Conventional Conquests

A few more personal thoughts about conventions and anxiety

It’s only a been few weeks since the second TFNation convention and, as usual, I’m swinging between being super exhausted and super nostalgic.

Before TFNation this year I wrote a short piece called “Conventional Confessions” and the response I got online before and after the event, and during the weekend itself, has been hugely humbling and heart-warming. I’ll be honest: I was surprised to say the least! I was initially hesitant to write it, let alone publish it. But I’m pleased I did. And if it helped anyone, anyone at all for even the smallest amount, I’m exponentially pleased!

TFNation 2017 has been and gone and, for me, it was a tremendously fun weekend. You can read all about my adventure here: Thoughts on TFNation 2017. I deliberately didn’t mention anything about anxiety in that write-up because, frankly, it didn’t deserve to be acknowledged so as not to spoil all the fun.

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. (Please do read my “Collecting Stories” for more depth!) 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 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!

This year I spoke to many, many people who, like me, have anxious thoughts that beat them up before, during, and after, a convention. (“Hey, your blog about anxiety really helped me,” was a phrase my ego didn’t at all get tired of hearing, by the way.)

As I listened and engaged, hiding my sweating palms 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. In fact, this year’s TFNation was the least anxious I think I’ve ever felt at a social event.

(But 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.)

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.

Every little victory in the battle against anxiety isn’t exactly a conventional conquest, but it goes such a long way into improving things. Every little victory can improve the convention experience no end.

If you are interested in coming to something like TFNation for the first time 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.

May your luster never dull, and your wires never cross.

— Graham (@inkybauds)

PS: Please watch this wonderful vlog by a wonderful person, that has been, in part, inspired by my initial “Conventional Confessions” blog.