The Clerestory Podcast S1 E25

The Oklahoma Tenant Farmer and Me
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How My Retail Job Healed My Lingering Social Anxiety

At first, I attributed the feeling of unsteadiness that I felt in college to being far from home; I envied my friends who drove home on weekends to do their laundry. But by the end of my sophomore year, I knew that something was wrong. I was spending too much time in my dorm room. I was going to bed too early, but not sleeping. My stomach hurt often, as did my head.

The psychiatrist at our health center diagnosed me with social anxiety at the beginning of my junior year. He prescribed me medicine. He referred me to a counselor, whom I began to see every week.

I was going to write that social anxiety changed my personality, but that would not be true. For my personality to have changed, it would have had to have gone from A to B. My personality went from A to nothingness. I went from being me to being numb. I went from alive to only existing.

Social anxiety did not change my personality, it erased it.

In time, the medicine, as the psychiatrist said that it would, helped. It helped my brain learn how to think true thoughts about myself and about how other people saw me. Seeing the counselor helped. By the time I graduated, I could envision a way out of the nothingness, the numb, the existence that should have been a life.

When I was 24, I moved to Mexico. I pushed myself to be more assertive as my Spanish improved. I learned how to make jokes in Spanish and the most common phrases to text new friends on WhatsApp. I taught English to groups of businesspeople, and I interpreted and translated, in both professional and personal settings. Whenever I felt awkward or anxious, I told myself that if anyone thought I was weird, they would attribute it to the fact that I was American.

Every time I came back to the US to see my family, however, my personality reverted back to the socially awkward person that I had been in college. Waves of nausea washed over me when I ordered at my favorite coffee shop and the barista made small talk. When I saw my old friends and they asked about my life in Mexico, sometimes I struggled to form coherent sentences. Crowds overwhelmed me. I doubted, if I ever lived in the US again, that if I could be myself here.

Last summer, after seven years of living in Mexico, I moved back to the United States. The move was sudden; I did had not have d time to weigh the pros and cons for my mental health. What was also sudden was the retail job I got in the fall, a temporary position that would end after the holiday season. After that, I told myself, I would look for something better-paying, more permanent, something more suited to my skills and interests.

The retailer hired me for order fulfillment. In theory, the job was simple: push a cart to a designated location in the store, pick the designated item from the designated shelf, scan the item into the cart. The job became difficult when an item was not in its designated location. In order to find the item, I would have to find (or call for, using a handheld radio) an employee from that department and ask them to direct me to another salesfloor location the item might be or if it could still be in the back room.

I also had to interact with customers doing in-person shopping. At a large retailer during the fourth quarter, there were many. Most of the customers who stopped me wanted to know where a certain department was located in the store, but many of them asked more specific questions. Were there still Christmas cards in stock? Could I recommend a gift for a teenage girl? Did we carry, you know, those plastic mats that you step on to wash dishes? I didn’t always know the answer, but I learned how to direct the customers to someone who did or how to use my electronic device to do an item search. I pushed myself to be more assertive, more personable, more social than I felt.

It was a dizzying, overstimulating, physically tiring job. For weeks, I wondered when I would fall into a rhythm. If I would fall into a rhythm. Christmas and New Year’s came and went, and I wondered if the retailer would stop scheduling me.

They kept scheduling me. With less orders to fulfill and less guests in the store, I had time to think about how I greeted almost all of the employees by name now. I had time to finally stop and ask the employee from the kitchen department if we sold those plastic mats that you step on to wash dishes, in case another customer asked for one. I had time to load two patio chairs onto a flat for a customer and push the flat the length of the store without hitting anything or anyone. I had time to talk to my Cuban co-worker about ESL classes while I hunted for clothes in the stacks of boxes just unloaded from the delivery truck. I had time to think about how much I liked the job.

It is now May; the retailer took the “seasonal” part off of my job description. I will not work here forever. Soon, I will look for something better-paying and more suited to my skills and interests. But in the meantime, I am letting the retail job heal me. I am letting my muscles relearn how to be social with other Americans. I am letting the interactions with co-workers and customers return me to the person that I was before I knew what social anxiety was, and everything it had the power to take away.

Last week, I sat in a bright office with my boss for my performance review.

“Your personality is a good fit for our store,” he told me.

I smiled as I walked out of the office, and then I walked to the back of the store to get a cart and start fulfilling orders.

Emily Carreon is a wife and mother living in central Texas. She is pursuing a master's degree in theology at Fuller Seminary and writes weekly for her Substack.

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