Childhood Confessions: What it’s like to grow up with social anxiety
“Why are you so quiet?” If I had a dollar for the amount of times I’ve been asked this question throughout my life, I’d have been richer than Bill Gates by now. I’ll give you the short answer first, I have a social anxiety disorder (SAD).
Ever since I could remember, I had what psychologists call Selective Mutism. It’s a complex form of childhood anxiety disorder. I basically didn’t talk to anyone, aside from my parents and my sister, and that was only if no one else was around. I’d respond to other people with a nod to say “yes” or “no.” Or, I’d smile and turn into a flush, which would get some kind of response like, “Did you bite your tongue?” or “Haven’t you learned how to speak yet?”
I remember when my parents would take my sister and I out to eat, my mom would always try to push me to go up and give my order. I’d throw the biggest fit, like you were about to throw me in hot water. Eventually I’d tell her I’m not hungry. I was always too afraid to speak to anyone. But my parents always figured I was just shy.
I was the same in elementary school. I had that one friend I’d easily talk to when it was just the two of us, but in a group setting, I’d be quiet.
I once hit my lip on those dome-shaped monkey bars, walked into class and stood behind my teacher until she turned around and noticed my bloody face. “Oh mon Dieux!” she exclaimed, slapping her face and going on about how I should have said something. (Side note: I was in French immersion then).
I was the kid who never participated in class and shamefully cried a few times while giving presentations.
I loathed the first day of school, when the teacher would go around the classroom and have everyone introduce themselves. I’d be like Lorelai in that episode of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, when Emily had everyone share a nice memory of Richard, and Lorelai would ever-so-slyly try to sneak away as it got closer to her turn. In my case, I’d pray for the fire alarm to go off, for the class to end, for just enough distraction for me to sneak to the washroom – anything to get me off the hook.
School was always a fearful place for me. I’d get picked on every day for being quiet and was an easy target for blame.
This one time, a few of my schoolmates and I were running (as kids do) and one of them, a good 10-feet in front of me, fell. She ran to the washroom, crying, and we all followed suit. As soon as I walked in, she looked at me and said, “Look what you did!” And I just stared in dismay and sheer panic, like ‘WHAT DID I JUST DO?!’ She freaked out that her elbow didn’t twist all the way around and that I somehow was the cause of it. “(???) Nobody’s elbow twists all the way around…,” I thought, but of course, I didn’t say that out loud. I just stood there, not saying a word. I was never capable of defending myself.
What’s worse is that I’d believe anyone who accused me of anything. If you told me I’m a bad person, I’d believe you for absolutely no reason other than you believed it, so it must be true. I had a kid in my class (I will never forget her face) who’d threaten to tell my mother that I did bad things or tell our teacher that I hit her – or some equally bogus thing that I would never even have the guts to do.
Despite all the bullying I experienced in elementary school, there was still a part of me that had so much confidence in my older self.
I remember being eight years old and waiting for the kids to leave so I could have the playground to myself. All I wanted to do was feel the adrenaline of swinging higher and higher, back and forth on the swings, dreaming of a day when I’d become someone spectacular.
This one particular day, I had just watched the movie Selena. I was in such awe of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez. The way she owned the stage with such confidence and touched so many people with not just her music but by just being who she was – it was everything I aspired to be. So, I’d run to the empty playground, jump on the swings and fly high, singing to “Dreaming of You” at the top of my lungs.
I was always attracted to the arts. I had, and still have, this need to express myself, to pour my heart out on stage, so to speak. I suppose I knew early on that I had something in me that was just dying to get out. But as the years went by, I began to slowly lose that inner confidence.
The bullying continued year after year, with the move from one school to another and another. It was so scarring that I was convinced that I was unworthy of friendship and love.
In grade 7, I had just changed schools for the third time. A group of kids in my class welcomed me into their inner circle. Come recess, I went outside and stood by myself. One of the girls walked by me with the rest of her crew and said, “Aren’t you going to come?” I still remember feeling like this was some sort of trick. At that point, it was hard for me to trust anyone.
