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When I Stopped Using My Cerebral Palsy as Camouflage for My Anxiety

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As a result of cerebral palsy, I have a pronounced speech impediment. It’s apparent the moment I open my mouth. And when a person observes me move a little, they’ll notice my coordination differences.

For much of my life, my speech and coordination served as a kind of camouflage I could use to hide my large levels of anxiety. When my anxiety caused me to be afraid of trying something new, I could make my excuse significantly more persuasive by saying it using my different-sounding voice and moving a little to highlight my unique coordination. In third grade, I was able to get out of swim class. In junior high, I spent countless hours watching my friends play video games. Does having a speech impediment and coordination differences mean I’m unable to swim or play video games? No! But I was nervous about looking foolish as I attempted these activities, so I used my voice and coordination as an excuse to avoid giving them a serious try.

Behind these good excuses, I was trying to hide the reality that I was anxious much of the time and fleeing stressful situations. Sometimes, I would use the above mentioned excuse. Other times I would simply say, “I’m going for a walk.” When I was out walking alone, I could usually calm myself down, although sometimes it would take a very long walk.

I rationalized skipping out on threatening activities by trying to convince myself the activity I was missing out on probably wasn’t worth it. I would tell myself things like “Swimming isn’t that fun anyway,” or “Video games are just a waste of time.” But how did I know? How do any of us know what an activity is really like until we give it a fair try?

The problem with my excuse and “going for long walks” approach to stress management is that often I was fleeing the very things I wanted to do in my heart of hearts.

In college, as my life became even more stressful, I once again played it safe. I only went to the gym on campus to watch sporting events or when I was required to take social dance to graduate. My world was getting smaller and smaller.  This pattern continued for more than a decade after college. I could have easily missed my life.

About eight years ago, I was so miserable that out of desperation, I went to a yoga class. During the class, I was extremely awkward and probably did very few of the poses correctly.  But I discovered something important. I realized it was OK. I was a beginner. The other students welcomed me, and the teacher invited me back. I didn’t die, so I kept going back, one yoga class after another.

My success with yoga inspired me to try all manner of new things including public speaking, which I never imagined I would become good at with my pronounced speech impediment. I was wrong in my assumption, absolutely wrong. Now I’m a sought-after speaker who talks to groups around the country.

I want you to know that I sometimes hide behind my disability to cover up my anxiety, so you can gently point out what I’m doing, and remind me to go ahead and try new things. Thank you!

The Mighty is asking the following: What is a part of your or a loved one’s disease, disability or mental illness that no one is aware of? Why is it time to start talking about it? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: June 17, 2016
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