Woman walking on a sidewalk with a painted rainbow on the ground.

The Anxiety of Coming Out

Growing up, conversations about future boyfriends and a husband were ever present from a young age. It’s what my family and friends talked about. So I thought it was the norm. I listened but would rarely engage, as I didn’t feel I had much to add to the conversation.

I’ve always felt different. I wasn’t interested in dating in middle or high school. All my friends had boyfriends by the ninth grade. So I figured it would eventually happen for me. After graduating high school, I started to date men. I was a “one date wonder,” always finding something wrong with the guys and moving onto the next. After years of doing this, I started to think something was wrong with me.

At 19, I started the coming out process after researching sexuality and watching queer based shows and movies. Lesbian characters did not exist for me growing up. So when I found them, I entered a new world, a world I knew nothing about it. Then, it dawned on me, the disinterest in men, the pain of losing a close female friend in high school and countless crushes on my lady teachers made sense. I was gay!

After coming out to myself, anxiety flooded my body with fear and panic. My mind was going 100 miles an hour. I had panic attacks daily. The first and last thought for six months after I came out to myself was “I am gay.” After six months, I was ready to start the next steps in the coming out process. Coming out itself is an anxiety provoking experience. Partnered with an anxiety condition, it can seem overwhelming and too much to handle.

I was able to get through multiple coming outs to friends and family members. My voice was shaky and my hands were trembling, but I did it. I came out! After coming out to my close friends and family member, the daily panic attacks gradually went away, until something else caused my panic to emerge like passing a psychology test or getting a job.

Coming out was an anxiety-provoking time in my life, but trust me when I say, “It will get better.” Today, I am sometimes asked if I have a boyfriend or husband. I say, “No, I have a girlfriend.” I know I will continually have to come out throughout my life as many perceive me to be straight, but the more I’ve come out, the less anxious I feel about it.


I Thought the Mask I Wore Over My Anxiety Would Keep Me Safe

I’ve worn this mask most of my life. I believed it helped me. I believed it kept me safe and protected me. I never knew what life was like without the mask, or what I could achieve without the mask. But all along, the mask was just a mask and nothing more. It did not help me, it did not keep me safe or protect me. It only gave me something to hide behind and disguise what was really going on inside. Like sweeping all your dirt under the carpet, it may be hidden, but it is never resolved.

When you have spent a lifetime disguising what’s going on inside, the mask becomes a permanent feature of your persona. While you seem confident on the outside, inside there’s a storm brewing. My heart is pounding, I’m drumming my legs, my stomach is turning over, I’m chewing my finger nails and I’m biting the inside of my mouth to the point it bleeds. Nervous without rhyme or reason, overclouded by thoughts that just simply should not exist.

At a young age I discovered my mask. Like a tool in my toolbox, I used it to bury my emotions and manufacture a facade, building walls and hiding what was going on inside. Day in and day out, the mask was on as soon as my eyelids would open. Sometimes it was even in my dreams. From the moment I was awake the mask had to be on, out of fear — fear of someone learning how I felt. I feared someone would find out I did not like what I saw in the mirror.

At first I thought my mask could be easily removed, like I could take it off at any time and cope. But every time I attempted to remove my mask I found myself putting it back on faster than I could imagine. It was easier to wear the mask than confront the thoughts and actions that led me to wearing it. It was easier to sweep them under the carpet and ignore their existence than addressing them truly. Because addressing them would mean admitting to them and acknowledging I have issues. An admission to my faults and flaws, in my eyes, would be a failure. Failure to be a man like I was brought up to understand. Men don’t express feelings, they don’t show emotions. They’re tough, they’re robust, they are resilient and confident.

