“Today’s the big day,” my mom chimes as I walk past her room to begin my morning routine. I let out a deep sigh. Stop reminding me, I just want to get it over with, I think. “Oh stop. I’m really proud of you for taking this step! Four years is long enough to wait,” she responds. I’m not particularly in the mood to get into the layers of this issue with my mom for another countless time, so I drop the subject and get into the shower. I avoid any further conversation long enough to just hear my mom call out, “Don’t forget your money! Good luck!” as I walk out the door.
I know what you’re wondering. Am I going on a trip? Am I attending a job interview? Am I starting a new job or school? What could I possibly be doing to make my mom proud yet still wait four years to do it? I don’t expect you to understand, but I’m throwing myself out there, so what the hell; here it goes. Today, I am going to the school cafeteria at the college I’ve been attending for almost four years. No confetti, no award, no possibility of a brighter future. Just me going to a lunchroom in my school, something people do every single day like it is not big deal. However, life is really normal when you have a disorder. Yes, here is the big kicker, I have social anxiety which has made doing the seemingly most simple things, horribly difficult.
While most people would merely be planning the time for their lunch and possibly what they will eat, my mind is in an upset at the sheer thought of going into that building. What are you thinking? You can’t do this! You won’t know what you’re doing and will look stupid! You will hold up the line and people will be mad. Places like that are for people with friends on campus, not you. It seems harsh, right? Well, that is my every day with social anxiety. To be honest with you, it’s been much worse.
When I was in elementary school and people would go around the classroom handing out birthday party invitations, I wasn’t excited like the rest of my classmates. A party meant interaction. It meant I had to be in a strange place, a peer’s house, with a group of children, most I admittedly knew, yet had to socialize with. Even from a young age, I hated the party atmosphere. No specific memory sticks out, but flashes of several moments do. I remember moms being afraid I was too shy, or even worse, that I was being excluded. As a result, as everyone played a party game and I sat on the sidelines waiting for it to be time for my mom to pick me up and save me from this torture, the mom would swoop in and politely encourage me to join in. After a few attempts, I remember being physically pulled, not in a painful or harmful sense, but just literally coaxed to join the group. With social anxiety, it is hard to be assertive, especially to an adult, a mom, so I complied. I didn’t talk, but I sat closer to the group. Back then, everyone just tagged me as shy and thought I would grow out of it. I even thought of myself as simply shy and hoped that one day, things would magically get better. I would wake up one morning wanting to talk to anyone would listen. As you would expect, things didn’t work out that way.
As my school years progressed, I watched classmates come out of their shells and yet I was still under lock and key. Though my memory fails me again for an explicit instance, I can specifically remember being in several classroom situations that went something like this. “What is the proper way to divide fractions?” The teacher would ask. Flip the second fraction and multiple across, I would think. The room would go silent. No one would raise his or her hand. Come on, someone has to know this. We went over it in class yesterday. “No one?” The teacher presses. “Were anyone of you paying attention?” I could raise my hand, but I’m probably wrong and if I’m wrong, people will think I’m stupid and laugh at me. With an audible sigh, the teacher writes an example on the board and explains the process again. I was right. Though that was a fictional example, I remember the disappointment all too well. If I would have just trusted myself, I could have said the answer. The teacher would know I was paying attention. I would be so angry with myself for not speaking up, yet the next time the situation would present itself, the vicious cycle would continue.
It wasn’t just school either. Any public place was hard for me to speak up in. At shoe stores, I could find a pair that I wanted to buy, but they didn’t have my size out on the sales floor. Although I knew there was a backroom that an associate could check, I was too nervous to ask. If I didn’t have someone there who could ask for me, like a friend or relative, I wasn’t buying shoes that day. When I would go out to eat with my family, I would have to coach my mom on the way to the restaurant about what drink I wanted. As the waiter asked for drink orders around the table, my mom would order for both her and me. The same routine happened with the meal selection, except I had more time to tell my mom what I wanted as we were given time to roam the menu. It was embarrassing to have my younger siblings be so forthcoming as they ordered their food and I couldn’t utter a word to the stranger serving us. With friends, I couldn’t be the first one to walk into a place. If I opened the door, people would look and all eyes would be on me. I couldn’t have that.
