I’ve never felt like I belonged. That notion became clear to me when I was 13. It was my freshman year at a local secondary school, and to say that I was scared out of my wits is an understatement. You see, I’m an introvert with a secret disability: anxiety.
I was a bundle of nerves. I couldn’t even say hello to my classmates and would instead sneak a few peeks at them, desperately wishing that somebody—anybody—would make the first move. Nobody did. Now that I think about it, it could be because of my embarrassingly long fringe. It made me look like that creepy ghost from the Japanese horror film Ju-On.
I bet they were thinking, “Who is this odd duck?”
In the end, I—for lack of a better word—sucked it up. I had no other choice but to talk to someone, because I had a problem with my student billing form. But before I could raise my wobbly hand, the school bell rang. Naturally, the teacher whizzed out of the classroom. I dashed after her, but couldn’t keep up with her long strides.
Time for Plan B. I approached one of the girls and braced myself. With legs that would make any supermodel green with envy–and to paraphrase from Rory Gilmore–this girl looked like she was dressed by birds since she was two.
I went, “Uhm, hi. I was wondering if you could help me with my billing form?”
She took a quick glance at the application I was holding and grinned. “Sure!”
I felt like I’d won the jackpot.
My classmate was friendly and kind. With her help, I breezed through the form. From our brief conversation, I found out she was new to town and had just moved into the same apartment block as me.
Coincidence? I think so.
From that day onward, we started hanging out together. I sat with her during recess, we took the bus together–you get my drift. Translation: I wouldn’t let her out of my sight. If it were up to me, I’d gladly award her the Nobel Prize for her patience.
At that time, I’d thought being alone in school was pathetic. Having a thick skin and forcing a friendship was pathetic too, but it was something I could live with. Remember in Gilmore Girls when Rory and Paris join The Puffs? Our friendship was sort of like that. Even though we hung out a lot, we didn’t have the right chemistry. Our ideologies were different and we didn’t have any common interests. Most of our bus rides involved us sitting together staring out the window or making weird eye contact with the passengers.
Despite the occasional tension and awkwardness in our friendship, my social life got a wee bit better. But deep down, like many introverts, I still felt like a fish out of water. PE class was hard. I wasn’t comfortable playing sports with a bunch of people I barely mingled with. One time, I had to bolt to the toilet, because I felt dizzy from a sudden panic attack. Debates were a nightmare. School camps were a mess, because I had to deal with the communal shower. I often wondered, “Should I start shaving down there?”
What if I hadn’t approached my friend? Every now and then, a small part of me wondered if I was being too forward. Part of me had the urge to peek through the window and see the school life that might’ve been. Did I push a friendship that wasn’t there?
Of course, this was through no fault of hers–or mine. I don’t believe in playing the blame game.
Meanwhile, my anxiety kept getting worse. I had bad headaches, and I would get cold sweats and fainting spells. I should have known these were red flags, but at the time, I figured it stemmed from stress—and the fact that I was being too hard on myself.
Visiting family doctors didn’t work, as they couldn’t pinpoint the culprit behind the blackouts. It took me a while to switch gears and see a gynecologist. (My periods were often late, sometimes as late as five months.)
Shockingly, my doctor told me: “You have an unusually high amount of testosterone. It’s the reason why you’re so sick.”
A part of me was baffled. Another part of me wanted to holler at the doctor, “But, I ain’t a dude. Don’t you mean estrogen?!”
Apparently, we women, too, have testosterone in our body. It came to light that it’s the crook behind my headaches—it was later confirmed that they weren’t headaches, but migraines—and other problems like acne and anxiety.
I have little issues with my acne. Sure, my zits have the habit of shrinking my confidence from time to time, but they don’t leave any other nasty repercussions. But anxiety and migraines, on the other hand, are trickier. There is not a minute that goes by that I don’t think about them. The doctor prescribed painkillers, birth control pills, sleeping pills, and antidepressants. But I didn’t want to rely on them. So I stopped taking them after two days. And it came with a price.
I had a panic attack while my dad was driving. I couldn’t breathe and my heart raced. I’m not a crier, but at that time, the moment felt so intense that I burst into tears.
“This is it,” I thought. “This is what the rest of my life is going to be like.”
The next day, I found myself unable to step out of the house. I don’t know why–all I know is that I couldn’t. It went on for a week. Is this what all agoraphobics go through? It’s unthinkable. When I finally had the courage to leave the comfort of my home, I made another amateur mistake: I went to a shopping mall.
It was crowded and hot. I had another panic attack and stayed in the bathroom the entire time my family had their meal in a food court. I had my breakfast, a chiffon cake, in a stall. I rubbed medicated oil on my temple, praying I wouldn’t pass out. I stayed there for 20 minutes.
My parents dismissed my panic attack. “Why are you being like this? Just relax! It’s all in your head!” That was the worst moment.
I’d thought they had my back. What happened to that?
Now that I’m older, I’ve come to understand that they, too, have their own ways of tussling with my dicey condition. Just because they couldn’t comprehend the pain I’m going through doesn’t mean they love me any less.
It’s not only my parents. Friends and relatives don’t and probably never will understand the agony behind my secret disability. When I was hanging out at a friend’s house, her mother–who must have caught wind of my condition–patted my hand and said, “You don’t look sick.”
I knew it was unintentional on her part, but that mere 5-second experience crushed me. Good lord, does she think I’m faking it? Granted, I occasionally tell white lies, like when I came up with a weak excuse to avoid going to prom: “Oh, prom? I have a rash. My dress makes my skin itch, so I’m skipping it.” But anxiety and panic attacks?
I don’t know what’s worse: a sudden panic attack, or the thought that I’ll have another one in the near future. Whenever it happens, I recite a quote that I hold dear to my heart: “Pain is your body’s way of saying, ‘I’m not okay now, but I will be soon.’”
It doesn’t solve my anxiety issues, but it gives me the courage to face them.
I got rid of my meds and chose therapy and a healthy lifestyle to manage my anxiety. I started working out (really) on my exercise bike. Lena Dunham is right: “It ain’t about the ass. It’s about the brain.”
I quit caffeine. It’s been years since I drank a cup of coffee, and I miss it. I don’t even eat chocolate anymore.
There are many people out there with anxiety that is way more serious than mine. I’m not so self-obsessed to think that this is all about me.
If you struggle with anxiety too, know that there are people out there who understand.
As far as my introversion goes, I have a feeling I’ll be fine. But I’ll be damned if I let my secret disability take over my life. I haven’t completely healed from it yet. I don’t think I ever will. It will always be there, ready to strike when I’m most vulnerable. It’s something I have come to accept. And I’m not ready to give up yet.
It’s like what Dorothy Zbornak’s hospital roommate, Bonnie, on the TV series The Golden Girls, said: “You get through it. You go on. When it comes right down to it, what other choice do we have? It could have been a lot worse.”
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