My mask came in the form of drug use. When I was younger it was more experimental, having tried almost everything I could get my hands on — alcohol, speed, ice, cocaine or acid — whatever was available. But my drug of choice, the one that allowed me to mask myself from the world and still function within society, was marijuana. I started using it heavily to calm and hide my anxiety and mask what I felt inside. My anxieties about socializing, going out, meeting people, being around people, dealing with peer pressure, being bullied, having my trust in other people shattered and dealing with life in general. I wanted to mask myself from everything, as if I was protecting myself from harm.

While I had no explanation for the way I was feeling, no way of knowing why or how hard it would strike, I knew one thing — smoking pot masked my anxiety from the people around me. Most importantly, it masked it from me. It allowed me to feel like I could function within the social norms without feeling I had to leave or to sit in silence by myself. But often, that’s what I would do. Isolate myself. Trash myself. Distort my mind with so much pot I was numb to what was going on around me.

I hadn’t realized I was still wearing the mask until recently. I thought it had long gone but it wasn’t. I had become so habituated to the mask it seemed to have dissolved away and become a part of me. But, alas, I was still wearing it all along. Still numbing myself to my issues, not allowing anyone in, blocking them out, sheltering me and protecting me.

It was time for change. It was time to lose the mask and see what life was like without it. To see what I could do, what I could be and who I really was. Open and exposed. No more hiding, no more numbing, no more mask. This seemed paradoxical as the idea raged my anxiety levels, yet I knew I had to confront it and change it. I needed to see who I truly was, and whether I really needed the mask or not.

Could I do it? What if I can’t remove it? What if I do and I fail? What if I succeed and nobody likes who I am? What if I don’t like who I am? It would be easier to put the mask back on and go on pretending everything is OK. I could see unless I challenged myself to remove the mask, I would forever be stuck wearing it. I may never see what I could be, who I could be or what I could achieve.

I faced the challenge and removed the mask, and it’s still gone to this day. I am no longer numbing myself to life, no longer letting anxiety win the battle. I can still feel the anxiety when it appears, when it raises its head, but instead of trying to mask or numb it I can now deal with it and defeat it. There were times I wanted to put the mask on again because it would be easier than facing the challenge of reality, of seeing who I can be. But I will never know what I can achieve if I sit comfortably behind the mask, never dreaming, never challenging myself and never accepting who I could be.

The key to removing my mask came as a result of a decision that had nothing to do with wearing it. It was a butterfly effect on a grandiose scale. I decided I wanted to get involved with helping a charity close to my heart and family. A charity called Touched By Olivia, who design and build inclusive play spaces for children of all abilities — children like my second daughter. They were looking for people to run in the New York City Marathon in November and something drew me in like a moth to a porch light.

To help me commit to the process of training for the run I started a blog on Facebook called Run, Dad, Run. It made me feel responsible for committing to the run and so I started blogging about my training and how I was feeling. As an unintentional consequence of this process I would film myself discussing how I was feeling, what was going on in my mind and why I felt the way I did. I started to talk about my anxiety and drug use, with only the camera to hear my rationalizations. But I knew I needed to make a public post about it so people could realize despite my outward facade, they were only seeing the mask. I’d spend hours reviewing the footage, watching myself talk about me. I felt like I was watching a complete stranger. “This is not me, who is this person? Why does he feel this way?” I would watch the videos and I would cry. I could not make anything of the footage because it hurt so much to see this person and the reasons he gave for his drug use. I was in denial it was even me.

The more I watched the footage and pondered who this person was the more I realized I had to make a difference now before it was too late. If not, I would be on my death bed one day asking myself what I could have achieved, who I could be, where I could go and what dreams I left behind. I realized I couldn’t outwardly change if I couldn’t inwardly change. The videos gave me an overwhelming sense of self-reflection and self-realization. I knew what I had to do. I had to remove the mask. For my kids, my family, my friends and most importantly for me. I had to dig deep inside and ask myself if I wanted to continue masking these things and watch as time faded away, or if I wanted to be the person I should be.