Things like this created tension towards me. People cared about me and knew I was shy, but after a while, they got fed up. “Can’t you ask the saleswoman yourself?” “Why do I have to order for you?” “Seriously, you are going to have to go to places by yourself sometime. People aren’t going to be here to do things with you forever.” I understood what they meant and I tried to not resent them for their words that hurt me. It was hard though. I just wanted someone to understand that I didn’t choose to be this way and I didn’t know why speaking and being the center of attention was so overwhelming. I would do anything to be normal.
As if by chance, in the second half of my junior year of high school, I finally began to crawl, cautiously, out of my shell. My school was very small; with Grades 7-12, the student population totaled roughly 600 students. There was only one public middle school and high school in my one-square mile town, I had known the kids around me for literally over a decade. Once I thought like that, they didn’t seem as scary anymore. With the help of my best friend, who I had now since third grade, I joined the bowling team. I then was inducted into the National Honor and National Art Honor Societies. Soon, I was meeting more people and found it easier to talk to people I didn’t know. My senior year was when I truly came into my own. I was nominated Treasurer of my honor society, member-at-large of my art honor society, and varsity bowling captain. I even joined chorus. Four things I never would have imagined a mere two years before. I still was anxious giving presentations in class, refused to ever perform a solo in chorus, and had a rough time talking to strangers. However, most people were like that. These were acceptable forms of shyness in my society.
Nevertheless, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. When I enrolled in Kean University, I knew my world was going to change drastically. I knew I was going to a school that had a student population bigger than the population of my hometown. I knew I was going to be twenty miles from home in a completely new place with all new people. Yet, that was college. That was what happened when you make the transition from the shelter of high school to the adult world of college. I would deal with it and get used to it like everyone else who adapted.
Unfortunately, history repeated itself and again I wasn’t normal. I was alone on campus most of the time because I didn’t know any on campus. I didn’t talk to anyone in class unless it was required group work. I didn’t raise my hand if I had a question about the material or knew the answer to a question. I didn’t eat lunch because I didn’t want to sit alone. Heck, I’d never even been to the cafeteria to know where to go. What I knew was, I was not going to sit in a room full of people talking and laughing with friends while I sat alone. People will think I am weird. They will know I have no friends and will talk about me. They may even laugh at my loner status. That’s when I knew it. I was back to square one, except this time, I felt I couldn’t get out of the hell I was in. I had lost all hope.
As fate, destiny, or God would have it, I had to hand in paperwork to the health services office on campus. On the way there, I saw the counseling center. I thought I needed help and could get it here. I shouldn’t hate going to college as much as I did and feel so alone. After a few meetings with a counselor, it was determined that I had social anxiety. This wasn’t a simple nervous feeling of shyness. It was a fear, a phobia. Likened to people who are afraid of heights or spiders, I was afraid of talking to people. Just as going on a bridge would cause an immediate response in someone whom fears heights, talking to people did that for me. Both our bodies had the same reaction—fear. Months of working with my counselor, it was suggested that I join a social anxiety support group that was forming on campus. Although going into a room with strangers to talk about intimate feelings may seem the exact opposite of what someone with social anxiety would do, I went for it. I thought things couldn’t get any worse and I even let myself believe that I would find that I wasn’t the only one with these issues.
As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one. The group of four of us, you see, it is really hard to get people who are afraid of socializing to be in a room together, lasted eight weeks and met every Monday for an hour and a half. The structure was set into two parts. For the first four weeks, we learned about psychological theories into the phenomena of social anxiety, the usual physiological, emotional, and mental reactions, and something called cognitive distortions. The last one is the way people with anxiety disorders mentally change their perceptions automatically. For instance, there is one called “fortune telling.” By assuming that if I talk to a stranger, he or she will get mad for being bothered, I have taken it upon myself to believe that will happen without any evidence to support it. What I have trained myself to believe after years of having the same reaction, has now become automatic in my brain.