Have you ever experienced sleep paralysis? You wake up from your sleep, but your body can’t move, and your eyes won’t open, and you try to speak but you can’t. It feels like you’re suffocating in your body with no way out. Now imagine living that way every day, every time you come into contact with a person or walk in a room filled with people. That’s how I felt and to a certain extent, sometimes still feel.
In high school, I used to dread the first day. We’d have to go to the cafeteria to have our photos taken for our access cards. I would obsess the night before about what to wear, how to do my hair, and this and that. I wanted people to notice any part of me but my anxiety. I’d tell myself that this is the year I’ll finally open up, be assertive, just be myself. But I’d be reminded time and time again about how quiet I was and confidence would quickly fizzle.
Truth be told, the cafeteria was the most terrifying place for me. I always worried I wouldn’t find my friends and look like a loser in the corner, or that I’d walk towards my friends and they wouldn’t notice me and walk away, and again, I’d be left alone.
Every time someone asked me why I’m so quiet, I’d have less confidence in myself. I’d think, “That’s all people see me as – just that quiet girl.” I’d kick myself down about it and fall down a rabbit hole of self-hatred to the point that it was hard to even look at myself in the mirror.
“Why can’t you just f***ing speak?”
“What is wrong with you?”
“How do you expect anyone to want to be friends with you when you’re so quiet?”
“Nobody likes you.”
That’s just a crumb of thoughts that would repeat in my head over and over again. In the deepest, darkest of my social anxiety, I couldn’t even decode the words behind all the noise in my head. It felt like a movie, where the world would move slowly and I could feel everyone laughing, pointing at me. I’d be fully stuck in the vortex of my head.
It took a lot to get to this point, where I feel comfortable enough to share my story. It started with finally talking to someone about how I was feeling. Followed by word-vomiting breakdowns about my past of being bullied – I had never told my parents (or anyone) about it growing up because I thought it would disappoint them. I saw a few therapists and a life coach, and read endless amounts of self-help books to understand myself better and gain back some confidence. Then, along the fast, non-stop, up-and-down roller coaster, I decided to finally just jump off the ride. I had an aha moment.
All my life I’ve been obsessing over getting rid of my social anxiety. I went to college for broadcast journalism and threw my nervous self in front of a live camera in hopes that I would get rid of my “disease” and just be normal. Then, I took acting and singing classes, and eventually performed in a musical – all of which are hobbies I love, but I was so obsessed with becoming this changed person that I never took the time to enjoy the moment or get to know the people along the way, like my castmates. I kept waiting for the feeling after. And you know what happened after? Nothing. I still shook like an earthquake.
I began to realize that it’s not about getting rid of my SAD, but working with it. I actually have my younger self to thank for this new mindset. Social anxiety may be my challenge, but it’s also a bittersweet gift. If it weren’t for my mental illness, I’d probably never had become a writer.
I started writing – I like to say – before I could ever speak. After being bullied in school, I’d come home, take out my journal and write down everything I was feeling. I was never good at keeping diaries, though. Every time I re-read my words, I’d get more and more upset. So, I decided to rip out the pages. It became an unconscious form of therapy for me.
It was also always hard for me to express my feelings out loud. So, instead of verbally telling someone how I felt, I’d wait for their birthday (or a special occasion) to arrive and write it all out in a card. If you and I are or were once friends, you probably received one of these novel-long letters. My family still has the ones I wrote for them. They used to always tell me that I should become a writer, but it was never something I envisioned as a career. It just felt natural. Like how speaking does for most people.
Plus, my past experiences taught me to become more empathetic. I try not to judge other people and I’m open to new ideas and thoughts. More importantly, I let people just be themselves because I know what it feels like to feel like you can’t be yourself. I’ve realized that I need to treat myself the same way. Rather than looking at my SAD as my identity, I now see it as a separate entity that tags along for the ride. It’s like the childhood me that needs my reassurance, for me to keep reminding her that I’ll be there for her. So, I take the time to understand what she is thinking or feeling any time I face an anxiety-inducing situation. Then, I breathe, smile and say, “We’ll get through this together.”