By Mikayla Valdes
My social anxiety plays me like a deceitful little game, except I spent the last 15 years pretending like I wasn’t on the court. The painful shyness I faced as a child, my inability to smile at any adults except my parents until the age of eight, the meeting with my fourth-grade teacher that my concerned mother sat through, afraid her daughter wasn’t voicing her needs: it’s always been you, dear social anxiety. My conviction in middle school that my friends didn’t care about having me around: that was you, too, wasn’t it? You pushed and pushed with such excruciating force until that stupid conviction became my reality. As did tears, insecurity, and a lack of reassurance I desperately needed. In high school you hid behind black skinny jeans, punk rock band t-shirts, and an eating disorder that wasn’t glamourous like in the movies. You danced around obsession, meticulous numbers, and crippling self-judgment. This is my reality, and the reality of millions of other people. And we are being ignored.
What if our society ignored the number of people who suffered from cancer each year? What if we claimed that cancer wasn’t real and its effect on lives was simply a conjugation of one’s imagination? If we stigmatized this illness, how would it impact those 15 million Americans who live with it? How would it make them feel? We don’t ignore those battling a physical illness because it’s usually easy to see how they manifest, yet mental health disorders can be harder to see and are thus treated differently.
The number of people who live with cancer every year is equivalent to the number of North Americans who live with social anxiety. That’s roughly 7 percent of our continent’s population. The disorder is more prevalent among teenagers and college students: an estimated 10 percent of college students suffer from significant social anxiety disorder, and general anxiety disorder affects an astounding 25 percent of teenagers. So why is the second most commonly diagnosed form of anxiety disorder is also so commonly overlooked? It’s challenging enough to live with a mental illness: its stigmatized reputation is an additional obstacle to overcome.
The stigma American society has so carelessly placed upon those struggling with social anxiety is rooted in insensitivity and judgment. The ignorance that drives this stigma not only discourages people from seeking help but attempts to convince them they have no problem to begin with. The pressure to break out of the shyness and nervousness becomes debilitating. When someone is repeatedly told their struggles don’t exist or their social awkwardness is just something they need to suck up and get over, we begin to believe it. I know I did.
My social anxiety made me question all the wrong things. I questioned the value of my curvy physique. I questioned my ability to be alone for hours at a time and not crave any verbal exchange. I questioned why people assumed I was so shy when I didn’t raise my hand in class, even though I always knew I had something to offer. At the time, I didn’t know what kept restricting me. I had questioned why everyone I knew was making friends at college, while my “friends” kicked me out of their roommate pool instead.
My first semester in college drained me. The pressure of constant socialization and having to present my best, bubbly, and agreeable self to everyone I confronted took a toll on my mental health. If I was anything but outgoing and always eager to go out on a weeknight, I was afraid my worst internal fear would come true—people would only pretend to be my friend because they felt a sense of pity towards me. I spend an exorbitant amount of energy and time rehearsing what tone I would use to respond to my name during attendance call in class, or considering which shoes would make the least noise when I walked into a 300-student lecture. One night my roommate asked me to make a phone call to the resident hall janitor because our window was jammed. I knew exactly the look I shot her, one brimming with such nerves and astonishment that makes someone wonder if they’ve suddenly sprouted a second head. She stared back at me quizzically and within seconds quickly muttered, “Never mind, I’ll do it.” The conversation ended abruptly. Why couldn’t I do it? Social anxiety.
But now I know it’s you, anxiety. Things make sense now: why I overthink the most basic social interactions, why I can’t present an accurate first impression no matter how hard I try, and why making friends is a hurdle I never fail to trip over. I need constant reassurance from the people in my life that I matter to them; that they want me to be there, and I haven’t just shoved my way in. I understand now that you are the driving force behind that heavy weight of insecurity that has travelled with me throughout my first year of college. But I want you to know that I am not afraid of you. Coming to college has given me the courage to speak openly about the daily challenges you provide. Because of you, I have discovered my passion of advocating for mental health awareness. I have overcome my eating disorder. I have made a friend or two, and I’m working on making some more. Thank you for being a constant in my life, dear social anxiety. Yes, you are a piece of me. But if you think you are going to define me, you are so painfully mistaken.
Mikayla is a sophomore at Boston College studying Communication with a minor in Management and Leadership. She is an active writer for Spoon University, an online food publication, and also enjoys playing guitar and spending time in New York City.