I have self-diagnosed myself with a rare condition, I call it assumed discomfort. The key symptom of this disorder is the tendency to adopt the discomfort/anxiety that another should be suffering for doing or saying something embarrassing or awkward.
Here is a rudimentary flowchart outlining the condition:
Assumed discomfort or as medical practitioners call it, AD, has caused me no end of grief. For instance, my face is now puckered into a permanent cringe and whenever I go to a café/bar/restaurant I must insist on facing a wall so as to avoid catching glimpses of uncomfortable situations out of the corner of my eye. It has become so severe that I now turn seemingly innocuous interactions into full-blown social disasters.
Take for example ordering desert at a restaurant recently. My companion ordered the mille-feuille, pronouncing it as ‘meellee foil-ee’. This caused me to erupt in hives, thinking: “Oh god I can’t believe he pronounced ‘mille feuille’ like that, I think the waiter hates us now, he will spit in our food. THERE WILL BE SALIVA IN OUR MILLE FEUILLE”
“Please don’t spit in our food.” I stammered to the waiter, clutching at his apron. Gently prying my fingers from his clothing the waiter left us. By this point I had started to hyperventilate into my trusty paper bag. But here is the rub I don’t even know how to pronounce mille feuille.
Nonetheless, this is how most of my social outings end with me either hyperventilating, blacking out, throwing up, or breaking into low, prolonged sobs. Assumed discomfort is a serious condition.
It doesn’t even have to be in person. I, like most in-denial bourgeois young things, watched SBS’ Go Back to Where You Came From last night. When that Young Liberal from Queensland said, or did, anything I lapsed into acute AD.
After this particular exchange I became so tense I blew a blood vessel in my eye and cracked a tooth.
But recently I have noticed my AD has manifested into something much more sinister, a condition that I call hypotheticals anxiety. Hypotheticals anxiety is best described as a condition where I only have to imagine an awkward situation in order to experience the associated physical sensations (refer back to Stage 3 of my medical flowchart).
This occurred most recently when I was leaving my workplace a few weeks ago. Crossing the car park I spied in the distance a lower-middle aged, blonde woman in typical South Yarra garb, an oversized breezy white shirt. I recognized her instantly as one of me managers but her name I could not remember.
Frantically I leafed through my mental rolodex for all the names that such a woman could have: Annabelle, Jane, Janet, Kate, Margaret, Olivia, Prue, Paula, Kerry.
It had to be Kerry, I thought. But doubt whispered in my ear. By this point we were walking past each other and had already locked eye contact. I averted name usage at the last minute. “Hello”, I said, without help from my voice, which decided to break. She returned the greeting.
I turned out of the gate and it struck me: Jenny.
Of course, her name is Jenny. I experienced that flush of relief that follows the clearance of a mental blockage. But relief quickly turned to stress as I realized how close I had come to cluelessly chirping: “Hello Kerry”.
As I walked down Toorak road this stress manifested into nervous hand wringing that, in turn, gave way to deranged hair pulling (and not my own hair) until I sat down in the street and, grabbing at frightened passers-by, began to howl ‘JENNIFER, HER NAME IS JENNIFER!’
Yes, hypotheticals anxiety and assumed discomfort have turned me into Sarah Goldfarb in the final scenes of Requiem for a Dream.