(c) Rebeltude LLC 2023
February 1, 2021
You're as cool as your Daddy says you are!
Original Art / Rebel Studio
People who meet me for the first time, and maybe even those that have known me for a while, would never imagine that I have suffered from horrible social anxiety my entire life. It's been a thing since I was very young. Those of you who can relate ~ you are NOT alone!
My first memories, of what I will call panic attacks, goes WAYYY back to when I was only about 5 years old and I was in Kindergarten. I can remember going out to the bus stop and then having to run back to the house because of the overwhelming panic. I didn’t know they were panic attacks at the time, of course, but that’s exactly what it was. My little tummy would cramp up, I would shake and get overwhelmed with fear that I would, most certainly, poop my pants. I don’t know why, because I had never messed my pants before, but the fear was very real. I never told anyone what I was feeling, I was embarrassed. Who poops their pants?! Not something I wanted to share, even if it was only a fear and had not actually happened.
Thinking back, I remember the other children in my immediate neighborhood being very cruel to me. I didn’t know why. I had never done anything to them. In fact, before going to the bus stop for Kindergarten the first time, I hadn’t even met most of them. Most of them were a couple of years older.. ya’ know, the cool 1st and 2nd graders, seasoned and hardened by the rough and tough world of elementary politics and hierarchy. They would tease me, throw rocks at me, call me names, and say that I had cooties or that I stunk. It was not pleasant, and it fed ... maybe even created, my first anxiety attacks… and a very real sense of low self-esteem and self-worth, and to think, up till that point, I thought I was pretty magnificent! Those of you who can relate... you are NOT alone!
I remember one instance, still in elementary school but a few years later, when all the neighborhood kids were all going over to one of the houses that had a pool. Being young and wanting to be included, I showed up at the gate with my towel, in my bathing suit, ready to go. The mother stopped me at the gate and made it noticeably clear that I was NOT welcome. I never liked HER anyway. She used to lay naked in her backyard to sunbathe... like she didn’t know the boys could see her through the cracks in the fence!
Wow… just wow. I guess cruelty is not reserved for children that don’t know any better. It comes from somewhere though doesn’t it…
Another time, some of the same kids, pretending to be friendly, asked me if I wanted to ride their pony. Of course I did!!! – Only to climb up on its bare back to have the boy slap it so hard that it bucked me off into the mud... nice.
Now that I think about it, most of the torment came from the boys and the girls just followed suit. Maybe they all had a crush on me??? Maybe I was just THAT gorgeous and alluring in my torn bell-bottom jeans, t-shirts and oversized hand-me-down jackets. Ooh, the hair cowlick in my bangs that stuck straight forward like a horn - that must have been it!
The anxiety continued to grow and take over my life slowly. I didn’t want to go to other people’s homes or to sleep overs or parties. Well, let me correct that, I DID WANT TO GO, I just couldn’t. My anxiety wouldn’t let me. I would literally get sick to my stomach just THINKING about going. What if I had to use the bathroom? What if I didn’t make it? What if someone knew?
Who was this voice in my head??? Where did it come from and why wouldn’t it SHUT THE HELL UP!?
Those of you who can relate... you are NOT alone!
My mother, in desperation to help, took me to our family doctor when I was still in elementary school. He was old school. Looking back, I think of the old small-town doctor in the Michael J. Fox movie, Doc Hollywood. “Give the kid a Coke A Cola and he’ll be fine!”
In his infinite wisdom and armed only with the knowledge of the time, our family doctor determined that the physical manifestations of my anxiety (heart palpitations, shaking, cramping and even diarrhea) were simply in my head and that I just needed to get control of it. Well OF COURSE IT WAS IN MY HEAD!!! – That’s where the anxiety monster lives!! I was probably only about 8-10 yrs old – and being told to GET CONTROL… that’s just what I intended to do! Hence, the new monster, named control freak, was added to my personality to battle it out with Mr. Anxiety! (and an epic battle it would be)
If I could not control the anxiety, I would control the situations that triggered it. Basically, anything new, outside of my comfort zone or having the possibility of fun was now OUT! Depression started setting in, ever so slowly, at the daily thought of knowing I was under the thumb of this monster.
