“We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.”
-Tennessee Williams, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore
Everyone is, in one way or another, internally conflicted; we all have within us a fire we want to put out, and some are able to tame it. But for others, the flames of the fire grow so ferociously to a point where you can’t see a way out.
For me, that fire is anxiety.
Since childhood, there's always been an undercurrent of anxiety in my life. The earliest account of it that I remember experiencing was on my first day of third grade. For most children and young adults, the first day of school is an exciting time. However, for me it was usually a nerve-wracking, nausea-inducing event that I worried about during the days and even weeks leading up to it (this, I later learned, is called anticipatory anxiety).
This day was unfortunately no different. The night before, I was overcome with fear and grew so unsure of myself. I was insecure about my ability to make new friends and shuddered at the possibility of not having any of my best friends to talk to in my homeroom class. Once the big day arrived, I was so nervous that, as I was leaving my house to walk to school, I threw up in the driveway. Being eight years old at the time, I wasn't aware of the tricks that my brain was playing on me; I just assumed this was a normal reaction to what I was feeling.
Looking back at that moment as an adult, I know for sure that it was anxiety and not just nerves that caused me to react so strongly to a normal and safe activity (i.e. going to school). But I did well that year academically and also made new friends. There wasn't anything to be nervous about after all, but imagining the worst outcome in almost every situation, especially in social ones where I was surrounded by strangers, would become second nature to me.
Fast forward to September of 2002. I am now attending a far-away private school where I know absolutely no one except my brother, who is in the "upper school," aka high school. Again, I dreaded the first day of seventh grade, but this time around, it was drastically different. No longer would familiar faces assuage my nervousness, but rather, it would linger and dwell in the seemingly judgmental gazes of strangers who looked nothing like me.
I was the only black person in my entire grade (and would remain the only one until I graduated twelfth grade) and I presumably had less money than all the kids in the entire middle school. Needless to say, I felt like an outsider and labeled myself as such, which had a detrimental affect on my confidence. But I did a good job at hiding my loneliness by hanging out with the popular kids and ignoring the outcasts (oh, the irony). I also started talking and acting like them so that I didn't stand out.
I didn't fully realize it, but I was slowly losing sight of who I was as an individual. I desperately missed my friends from my hometown and feeling comfortable in my own skin at school.
Keeping up this false happy persona only worsened my anxiety and made me feel more alone. I became well acquainted with the secretary, coming to her every few weeks to complain about an ailment I didn’t have just so I could be sent to the nurse’s office. I did this to avoid lunchtime whenever my anxiety was too overwhelming. The mere thought of walking into the lunchroom looking around for an empty and welcoming seat oftentimes made my heart race, so hiding was my go-to defense mechanism.
For the first few months of seventh grade, there were days when I would come home crying, begging my mom to let me go to the public school in my town, which was, and still is, one of the top public schools in Massachusetts. But she saw within me the strength and potential that I hadn't yet discovered, and although she eventually gave me the option to change schools, I decided to stick it out to avoid the discomfort of change. I stuck it out for six whole years, and in due time things did get better with the help of friends, teachers, and faculty.
With my high school days behind me, I was more than ready for college. Going to a new place where no one knew me was refreshing; it was the perfect opportunity to reinvent myself. Like any other naive freshman, I had already envisioned what my life at college would be like. As a result, whenever I did something that didn't reflect that vision, I got a bit discouraged. For example, I was sure that I was going to find that solid group of friends, kind of like the cast of Living Single.
But instead, I ended up being a floater, which was fine, but it didn't match up with what I originally had in mind. At times, floating made me feel isolated, but I always had fun and enjoyed the time I spent with my friends. I wasn't, however, actively involved in any clubs or organizations, although I showed support for my friends' clubs whenever possible. It's not that I didn't care to be a part of these groups. I just had never confronted my anxious feelings and, therefore, didn't know how to cope with them. Avoidance was that instant relief; it felt like a ton of bricks being lifted off of my shoulders. It was how I chose to protect myself from feeling anxious.