The second half of our meetings was taking what we learned, knowing our fears, and trying to do things that scared us. Each week, we would have the goal to complete an activity that scared us and the following meeting we would discuss how it went. Now, we didn’t have to worry about disappointing just ourselves, but our group members too. Also, knowing that someone was facing their fears like you really helped. That group changed my life in college. I am more open to talking to people in class, and I have joined a group, the English Honor Society Sigma Tau Delta, which I am currently vice president of. I still battle social anxiety every day and it is a struggle. However, I know every step forward, no matter how big or small, is positive. A few weeks ago, I conquered a goal that has plagued me since my first semester at Kean University.
“Where are you? I’m in the UC & I don’t see you.” I text my friend Nick as I look around the Kean University University Center that is bustling with people going in every different direction. I barely even enter in this building because of the chaotic nature of it. However, with friends it’s easier. At 12:30, I am supposed to meet Nick and our mutual friend Ashely for lunch. They know my struggles and have made it a point to support me through this obstacle. The fact that they aren’t there is irritating me. My heart is thumping against my chest and my fists are clenched. I try to look at my phone to seem busy and to distract myself, but it isn’t working.
A grueling five minutes later, the phone that I am squeezing in my hand lights up. “Hey, sorry. I was talking to my professor. On my way to the UC now,” a text from Nick reads. I already knew Ashely was going to be late, as she made it clear from the initial invitation. However, Nick’s unusual tardiness is an unexpected change. I hate things I didn’t anticipate.
At 12:47 p.m., finally everyone has arrived and Nick and Ashely lead the way as I have never been here before so I am unfamiliar with the way to the cafeteria. After a series of a few doors, I hear the roar of the crowded lunch room. I must have shown my reaction on my face because Ashely gives me a concerned look and asks, “Are you okay?” “Yeah, just a little overwhelmed. I’m sorry,” I quickly reply and look down. “It’s fine. It will be okay. Me and Nick are here literally by your side!” She says with a small laugh in what I think it an attempt to lighten the mood.
Suddenly, the doors are in front of us. I can see the tables and the people. The thumping in my chest gets stronger. It abruptly feels like there isn’t enough air in the room and my chest aches. I slightly shake my head and retain focus. I take a deep breath and we walk through the doors. Ashley walks ahead and finds a clear table and set her stuff down. I put down my black messenger bag and reach inside it to get my wallet. I clutch it in my hand as I know I have to face a fear very soon. Walking into the cafeteria was one thing, but now I had to order food, in a crowded cafeteria line. I decided to get a basic item, the simpler the better. Nick and Ashely talked as I rehearsed in my head over and over what I was going to say exactly. The BLT Special. The BLT Special. No changes. Take it exactly as it is. Doing this is hard enough without complicating the situation with specifics. Before I knew it, it was my turn. The cafeteria worker turned her attention to me. “What can I get you?” She asks. “The BLT Special, just like the picture,” I answer. I relax as I watch her assemble my lunch. Everything is working out perfectly. “Do you want that with a combo?” Wait, what? I didn’t prepare for this! “What?” I ask. “Do you want a pickle and a bag of chips with your sandwich?” She asks. “Um, sure,” I respond with my heart beating quicker than it had a few moments ago.
Then, the worker hands me a plate with a sandwich, a pickle, and a small bag of potato chips; the moment is over. I can breathe. Ashely and Nick get their food and we return to our table. I wish I could say something amazing happened like confetti went off or a marching band arrived. However, it wasn’t like that. No one but Ashely and Nick knew how hard that was for me and how I struggled to do such a simple task for nearly four years. I knew though. I knew I did it. I had a fear and I faced it. Yes, I wasn’t alone, but it was a step and for that I am proud. Every day I try to face a social anxiety fear, sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail. The result doesn’t matter as much as the fact that I keep trying. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over my social anxiety completely; for now, I am just taking one day at a time.