The Summer before entering Jr. High my Father, my mother and myself all moved onto our 40 ft boat. (that’s an entirely different story I’ll tell another time) -It was just the 3 of us. My older siblings were graduated from high school and were left behind to mind the house (yea right!) My mother worked days and my father worked nights – so my dad and I spent a lot of time during the days together that summer working on our “classic” boat and getting into innocent mischief. I looked up to my father and loved him very much. He embodied everything I wanted to be as a person. He was kind, funny and genuinely cared about people. He was my best friend.
Living on the boat was a dream for me. I got my mom and dad all to myself. I was isolated from peers and triggers that fed the anxiety and I had my own little world – I was far from the neighborhood and the kids that tormented me. I forgot all about them. I entertained myself with no pressure from anyone to “do” or “go” anywhere. I spent my days roller skating in the parking lot of the marina or sailing my little boat up and down the Foss waterway. I was relaxed. I was happy … but the Summer could only last so long.
However, once in a while, just as I was starting to forget about it, the beast would raise it’s ugly head and remind me who was boss in this relationship. Maybe it was an impromptu car ride I hadn’t mentally prepared for, it didn’t really take much. But as time went on, it was harder and harder to keep my self-constructed armor, named control, hidden. It rattled when I walked and weighed me down somethin’ awful. My father was very empathetic to my plight. He didn’t understand it, he didn’t know what to call it, but he knew it was there. Anyone relatively close would have to be blind not see it! He wished I could just “get over it” but saw that I couldn’t.
As the end of Summer was approaching, I found myself talking to my dad openly, and telling him how nervous I was to start Jr. High. It’s so big and I’ll have to go to different classes and have lots of teachers instead of just one. What if no one liked me and I couldn’t make friends, or worse yet, what if the couple of friends I did have had made new friends and didn’t want to be my friend anymore. I had been away all Summer!
He said this, “Kim, if you never remember anything else, I tell you, remember this: Whenever you walk into a room you need to remember that YOU are just as cool as everyone else in that room. Everyone is worried about what everyone else thinks of them. They are all going through what you are going through. There are hundreds of other 7th graders that will be starting Jr. High as well and all of them feel the same way. Walk in like you own the place and be kind, just be yourself, and you’ll make all kinds of friends.”
I found it hard to believe that everyone was feeling the same way I was, but that little bit of advice has stayed with me my entire life. Anyone who knows me knows that when I walk into a new environment, I walk in like I own the place! It’s all smoke and mirrors, my friends, and I’m much more like the duck. Calm and in control on the surface but paddling like mad to stay afloat under the water!
I struggled to fit in. Living out of the school district (because we decided to NOT move back to the house), I was isolated... which was good, but bad. I had 1-2 close friends but missed out on gatherings and social events because of the distance… THAT was the excuse I used, and it worked just fine! (which was good, but bad)
I have no idea why, but by the time I reached 9th grade (still Jr. high back then) I decided to try out for the cheer squad. I had NO cheer talent. I was not limber or bendy and couldn’t even do a cartwheel – being on the football team would have made more sense - but somehow was talked into it by one of those close friends who was also trying out. I was a bit of a cut up (most people who suffer from anxiety issues use humor to mask themselves) so I used it to my advantage during the try out. I was immediately chosen!!! …. to be the mascot.
Our mascot was the falcon. The costume had a billowing white fur body with fluffy red fur wings. There was no head, so I basically wore a chubby red and white chicken suit. I decided to go with it and give it my own twist. I found some aviator goggles and a red scarf (think Snoopy Red Barron) and created my own character. I became so full of power and confidence in my chicken suit!! I could act crazy and have fun with it and the anxiety was nowhere to be found! I could get in front of the entire school in the auditorium and dance around without any reserve! – My alter ego was AWESOME! My alter ego stuck with me for the rest of my life and I could call on it when in need. – the chicken suit was my superpower!
As I got a bit older, in my teens, I learned more and more how to hide the anxiety and came up with great excuses why I couldn’t go or participate. I had lots of friends by now. I didn’t discriminate. I was friends with the popular, the unpopular, the rockers and the jocks. I really DID like everyone – but always believed that I wasn’t liked in return, not really anyway. (kindergarten flashbacks I guess) The “mean” kids were still there, but I didn’t care and my alter ego was super cool and easily made new friends.
