Conventional anxiety

It’s six weeks until the TFNation 2018 Transformers convention and I am very excited because I love going, but I am also terrified because I have social anxiety.

I used to let my social anxiety get the better of me, to the point where I would often avoid going to events altogether despite desperately wanting to go to them. But since 2016, and the first TFNation, I’ve made huge efforts to understand social anxiety, and anxiety and mental health in general. My own, anyway.

Conventions like TFNation (and its predecessor of sorts, Auto Assembly) can be, and are, so, so much fun. But they’re also the perfect opportunity for an over-thinking brain like mine to trigger a lot of anxious thoughts.

You look forward to seeing your friends and meeting new people. But your brain also tells you that you’re a nuisance and would be better off shutting the heck up and staying away from people.

It’s like one of those nightmares when you find yourself naked and exposed in front of hundreds of people in a crowded place, except that your anxious brain makes sure those feelings of dread stay with you long after you’ve woken up.

It’s a battle. And if you let your anxiety get the better of you, and you convince yourself to not go if you’ve been planning to, you will lose out on a lot more than you realise.

I very nearly didn’t go to the first TFNation. I very nearly missed out on such a fun time. But I was determined to not let my anxious thoughts get the better of me. It was a battle I’m glad I won.

But, saying all that, there have been several occasions when, regrettably, I did let my anxious thoughts get the better of me when it came to the convention experience.

  • I didn’t go to Auto Assembly 2015 (the final one) because I let my anxiety get the better of me
  • I didn’t go to Auto Assembly 2014 because I let my anxiety get the better of me
  • I didn’t go to the London Film and Comic Con in 2014, despite really, really wanting to finally meet Bob Budiansky because I let my anxiety get the better of me
  • I didn’t go to Auto Assembly 2012 because I let my anxiety get the better of me. And this was an expensive one, as I’d already pre-booked/paid for my ticket and hotel
  • I did go to Auto Assembly 2013 but I didn’t go up to speak to guest Stephen Baskerville (who had illustrated a brilliant commission for me previously and was kind enough to colour it for me at no extra charge) and I felt terrible for not even thanking him in person because I let my anxiety get the better of me
  • Also at Auto Assembly 2013 (my first one at the Hilton Metropole) I skipped the hotel breakfast each morning and walked to the Starbucks on the other side of the NEC to eat alone because I let my anxiety get the better of me
  • At Auto Assembly 2008 I had to ask a friend to go up to Guido Guidi to ask for a couple of sketches because I let my anxiety get the better of me

(I could go on, but I won’t.)

I really don’t know what was different about TFNation in 2016, but I really didn’t want to add to the long list of convention regrets in my mind. I was just simply determined to go.

I know from my interactions on social media that anxiety can put a lot of people off either going to conventions or making the best of them. Don’t let your anxious thoughts get the better of you, like I have done on so many occasions.

From my own experiences in 2016 and 2017, TFNation is generally an excellent convention. It’s smoothly run. The organisers and volunteers are all approachable during the quieter moments. It’s a safe and relaxed and inclusive environment. Yes, it’s busy, and cliques and groups of friends chatting do tend to form but I am sure nobody at all would mind if you said hello.

The guests are usually brilliant; happy to chat and answer (sensible) questions about their work on Transformers.

Anxiety is a barrier at conventions and while it can be difficult or even near impossible to break it down, it is very much worth it.

Start small. Ask a simple open-ended question (How was your journey here? Which toys are you looking for? Which guest are you most excited to meet?) and you’ll soon find yourself on the other side of that barrier and, hopefully, enjoying yourself!

It is often said that social anxiety disorder is an illness of missed opportunities. A weekend event such as TFNation (or any other convention) is an opportunity not to be missed! But a convention is also an opportunity for anxiety to narrow its eyes, wring its hands and let a cruel, sadistic smile stretch across its face. In other words, as it certainly has done to me in the past, anxiety can outright ruin an entire convention experience.

I’ve been interested in Transformers since 1984. Throughout my childhood and teenage years it was an isolated (and isolating) hobby. Every Saturday morning I would read the Marvel UK Transformers comic on my own and re-enact those adventures with my toys in solitude. It wasn’t until I joined a Transformers fan club (Transmasters UK) in 1995 that I became aware of, and had the opportunity to meet, fellow fans.

In those days, pre-Internet, everyone in the fan club communicated via hand-written letters like pen-pals. I remember reading in one of the printed newsletters that meet ups were a regular thing and it actually terrified me! At that point in my life I didn’t really say much to people I didn’t know if I could possibly help it.

Thinking back, I realise now that it was a symptom of anxiety but at the time everyone (myself included) shrugged it off as extreme shyness. Needless to say, I avoided most social situations. But the prospect of a meet up with like-minded Transformers collectors? It was terrifying, but also, after all those years of isolation, impossible to resist.

There were about 12 of us at that first meet up. I don’t remember saying much at all for the entire afternoon. But I do remember having fun, and I do remember the boost it gave me.

So how does someone with social anxiety go from a small meet up of 12 people to an event like TFNation that accommodates up to 1,000 people? Verrrrrry gradually over the course of 22 years!

No, but seriously: very gradually over the course of 22 years.

Since 1995, those meet ups have evolved slowly into what we know as TFNation today. This gradual evolution has, more or less, worked out fine for me. Had my first social Transformers experience been with 999 other people in the same place I wouldn’t have coped. At all. I would have very easily let my anxiety talk me out of going.

But we are at the stage where a UK-based Transformers convention is attracting up to 1,000 people. And if you’ve never been before I can fully, completely, unreservedly, utterly, totally understand how daunting that is!

Last year I spoke to many, many people who, like me, have anxious thoughts that beat them up before, during, and after, a convention.

As I listened and engaged, hiding my sweating palms and keeping the awkwardness to a minimum of course, I realised that we were all climbing the same mountain with the harsh winds of anxiety pushing us back down. In other words, a convention can feel like something that has to be conquered before it can be enjoyed.

Thankfully, the team behind TFNation have been working very hard, and tirelessly continue to do so, to ensure that the path to the summit isn’t as steep and treacherous as you might fear, and easier to conquer than you might realise. In fact, last year’s TFNation was the least anxious I think I’ve ever felt at a social event.

(But, hey, don’t worry, my anxiety has since replayed the entire four days back in my head, over and over, making me cringe at every ridiculous thing I said and did during every single conversation I had with every single person I met. Anxiety is super thorough like that. Really, it is. Super thorough.)

It look me a long, long time to realise that I wasn’t alone in the way I felt about allowing my anxiety dictate my experience of conventions. I wish now I hadn’t left it so late to reach out.

If there’s one thing I’ve very recently learned, it’s to get past the stigma associated with mental health, do my best to conquer it, and open up about it more. It’s helped me no end, and I sincerely hope it’s helped others too.

Each little victory in the battle against anxiety goes such a long way into improving things, even if it seems like it’s incremental. Each little victory can improve the convention experience a hundredfold.

I will be at TFNation this August. If you see me about, you are more than welcome to say hi.

If you are interested in coming to something like TFNation for the first time (or even if you’re a regular) and you’re battling anxiety please just know that you’re not alone and that many of your potential fellow attendees (and guests too!) will be experiencing similar feelings. I can’t stress this enough: you are not alone. In fact, you never were.

Yours aye.

–Graham (@grhmthmsn)

If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting this blog by buying a virtual coffee.

PS: Check out my comprehensive thoughts on last year’s TFNation over on my Collecting Stories blog.

Also, have a look through my photography galleries on Flickr of TFNation 2016 and 2017.

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