What is it like to live with anxiety in an environment that dismisses you? An environment whose response to your experiences is ‘everyone gets anxious, just get over it!’
I certainly knew this was not the way things were supposed to be from a very early age. I was shy but then why did I feel so much fear at school?
Was it shyness that made me not want to read a paragraph in class when everyone else appeared to be enjoying doing it? I knew I loved to read. But reading out loud in class was the problem. When I knew that it was my turn to read out loud, I just couldn’t understand why the thought of that was accompanied with so much agony and anguish. I did not want to miss any of my English classes because of this; but my book would get “lost”, and with that, then I didn’t have to read.
I would have wanted to be in the drama club. I would have wanted to participate in the many activities at school. But I just couldn’t. The fear ‘of other people’ was totally out of this world.
And looking back, I can see the many opportunities I missed because of this fear. In school, through college, I lived my life as a fly on the wall, just wishing to be seen and not to be heard.
When I mentioned I experienced anxiety in formal places with lots of people and that it was ruining my life I was told: ‘but everyone gets stage fright,’ and ‘you will get over it.’
I did not seem to get over it. I remember quitting my first internship on the first day because I was sent to a press conference. I thought that as a trained print journalist, all that would be required of me was to write stories. But I did not anticipate that I would have to ask questions during press conferences. And I remember that first press conference, sat there, seeing everyone else ask questions for their news items, whilst I was agonising over how to frame even just one single question. Why was my heart beating so hard? Why couldn’t I just concentrate on the issue at hand and forget my worries for a little while? I went back and told my editor that I couldn’t do the job.
It was not the first job that I lost because of my anxiety. I remember the first time I sat with a clinical psychologist years later, telling them about this monster gnawing from within; how I cried. How I cried at all the lost opportunities because of my anxiety. How I wished I could go back to change it. Would it have been better if I knew more? Maybe if someone else knew more about what I was going through?
Now I see more and more of us speaking about their experiences with mental illness. Indeed, it can better at some point. It doesn’t have to take so many lost opportunities. Maybe if I had known of someone else going through something similar or maybe if there was someone I could have talked to, maybe it would have been easier.
Safe spaces are so important. Safe spaces in the workplace. In the schools. In the community. When people feel able to talk about their mental health. To talk about challenges and find support. That would have helped me so much when I was struggling.
There is a lot of focus on mental health now. I write this knowing that sometimes all it takes is to have someone talk to. Someone to share their struggles with. Whether it’s anxiety, depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, having someone to talk to about how they’re feeling and get some support from them can make a world of difference to someone who is struggling. Sometimes all it takes is a sharing. Because from that sharing, the life of someone else will change for the better.
Know that things get better at some point. Importantly when we start talking and when others start listening.