The Word I Wish I Had in My Vocabulary Growing Up

I am 5 years old, running through a crowded school hallway as I search for my mom. My small body cannot hold all my worries inside — they flood out through tears. What if mommy left because she doesn’t love me? Did she leave because I did something bad? Is it my fault?  The tears fall, but the words stay in my head. The adults say I’m just sensitive. Is that what this is called? I wonder.

No, that was anxiety.

I am 8 years old, hiding in an empty stairwell. I grip the railing like a lifeline as my heart beats fast. I was sent to take a message to another classroom, but an invisible force stopped me from telling my teacher I could not run her errand. And that same force stops me now from walking calmly into the unknown classroom to deliver the message to an unknown teacher. So I hide in the stairwell. When my teacher finds out later, she says I am shy. Is that what this is called? I wonder.

No, that was anxiety.

I am 12 years old, starting my first day of school in a new town. The beating heart and sweating palms begin the moment I step on the bus. The blurred vision begins when I step off the bus into hallways so crammed with people that I can do nothing but let the crowd carry me forward. Something stops me from talking to anyone. Something stops me from being myself. And for the next four months, this feeling of panic becomes my only acquaintance. I switch to a smaller school. When I do, I overhear a teacher say I had adjustment problems. Is that what this is called? I wonder.

No, that was anxiety.

I am 13 years old, hanging out with friends. I become the center of attention as I talk nonstop, making jokes and messing around, seemingly carefree and enthusiastic. My friends don’t know that my constant chatter is my way to fill up space because I don’t know how to handle silence, and that my bubbly demeanor is nervous energy because I don’t know how to handle big groups. My friends laugh and say I’m very hyper today. Is that what this is called? I wonder.

No, that was anxiety.

I am 14 years old, answering a text. I type a response. I delete it. I try again. I delete it. After a few more tries, I give up. When my friends ask why it takes me so long to reply, I say I misplace my phone a lot. They say I’m forgetful. Is that what this is called? I wonder.

No, that was anxiety.

I am 15 years old, pacing up and down an empty hallway. I was sitting in class when the sudden onset of irrational fear hit me, the rapid heartbeat, the sweating palms. I ran out of class. Now, I pace the halls. When the bell rings, I go to apologize to my teacher. She says it must be the stress. Is that what this is called? I wonder.

No, that was anxiety.

I am 18 years old, writing this story and now I know what anxiety is. For me, anxiety had many forms over the years, and it was called many things — but underneath, it was always the same. I didn’t have a word for what I was feeling until I was 16 years old. I spent 16 years wondering what was wrong with me, 16 years believing people when they said I was shy or sensitive. But no one ever told me why I was shy and sensitive. No one ever told me it was because I had anxiety.

If there is one thing I could’ve changed about my childhood, it would’ve been adding the word “anxiety” to my vocabulary. If I could’ve had that one word to describe what I was feeling again and again, it would have let me know what I was feeling was valid, that it was a real emotion. And it would have helped me explain that feeling to adults. Instead, I heard a slew of different words to describe my anxiety, and none of them seemed to match exactly.

Whether they are intentional or inadvertent, the small excuses we make to cover up the existence of anxiety, especially in children, need to stop. Because it’s OK to have anxiety — it shouldn’t be a taboo word. And it needs to be accepted before it can be helped.

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