Just a few months ago had someone asked me whether I was often anxious I would have said NO. Had I been asked whether I suffered from anxiety I would have said NO. If someone had suggested that I seemed anxious I would have laughed it off or talked about some project or fundraiser I was working on and how I wanted the details to be correct so that everything ran smoothly. But a truly anxious person? Absolutely not! Or so I thought.
Then, in a passage from a book on Anxiety from an online book club the author, who is writing about his personal struggles with Anxiety, tells a story about playing dodge ball in elementary school and BAM, there it is. I thought, “That is ME.” Dodge ball. He wanted to be hit by the ball fairly early in the game because he was anxious about what he would to do if he was one of the last remaining players in the circle and everyone was watching him. My mind pictured the elementary school playground along with the sounds of my classmates and I remembered the feel of the ball in my hands.
I couldn’t believe it. So many times I had been told that I was shy. As a child you accept those labels because you don’t know any better and think of yourself within whatever framework you have been placed. Looking back now I can see the difference between shy and anxious. I wasn’t shy most of the time but rather I just didn’t know what to do and wanting to do things correctly had some anxiety that I would do something wrong and be laughed at or taken to task by a teacher or a parent. Such things did happen and always left me wondering how I was supposed to know whatever it was that the authority figure thought that I should have known.
I wasn’t shy in dance class, happily knowing all the steps and wearing costumes and performing in recitals. I was excited to dance on the sidelines during a Rams game when I was 5 years old. And I had no qualms about being a flower girl and walking alone down the long aisle of the church. What was the difference? After a bit of thought came the realization that in those cases there was practice, direction, and I knew what I was supposed to do. The knowledge had removed or greatly lessened the anxiety.
In high school I went to one dance at the boys school held in the local National Guard Armory. I was a wallflower, dancing only the last dance when even the most desperate of boys made sure they danced at least one dance. When I got home and Mom asked if I had danced and I told her about just the 1 dance she asked me why? I didn’t know why. I assumed that there must have been something wrong with me. I never went to a dance at the boys school again. My girls school was fine because we asked the guys, you came only as couples, we knew the location and set up and our friends would be there. Much later when I was out of college and on my own I read announcements about the Catholic Alumni Club dances. You had to be a college graduate to belong to the club and they had regular mixers at the Biltmore Hotel. I never went. My official excuse, had I told anyone I wasn’t going and had they asked “why?” would have been that I been in therapy and was told that I needed to learn to be alone (actually terrible advice for an only child). In reality I didn’t know where I would park, what I should wear, how I would talk to anyone, and, the most horrible thought of all “what do I do if no one asks me to dance?.” It was much easier to stay home than to face my fears.
Did such things happen often? Often enough that I would not do something I wanted to do because I wasn’t sure what would happen, what I needed to do, etc. I was plagued with “what-if”-itis. What if I don’t know anyone? What if I’m the only new person and someone makes fun of me? What if I don’t say the right thing?
This didn’t happen with everything but it did happen enough and yet I thought that I was just “shy.” Yeah, right! It was as though if I didn’t do the right thing I expected there to be a full-page ad in the newspaper the next day telling the whole world that I really messed up.
Nevertheless, I went on a tour to Europe, bought a condo and then a house. Got a master’s degree. Joined clubs after realizing my therapist just didn’t see the full picture. But in all of that I never thought of myself as anxious.
Now, having read up a bit, I’ve learned that perhaps I don’t suffer from anxiety as much as I had thought that I did and that anxiety can be learned from living around anxious people who place blame on others saying that they “should have known” even though they were the one who was in the best position to do the teaching and didn’t.
Over the years I learned coping mechanisms. What is the worst thing that can happen and can I live with that? That has gotten me through many obstacles, events, and opportunities. Calling someone who might have knowledge about what I am facing worked well. These days looking things up on the Internet can calm many fears and provide a roadmap for what to do and how to do it.
Nevertheless, when I go to a Chamber of Commerce mixer I still find that there is that knot of anxiety. I have a pattern now. I get out of the car, take a deep breath and let it out slowly. I sign in at reception and put on my nametag. Then I look around. There is always someone who looks as anxious as I feel and I make a beeline for them. “Hi, I’m Victoria. What’s your name?” It works every time. Now there are two of us who are less anxious.