At the end of seventh grade, I was so terrified of being rejected or hurt again that I gave up trying to get others to accept me. My only solution was to build a wall–a solid, sturdy one–and hide behind it. It was my last resort. I’d been building it slowly since sixth grade, but I went on speed-building mode the summer before eighth grade. I remember I was at an event sometime right before eighth grade started, and I was overtaken by fright. I felt like every single person there was staring at me, hating me, whispering about my every flaw. I truly believed that nobody could ever love me, that I would never be accepted. Never, ever, ever. Sadly, I left the event early, despite how much I would’ve liked to stay.
It got worse from there. I could no longer make eye contact with someone for more than two or three seconds. Carrying on a simple conversation or introducing myself terrified me. I dreaded being around people, even though I desperately wanted to be loved and paid attention to. The times I had to talk to people, I’d fidget and ramble, letting my voice trail off in frustration and self-hatred. I’d analyze my every word and action, beating myself up if I’d said or done something silly. Weeks after the mistake, which others had probably forgotten about, I’d still be beating myself up for it. Cafeterias and public restrooms were torture. A few times, I was so self-conscious about the way I walked that I actually started stumbling a bit.
I remember hearing people talking about how they were “ha ha scared of people.” Anger bubbled behind the walls I had built with my own pain. I’d hear my peers joking about how other people scared them, but I knew they didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. They didn’t know what it was like to go through an entire school day hardly uttering a word. They didn’t know what it was like to hate every word that came from their mouth. They had no idea, and they never would.
I had built walls around me to keep out pain, but I failed to realize that the walls were not only keeping out kind and well-meaning souls, but they were trapping me inside. The more time I spent locked inside my own mental prison, the sadder and more hopeless I felt. The sadder I felt, the more afraid I became. It was a dark and seemingly endless cycle that I remember describing as a “pit of loneliness.” People would give me all kinds of unhelpful advice. “Just trust more,” they’d say. “People don’t hate you. Just trust them. Take chances! Take risks!” While what they were saying was true, they didn’t understand that I really felt incapable of trusting people. Hearing this advice only made me feel more frustrated and inadequate, like I wasn’t even good enough to conquer my fear of talking to people when others could carry on such good and meaningful conversations.
I’m not going to tell you to “just take a risk and talk to people,” because I understand how hard it is to stop feeling afraid. I’m not going to tell you to “get some self-confidence” or “toughen up,” because I know that it’s not that simple. I won’t tell you to “stop worrying, you’re just shy,” because it’s more than just shyness. I will tell you, though, that you aren’t the only one. I always used to think that the problem was unique to me, that I was some sort of freak. I wasn’t, and neither is anyone who struggles with this.
Since eighth grade, I’ve gotten a lot more in control of the fear. I’m not going to say it doesn’t exist at all, because that wouldn’t be true; it still exists and comes up. I’m so happy, though, to be able to look people in the eyes and carry on a conversation! I can’t remember any certain day where everything changed. It happened over time, I think. One day I just realized that I had gained more control of the issue instead of it controlling me.
If you asked me what the secret is to putting a leash on the fear, I wouldn’t be able to give you an answer. It’s because the answer–if there really is one–is far too complicated to put in steps. There’s no flow chart on how to handle anxiety. There’s no ABC-123 method to it. I can assure you, however, that there are people out there who do understand you. Hold on to this truth. You aren’t the only one.