I have never been the type of person who seeks out the spotlight, trying hard to deflect any attention I did receive. Teachers, family and friends always pegged me as “very shy” and a “wallflower,” never wanting to be the center of attention and trying hard to dissolve into the crowd. So, I went with it and grew up thinking I was just really shy, but extreme shyness and social anxiety, it turns out, are not the same thing.
What I suffered with throughout my life was not just being extra shy. The idea of having to play a part in a school play and get up on stage in front of parents, teachers and my peers terrified me. Not terrified in a stage freight kind of way, terrified in a “this-is-so-scary, I-can’t-do-this, I-think-I-am-going-to-die-if-I-can’t-get-out-of-this” kind of way.
Oral presentations in class nearly destroyed me. I found myself faking illness, skipping school, dropping classes of subjects I loved just to avoid having to stand up in front of the class and speak. The thought of 30 sets of eyes staring, potentially laughing at me, gave me a permanent knot in my stomach, dizziness, shaky hands and sleepless nights.
“You’re just shy, you will get over it,” and, “Once you get up there you will be fine!” is what I was told. Another gem was, “Everyone has some degree of social anxiety ― it’s normal.” Or my all-time favorite, “Nobody likes public speaking. You just do it.”
So I stuffed down the helpless feeling, convincing myself that I was just being a drama queen and that wanting to run and hide any time more than one set of eyes was on me was normal. I didn’t think anything was wrong with me other than just being really shy, so I did everything in my power to avoid situations that made me uncomfortable, including forgoing parties, concerts and bailing on plans with friends when it involved crowded places or people I didn’t know well or at all.
“You’re just shy. You’re just shy. You’re just shy.” I kept telling myself repeatedly when I would get sad about missing events I had really looked forward to and when friends would get upset at me for breaking plans. In reality, it turns out, I wasn’t just shy; I was actually suffering from severe anxiety.
I silently suffered for years and years and never even realized what I was feeling was more than just being shy. I just thought that was how life was, and what I felt and the reactions I had to situations were normal. People would always tell me to “calm down” and “relax,” “everything will be fine,” and so I just brushed it off as irrational worries. I rationalized it, saying to myself that some people are just born more outgoing than others, and I was just a true introvert.
It wasn’t until I had my son and was treated for postpartum anxiety and depression that I finally realized that back then that was exactly what it was: irrational worries. I had spent the better part of my life thinking feeling that way all the time was normal or just part of my personality, but irrational worry is just that: irrational.
Paranoid, frustrated, always on edge, and angry had become MY normal. It wasn’t until my husband and I were at a health-check appointment for our infant son with our family doctor that my lifetime of struggles came to light. The doctor has concluded the appointment for my son and moved on to me. I had made an appointment for myself for afterward to discuss the constant tension headaches, dizziness and extreme fatigue I had been suffering from. She asked me if I wanted my husband to leave the so we could speak privately. I let out a laugh and said no of course not, thinking she would simply write me a prescription for some migraine meds or recommend massage therapy.
I began to list off a few of my symptoms to my doctor, with her interrupting occasionally to pose follow up questions about a specific complaint. Then she said to me, “OK, but how are you feeling?” I looked at her blankly for a minute, turned to my husband and furrowed my brow. Confused and a little annoyed, I turned back to the doctor and said, “Umm, well I actually just told you how I am feeling ― not great.” She smiled gently and said, “No, I mean how are you, inside, actually feeling?”
I started to answer immediately, about to blurt out the standard “I’m fine” response that I had been uttering for the last 25+ years of my life, when asked that question, but I suddenly stopped myself. I paused for a moment, looked at my husband again sheepishly and then back to the doctor. I slowly opened my mouth and gradually, honestly began to tell her how tired, rundown, defeated and flustered I was feeling lately. Panicking a bit, worried she would just roll her eyes and say, “well duh, you have a baby,” I quickly added, “but I mean, I am sure moms always feel like that, right.” The doctor cracked a small smile, gave a slight nod and made some notes in my chart.
She then turned to my husband and asked him straight blank: “Is she difficult to live with? Be honest.” My dear, sweet husband looked over at me, almost embarrassed, his faced flushed. I nodded in his direction and said, “It’s OK, tell her the truth. I can take it.” He began to describe, in the most flattering way possible, that yes, in fact, I had been an absolute nightmare to deal with lately, and he felt like he couldn’t do anything right, no matter how hard he tried. He told her his concerns and how he was worried I wasn’t taking proper care of myself, often skipping meals and adamantly refusing to take a break from the baby for some “me time” when I most clearly needed it. He described what he often witnessed, me feeling completely overwhelmed and lashing out yet refusing to accept help when it is offered, insisting I could do it all on my own.
As I was listening to what my husband was telling the doctor, I wasn’t getting angry; his description was honest and accurate. For the first time, in what felt like forever, I didn’t freak out and get defensive. I listened attentively and agreed with every word he said, and it made me sad and embarrassed but more importantly, beyond grateful that he stayed by side unwaveringly, despite how awful I had become.
It was at that moment, I finally realized maybe being mad and frustrated and annoyed at the world all the time wasn’t normal. Maybe feeling like the rug is being ripped out from under you, or that you are running from a giant wave that is constantly nipping at your heels, ready to crash over you and drown you at any second, isn’t normal. More importantly, maybe it is okay to ask for help.
It took hitting the lowest point of my marriage, listening to the harsh, honest words, being delivered in the most delicate way possible by my amazingly supportive husband, to realize I needed help and to admit finally that I couldn’t do it all on my own. So I put my stubbornness aside and allowed myself to finally be vulnerable and admit that it is okay to accept the help that is offered, whether that be in the form of a surprise spa day from my husband or just the opportunity to take a bubble bath interrupted.
It is okay to admit that anxiety is a real, terrifying medical condition, and to live with it that may mean needing daily help in the form of a prescription for anxiety medication, the “happy pill” that I had once feared but now am so grateful for. I am not suggesting that everyone who finds they are having more bad days than good and are struggling a bit should run to their doctor for a prescription.
I also now know that if you think something is normal but it still keeps making you miserable inside then it is probably not, and you should talk to your doctor about it. Why suffer any longer than you have to? There are a lot of people who can manage their anxiety in other ways, such as through meditation, exercise or self-affirmations. I am not one of them, and that is okay.
Now that I am feeling like myself again and able to reflect upon my life and the past few years particularly, I can now see that it is obviously not normal to be mad at the world all the time, paranoid everyone is against me, freaking out over the littlest thing, like someone putting the groceries away in the wrong place, or coming home from the market with the wrong type of milk. I know I cannot undo the past, and although sometimes I look back at that time and feel embarrassed, ashamed and angry at myself for not recognizing my irrational behavior sooner, I know now that because I suffered unknowingly with anxiety for such a long time, I could not have been able to recognize it any sooner, even if I wanted to.
Maybe one day I won’t need a pill to make life not feel like it’s swallowing me up. On the other hand, maybe I will be taking medication for my anxiety until the day I die. I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know that I haven’t felt this free in a long, long time. Freedom from inside my head and the constant worry and second-guessing. Freedom from the quiet dread I relentlessly experienced over the most insignificant task, obligation or event that would arise.
I am finally free from the silent panic that would slowly creep over me, filling my whole mind and body with a growing ache that I could not ignore and that I had grown to accept as normal. I am not certain at what age it exactly started, but it was not until I began to feel like myself again that I realized I had been buried under the heavy cloak of anxiety for so, so long.
So if taking a pill every day to control my anxiety makes me enjoy my life that much more and makes me that much better of a wife and mother, helping make the toughest of days a little easier to navigate, then why would I ever want to change that?