The anxiety grew though and took on new forms. It eventually became so that I couldn’t even get in a car with someone else, unless I was driving. (Control freak monster) If I couldn’t control the anxiety, at least I could control the situations that triggered it. But actually, “it” controlled my life and had turned me into someone that I wasn’t. I was care-free, the cut up, the fun one – but inside I was so stressed I felt like I was going to explode. – but no one knew. I hid it so well. Only those remarkably close to me, like my parents, had a clue. Even my best friends were unaware. The controlling nature made me a natural leader, or bossy, whatever you want to label it. “Leadership skills!”
I graduated high school and got married, all while hiding my secret. I mastered the art of using excuse after excuse to control my situations and keep the anxiety happy and in check, calling on my chicken suit superpower when needed to insert a joke precisely when things were getting a bit tense. But it was exhausting.
Years went by, but it only got worse. The chicken suit trick, while still very much there, just didn’t work the way it used too. More excuses, more cancelled plans. THIS WAS NOT ME!!! – but it was. This was me now. The person who stayed home, who missed out, who never wanted to go anywhere, and it took a huge toll on my marriage.
I spent those times, left behind and home alone, crying… beating myself up, hating myself because I couldn’t just “get over it”. Depression only added to the self-loathing that the anxiety created. I was a Christian and my prayers became mantras recited rapidly to try and will the anxiety away. Those of you who can relate… you are NOT alone!
My husband was super social and charismatic and would get frustrated when I wouldn’t attend social gatherings with him or when I would refuse to car-pool with friends. Finally, probably about 10 years into our marriage, I broke down and told him what I was going through. He was sympathetic, but wanted it to be fixed… I needed to be fixed! (feeling broken did wonders for my self-esteem) I agreed with him. This was ridiculous and it needed to be handled!
I ended up finding this Anxiety and Depression “fix” program on CD’s. I think it was from a late-night infomercial. I listened to all the CDs, did the workbook, and studied the written course with enthusiasm. It didn’t help, although it helped me understand it better, and knowing that this was a thing, and that I was not alone, made me feel less of a freak. But it was by no definition of the word, fixed.
Which led me to my first therapist.
Talking about it and sharing the secret with someone who had no skin in the game and wouldn’t be around to judge me later helped a lot, because I didn’t feel so alone in it. I had an ally, someone there to help. The energy spent hiding it from everyone, could now be directed towards more productive things. Especially when I discovered other people had the same issues and there could be a resolution – but this particular therapist was not the right one. Some of his methods seemed silly to me (he had me move my eyes rapidly back and forth, which I found to be very amusing) and I didn’t trust him to help me. – Did I mention I’m a control freak and stubborn as an ox? He also suggested that my husband could be part of the problem and I wasn’t gonna hear it. I loved my husband and I had been dealing with this long before I ever met him, so how could he be the problem! – F*ck YOU! We lasted about 3-4 sessions and I walked.
A few more years went by and my spouse and I grew ever weary of my “issue” and he became less and less sympathetic and more frustrated. I didn’t blame him, but knowing he was frustrated fed the beast and made the anxiety even worse. I was losing trust in my spouse to be there when I needed him in an episode, and there was a wall going up between us, brick by brick. My excuses wouldn’t work now, all my tricks to hide the monster were useless because he knew the secret, there was no hiding it now– so instead I was met with “just push through it”, “you’ll be fine” and the clear frustration and resentment was palpable – and so the beast fed on it and grew. My husband loved me, and he wanted to help me. He wanted to fix it but didn’t know how… I didn’t know how. My regular doctor prescribed Xanax, which just made me comatose, so that was a big no for long time use. I wanted to LIVE my life, not sleep through it.
Then came the 2nd therapist. Again Useless. This one had a new angle though, they had me put on headphones and listen to crazy music. When their “treatments” were not working they, again, wanted to blame it on the people around me that I loved. F*ck you too! 2-3 sessions and out the door I went.
A couple more years.
