I see you.
You may think that is impossible, but I do.
I know you.
Of course you don’t believe me, but I am telling the truth.
I was you.
I was that kid. The one with the sweaty palms and racing heart. The one who would turn crimson red from the stares of others.
The pain that you feel is immense. I am here to tell you that I’ve been there. You are not alone.
To some, we are known as “the quiet ones”. Others prefer to deem us introverts. Whatever the tag, it is all the same.
For people like us with social anxiety, high school can be a hellish place. I vividly remember walking into school every morning and trying desperately to catch my breath.
I prayed a lot. I prayed that I would get through each day.
First period was the start. My anxiety was usually highest around that time. I can still hear the buzzer going off. It haunts me to this day.
I had rituals, as you probably do. I would walk into a classroom each day desperately seeking to go unnoticed. Sometimes I would hear whispers. Or even laughter. Those sounds were perfectly okay with me, as long as I was not the target.
Getting to that seat unscathed was my first goal. Making it through class was the second. I had seven of these classes to get through on any given day. Each class was forty-two minutes. Dismissal time was at 2:12.
Upon the teacher’s arrival, heart palpitations would commence. The level of my anxiety usually depended on the personality of the teacher. As we all know, every educator is different. On the days that I had a low-key and amicable teacher, my blood pressure was somewhat lower. That was a good start.
Of course, all teachers have their bad days. I would often study faces as they entered the room, desperately trying to predict mood.
I prayed again. I prayed that the class went as quickly and as harmlessly as possible. Under no circumstances did I want to get called on. That would only result in embarrassment. I dreaded those times.
Within a few months of high school, my classmates had a good scope of my personality. Luckily, I found others to sit with at lunch. Very rarely did I ever participate in group conversation. I didn’t like too many eyes on me at once.
I can’t say I was ever abused or even picked on. The truth was that I was my own worst enemy.
Along the way, people would tell me to “just talk.”
It wasn’t that easy. I was too self conscious.
My parents were as supportive as they could be. They were patient. I struggled a lot with my studies, even though I was smart. It was my nerves that frequently took away my ability to concentrate. I was also constantly drained of energy. Worrying takes a lot out of a person, as I am sure you know already.
I just wanted to get the hell out of there.
When 2:12 rolled around, I felt as if I could start breathing again. I rushed home and again tried to avoid all socialization.
As my high school career started coming to an end, my mood lifted. It was almost over. A few days before graduation, I overheard a few girls talking and laughing in the back of the classroom.
“Have you noticed that Kathleen has not exchanged one word with anyone these entire four years,” a student commented.
They all laughed. I hung my head in shame. I wanted to cry from humiliation. It was depressing to even think that her words would be the legacy I was to carry.
I could tell you many things. I could tell you just to “talk’’ or “be yourself”. I know full well that it is not that simple.
Introverts like us get so many mixed signals. One day a teacher compliments you in front of the class about your excellent behavior. The next, she is on the phone with your mom about your lack of participation during classroom discussions.
I didn’t start coming into my own until college. It was a gradual process. Therapy helped. I met with a great doctor who said that I could take a medication that would help me. “Social phobia” was my diagnosis. With each step I took, I became more and more comfortable. I began to participate in group discussions. I even began to raise my hand in class-something that I would not dare do before. I knew I was on my way. I was on my way to being cured.
As I sit here at forty-three years old, with my four-year old child on my lap, I can say proudly that I wasn’t cured.
I never will be either.
And that is fine.
Shyness continues to be with me. It is with me when I have to call and make a doctor’s appointment. It is with me when I meet a fellow mom at the playground. It is even with me if I take a walk to the local store.
I have learned that it is okay to have social anxiety. In fact, it is quite normal.
I have learned to embrace my fears, and not let them overtake me.
Most of all, I have learned to accept and love myself. Loving me was key in the entire process. As a teenager, I hated who I was. Today, I deeply regret that.
I can’t change the past and neither would I want to. Going through all that I did has made me the person I am today.
You will begin to see this too. You will begin to see that you are a beautiful person in spite of all the flaws. In fact, I am going to help you get started with those same words:
“You are a beautiful person.”
You don’t have to listen to all that I am saying. I know that teenagers can be really stubborn that way. I was very stubborn too. I thought that no one understood me. I was wrong.
If I could offer one last piece of advice, it would be to enjoy this time. Kick back a little bit. Find something you love and do it each day. Meditate. Breathe. Laugh. Most of all be gentle with yourself. You are strong and will get through the tough times. I am living proof of this.
I will be with you every step of the way.
And that, my friend, is a promise.
Kathleen Sullivan is a freelance writer and a full-time mom. My work has been published on: The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, Brain, Child Magazine, Mamalode, Parent co. and Your Tango.
She is also the creator of the blog, Three Kids, One Husband and a Bottle of Wine