Personal Narrative: “An Elementary School Bully Inside of Your Head”

The Thrill is proud to feature personal narratives. Today’s is authored by an anonymous student.

EDIT: Earlier this was posted as a piece from the Project for Open Voices. It is actually not POV sponsored, but just another kick-ass piece from the Kenyon community! 

Hi. I’m a Kenyon student, and talking to people makes me so scared that I start to shake sometimes. I’d appreciate it if you could take a little time-out from finals to listen to my story. It won’t take too long.

I’ve been living with Social Anxiety Disorder for a long time, and so have a lot of people on Kenyon’s campus. More than you think, I can assure you, as it’s by far the most common of anxiety disorders, affecting as much as 7% of the population, with a 13% lifetime prevalence rate. I was at first hesitant to talk about it with its real name, because a lot of people hear “disorder,” and instantly stop listening. A mental disorder is just something you make up for sympathy, right? Bootstraps, and all that?

No, that’s not true at all, and Social Anxiety Disorder goes undiagnosed in so, so many people who have been told they just need to suck it up and stop being so frightened. There are ways to make it better, and pretending it doesn’t exist isn’t one of them.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but as far as I know from my own personal experience, Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD; an appropriate acronym, though SCARED would be better) is like going about your regular life with an elementary school bully inside of your head. This bully speaks with your voice, and uses his or her access to your thoughts to tell you everything you’re scared of, over and over. It’s a never-ending litany of petty insults that cut right to your core, since they’re coming from you: You’re ugly, nobody wants to look at you. You’re stupid, why do you even go to this school? You don’t belong here. If you talk to people, they’ll see who you really are, because you’re so socially incompetent. You’ll slip up, and they’ll know you’re not really the normal, funny, smart person you pretend to be. They’ll see through you, and then they’ll hate you. They’ll scream at you and laugh and tell all their friends about how awful you are, and it will be true, because you’re awful. Your friends only like you because you’re lying to them, they haven’t figured you out yet. Nobody should like you. You don’t deserve to be liked. You’re a monster, and nobody wants to talk to a monster. Just go away.

Rationally, I know I’m none of those things. I go here because I got in, and I do all right for myself, grades-wise. I’ve been told multiple times that I’m not ugly. Sitting in the comfort of my room, I can even say that I can be witty sometimes, if shy. But all of this disappears when I head out to Middle Path for my 9:10 and begin yet another day’s game of Hello Chicken. Should I wave to him? I know him from class, he’s kinda cute. No, that would be presumptuous; I’ve never even directly spoken to him. Oh, shit, he nodded at me. I need to nod back, but not smile, that’s too personal. Good thing I didn’t wave; that would have been too far. Oh, hey, I know her from history last semester. Should I wave? She probably doesn’t even remember me. What if I wave and she just looks at me like some kind of psycho? God, I’m so fucking awkward.

All of these thoughts are fully conscious, and occupy enough of your attention that even if you do respond, it’s usually awkwardly late, making you seem spacey at best. SAD is a self-fulfilling prophecy in that way, because you get so wrapped up trying to address all of the doubts you’re firing at yourself that you actually do perform worse socially, which makes you feel worse about your social performance, and so on. Even if you are performing well, you worry that people will see your shaking hands, or notice your sweaty palms, because all social interaction is terrifying social interaction, but especially with strangers. I am continually surprised by friends telling me their first impressions of me: before they knew me, they thought I was standoffish, cold, disinterested, even haughty, or holier-than-thou. Nobody ever seemed to notice my crippling shyness and fear but me. Everyone else just assumed I didn’t like them for some reason.

If you’re like me, and have the little elementary school bully in your head, narrating how you’re going to mess up and everyone will judge you forever, I’d like to tell you this: You aren’t alone. Sometimes it feels like you’ll be alone and friendless forever, that the future holds nothing but bleak loneliness, that you’ll never get better and you’ll spend your whole life huddling in your room, hating yourself for crying. A lot of people even belittle anxiety disorders like SAD, which leads to people judging themselves for feeling the way they do. “I shouldn’t feel this way; it’s stupid; it’s not a real problem” is all too common.

