a new normal

I was sitting in my first psychology class during my senior year of high school, listening to the teacher introduce the topic of the day—abnormal psychology—when I first saw the quote. Written in bright red letters and occupying most of the space on the first slide of my teacher’s PowerPoint, I soaked in the words, innately understanding Albert Camus’ cryptic yet simple message:
“Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous
energy merely to be normal.”
Camus’ quote resonated with me then, and it still resonates with me now. Most days, it feels like this is my daily burden—to appear normal to the outside world. And appearing normal often seems like a grueling, impossible demand, especially on a college campus, when you suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD).
SAD is the least researched of all anxiety disorders, and I believe this lack of awareness and knowledge has spilled over into the public sphere. Although most people have probably heard of SAD and may even possess a general sense of what it encompasses, it still is not well understood, nor is it taken very seriously. More often than not, people believe that if someone suffers from SAD, it just means that he or she is either shy or awkward; thus, all said person needs to do is push through any initial discomfort during social interactions, and then everything will be fine. After all, most people feel a little uncomfortable in novel social situations, so for those individuals with SAD, they just need to practice, get used to it, and step out of their comfort zones.
Unfortunately, it is a lot more complicated than that.
In its most straightforward interpretation, SAD is defined in the DSM as “the extreme fear of being scrutinized and judged by others in social or performance situations.” However, I prefer the analogy that my psychiatrist uses in order to explain SAD: “You know that feeling you’d get if you were swimming in the ocean and you suddenly saw a shark’s fin coming towards you? You can imagine the terror, the dread, the bone-deep fear that you’d feel, right? Well, that’s social anxiety, except the danger isn’t a man-eating shark, but instead a group of people, whose appraising eyes are just as scary as any shark’s mouth.”
Although I wish that I could simply “step out of my comfort zone” or ignore that “man-eating shark,” it’s never quite worked that way. For me, SAD has slowly taken over my life. It took away my knack for easily making friends. It took away my enjoyment of social outings, whether they be with complete strangers or with my closest confidants. It took away my confidence, not just in school, but in other areas of my life that I used to love, like basketball. More importantly, it took away my ability to feel happy, to love myself, and to be normal. It made me plaster a smile on my face every day, concealing my true feelings. It made me despise my own thoughts, and fear my own mind. It made me silent, even when I was screaming on the inside. It made me feel like I was drowning, even though I could clearly see everyone around me breathing. It made me resort to surviving each day, rather than living.
It’s hard to accept my current situation, because I distinctly remember what it felt like to be SAD-free. As far as childhoods go, mine was next to perfect, full of many blissful and stress-free days. I’ve been blessed with a happy, healthy, and loving family, a stable and comfortable home, and loyal, caring friends for my whole life. As a result, it often feels wrong to complain about my disorder, particularly when I am reminded that so many other people have it much worse. And prior to entering high school, I was fortunate enough to never have had any major problems or insecurities. While I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when this changed, it started sometime during my freshmen year. The first symptoms of my disorder, like all memories that people wish they could forget, continue to poke at my mind, reminding me again and again of all the times that I ceased being normal:
-Freshmen year—Instead of being excited (like everyone else) about winning an academic award, I refuse to attend because I can’t endure the idea of walking up on stage, with everyone’s eyes following my every move. What if I trip on the stairs? What if my outfit looks stupid? What if I puke? What if I have a panic attack? How can I shake the principal’s hand? He’s going to know how terrified I am! That would be so embarrassing. And what if they make me talk? I can’t do that! I won’t do that. Even when my mom starts crying, telling me how disappointed she is with my irrational behavior, I try to look unmoved on the outside, while I slowly wither away in guilt and shame on the inside.
-Sophomore year: Instead of being excited (like everyone else) about the class overnight field trip, I begin to rapidly think of reasons for why I cannot go. The dread settles into my gut, and I agonize about the trip for weeks ahead of time, until the day in question comes and I can’t get out of bed. My friend texts me, questioning for the hundredth time why I bailed, and I recycle the same lame excuses that I’ve used so many times before. Inside my mind, the conflict rages—the urge to live, to have fun, to do something different, wrestling with the scared, broken part of me that never loosens its control. Inside my body, there is only the heavy weight of dread nailed to the bottom of my stomach, as well as the jitters crawling up and down my arms and legs, making my trembling hands and feet all too obvious to the rest of the world.
-Junior year: Instead of being excited (like everyone else) about prom, I repeatedly tell my friends that I have no interest in going. I say it so many times that I start to believe the lie, steadfastly ignoring the objections of the unhappy and frustrated part of myself that wants to live life to the fullest. Even when my friends plead with me, reminding me that I never hang out with them anymore outside of school, nor do I ever go to any of the dances or other popular social gatherings, I still shake my head no, hating the disappointment on their faces, and hating myself for putting it there. Why can’t I just snap out of this? Later, when I’m asked by a boy to be his date to prom, I reluctantly say yes, again hating myself for feeling so terrified. Immediately, I begin to imagine numerous ways of backing out of my commitment, because the thought of attending the event makes me feel like I am buried alive.
-Senior year: Instead of being excited (like everyone else) about graduation, I am depressed because I have to give a speech at the ceremony. I feel trapped, since I know that this time, excuses are not going to get me out of this mess. Every day that passes, the terror claws at me a tiny bit more. How will I ever get through this? I can’t give a speech in front of five people, let alone five hundred! I’m going to make a fool of myself! As the day of graduation nears, I can feel SAD’s hands slowly tightening their grip on my neck, squeezing it inch by excruciating inch until I no longer want to breathe.
So what’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done? Well, I’m actually still ‘doing’ it by getting up every morning and attending Middlebury College. Originally, I didn’t know if I was going to make it here. Home has always been my sanctuary, the only place that I feel entirely relaxed, so even during high school, if I wasn’t at school, I was at home with my family. When it came time for me to come to Midd, I was terrified because college is, naturally, a social place. There are sharks everywhere. In essence, college was my personal version of hell, and when I arrived at Atwater for the first time last year, it felt like I had willingly entered into my own worst nightmare. I lost 15 pounds in the first three weeks because I wouldn’t go to the dining halls (crowds are unbearable), I couldn’t sleep more than four hours a night, and just walking down the hallway to use the bathroom seemed like a huge feat, since there always was the prospect of seeing someone and being forced to engage in a conversation.
I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist every week for the past three years, and while I’m doing a bit better here, most days are still rough. I still have a hard time leaving my room regularly. I still go home almost every weekend. I still have nights where I can’t fall asleep because my brain won’t stop tormenting me and my eyes won’t stop leaking. I still have days where I need to go to class, but I’m frozen in the bathroom stall because I heard someone enter the room. I still have days where the panic of walking around campus is so strong, I curl up in my bed and hide from the world. And there are still too many tiresome hours to count where I feel painfully lonely and yet simultaneously want to be left alone.
But I’m learning to take it one day at a time. Fortunately, this campus has made it a priority to help students like me know that I’m not alone, and that people are willing to listen to my story. So although I still have a hard time talking about my disorder with others, and although I may still feel stupid and embarrassed when attempting to explain the irrational and ridiculous nature of my disease, I also know that there are people out there ready and eager to hear what I have to say.
Most importantly, I’m starting to come to grips with the fact that it’s OK to create my own kind of normal.

“You wake up every morning to fight the same demons that left you so tired the night before, and that, my love, is bravery.”

Middlebury College, ’18