The Experiences of the Anxious

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Tomorrow it will be two weeks since my first year of university ended, and in twenty-one days from now I will return home for a brief few days, before spending two months travelling across Europe. It’s the point of the academic year where everything ends, and all that’s left to do is tie up loose ends, fit together the final pieces of the jigsaw to make everything neat and tidy. It’s the time for closure; the final chapter of a book I don’t want to put down. I’m not ready for it to end, not when there’s so much left to begin.

First year, for me, was split in two, into Before, and After. The Before is the territory of the first six months, when the majority of my time was spent investing in a friendship which collapsed into ruin in February. And the After was when I put myself back together again, picked up the pieces of my broken heart and shattered self-esteem, and moulded them into something I could live with. In the aftermath I learnt so much about who I am, who I want to be, what I need to do to create the life I want. And I feel like I have no time. I have been born anew, but there is no world to exist in, not until September. I’m ready to start afresh, to make up for the time I lost in my first six months here, and I feel stuck in place. My life feels like a TV show that’s on hiatus, and I can’t move forward in my character arc until the new season begins.

It’s easy for me to forget that my life does not begin and end with the academic year. Come June, I will spend two months travelling through six countries; I have such grand adventures ahead of me. Yet my mind is occupied constantly by the opportunities that passed me by, and the opportunities I will chase after once the new academic year begins.

I’ve come to know myself very well; I’ve learnt how I operate, I’ve learnt what I need to function well in my life, I’ve learnt what crutches I tend to fall back on. And I’ve learnt what constantly holds me back.

I had a realisation, the other day, that I have never in my life initiated a friendship. Every friend I’ve ever made approached me first, reached out to me in a way I would never be brave enough to attempt. I’ve always known that I kind of suck at social interaction, and that my anxiety holds me back a lot. But I’d never realised the extent of it. Then last week I was at a poetry night (why do I feel like this is how all my stories start these days?) and I ran into an acquaintance who I don’t know all that well, but want to get to know better. At one point he asked if I wanted to come and join him and his friends (most of which were mutual friends, so not a scary social situation by any measure), and for perhaps the first ten minutes of standing with them my mind was at war with itself. Half of my brain was telling me “You think this person is cool, you want to get to know him, start a goddamn conversation”, and the other half of my brain was like “But anxiety. People are scary. Initiating conversations is scary.” And that is the story of how it took me nearly 15 minutes to ask someone “How have you been?”

Anxiety defeats me too often. I am aware of my anxiety, I am aware that it’s irrational, I am aware that nothing bad will happen if I try to talk to someone. And yet my heart races and I’m gripped with fear, and I feel frozen still; I can’t force myself to act.
I am someone who needs to be constantly moving forward, in order to function properly. I have to stay busy, I have to force myself into early mornings and strict exercise routines. I have to have a plan, a goal, an intention. And I can’t do that, with my anxiety. I can’t break it down into manageable baby steps or make it go away. I can deal with the bigger picture of most things: I can deal with essay deadlines and exam revision and exercise programs, because I know my own limitations, and I know how to make myself commit. But when it comes to people, I’m lost.

I have friends who I love dearly, and the logical part of my brain knows that they love me too (in spite of my extreme cuddliness, inappropriate sense of humour, and overly-loud voice!). Yet there is always this insistent voice in the back of my mind going “You don’t belong, you’re the odd one out, they just tolerate you, they don’t REALLY want you here”. And that’s when I’m interacting with people I’ve known for months and months, people who’ve proven themselves to me over and over and over.

When it comes to new people, it’s a whole other level of anxiety. As I previously mentioned, I’m not good at starting conversations with people. On rare occasions I surprise myself and attempt small talk, but often I just stick to awkward silences, because it’s easier than trying to think of what to say. It shouldn’t be this way. I shouldn’t be terrified of starting conversations, of trying to form friendships (not to mention any other kind of relationships! When I was sixteen I asked someone out and they rejected me, and my anxiety likes to remind me of that every time I consider the possibility of asking anyone out ever again. That’s another thing about anxiety: it doesn’t forget easily!) I don’t want to live like this; something has to change.

I’ve made a resolution that when I come back for second year I’m going to make a greater effort to combat my anxiety. I’ve come so far this year, thanks to all the friends I’ve made, and the confidence boost I’ve gotten from improv society, and the poetry open mics I participate in. And I do believe I can grow more, that I can get to a point where I feel comfortable. I will join more societies, I will create more opportunities for meeting people, I will reach out, I will be brave.