I had never run a marathon in my life. I was never much of a runner at all. Yet for some reason it resonated with me, it called out and challenged me. I wanted to be the guy who said he was going to do something and then went out and did it. I wasn’t going to be the guy who did nothing and watched his dreams pass by anymore. With a new level of determination I set about making a change in my mind and in my life. I quit consuming the drugs and faced my fears. I looked into my own eyes and realized something: I was my own worst enemy all along. I was the problem and I was the solution. I needed to beat the voice in my head that said I would fail, that told me to quit and take the same over-walked path. I was determined to shut that voice down and drown it out with a new mantra — I can do this!

And so it was. Like a light switch that had been turned on, something had changed in my mind. It wasn’t over months or days or hours, but at that very moment I realized I had anxiety issues and a drug addiction and admitted to it. The lights in my darkened room had been turned on and I could finally see there was more to life. I could not turn that light off again. I couldn’t let myself go back to that dark room and be benighted by my anxiety and fears anymore. It was time to change. And so, change I did.

Follow this journey on Run, Dad, Run.

black woman avatar in Pokemon Go

What Playing Pokemon Go Reminded Me as a Black Woman With Anxiety

This past week caused me to feel anxious, depressed, and angry.

I have dealt with anxiety and depression. I’ve been doing well. I may have my moments, but I know how to get through them. I know my triggers, but how does one prepare themselves for the reminder that hate in the world is still alive, and it threatens the livelihood of people who look like me in America?

I was on my way out the door when I logged into Twitter, and the first thing I saw was a name as a hashtag, Alton Sterling, and I knew exactly what that meant. I closed it and tried to shut it out of my mind. Unfortunately, I wasn’t successful. As my day went on, I learned more.

I found myself fighting tears all day. Then I saw the clip of his son crying out for his father. The next day was worse. My sunglasses hid my tears; I kept them on even as I rode into the dark metro tunnel. I felt like Audrey in the young adult fiction book, “Finding Audrey,” where the main character experiences social anxiety and wears sunglasses to give her added strength to talk to strangers.

The next day another black man, Philando Castile, was shot and killed by a police officer in the car in front of his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter. I spent the day again fighting tears, crying in public, upset, not understanding why everyone around me seemed so happy while I was so concerned.

That night I had insomnia. I couldn’t put my phone down, and that’s when the Dallas shooting happened. I was watching the tweets and the image of a black man being shared as the person of interest. It just didn’t sit right with me, and not long after, social media was doing the investigating, showing video clips that this man was not the suspect. But it was too late. His photo was all over the news. I was so upset. I kept crying. I finally logged off and tried to relax.

The next day my boyfriend and I decided to walk to get dinner. As we began to walk I suggested we give Pokemon Go a try…

Right across the street was a Poke stop, and there were a few people sitting down outside. I had a feeling they could be playing too. My boyfriend (the social one) asked, “Pokemon Go?”

Within a few minutes, an African American woman walked towards us and asked if we were playing, and we all laughed. There is something about grown adults playing a game. There’s a moment of slight embarrassment and then instant joy because we were all just having fun. She also gave us newbies a tip. Across the street, we could find a Goldeen. Before we left to continue exploring, another African American man walked over and shook hands with my boyfriend as if they’ve met before. My boyfriend later told me they’d seen each other around but he didn’t know him. He too was playing.

We left to go find the Goldeen. We had to find the exact area, and there it was near this marble bench. I’d just downloaded the app so I wasn’t ready to catch it, but my boyfriend was successful. I watched on his screen. It said, “Gotcha!”  We sat down so I could set up my own app. I guess he was tired of me hovering over his phone screen. I enjoyed every second of creating my persona. I’m pretty sure I was swinging my legs as I chose a girl with brown skin, blue hair, and a matching blue outfit. I was ready to go “Catch em’ all!”