But one day, while I was in class my sophomore year, I froze in my seat. I felt paralyzed and my writing in my notebook became nearly illegible. My palms got sweaty and my heart started pounding like I had just run a marathon. I tried to conceal what was happening, but the more I did, the worse it got. After a few minutes of this torture, I got up and stepped out into the hallway to recollect myself. About five minutes later, I returned to class sans sweaty palms, but my heart was still beating like crazy.
What caused these overreactions was the feeling that everyone in that classroom was staring at me, scrutinizing my every move. The rational part of my mind knew this wasn't true, but my conscious mind, the one that had been perpetuating unrealistic thoughts since I was a young child, was incapable of accepting reality.
Later on that day, I decided to schedule an appointment with a behavioral therapist at my school. My friend and roommate at the time (who was also in that same class) encouraged me to follow through with it and agreed that it was a good idea. Once the day came, though, I couldn’t bring myself to go. There was really no excuse, as I knew for days that I had the appointment.
My emotional independence hindered me from seeking help. I thought I could get through this on my own because I had been for so many years. Besides, everyone had their issues and they dealt with them, so that meant that I could, too. Or at least that’s what I told myself to justify my lack of action. But the reality of the matter was that I didn’t want to know if I had a problem.
College soon came to an end, and after a short stint of living in Los Angeles after graduation, I found myself living back at home, pretty much broke and jobless like a lot of my peers. During this time, I experienced a more common kind of anxiety, the kind that didn’t make me feel like I was insane. This was because I knew I wasn’t alone in feeling so confused and scared of the future. It was also because this type of low-level anxiety was easier to talk about with people than the type I was used to.
After what seemed like months, I finally found a decent-paying retail job, although it was obviously my last resort. Nevertheless, I made the most of it and to my surprise, stayed there for 14 months. Being there made me more aware of everything I was capable of achieving, even if I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do in the long run. And after losing some faith in finding a job I actually wanted, I eventually landed a fellowship in Los Angeles at one of the most world-renowned internet media companies. Things were finally starting to fall into place.
On the first of September, I arrived to LA with hope, ambition, and no place to live. Thankfully, one of my friends let me stay with her until I found something and within a few weeks, I did. That alleviated some of my anxiety, but not for long. All of the changes I went through over the summer combined with my moving 3,000 miles away from home at a month’s notice intensified my anxiety to the point where it was truly unbearable. Not a morning would go by where I didn’t wake up with a pounding heart and a million worries.
Soon I realized that it was time to talk to someone, so I went online to search for a therapist in my area. Luckily, I found one and gave her a call. We chatted briefly so that she could get a sense of what I was struggling with, and then I scheduled my appointment. This time, I went.
With neutral expectations, I entered her office and was immediately greeted with a genuine embrace. Maybe she thought I was in need of a hug, or maybe she did this with all her patients to make them feel comfortable. Whatever the case was, I accepted her gesture and within a few minutes, began venting to her about my current situation.
Towards the end of the session, she gave me a few exercises to do to keep the anxiety at a manageable level. Our meeting was a full hour, but I thought it went by so quickly, and I would think this about every session thereafter. When you have nearly twenty years worth of anxiety to discuss, time escapes you.
I only told a select few people about my attending therapy and what I had been going through over the past four months. One of the reasons was because I didn’t want anyone to worry about me. The main reason, though, was because I feared being judged; I didn’t want people to think I was crazy or to misconstrue my emotions and experiences.
But I underestimated the healing power of being honest about this disorder. The immense shame I once felt had decreased once I started being more open about it, and I was a bit surprised at the support and encouragement I received from friends and loved ones.
It should be noted that I'm not anxious all the time and that I am, in many familiar situations (i.e. when I'm with friends, family and so on and so forth), confident and calm. The issue occurs when I'm taken out of my safe havens and to a certain extent, it makes sense that I would feel some uneasiness when going out of my comfort zone.
Still, anxiety is very real in my life and isn’t something that I can simply eradicate from it. It will always be there. I still hear that negative voice creep up on me when I’m trying so hard to see the reality of a particular situation. Some days are better than others, and I’m slowly learning that having what I consider to be a bad day doesn’t erase all the progress I’ve made up until this point. Yes, I’m living in a burning house, but I refuse to stay in it long enough to disintegrate with it. We can all break the lock or, at the very least, fight like hell trying.