Monica Bielanko is a divorced mom of three who spends her time perfecting the dark arts of couch dining, bambino wrangling and co-parenting

(REUTERS/Andrew Kelly)

I am terrified of failing the Chipotle guy.

I stand in line practicing my order so I can fire it at him the minute he turns my way. Burrito bowl! To go! White rice! Black beans! Chicken! I know what to say and when to say it. I understand that you, Chipotle Worker, are in a hurry, and I am here to help!

After I wow him, I’ll step sideways down the line, preparing to dazzle the girl posted at the salsa station. “Mild, medium, and hot,” I force a chuckle, shrugging an apology for wanting all three salsas.

I nod in support as she dishes up each ingredient. That’s it! Great job! I flash her a gigantic smile to convey my immense gratitude for her brief stewardship over my meal.

They will probably talk about how fabulous I am after I leave.

* * *

These “fast casual” joints are popping up two and three to a block and I aim to be the valedictorian at each and every one. My need to please people in general is a sickness. My need to please service professionals borders on pathology.

I cannot bear the thought of these strangers thinking badly of me. That’s why I don’t waste my time in line checking Instagram. I review my order and rehearse it repeatedly in my head before it’s my time to shine. A botched order would ruin not just my enjoyment of whatever I’m purchasing, but likely my entire day. My brain will replay my perceived humiliation on an endless loop until I am certain I can never return to the scene of my crime.

This obsession stems, I’m sure, from my feisty single mother, who gave innocent fast food workers The Business for minor infractions, which she presumed were committed with malicious intent to Get One Over On Her. And by God, no one would be getting one over on anyone on her watch.

“Do not drive away from the drive-thru without checking the bag for your order,” she’d remind us at every visit to a drive-thru. “You always get screwed at the drive-thru!” She would rifle through our McDonald’s bag while I panicked about the person behind us fuming over our slow departure from the window.

“Hey.” Oh, God, here she goes, I’d think. She would tap at the window with her fingernail. “I’m paying for fries, and I want fries,” she would tell the woman behind the window. “There are barely any fries in this box.” I, meanwhile, would attempt to melt into whatever furniture I was nearest, trying to harness the power of ESP to mentally telepath an apology.

This is the plight of those who suffer from social anxiety. And there are a lot of us.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, around 15 million men and women suffer extreme fear of being scrutinized and judged in social or performance situations. Although we recognize the fear is excessive and unreasonable, we feel powerless against the anxiety and are terrified of embarrassing ourselves. I once heard someone describe his social anxiety as making him feel as if he’s constantly “on stage.”

That’s true for me. I dread causing a scene. Bring filet mignon to my table instead of the fish I ordered, and I will spend an endless amount of time agonizing over whether to mention that I’m a pescatarian. Once, I gobbled an entire plate of slimy scallops instead of the shrimp I ordered because that seemed easier than telling the waiter he got my order wrong.

In fact, I’d never tell a waiter that he screwed up my order, even if I’m seething inside. You’ve ruined my night, or maybe even my week, with your stupid filet mignon. But I’m fine. Mom would raise hell and get a comped meal. Me? This is the best meal ever! Here’s a 30 percent tip to prove it!

It’s the same everywhere. Ordering coffee at Starbucks fills me with the kind of dread normal folks reserve for delivering eulogies at funerals. I practice my order over again. I need the barista to know I’m a team player who knows how to order coffee. It’s not logical, my need to please her. Intellectually I know this, but that’s social anxiety in a nutshell.

“House blend. Venti,” I tell Starbucks Girl in a slow, clear manner.

She asks me something at the same moment a blender behind the counter roars to life.

“Say that again?”

“Broom for me, Sugar?”

Oh, God. What is she asking me?

“Sorry, I can’t hear you.” I point to my ear dramatically in the universal sign for I can’t hear you. She looks annoyed. She’s so annoyed! I should leave.

“ROOM. FOR. CREAM. AND. SUGAR?” she enunciates as if I’m elderly and going deaf.

It’s ruined. My coffee is ruined. I hate everything. I want to go home.

* * *

Ordering alcohol at a bar? Mixed drinks are out. Don’t know enough about them to order proficiently. I don’t want to be the annoying customer asking, “What’s in a Blue Hawaiian?” or “What kind of liquor goes in a Cosmo?” I stick with beer because it seems easier, but beer is stressful too! Is Pilsner the dark one or the light? Wait, what? Pilsner is a pale lager? And pale ale is an … ale? What does that even mean?

“Um…Do you just have Pabst Blue Ribbon in a can?” I default to  the simplest, cheapest beer I know.

Try as I might, I can’t quite conquer my anxiety. In fact, a friend once dared me to mess up an order at Chipotle so I could really understand myself. “Really make a mess of things,” she instructed, with no regard for my sanity. “Forget what you were ordering. Change your mind halfway through!”

I could feel sweat prickling my armpits.

I’ve been to Chipotle twice since then. Both times, I spent the drive pumping myself up and then stood in line, sweating straight through my hoodie, telling myself to mess up my order because Alice told me to. What’s the big deal anyway? I’d take notes, really focus on my reaction and nail it. Social anxiety sufferers would cheer — silently, of course — at my brilliant articulation of our affliction.

I couldn’t do it.

I kept flashing back to the one time I accidentally told the Chipotle guy pinto beans instead of black beans. So stupid! Last minute stage fright. I knew it was wrong as it was coming out of my mouth.

I watched in horror as he ladled a mound of pinto beans onto my rice. Could I tell him I meant black beans? Absolutely not. I smiled broadly and thanked him before moving on. Those pinto beans ruined my lunch, and maybe even my day, but it was still a better outcome than the humiliation of making him start over.

Trying to force myself to mess up my order on purpose (which I couldn’t do the second time either), while anticipating Chipotle Guy’s annoyed reaction, was so torturous that I ended up feeling more traumatized than I would’ve been had I legitimately screwed up the order.

This process, though, wasn’t all bad. I ended up googling “social anxiety ordering food” after my Chipotle crisis, and even though I was pretty sure I wasn’t the only person who suffered this particular facet of social anxiety I was blown away by how many people share my need to please people when ordering food and drinks. In fact, my need to please is relatively mild considering many people dread ordering to the point that they’d rather go hungry or, even worse, go home and cook.

Of course, that Chipotle is tainted for me now. It’s ground zero of my food ordering social anxiety. Anyone know where I can get a good burrito bowl?