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What I Wish I Had Known in School About My Social Anxiety

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What I wish I knew in grade six:

In grade six, I wish I had known to remember how strong and capable I was.

I would tell that girl to take note of everything in life that fascinates her, what she believes she will be when she grows up, how many friends she loves and how nice it feels to run in fresh cut grass. I would tell her to tuck those notes away in the small of her heart and to hold on to them to help get through the next few years.

I would have told that little girl that she is special, empathetic and sensitive and that those things are precious gifts, and to remember that those are gifts and not burdens. I would tell her that I loved her so much and that I saw her as a passionate, social and happy individual. I would tell her to keep fighting, even when she feels like giving up, to fight like hell through each day and that I’m sorry she is going to feel so much in the next few years. And she would probably look at me with confusion, but in time it would all make sense.

What I wish I knew in grade 10:

I wish I knew feeling sensitive and empathetic is not a burden, it’s a gift. I would tell that 16-year-old version of me the very things that make her nervous and anxious now, talking to people and relating to people, will be the basis to the stories she will write. I would tell her all those thoughts that told her to shut people out, that she had no worth, that she has no talent and that she was socially inept, were only thoughts – not reality.

“Reach out your hand!” I would shout. “Find the courage to say ‘help me!’”

“You are not alone,” I would whisper. However, instead of those, I listened as people complained I had changed, feeling guilty that I was no longer “that confident, social butterfly” I was in my childhood. I would believe what I learned in sexual health class ,that my sadness and terror of social situations were a product of my changing puberty — it’s just a phase, it’s just hormones.

On days when I felt like moving forward, I told myself that if I achieved better grades, lost weight that didn’t need losing and kept up with social media then I would feel better. I didn’t know that my mental illness was a slippery slope on a mountain, and I felt alone on that mountain. I was scared all the time, scared someone would find out that I was scared — scared of leaving my house, scared of leaving my room, scared of people wondering why I never left my house.

The only fear greater than those fears was that no one would believe or understand my fear of social interactions. Why? Because, on the surface I was funny, my voice carried, I was a engaging public speaker, I maintained good grades and I hung around with the same sports friends I had when I was involved in team activities. So, instead I told myself: “It’s impossible that you have anxiety because someone who has social anxiety is quiet and doesn’t have friends, and doesn’t make jokes. You are alone in this because you don’t have the same traits as anyone else.” I was perpetuating the very stereotypes that I would spend my adult life trying break in my writing, but in grade 10. I didn’t know it yet, I just knew I was scared.

What I wish I had known in grade 10 is that many of my friends were going through the same thing, that strangers all over the world were going through the same thing and that by not being vocal about my illness, I was allowing it to grow fingers and hold me there. I wish I had been able to see the light at the end of the tunnel and to recognize that there is no shame in seeking medication, in talking to someone, in seeking help.

What I wish I knew in my first year of university:

I wish I had known to identify the emotional abuse I placed on myself. I wish I had known to recognize patterns of high-functioning anxiety before I fell into a panic attack. I wish that I had known that it’s important to treat yourself kindly, to eat well, to talk to others, to sleep well. Instead I spent long hours in the library, cut calories and ran until I would collapse in my bed… Until I collapsed in the school halls, and went to the hospital and first heard the term high-functioning anxiety.

I wish I had known why I always felt like an outsider, why I was uncomfortable around my best friends, why I projected this successful, happy girl and yet believed myself to be a worthless mess. I wish I had known that stress mixed with mental illness can be extremely dangerous, and that I should be diligent with the pills that a counselor suggested I take. In university, I wish I had known to listen to my gut when I knew I was pushing myself too far and that even once I achieved my goal, that wouldn’t fill the void I felt. Instead, I made sure it was impossible for anyone to believe that I was suffering by being one of the busiest, most successful students I could possible be.

What I know now:

What I know now is that everything I went through had a purpose — that I have a purpose. What I know now is that every year millions of people struggle in the same way I did (and still sometimes do). I know now that for 10 years I shut others out when I just needed to let someone in. There are still bad days, but there are always great days too. I know it’s a blessing to feel things as strongly as I do because it can be channeled into writing.

What I know now is that under all the mess my anxiety brings me, is that little girl in grade six who believes she is special and is fascinated by the world. I know now I don’t need to be scared to leave my house, that I can, and did and will continue to explore the entire world. We played an incredible game of hide-and-go-seek for 10 years where I couldn’t find her.

Mostly, what I know now is that it’s possible to find yourself even when all hope feels lost. Together, we don’t have to feel ashamed of suffering. The world is filled with support and resources to help get back on track. It can be hard to hear when you’re in the middle of it and when you’re a young adult, but I am writing this because I can. I know now that somewhere in the world there is someone in grade 10 who may feel the same way I did, and I hope if you’re reading this, you know that the mountain you are standing on, I am standing with you. People in The Mighty community are standing with you. The girl who sits behind you in math, or that you may sit near on the bus – they are standing with you. That mountain can be scary, and feel impossible to climb – but what I know now is that it’s possible when you have a hand to hold.

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Thinkstock image via Wavebreakmedia Ltd

Originally published: February 16, 2017
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