I urge you not to fall prey to the Starving African Children fallacy. If it’s making your life feel unbearable, it’s a real problem, and we have a fantastic, warm, and helpful bunch of people working at the Counseling Center who will sit and listen to you talk about all the problems you don’t want to burden your friends with. And they’ll do it for free, too. Seeking counseling has turned me from a terrified shut-in into someone who can function as a social human being, if haltingly, and I’m still on an upward trend. Please don’t fall into the trap of thinking your problems “don’t deserve” counseling. You aren’t beyond help.

Sincerely,
Someone too frightened to put his real name on his personal essay.

22 responses

  1. oh man, this hits close to home and exactly describes my life before i went on antidepressants/anti-anxiety medication. (which i know is not the answer for everyone, but for reals, anyone reading this: zoloft is the best, and it’s worth having a conversation about medication with your therapist if your anxiety and/or depression is taking over your life to the point where you can’t leave your room and any time you make eye contact with someone you cry????? that shit ain’t cute.)

    thank you so much for sharing your essay. if i had heard more stories like this growing up — and less of the classic “stiff upper-lip” bs — then it wouldn’t have taken me until sophomore year to get help.

  2. whoever you are, I wish you had put your name so I could thank you in person. This is my life. I’ve spent the last 3 hours trying to build up the courage to ask someone in my class a question about our final tomorrow. I’ve sweat through my shirt just thinking about it.

  3. Brilliant essay.

    This disorder is awful. I spend 50% of my time trying to figure out what to do or say, and the other 50% berating myself for my inevitable failure. Then sometimes I hear that people think I’m cool or normal or, you know, relatively functional, and I just chortle to myself, like wow, okay, you’ve fooled a couple of ’em, no idea how that happened but fuckit well done champ.

    But yeah, multiple people have thought I’m stuck-up. Or even better – because the universe’s sense of irony is not yet dead – full of myself. And I’m like HA HA STOP YOU’RE KILLING ME HERE.

    Because for me – for a lot of people – a sizable fraction of this inability to interact comfortably is self-esteem-related. And perhaps it makes me a terrible human being, but I’ve become like maybe 60% nicer and more socially competent since I started operating under the assumption that everyone hates themselves as much as I do. Whee.

    Anyway, rest assured, my fellow sufferers: People aren’t looking for reasons not to like you. Actually, most people probably think you’re pretty cool, even the people you don’t really know. I know it’s hard as hell to logic yourself out of the ‘fuck-socializing-I-am-too-incompetent’ mindset, but don’t give up the good fight. You are loved. Hang in there.

  4. “I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”

  5. I have a question.

    I’ve suspected for a long time that I’m depressed. And maybe I have this, too, since your account was so familiar I teared up a bit.

    But the stigma of these things scare me. I don’t want anti-depressants on my medical record. Talking to therapists (I’ve done this a total of once and spent the session mostly pretending nothing was wrong) makes me super uneasy. The fact that, after horrible shootings like Sandy Hook, the media always describes the killer as someone like me (quiet, keeps to him/herself, a little socially awkward) and people get attacked for not realizing this quiet, awkward, mentally ill person was a killer sooner, makes the prospect of identifying as possibly having a mental illness even scarier.

    So, as someone who has made the steps to get help….do you have any thoughts / advice?

    Love, someone too scared to put her real name on her comment.

    • The tendency of society toward shaming mental illness is, in itself, a tremendous shame. Being depressive or having social anxiety in no way equates to psychopathy, or to having the type of unbalanced nature present in school shooters and murderers. The way mental problems are stigmatized and hushed up is dangerous; it prevents victims of various illnesses from getting the help they need and deserve.

      I’m not the writer of this article, but I will advise you first and foremost not to think people might be scared of you if you admit to needing help. Tens of millions of people have various mental problems that are really inconvenient and distressing, and only a miniscule fraction of them turn to hurting others. Most people know this.

