Friday, September 14, 2018

So, They Call It Social Anxiety, I Called It Painfully Shy and Alone

I just finished reading a book I ordered for my students. Working with teens should serve as enough of a reminder of my high school days. Getting in touch with that younger version of me is further intensified by my teaching at the same high school I graduated from MANY years before.

Each year at graduation, as we march onto that same football field where the awkward, terribly shy girl marched as a band-member, I try to reconcile the me I used to be with the me that I have become. Some days they feel the same. There are some days where grown-up me keeps quiet in meetings and hopes to not get noticed, just as teen-me did all those years before. Other days I am filled with a little more courage and stand with my adult accomplishments, whatever those may be, and dare to be seen. In other places, other settings, teen-me is not so present, and I embrace the freedom adult-me has earned.

Back to the book- The book is called How to Disappear by Sharon Huss Roat. The character in the book, Vicky, has got me thinking about teen-me. Throughout the text the character describes a condition I had never really considered teen-me to be suffering from called social anxiety. (You see in the early 1980’s we weren’t so eager to find a medical label for things - we just stuck with well-known names like shy, awkward, and weird. And those that suffered from debilitating fears were just expected to get over them, not understanding the origin or the commonality of their occurrence.) I spent my four years of high school giving myself the same ‘face your fears’ and ‘you have got to get past this advice.’ I’d have to say I was somewhat successful considering I did not say a single word to anyone my whole 8th grade year (yes, you read that right). By the time of graduation, I had found a small group of friends, began working, started college classes, and even dated a bit. I still cringed at the thought of talking in front of others or even having a deep, intimate conversation.
After getting married, the need to make more money forced me to pull up my bootstraps even further and spend every working day as a nineteen-year-old advertising salesperson, walking into the businesses of total strangers, making small-talk, trying to sell them an ad. I even became proficient at the job. Years after that shy-me faced more fears, speaking to groups that numbered over a hundred through a mouth so dry that I thought my tongue might stick to my teeth, classic cotton-mouth style.

The suck-it-up, bootstrap treatment I inflicted upon my younger self worked to a degree, leaving painful, terrifying moments emblazoned on my memories, but it never cured the root of the problem. The fears might have been defused if I had realized that I was not alone. This book reminded me of that. The main character uses social media to discover that others feel the same fears she feels, and then uses the social media to encourage others that they are not alone. We had no social media. You younger people may not realize that. In the old days, before cell phones or even beepers, I used to go to the library and read magazines like Seventeen to find what other teens thought or did, and those magazine articles were written by adults. There was no way for an introverted, social-anxiety-filled, teen to discover that they were not alone. I certainly would have never asked another teen. Even literature didn’t convince me that there were others like me, silenced by their fears.

When thinking about all the goods and bads of social media consider the aspect of connection. There is power in connection. It can be a freeing catalyst propelling people forward by knowing that they are not alone.

I wonder if teen-me would have turned out differently if I had been able to connect to others who felt #alone and #scared? I am pretty sure adult-me would be different if I had not made myself do the things that I feared. I also am pretty sure that the fear of being trapped in that silent fear of others was enough to drive me to face other fears and go beyond the comfortable. I am grateful for that heaven-sent determination to do the hard things.

All this from reading a kid’s book for school…

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