It’s easy to say that now, when September seems so far away.

I tell myself I will be a different person then, that I will shake off the baggage I have carried within me for so long. But is it truly easy to put such a plan into action? Can I force myself to speak when my throat constricts and all I want is to sink into the ground? I almost believe I can. The only thing stronger than my anxiety is my impulsive nature. I may be scared of basically every human ever, but that doesn’t stop me from taking risks. To be fair, most risks I take have an element of public humiliation of myself (usually involving performing poetry, or being drunk. One day I’m sure it will be performing poetry whilst drunk, just to create a whole new level of impulsive humiliation), because it is easier to open myself up to the world at large than to one person at a time. But I will stretch myself, I will challenge myself, I will grow.

In twenty-five days from now, I will begin my two months of travel, and throw myself into the great unknown. If there’s one thing I took away from my journey to Estonia last summer, it’s that travel is the greatest way to reduce my anxiety. When a person travels, they’re forced to think on their feet, to interact with new environments and unfamiliar obstacles, and there’s no time to second-guess themselves. I cling fervently to the hope that this journey will be the medicine I need to (at least temporarily) cure this cloud which has hung over me for too long. Furthermore, last time I went to Estonia, I stayed in AirBnB accommodation, and was therefore alone. Whereas this time I’m staying in hostels for my entire journey, which means I’ll meet more strangers than I dare to imagine. And if that won’t throw me into the deep end of social interaction, then I don’t know what will!

Last week I was talking to a friend after improv, and we somehow got onto the topic of how much I’ve seemed to change since he’d gotten to know me, and that at first I come across as being really confident. Of course, I laughed and said “Me? Confident? I’m literally terrified of everyone.” But the more I think on it, the more I realise that there are several layers which people must get past to see the “real” me. I always think of myself as an open book, but perhaps that’s not the case at all. The first impression I give people is apparently one of confidence. I fool people with my loud voice and bubbly personality and innuendo-based humour. After that comes my shy, reserved stage. By this stage people will perhaps wonder if I dislike them, because I will go from being seemingly extroverted, to full-on introvert. I can’t start conversations, I’m rubbish at small talk, I’m not very good at thinking of questions to ask people. Social interaction becomes exhausting.

But if you’re one of the persistent few who reaches the third layer, the real Eliza will begin to emerge. Once you get past defence mechanisms #1 and #2, then you will encounter the open book I always believed I was. I am bubbly, I am (questionably) funny, I’m kind, I’m passionate, I care deeply about so many things. I am affectionate to the point of being annoying, I will shower you with so much love you won’t know what to do with it. And I will listen to you, I’ll give you advice, I’ll be caring and unjudging and you’ll know you can tell me anything.

That is who I am.

But I am hidden beneath two layers of defence mechanisms which conspire against me. And I didn’t even realise those defence mechanisms were there. I wear my heart on my sleeve, but it’s painted there in invisible ink which only I can see. I tell myself I show people my true self, but how am I showing them that when I can barely even speak to them? And there are so many times when I want to say “take a chance on me, get to know me, invest your time in me”, when really that’s a copout. It’s me wanting to beg someone “make the effort with me that I can’t make with you”. And I tell myself if people cared enough they would fight for me, they would be there by my side and make that effort. But how is that fair? Why should I expect people to do for me what I can’t do for them?

So from now on I won’t wish for goodhearted people with x-ray vision who can see beyond my protective layers. I won’t wish for others to come and save me. Instead, I ask for people to meet me as an equal, to match my effort with theirs. I’m not a damsel in distress searching for her knight in shining armour. I don’t need a saviour. I am a human being who needs other human beings. And this human being has finally realised that she’s just as worthy as anyone else. I don’t need to feel inferior; I don’t need to feel terrified. Because, if everyone else has believed I’m confident for all this time, maybe I can believe it too.

I can’t cure my anxiety just by deciding to. It’s probably not something I can ever eradicate entirely. But it’s something I can work on, and something I can take responsibility for. I don’t want to spend my whole life praying for braver people to save me from myself; that’s not who I am or who I want to be. I am someone who takes action, someone who fights for herself, and I’m someone who’s finally learnt to believe in her own worth.

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