      Also, therapy varies from therapist to therapist. It could simply be the fact that your other therapist was not a particularly good fit for you. I wouldn’t write off the entire possibility from a single negative experience. I’d certainly advise giving that another shot, and if you really don’t want to try any sort of medication?

      Other resources include:

      Depression and Bipolar Support
      800-273-TALK (8255)
      available 24/7.

      National Hopeline Network
      800-442-HOPE (4673)
      they also have a suicide helpline: 800-SUICIDE (784-2433)

      …and the whole entire internet. There are so many people out there, people willing to talk with anyone who needs help. “Safe Space” bloggers on Tumblr, /r/depression on Reddit, etc. – there are all sorts of communities and mental health forums that might be able to help you get back on your feet. It might take a little digging and a little courage to reach out and join one of those groups, but I know it helps.

      Best of luck.

    • the thing about getting help is that it’s the scariest thing in the world. the first time i walked into the counseling center on campus, i had to spend the whole summer psyching myself up. and even after an entire summer spent visualizing walking up to beth (the receptionist) to schedule an appointment, an entire summer spent asking my older friends who use the counseling center — even after all that, i only ended up going in because one of my friends was suicidal and the only way they would schedule an appointment is if i did too. (it also helpfully coincided with the first of this semester’s many bouts of crushing depression, so bad that sometimes i literally couldn’t move from it, but i’m pretty convinced i still wouldn’t have gone in without my friend to serve as a catalyst.)

      so, yeah, it’s hard as hell. but it was also one of the best decisions i’ve ever made. the only advice i can give you is to try as hard as possible to stop worrying about the stigma associated with mental illness. like the above commenter says, millions of people have messed up brains, and it’s okay if you’re one of them. you’re still a person. you still exist. you’re still worth something. do your best to surround yourself with people who refuse to stigmatize mental illness — befriend tons of peer counselors, lurk tumblr until you tumble (hah, puns) into a group of safe spacers, etc — and let that mentality sort of seep into you until identifying as a depressed person maybe isn’t so scary.

      it took me hitting rock bottom to finally accept the medication i needed to correct my brain’s chemical imbalance. i hope to god you don’t have to get that low before you feel able to reach out, but even if you do, that’s fine. you’re still okay. you’re still worth something.

      and remember: you do you, love. in order for therapy to work, it has to be with the right therapist at the right time. if therapy didn’t work for you before, it might’ve been with the wrong person (which, if it was at kenyon, is super easy to fix — just talk to beth about seeing a new counselor and she’ll help you out with no questions asked), but you also might not have been ready. and that’s fine. that you weren’t ready doesn’t make you weak, doesn’t make you broken inside. i know it’s hard as hell to recognize that, and i know some random anonymous commenter on the thrill isn’t going to magically usher you into a world of self-acceptance and joy, but still. it’s worth a mention.

      ps, this is literally the most helpful thing my therapist ever told me, so i figured i’d relay the message just in case it helps you too: sometimes, when everything’s bleak and scary and everything hurts, just repeating “and i’m okay and i exist and i am” can help. when i’m catatonic on my bed and it feels like my zoloft isn’t working because i’m so fundamentally broken that not even copious amounts of medication can fix the shattered, worthless thing that is me — when that happens, i just repeat that mantra to drive away the demons. it doesn’t always work, and the demons always wind up coming back, but it helps, it really does.

      pps, i really hope you find peace, whether through therapy or medication or something else entirely. best of luck with everything, for reals. ♥

      • Thank you for mentioning chemical imbalance. Chemical imlalances in the brain are the cause for so many mental disorders/illnesses/issues/whateveryouwanttocallthem. The problem is the stigma associated with mental health issues is such that so many people have the idea that if you just to certain things you can ‘cure’ yourself, and that it’s all up to you changing. That’s not the case. Medication often necessary to balance chemicals in the brain. There’s nothing wrong with needing pills in the morning, and while pills aren’t the cure all, as they only solve part of the problem, they make it possible to work on the rest.