We continued our walk to dinner. I turned up the volume so I could hear the music as we walked. I was almost skipping at this point. We saw a large group of people walking toward us. They weren’t all together, but they had the look. Smiles, focusing on their phones and standing around in one area. We got closer and my boyfriend asked, “Are you guys playing  Pokemon Go?” They answered in laughter. I was laughing, smiling and talking to people in my community. I’m not one to talk to people I don’t know. But this one commonality removed that cautious barrier.

As our night continued, the feeling of community was all around us. A man held a large white sign with the words “Free Hugs” in black letters. My boyfriend said I’m going to go over there and hug him. I walked away because that socially awkward feeling was back, but I watched from afar. It warmed my heart to see it. We heard this great voice singing and saw a large crowd of people. They were singing along, children were dancing; it was a mixture of people of different generations and ethnicities.

Yes, the world is causing me to feel distressed and angry, but I let myself reflect on all the moments that occurred when I walked outside.

I was reminded that love remains.

I know there are risks with playing the game and people should research before they begin. But it gave me a moment to feel joy and have that joyed shared with people I would have never even spoken to otherwise. I had my moment of sunshine amongst days of darkness.

Image via Pokemon Go.

two women talking on the beach

Why I Decided to Start Talking About My Anxiety Disorder

Anyone who knows me knows I am not shy when it comes to talking about my anxiety and panic disorder. But it hasn’t always been that way.

I spent most of my life hiding my mental illness. Then one day I realized – what’s the point? I’ve always wanted to help eliminate the stigma of mental illness, yet I was too ashamed to tell my own story. How could I help others accept their mental illness when I couldn’t even accept my own?

The reason I hid my disorder for so long is because I felt guilty about it. I had a good and comfortable life with parents who loved me and a group of close friends. I knew kids who didn’t have all these privileges and faced more challenges in their lives than I did, so why was I feeling this way?

But that’s the thing I’ve learned about mental illness. It’s not logical. For me, mental illness means feeling all the physical symptoms of sadness or anxiety without having any reason for it. And sometimes, this can be even scarier than having a socially acceptable reason to feel that way.

I’ve shared my stories of anxiety to show others that mental illness can happen to anyone – no matter what your life is like. It’s a disease you can’t control and, for me, beating myself up for feeling that way only fed into my anxiety. So I stopped beating myself up and decided to accept it as a part of my life instead.

I wish I had been told this when I was younger and first coming to terms with my disorder, so now I’m telling you: if you’re battling any kind of mental illness, it’s not your fault. And, like any other disease, there is treatment available to help you manage it. There’s also a huge community of people going through the same thing who you can talk to – like me. You are not alone.

Follow this journey on Meant to Live.

Finding My Voice in the Face of Anxiety

Anxiety hurts. It’s the fear you’ll never measure up. You worry about everything. (Are people going to think this post sounds bad? Should I be working on something else instead? Why did I waste five minutes staring at my phone deciding if I should turn on my music or not?)

I’ve been plagued by these anxious feelings for as long as I can remember. In elementary school, I was labeled a “shy” kid, but I was anxious. I was terrified of being ridiculed if I gave the wrong answer or because my voice has always sounded a little bit like Minnie Mouse. I didn’t want to take some else’s turn to speak. (It didn’t matter that they talked over me.) I was an obsessive rule follower … not just some of the rules; all the rules. All the time.

I finally allowed myself to talk more often in class around the time I started writing, but I was still the shy girl. I can vividly recall my eleventh-grade English teacher writing a response in my class journal telling me she would appreciate me sharing my thoughts out loud with the class more often. It was a struggle. I felt like I was repeating what someone else said. I’d been quiet for so long, I didn’t know how to express myself. I could think of a million things I wanted to say, but getting them to come out of my mouth was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.

I still struggle with tripping over my words when I talk in front of people. When I speak in public, it takes days to work up the confidence to do it, and I worry the entire time. Anxiety tells me no one is interested, or they’re only there to be polite.

