Establishing and maintaining friendships has never been easy for me. As a child, I was so painfully shy, I could only have one friend at a time. I would cherish and love that friend with every part of me, and I would fall apart when our friendship would fizzle out.
As I got older, I tried hard to hold onto my friendships by projecting a “perfect” image of myself. This meant hiding the parts of me that were considered off-putting or made people feel uncomfortable, the parts of me that were considered weak or shameful. This meant hiding the stomach aches, the embarrassing frequent feelings of urination, the lump in my throat that made me feel like I was going to throw up and the hours spent awake at night overthinking and catastrophizing the day’s events. This meant none of my friends knew about my anxiety.
I hid my anxiety because I didn’t want to scare my friends away. I didn’t want them to change their thoughts about me once they saw me for who I really was. I feared they would suddenly see me as someone who was too difficult to be friends with. I feared they would withdraw if they didn’t understand or know how to react. My biggest fear, however, was that they would invalidate my anxiety. That they would interpret it as my way of overreacting or being “too sensitive.”
When I went to college, I feared living with a roommate would make it harder for me to keep my anxiety a secret. Yet, I managed to hold myself together while around her. When I’d feel anxious, I’d leave the room to find a quiet spot to cry. When I’d wake up in the morning in a panic, I’d go for a run outside. When I’d need to talk through how I was feeling, I’d call my mom in the hallway. I was able to keep this up for more than a year.
A few days into my sophomore year, I decided to go to therapy on campus. While I knew there was no shame in seeking help, I still felt reluctant to tell anyone. I knew my decision was deeply personal and that I was not obligated to tell anyone about it. Yet, a part of me felt like I was lying to the people I loved if I didn’t. So, I decided to tell my roommate. The whole encounter lasted less than a few minutes and to my relief she was supportive. Granted, I was vague and spared her the details of my anxiety.
A few weeks later, she saw me have a full-blown anxiety attack. I couldn’t hide it anymore. I was ashamed and embarrassed for letting my guard down. The fear that she would stop being my friend or view me differently after seeing me in this state only perpetuated my anxiety in that moment. To my relief, she hugged me tight and told me to sit down. She got me water and told me to breathe. She sat with me until I was able to calm down. We didn’t talk much that night about what was going on with me, but her calming presence was enough.
The next day, I apologized profusely. I explained to her that I completely understood if she didn’t want to be my friend anymore. I was so convinced after seeing me in my most vulnerable state, at the peak of my anxiety, that she would want nothing to do with me. In that moment, her response was everything I needed to hear.
She told me, “Lauren, don’t be sorry. You can trust me. I don’t see you any differently at all, and you’re allowed as many bad days/weeks as you need. I care about you and just want to help however I can.”
This was so meaningful to me because she reminded me that my anxiety was not something I had to apologize for. My anxiety was not a weakness or something that had to be hidden in shame. It was not something I made up for attention. It was real and perfectly normal.
It was also not something that would affect the way my friends saw me. Who I was before my friends formally knew I had anxiety and after was the exact same person. This small part of me could not possibly change my compassion, kindness, patience, sense of humor or any of the other amazing traits my friends loved about me.
She also reminded me that I could be vulnerable in front of her. I didn’t have to cry in the stairwell or call my mom in the hallway. She gave me permission not to hide anymore. I could be honest with her in a safe and supportive space. For that, I am forever grateful.
She didn’t admit to always knowing the right thing to say or to always knowing how to help in the way I needed it, but I don’t expect that from her. I know anxiety can be a hard thing to understand for someone who has never experienced it. I know it’s impossible to always know the right thing to say. I know it can be hard to listen to the same irrational fears you don’t understand over and over again.
I don’t need a “perfect” friend. All I need is a friend who supports me in the best way they know how and who loves me for all parts of me, anxiety and all.
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