    • hey there, original poster.

      any of the Peer Counselors could totally talk to you about this, and we don’t even have to know your name — you can just call and keep it anonymous. There are posters on campus with our numbers, but here’s an online link too:

      the picture is small/blurry but I think you can make out numbers if you zoom. you can do this — we are ALL willing to help and tell you our experience with therapy/the counseling center :)

      love love love love love,
      a Kenyon PC

  6. My kids have anxiety and this amazing doctor, who has worked w/a Harvard prof, SWEARS that turmeric (curcumin) works bettter on anxiety than Prozac, etc. It’s cheap, it’s on Gambier St at Down To Earth in MV, try it.

    • Please don’t dispense “medical” advice to people who are struggling and afraid to get help as it is. This kind of suggestion can be really damaging and disheartening. Perhaps something in turmeric does have a calming effect on nerves (that could help with situational anxiety). But if someone has anxiety/depression from a serotonin imbalance, nothing will fix that besides some CBT and a legitimate medical prescription. Telling people to try at-home fixes for psychiatric problems is akin to telling someone with glasses to just eat a lot of carrots.

      • However, in defense of Michelle Mood, I would think the OP knows that none of us are actual doctors, just trying to offer advice. None of this is in substitution of seeing an actual doctor, but as someone with panic disorder and agoraphobia, I can say I’ve been on medication since 5th grade, and while the medication I’m currently on works well and helps me function a great deal, I’ve been on some initial prescriptions that caused side effects that made my condition far worse.
        So, while antidepressants and chemical medications aren’t at all bad or something to be ashamed of, they should be chosen carefully. Natural remedies, especially those scientifically proven to be of great help, can be amazing supplements to other treatment.

  7. So many people have these thoughts and feelings – people you would not even expect. People who appear quiet and introverted have these problems, and also people who appear as happy and outgoing. Know you are not alone, and know that you can talk yourself out of depressive thoughts with the right support and strategies.

    Also, I was so embarrassed to be going to the counseling center when I first started, but now I do not care at all. Over time, I learned that some of my favorite people at Kenyon were going to the counseling center comfortably, and now I feel that I am closer to being one of those comfortable students.

    I feel like it would be cool to create an anonymous network for people who are experience greater depressive symptoms, SAD or flat out depression/bipolar, mood swings, anything.. this way, you know you have an anonymous support system, maybe with someone you can connect with to help you through the bad moments.

    • There apparently used to be one. As a fellow severe anxiety sufferer, I spent my sophomore winter break at a mental hospital. Part of my release included preparations for returning to school. My case worker suggested I contact the school to see if there was a support group. I was told there was one. I emailed someone at the counseling center (who I’d seen many times before) and she never emailed me back.
      So if there is one, it’s very secret. This means we should definitely get one together. Seriously.

  8. Thank you for this post. Mental illness is really overlooked at Kenyon and it’s disappointing. There is already such a culture of anxiety here and it becomes difficult to know if your problems are the “norm” or if you are really suffering. I consider myself to be pretty open about my mental illnesses but I still feel uncomfortable telling my friends here about them. This shouldn’t be the case. I’m not afraid to tell my friends that I have asthma, so why am I afraid to tell them that I have bipolar disorder?
    Perhaps it’s because I’m afraid they won’t know how to respond? Or I’ll get the classic, “No you don’t, don’t be silly!” It weighs so heavily on everything that it’s easier to just shut myself in, rather than explain the intricacies every time there’s an issue.
    So as Anonymous said above, we need to create a network to support each other. There are so many people who are going through these issues, many for the first time. These are difficult waters to navigate and nobody should have to struggle in silence. We can do so much better than this, Kenyon.

    • The “no you don’t” response is what I am always most afraid of. Just because I don’t embody stereotypes, doesn’t mean I don’t have something. It’s really hard to tell people that I have bipolar disorder, depression, OCD, and asperger’s. It’s even worse when people know and they just blame whatever you do on your ‘problems’. They’re part of me, not a separate entity leeching on my personality. So yes, a support network would be so helpful.

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