Even my writing (my profession and my creative outlet) causes me anxiety, especially when I have get writer’s block. I worry myself sick over trends and markets and whether or not I’m the right person to write my stories. I hate that about me.

Anxiety raises its ugly head all the time in my life. I’m writing this story right now because I’m anxious about working on a story for my day job, and I’m trying to reassure myself that I can put coherent words on a page. Writing is the thing I’ve always wanted to do, but sometimes, I don’t even feel qualified to journal for myself, much less write for publication.

When I’m overwhelmed and can’t see past the fear beating inside my brain, often the best thing I can do is put on some music, zone out and write whatever words want to come out.

I start, stop, delete, hold my breath and beg my brain to make sense.

Get through one more sentence.

Finish the paragraph.

Take a breath.

Hands on the keyboard, don’t take both hands off the keyboard or the words might not come back.

Write the next word that comes to mind.

Write another, and another.

Soon I’ve got something. It might be one paragraph that took me an hour to write or an article for my day job that seemed too daunting to approach, but the words flow. They haven’t deserted me yet. I’m still writing and still worrying, but I can do it.

I’ve survived this anxiety for years.

I’ll keep fighting it. I have found my voice, and I refuse to let it silence me.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

Female hands holding a globe

5 Ways I Manage My Anxiety During Violent Times

The ugly side of the world has shown itself a lot lately, particularly showing us bloodshed and carnage. Merciless shootings have left innocent victims in our streets and placed fear in our hearts and homes. That fear doesn’t just fill my heart and occupy my home, it consumes my mind and intensifies my already overwhelming anxiety.

It is difficult to manage my anxiety when the world around me is spinning with hurt and violence. Here are the five ways I cope:

1. I don’t watch the news.

I believe it is important to stay informed of what is going on in the world but only until I’ve reached a certain point. When I start to obsess over what I see in the news and lose sleep because I’m too anxious and scared to shut my eyes, I know it’s time to put down the newspaper, turn off the TV and abstain from social media.

2. I don’t isolate myself.

Being overwhelmingly anxious is bad enough. For me, being anxious alone is even worse, especially when I’m experiencing fear. I find safety, physical and mental in numbers. Even if I don’t want to be social due to my social anxiety, I surround myself with others who will have a positive influence on my mood. I feel better and less anxious by being around my friends and family even if my social anxiety tries to keep me from them.

3. I journal.

The worst part about my anxiety and being afraid is how I obsess over both of those feelings. I try to expel the anxiety and fear from my worried mind by journaling about it. I imagine I am physically spitting out the words and they are getting literally stuck on the page and are indefinitely out of my mind. It works for me. As I write, I feel more calm, more in control of my thoughts and not as anxious or scared.

4. I go to church.

When everything in the world seems dark all at once, I seek light at church. The minister’s message is enlightening and being amongst the congregation is comforting. Church requires me to get cleaned up, which boosts my self-esteem and makes it easier to let my inner light shine through to others, who may also be encased in the darkness of the world. Church is like a lighthouse in the night. I seek it like a lost ship and feel safe when I find it at church.

5. I volunteer.

The world definitely needs more love, more hope and more people trying to do good. I do my small part in giving others love and hope by giving my time as a volunteer at places like my local nursing home and Humane Society. When I volunteer, I’m helping others in need. When I’m helping others, I’m able to let go of my fear and anxiety for a little while. Volunteering in this world right now means doing a little bit of good when we’re all focusing on the bad. Helping others temporarily cures my anxiety and shifts my focus from fear to focusing on the good in the world.

When our world turns dark, violent and mean, my anxiety becomes hard to manage and I become scared. I don’t think rationally when I’m scared and don’t see my world in a healthy way when I’m anxious. Instead of letting my fear and anxiety control how I see the world, I do these five things in attempt to manage my fear and anxiety, and to remind myself that even though bad things are happening in our world, there is still good.

Real People. Real Stories.

150 Million

We face disability, disease and mental illness together.