Hint: I didn’t because that is not how life works. At least not how my life works.
One of my strongest memories of being in school was being in the debate team. I was friendless for most of the time between grades 10-12, not helped by my own awkward, jumpy self. In retrospect, I am grateful for who I have become because of that but at that moment, having no one to talk to, no parties to be invited to, no insider jokes to laugh at hurt, a lot. It felt like my entire life would be that way. Children, teenagers, they all can be cruel.
Back to debating—I didn’t have the name for it back then but what I had was very high anxiety (social and otherwise). Before most debates I would wish that an earthquake would kill us all or an emergency situation cancels the debate or that my turn never comes—it never occurred to me to question why I wanted something so drastic to happen for an extracurricular I did voluntarily. I’ve thrown up out of nervousness and had sleepless nights and chewed my nails till the skin bled. I won some debates, I lost some. In the larger scheme of things this was inconsequential except it filled my days a little bit.
There are a few trophies in the living room at my parents house, what they hide is the building blocks of anxiety that brought them home. This continued in undergrad as well. Out of a sense of obligation and wanting to be useful at something, I put my name up for the president of the Economics society. I got the role, more so because of the paucity of applicants. I can assure you, I was one of the worst people to lead that society. Mainly because my social anxiety was such that I would fall sick during major events—I would be overcome by nausea and unable to move out of the house. I knew I was failing constantly, what I did not know is that it did not define me and I was failing because of my anxiety, not any ineptitude.
Fast forward to starting work in my early twenties. Regular meetings made me panic. I tried to practice what I would say beforehand but that is hard to do for free flowing conversations. Anything unexpected would create a deer in headlights situations. Oh and also, get this: I could only eat my lunch for as long as the person in front of me was eating their lunch. The minute they stopped eating was the minute I snapped the lid shut on my box. People would ask me to keep eating but I would say, I’m done too. I could not be the only one eating (in my head it was some sort of a wrongdoing). I constantly worried about being fired and being unemployable (I was but no more than most of my peers).
I remember going to social occasions like a wedding or a concert. When I could, I hid in bathrooms. When I couldn’t, I hid in silence (remember even though we had cell phones, they weren’t smart phones yet and so Words With Friends couldn’t be my virtual friend). I organised events for over 800 people and in the middle of those events I would be bent over a toilet, trying to hurl all my worries out. If we were out, I would say yes to any plans other people had and used sentences like (and still do): ‘It doesn’t matter what I want‘. It does, it always did and it always will!
Even now I will sometimes walk up to a bar or restaurant and on realising that my friend/s are not there, walk outside in circles, because something about walking in by myself and for myself triggers my anxiety. For a long while, being at a work/professional event and not having someone to talk to, made me question my entire worth as a person.
I often bring up the lonely, friendless days of my school life and early twenties, if only to remind myself how far I’ve travelled and perhaps to someone else, that it’s not constant. If some of these worries sound familiar to you, they probably are. Most people worry about things like this. I am not sure most people huddle up in toilets and hide behind pillars to avoid them.
So no I never ‘fixed‘ my anxiety in one year and I don’t believe it will ever be ‘cured‘. What I did get better at and am constantly working on is, managing it better. I ask myself questions like, what is the worst that can happen? This new possible friend may not like you? Is that so bad? It helps that I know a lot more authentic adults, adults who have insecurities and anxieties of their own.
I was at a party recently and chatting with this great woman who works in the military, was funny, confident and lovely. We were in a bar and she leaned over and said I don’t like this atmosphere, it’s too loud and I hate shouting and it triggers my anxiety. A light bulb exploded in my brain because this happens to me more and more. People share who they are and anxiety is hardly uncommon. I am grateful that I meet friends and strangers who are willing to share their stories and walk me through mine.
Author’s Note: If this piece reeks of privilege in the experiences and life I have had, the support and resources I have had, you are absolutely right. I cannot speak to what I would have been like if I did not have access to the people, the life experiences and resources I have, if I came from a different social and economic strata—both my surname and caste automatically open certain doors for me, in India and outside, whether I realise it or not. But I am conscious of the fact that this is not the truth for everyone, only for a select few. All I can hope is parts of this will resonate with some of our readers.
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