenced, I was placed in a sweatbox and taken to a remand prison, where I was to be held until they decided what jail I would be held in for the majority of my sentence. Upon arrival, I was ordered over to a table with a member of staff sat at it and asked a series of questions to determine my risk of self-harming and to see whether or not I had any mental health issues. It wasn't a great system for determining if inmates needed treatment; there was no privacy, and other prisoners were milling about in earshot. Mentally ill inmates are often derogatorily referred to as "fraggles" by the cons and treated quite badly, so the prison authorities could have been a bit more discrete.

On the next table along from me, another con was kicking off at the fact that somebody had had the audacity to ask him about his mental health. "I'm not a fucking mental case!" he shouted. "Why the fuck are you asking me that?" That pretty much summed up the other prisoners' attitude towards the issue of mental health.

I told the woman doing the interview that I had social anxiety disorder, and she put me down for a course designed to help at-risk inmates cope with prison life. The course consisted of sitting and drinking cups of tea for ten minutes, then using some gym equipment while a guard took the piss out of how unfit we all were. It was useless in terms of helping inmates with mental health issues, but got me out of my cell for an hour, so I wasn't complaining. Unfortunately, it was hit-or-miss whether or not the guards would unlock my door and take me out for it each morning, so I only actually got to attend around one in three sessions.

READ: I Was Relentlessly Harassed By the Media After Cutting My Own Penis Off

I put in for counseling almost as soon as I entered the prison, but didn't see a counsellor until at least six months through my sentence. I only ended up seeing him twice and, to be honest, he didn't seem to know a whole lot about mental health. He seemed like a random screw who'd been assigned the role of counsellor, not a trained professional.

I was promised help with my anxiety when I got out of prison, but that didn't materialize at all. Despite having to attend weekly probation sessions and repeatedly asking about the treatment I'd been told I would receive, I was still never referred to the local mental health service. I could have done with some counseling, because it's hard adjusting to normal life again after spending years behind bars. I was used to being around people who talked about crime constantly, and struggled to revert to my former self. The few friends I had left soon drifted away as I bored them with stories about the well-known criminal faces I'd met and violent incidents I'd seen in prison. The other cons had talked almost exclusively about that kind of thing, but my mates were all university-educated and couldn't have cared less that I had worked on the servery with a local Mr. Big or seen somebody get beaten half to death with a can of tuna in a sock. It was weird and morbid to them, and not stuff they could relate to.

For a while, I found myself hanging around with criminals and no one else. It was weird, because I'd cut off all contact with the people I met in prison for fear of getting caught up in their lifestyle, but gravitated towards other ex-cons a short time after being released. I went through a period of being completely cut off from mainstream society and only interacting with people who existed on the margins. Fortunately, after accidentally taking an overdose while on a night out with some crims, I decided that I was going to end up fucking my life up even more if I carried on being around people like that, and chose instead to plunge myself into a state of really intense isolation, where I had no contact with anyone at all other than people from online social anxiety forums. This was a really lonely, soul-destroying period, but culminated in me making a concerted effort to drag myself out of solitude and connect with some of my old law-abiding friends again.

I've still got social anxiety today and have received very little help, which isn't great, considering the fact that I explained to the probation services that it was the root cause of my offending. I was only in two jails and can't generalize to the whole of the British penal system. All I can say is that if my experiences are reflective of the overall state of mental health services for offenders, then there's little wonder the recidivism rate among mentally ill inmates is so high. While I'd be lying if I said I didn't witness some good work being done to rehabilitate inmates—for example, the excellent vocational courses offered by the jails I was in—it's clear that when it comes to mentally ill prisoners, some are being released without the problems that led to their crimes being addressed. And surely, this can only lead to future offenses being committed.