life lessons

This Is What It's Like To Live With Anxiety by Diamond Coleman

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“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.

On Trusting Your Struggle by Diamond Coleman

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I was talking with a close friend of mine (and by talking with, I mean texting -- let's not front here) earlier today about how some people count months. Random, I know, but me and this friend are just random individuals. For example, while some people might consider the span of September-December to be four months, she and I, along with many other people, believe it to be only three. After all, you don't count September as the first month; instead, you count September to October as the first month and so on and so forth. And then she mentioned a good instance of this way of counting: no one ever says a baby is one month old when he or she is born, so the same logic applies (I know it sounds like I'm rambling a bit here, but stick with me). So, I told her that Koreans consider a newborn baby to be one year old because of the time he or she spends in the mother's womb. Well, at least that's what I heard from a Korean man I met a few weeks ago. Also, after doing further research right now on Wikipedia, I found out that other Asian countries do this, too. It's called "age reckoning" and it started in China (wow, I really am rambling). Anyways, my friend thought this was really awesome and talking about it brought me to say both bluntly and honestly, "I am 25 and have never been so confused in my entire life." Of course, I'm still 24 in the Western world, but just thinking that I'll be 25 in a few months actually terrifies me. And not only because it's a milestone year in anyone's life, but also because I feel as if I should have everything all figured out. SPOILER ALERT: I don't. If I'm being completely honest right now, this period in my life is the most change I've ever experienced. From losing a loved one to moving to Los Angeles essentially all alone and at a few week's notice all within six months, I've had to deal with a multitude of emotions on a daily basis. Now, that's not to say that I've never had to deal with difficult situations in the past 24 years. Quite the contrary. But the things I have gone through recently have really scared the shit out of me and have really tested my resilience and strength. A quarter-life crisis indeed.

I've lived in LA twice before: once in 2011 for an internship program through my university, and another time in 2012 for an internship I got a month after I graduated. Each of these experiences, while flawed in one way or another, made me fall in love with the city. The amazing weather, easy accessibility to the beach, and just the overall laid-back kind of vibe that it gave off were good enough reasons for me to give it another try. So, after a full two years of being away, I took the plunge and moved back again due to a fellowship that I got at a really cool and well-known social media company. (That whole experience in and of itself needs its own post!) I came out here two weeks before my job actually started without a place to live. I stayed with a friend while I desperately searched for an apartment, and every search engine was fair game. You name it, I probably used it: Craig's List, Roomster, Zillow, RadPad, Westside Rentals (which cost me $60 for a two-month subscription!!!), and a bunch more.

I started my search a few weeks before moving, but I kept getting the whole "it's easier if you're physically here" spiel from the listings I was calling, and I guess for the most part that's true. After what seemed like months of searching, I finally found an apartment through Craig's List. I didn't even care that I had wasted money on Westside Rentals because I was just so ecstatic to have been offered a place right on the spot. It really did happen when I least expected it. Up until getting the place I have now, I had basically lost all hope in finding an apartment that I actually liked and that was somewhat within my budget, so I was shocked when, after seeing the apartment and meeting my future roommate, I locked down a place to call home.

Throughout this whole process, I've second-guessed myself more than I'd like to admit. I never really considered myself to be one of those people who is in constant fear of what's ahead, but now that I'm completely out of my comfort zone, I wholeheartedly identify with that fear. Am I measuring up? Is my work good enough? Am I creative enough? Will I find success in a city whose inhabitants, more often than not, are after the same things I am? Will I find happiness? While LA is a cool and vibrant city, it's still generally competitive and cutthroat (of course not all of it is this way, but if you're looking to get into entertainment of any kind, it can be a dog-eat-dog world), and it can be hard to find your niche. I'm definitely still working on finding mine, and often fear that I never will. It's also so easy to feel so lost and alone. Luckily, my roommate has helped me get better acclimated and because she initially felt the same way I do now when she first moved here, she can identify with what I'm feeling.

This time around, LA is different and I am, too. Unlike the other times I was here, I don't have the same core group of friends and I'm no longer that wide-eyed recent college grad who is riding high on that unique confidence you get after receiving your bachelors degree (I do however, have a couple friends out here still that I keep in contact with). And I'm slowly learning to be okay with that. The emotions I feel right now are only a sign that I'm growing and going after something great, although I may not know for sure just what that great thing is. They also are a result of my tackling my fears head on, most of the time without having a choice. Either way, I'm growing and proving to myself just how strong I really am. It's true that my length of time here in this city is unknown, but I also believe that everything happens for a reason. All that I've done in my life has led me to this moment, and in due time, the reason why I'm here will reveal itself. And when it does, I'll be forever grateful.

Do You, Be You by Diamond Coleman

When you compare yourself to others, you set yourself up for self-destruction. There are very few things in life that are worse for your well-being and peace of mind than letting the actions of other people consume you, and doing so usually leaves you feeling inadequate.

The problem with comparing yourself to another individual is that it’s entirely way too easy. When you’re not where you want to be in your life and someone else is living the way you envision yourself living, it’s only natural for you to reevaluate your current situation and think hypothetically. Sometimes, this can even motivate you to work more arduously to achieve an objective. But what we must all remember is that each person’s destination and the path he or she takes to arrive there is different. There is more than one way to achieve a goal and no expiration date for one’s arrival to that goal; in most cases, it’s never too late to go after what you desire. Once we fully understand these fundamental facts of life, we will be incredibly more secure in our abilities and aspirations and stop beating ourselves up for not quite yet ascertaining what it is we want to do with our lives.
Another thing to keep in mind is that we never truly know what obstacles a person had to go through in order to get to where he or she is now in his or her life. Many people’s paths to success were paved with strife, trip-ups, deceit and tribulations that you were never meant to experience or witness. That is why it is that person’s journey and not your own. Each of us has a destiny, and the way that we get there is completely individualistic. There's probably some person whom you graduated with last year who is making $80,000 a year while you’re still struggling to make ends meet. But do you know if he or she is truly happy? Does he or she have an unbreakable support system like yours? These are the questions you have to ask when you find yourself descending into the abysmal, downward spiral of comparing yourself to another individual and making yourself feel substandard.
Of course, there will always be someone who will attain one of your ultimate goals before you do. That’s just human nature. And that person may be 10 years younger with less experience than you, but who the hell cares? That is his or her path that he or she was meant to take; you have your own unique path that was made for only you. If you allot too much of your precious time brooding over why you’re not in the same place as someone else, you'll only be deterred from your path. Do your soul a favor and nurture it by giving it the affection and attention it needs. That's the only way you'll grow and prosper.