Now our marriage was suffering. 20 years in, we still loved each other so much, but had resigned to almost separate lives. He would go socialize, I poured myself into being a mom. My kids didn’t care about my excuses, it was all they ever knew, and they just rolled with it. I was comfortable with the kids. I could control the environment.
But I was so unhappy with the relationship between my love and I, so then came the 3rd therapist, who also happen to be a couple’s counselor. After a few sessions, this therapist suggested that I start a medication. I was not on board. The Xanax had turned me off to such a suggestion. I was strong, I could power through this if I could just get the right help. He insisted. I resisted. He insisted more. For the first time, I had someone explaining my panic attacks and how they worked. He told me that for some reason, by body would go into fight or flight mode and adrenaline would take over. He said this was normal if there is a true threat perceived, but that my body did it when there was no threat, only excitement or slight anxiousness. He told me that the medication he was suggesting was meant to slow the adrenaline to normal levels so that there would be no panic in relatively normal situations.
As time went by, I began to trust him and so I gave in and started the medication, under clear protest of course. It wasn’t an overnight change, but over a few weeks I noticed that the beast didn’t rear it’s ugly head when it normally would have raged. I was calmer, I actually had to THINK about whether I was having anxiety or not. It was a miracle. But maybe just a tad too late.
Unfortunately, by then, and so many years – our marriage had taken a toll. My therapist switched gears and began to counsel us as a couple. We had become different people. We had become so independent of each other. We loved each other but, now had so little in common as we lived almost separate lives. We owned a business together which probably also led to the lessened romantic connection. We were both strong personalities and liked control. Too many cooks in the kitchen, one might say.
My spouse and I talked and cried for days. It was mutual, and it was over.
As I write this, I’ve been single now for about 12 years and am still on the medication. I tried going off it once but was quickly at the will of the monster again. My ex and I are friends but have realized that who we are now are not a good romantic match for each other. We are simply family, that love each other very much, as family. He is with a wonderful person and they plan to marry. I’m so very happy for them both. They are a good match. At this point, I still prefer to be single and just date. It’s a control thing!
The medication changed my life. I’m no longer held hostage. I’m still a control freak, because that became habit over all the years. I still prefer to drive, but I love to socialize now. I go out, I sing karaoke, I dance and I go to people’s homes and enjoy myself. I still walk into the room like I own it. I’m fairly carefree and pretty optimistic most of the time – I’m who I was before the anxiety took over my life. However, I must admit, all those years of alone and quiet time became habit too – I still enjoy a nice evening at home alone, but it’s by choice not because I’m being controlled by anxiety.
I don’t know why “IT” came into my life. I don’t recall any horrible event in my past, other than the cruel children at the bus stop. But I can’t blame them either. They were children, and I forgive them. I really think the monster would have come along anyway. For all the bad it brought, fighting it all those years gave me a strength that has carried me through a lot of things that may have crushed someone else.
I’ve forgiven my ex-husband for his frustration. I probably would have been the same way had the tables been turned. I’ve forgiven MYSELF for the self-loathing and am mindful to give myself a break now and then. I don’t have to be liked by everyone.
Life is good. I am happy.
I wrote about this because I know there are soooo many people that deal with anxiety. People that might be like I was – just trying to power through. I write this to let you know that you are not alone, to remind you that talking about it helps, and that there are medications that can change your life. I’m not one to advocate for life-long type medications. I hate the fact that I take one – but then again, I love the fact that it helps me be me and not a slave to something that, try as I might, I cannot control on my own.
Even the toughest of us can use a little help now and then and it’s ok to ask. Living in constant “flight or fight” mode is exhausting! I hope that this comes to someone in their life BEFORE too many years go by and their life is changed forever in ways they wish it hadn’t.
So, when you see me and you see the smile and hear the joke, know that I’m calm. The chicken suit is simply just part of me now, the humor that once was used to deflect is now just part of me. My feet are not paddling under the surface anymore, it’s more of a leisurely back stroke.
I want you to know that I did not write this to slam therapists. I have had a great relationship with a therapist that was there to listen and help when needed, however this particular problem, for me, was not helped by traditional therapy. You have options. Not everything works for every person. Don’t give up till you find what works for YOU.
Keep in mind, that you are not alone and there are many people like you… like me. Reach out for help, and it will surely be there.