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To the People Who Didn't Understand My Anxiety Growing Up

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I’ve always been labeled as “the quiet one.”

In school, the teachers would always tell my parents I was a “good student, but needed to get more involved in class discussion.” While most people were being punished for talking too much during class, I was encouraged to talk more, which I always found odd.

I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t anxious about something. Even when I was a child, I feared everything, from the red and black bristles in a car wash, right down to a singing Christmas tree. I cried at most birthday parties and gatherings because I was overwhelmed.

The thought of being chosen to read out loud or answer a question in class made me feel like all the oxygen was being sucked out of me. I thought it was normal to have heart palpitations and a pressure in my chest when I had to communicate with someone I didn’t know, whether it was a teacher, one of my friend’s parents or even people my age I didn’t know.

Behind the screen, I could be whoever I wanted to be, and I often came across as “annoying” because I wanted to make up for not being able to communicate in “real life.” I could type away for hours, but as soon as it involved face-to-face communication with other people, I couldn’t string a coherent sentence together.

I wanted nothing more than to be able to speak to other people, but every time I tried to leave my comfort zone, the embarrassment would eat me up. I thought it was normal to want to die every time I made a small mistake. The memory of a time when I mispronounced a word in math class still runs through my mind today, and it happened 10 years ago.

I felt like I was being watched constantly. I was hyperaware of the way I walked, talked and even breathed. I would hold my breath in class if I felt it was too silent, which was a common occurrence during exam season. Don’t get me started on class presentations.

The older I got, the more I realized it wasn’t normal to be so afraid all the time. Everyone else around me seemed to be able to function normally, and I eventually came to the conclusion I was broken. I didn’t know how to be normal because fear became my normality.

More often or not, I would hear passing comments from people at my school, or my mother’s friends, or people I didn’t even know. They would say I was “ignorant, arrogant and rude” because I couldn’t carry a conversation for long, or because I found it difficult to speak at all.

Little did they know, a 30-second conversation felt like a punch in the gut from the Hulk.

I wasn’t ignoring you. I was afraid.

This constant fear followed me throughout my life, and I feel as if it took away my teenage years which were supposed to be fun. Instead, I wallowed away while other people thrived.

Years later, social anxiety still creeps up on me. I have good days, but also some really bad days. I often regret not getting help with the way I was feeling, but I thought it was normal because I’ve never felt anything else other than fear. The one thing that makes me sad is my love for the theater was ruined by the constant anxiety I felt.

I loved the stage and one of my biggest dreams was to perform on the West End and act in films. I felt like I could be anyone I wanted to be, but eventually, the fear of being judged by my peers became too much, and I was unable to fully let go and truly perform the way I wanted to. My drama and music classes were the most terrifying part of the week, but my dream of being on stage was stronger than the fear, so I continued to audition and continued to take drama classes. In my bedroom, I would perform my heart out, but as soon as it came to performing in front of my classmates, I felt like the clown everyone laughed at, rather than laughed with. I was a walking contradiction. The anxious girl who wants to perform in front of thousands of people.

I finally spoke to a doctor about the way I was feeling over a year ago where I was given medication to help ease the anxiety, but the thing that has helped the most is being aware of the anxiety and accepting it rather than ignoring it and letting it consume me.

For years, I was so consumed by an overwhelming fear of people, social situations and making mistakes, that I forgot what it was like to not be afraid. I wanted so desperately for someone to notice, but no one ever did. My school life should have been some of the best years of my life, but in reality, they were the worst.

I believe that the earlier we teach students about mental health, the less people will lose out on their dreams due to anxiety and depression. If I had been taught what was normal and what was not, I think I would be in a much better position today.

You can follow my journey on Ayliesh Writes About.

Unsplash image by Riccardo Mion

Originally published: March 25, 2020
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